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Dealing with the MacArthurs and their Notorious Pet Cat

This is a story about a demanding ambassador’s wife, who was “an ogre and an alcoholic,” a demanding ambassador, and a cat in Vienna which in 1968 almost caused a military crisis. Frederick Irving was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Vienna at the time who had to deal with it all. 

You can read about Douglas MacArthur II’s entry into Paris after D-Day and other Moments on Diplomats Behaving Badly. Go here for a Moment on odd family pets.


“The wife of the Ambassador…can best be described as an ogre and an alcoholic”

IRVING:  The wife of the American Ambassador to Austria…can best be described by all who knew her as an ogre and an alcoholic. Not an ordinary alcoholic, but one who drank only champagne. Not just any champagne, but only [Veuve] Cliquot champagne. Because she was the daughter of the Vice President of the United States [Alben Barkley, in photo with President Truman], she thought she could be demanding to the wives and to the officers of the Embassy.

Her husband, whose name was Douglas MacArthur, nephew of the General, and a very senior career Foreign Service Officer, was not an alcoholic, but otherwise just as demanding to the male officers of the Embassy with the exception of his Deputy who, with his wife, spent almost as much time defending the other officers and their wives as the time spent on substantive foreign affairs activities.

I was the Deputy and during the period of this story was the Chargé d’affaires. I was not happy serving under this Ambassador, but in those days, a career FSO went where he was assigned, or resigned his FSO commission. So much for the introduction.

Mrs. MacArthur had a cat of which she was very fond. The cat was sick at the time the MacArthurs were invited on a two-week cruise in the Greek islands by some of their Greek military friends. They did not want to turn down the invitation so Mrs. MacArthur put the cat under the care of one of her maids. If the cat had gotten worse, she was to turn the care over to my wife with the proviso that under no circumstances was the cat to have an operation without first consulting her, even if she was sailing in the Greek islands. She was adamant about that.

As you might have guessed, the cat had gotten sicker so the maid turned the matter over to my wife. My wife consulted the vet who said that the cat would surely die within days if it did not have the surgery he had recommended. He said that he had often felt the wrath of Mrs. MacArthur, but he would not want to face the wrath of what she was capable, if the cat died.

The MacArthurs did not advise anyone at the Embassy how to reach them. My wife tried several possible sources in Vienna and also in Brussels where their daughter lived, but none of them knew. She then tried the American Consul in Athens. He did not know either. She then asked me if I had any ideas.

Since they were the guests of an officer in the Greek military establishment, I called in our Embassy’s Defense Attaché, and without telling him why I wanted to talk to Ambassador MacArthur, I asked him if he could consult his counterpart in Athens on the possibility that he could find the answer.

I purposely did not tell our Defense Attaché why I wanted to reach the Ambassador because it could have gotten out of hand.

Later thinking about it, consulting our Defense Attaché was a bad move on my part. I should just have suggested that we give up and authorize the surgery. If word had gotten out that all of this was because of a cat, Ambassador MacArthur would be ridiculed all over Europe.

‘The Austrian Chief of Staff put the Austrian army on the alert”

Thinking that he would be a hero, our Defense Attaché contacted the Austrian Army Chief of Staff. The Austrian Chief of Staff wanted to know the reason.

Our Defense Attaché replied that he could not say, meaning that he did not know — a poor choice of words.

The Austrian Chief of Staff thought the worst scenario. He put the Austrian army on the alert, and called the Greek Army Chief. Fortunately, I heard about this before the press could have gotten wind of it. I was able immediately to straightened things out, without mentioning the real reason why I was trying to reach the MacArthurs.

The cat had the surgery. It was successful. The vet said that recovery would be quicker if he could give the cat certain pills, but he did not think it was available in Europe. He asked my wife if she would get some in the USA for him. A former secretary of mine in Washington had several cats. I volunteered to call her and asked whether she would do me that favor. She consented. The next day she telephoned me to say that those particular pills required a prescription and her vet said he would have to examine the cat first. I thanked her, but told her to forget it because there was no way that I could ship the cat to her.

Two days later, I received a package of the pills. I did not dare ask her how she had gotten the pills, and I did not want to know.

The next day, I received an excited call from her. She said that the vet had called her that morning to advise her that the pills usually caused cat’s hair to change to bright blue, temporarily!

By this time my wife and I were so tired of hearing about the cat, that my comment was “GOOD!”

Regrettably, its hair did not cooperate; it did not turn blue.

After a long two weeks, the MacArthurs telephoned us from Trieste. The first person on the phone was Mrs. MacArthur. She wanted to talk to my wife to ask about the cat.

When my wife told her about the operation, but not about the possibility of a hair change, you did not need a phone to hear her! The Ambassador then got on the phone, and among other choice words, said that if I had reached him over a G.D. [goddamn] cat, I would rue the day.

Mrs. MacArthur and the Ambassador then started shouting at each other. The Ambassador then asked me whether I had mentioned to anyone that I wanted to reach them over a cat.

When I remarked, “Of course not!,” he calmed down and said that he was pleased that I was his Deputy.

Under my breath, I remarked, “Well, I’m not.”

When the MacArthurs returned to Vienna, Mrs. MacArthur said to me in a loud voice that she had a lot of clout in Washington and would see to it that I would never become an Ambassador. On the wall in my apartment are hanging five Presidential commissions — all earned since the cat incident.

I want to believe that the cat that did not turn blue had something to do with it.