Still a presence in the Philippines today, Imelda Marcos is the widow of Ferdinand Marcos and was the first lady of the Philippines from 1966 to 1986. She is sometimes compared to Marie Antoinette, Eva Perón and Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. In her private-published spiritual autobiography called Circles from Life, Imelda begins, "Many things have been written about me and my life. Unfortunately they have only scatched the surface." Once she said: The people “need a role model. They need a star, especially in the dark of the night.” [Source: Mimi Swartz, New Yorker, April 20, 1998]
Imelda Marcos "was once known for her beauty and charm," wrote Mimi Swartz in the New Yorker, "and later her ruthlessness, and still later for being he world's most avid shopper.” The adjective imeldific was coined after Imelda Marcos to mean excessively ostentatious or in bad taste. Imelda Marcos has referred to herself as "the mother of the Filipino people," and called her art collection—which includes Picassos, a Gauguin and Warhols "our treasure."
Kate McGeown of the BBC wrote: “Imelda Marcos: a name synonymous with wealth, greed and excess. During her husband's 20 years as Philippine president, she amassed a huge collection of art, jewellery, property and - most famously - at least 1,000 pairs of shoes. Paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Rembrandt, Rafael and Michelangelo; palatial homes in the US and the Philippines; silver tableware, gold necklaces, diamond tiaras - the Marcoses collected the best the world had to offer. [Source: Kate McGeown, BBC News, January 25, 2013]
According to Rappler.com: “She enjoyed great influence as cabinet member and roving ambassador, but became the symbol of excess while the rest of the country plunged into poverty. She enjoyed a jet-setting lifestyle and amassed a huge collection of jewelry, fine art, and real estate -- allegedly bought with money stolen from state coffers.” Her daughter Imee Marcos says she has been wronged by critics. "They can say what they want about my mom's politics, but nobody's ever been critical of her beauty," she told the Los Angeles Times. "How well dressed she was, how beautifully she represented the Filipino people on the world stage."
John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In her husband's two decades in power, Imelda became a symbol of poise, charming world leaders and the cultural elite including Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro, Moammar Kadafi and Ronald Reagan. Yet Imelda also gained notoriety for her million-dollar shopping trips to the world's swankiest boutiques while many Filipinos went homeless. While many view the Marcoses as caricatures of gross excess, corruption and greed, Imelda insists that her late husband's regime, which many recall for its rampant corruption and repressive government, was the "Renaissance of the Philippines." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2006]
Imelda's Early Life
Imelda Remedios Visitación Trinidad Romuáldez was born on July 2, 1929 in Manila and was brought up in the province of Leyte, a group of lovely islands southeast of Manila. Some articles say she was born in Leyte. Her family belonged to the rich and powerful Romaualdez clan. However, her father squandered his share of the family fortune and her mother was bitter because she mainly married him for his money. Her father, Vicente Romuáldez was the brother of Philippine Supreme Court Associate Justice and her paternal ancestors were from a land-owning family in Tolosa, Leyte, descended from Granada, Andalusia, Spain. She has five other siblings: Alfredo, Alita, Armando, Benjamin and Concepcion who spent their childhood in San Miguel. [Sources: Wikipedia, The New Yorker ]
Imelda's parents separated when she was young. She lived with her mother in a garage until her mother died of pneumonia when Imelda was eight. After their mother died in 1938, the family moved to Tacloban, where she was known as the "Rose of Tacloban", and was raised by her servant Estrella Cumpas. In the film Imelda, she claimed to have met Douglas MacArthur when he landed in Tacloban at the end of World War II. Tacloban was also the city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
At the request of a wealthy uncle, Daniel Z. Romualdez, Imelda returned to Manila in 1950 and lived with his family. She worked in a music store on Escolta street as a singer to attract customers. She took voice lessons at the music conservatory of the University of Santo Tomas. As a teenager she flirted with American soldiers by asking them for chocolate and liked to sing American songs like Don't Fence Me In. American culture had a strong impact on her as did many Filipino. Describing her childhood, Imelda Marcos said, "I knew how to eat an apple before I knew the banana. I knew the American anthem instead of my own anthem."
Imelda was very beautiful. She placed second in a beauty pageant known as "Miss Manila" and was named the "Muse of Manila" after contesting the results.This launched a modeling career, with her pictures appearing in local magazines and newspapers.
In 1954, she was introduced by her uncle to Ferdinand, when he was a young Nacionalista Party congressman from Ilocos Norte, After a two-week courtship they were married. Before meeting her husband, she briely dated Benigno Aquino, Jr., who would later become a political rival. Ferdinand and Imelda were married on May 1, 1954. They jad three children: Imee, Ferdinand, Jr., and Irene. She also adopted a girl named Aimee.
Imelda's Character and Appearance
Imelda, wrote Mimi Swartz in The New Yorker had "seductive, singing speech, a beseeching quality about the eyes...When Imelda talks to interviewers, she evinces both eagerness and helplessness, and often bursts into flustered, girlish giggles. She encourages the shoe jokes, perhaps to deflect attention from other questions, such as those concerning torture, human-rights abuses, financial corruption.”
In the Marcos years Imelda liked to perform pop songs at state dinners and political rallies, and always traveled with a film crew. She was also notorious for breaking down into tears at the drop of hat. She reportedly wept in front of United States officials and world leaders when her wishes were denied. "Stuttering John" Melendez, a side kick of radio shock jock Howard Stern, once asked Imelda Marcos: "If you ever pass gas at home in front of others, do you blame the family dog?" Marcos reportedly smiled uncomfortably.
David Byrne, ex-Talking Heads frontman and writer of a musical about Imelda called “Here Lies Love” told the New York Times: Unlike her husband, Imelda Marcos “changed over time. Marcos, was always a very power-hungry, controlling, conniving kind of person, from when he was a senator, when he first met her. But she was a kind of innocent who was corrupted by power.” Mrs. Marcos’s belief that she and her husband were doing good for their country was not entirely baseless, he added. “When they were first elected they kept a lot of their campaign promises and built roads and schools and clinics and hospitals,” he said. [Source: Allan Kozinn, New York Times, April 4, 2013 ~~]
"Marcos's physical appearance remain remarkably unchanged," Swartz wrote in 1998, "her massive hair still tucked, rolled and dyed an indisputable black: her spike heels still tinted to match her handbags; a live printed scarf at her throat; a custom-made terno, the native dress with butterfly-winged sleeves that she wore so often it became a joke on 'Saturday Night Live.' Her black bra still peeks out from her plunging neckline, and she maintains, as she has done for years, that her clear, unlined face indicates purity of soul."
Imelda Marcos During the Marcos Years.
When Marcos was in power from 1966 to 1986, Imelda was appointed the first governor of metropolitan Manila and was described by diplomats as the "de-facto vice-president" of the Philippines. She carried out diplomatic mission on behalf or her husband and the government, including one trip to Libya to meet with Muammar Gadaffi to iron out a solution to the Philippines's Muslim problem. Imelda had her own advisors and some people even considered her a rival of her husband.
During the Vietnam War era, when the Philippines was a key American ally, the Marcoses received quite a bit of positive press. In 1966, Life magazine gushed, "With all the grace and style of Jackie and with energy reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt, Mrs. Marcos appears to be everywhere at once."
Liz Carpenter, press secretary for Lady Bird Johnson, told the New Yorker, the Marcoses "were trying to put the Philippines on the map." She described a summit meeting party in Manila as being "the most glamorous party I ever went to in my life."
Her "beatification" projects involved taking a bulldozer to the neighborhoods of the ultra-poor and leveling their shacks. The practice was stopped whenever a major international events came to Manila such as the World Bank Conference in 1976.
Imelda help bring the Miss Universe Pageant to Manila in 1974 and put together "The History or a Race," a song and dance performance that paid tribute to Filipinos with men dressed like primitive tribesmen and World War II soldiers. The show also feature films clip of Imelda meeting Mao in China in 1974 and singing Dahil Sa Iyo, a love song for both her husband and the Philippines (with the chorus "Because of you I attained happiness/ I offer you my love/ If it is true that you shall enslave me/ All of this because of you.")
On November 17, 1981, dozens of workers were killed when a scaffolding collapsed on building constructed for an international film festival hosted by Imelda marcos. The corpses were never recovered; they were simply entombed in cement so the building could be completed in time. Many people believed the building is haunted by ghosts because the workers were never given a proper burial.
(Failed) Assassination of Imelda Marcos
In 1972, Imelda was the victim of a knife attack that was caught on video tape. Afterwards, a highly-regarded plastic surgeon was flown in from the United States to repair her face.
On December 7, 1972, at an open-air awarding ceremony that was part of Imelda’s National Beautification and Cleanliness contest, one of the recipients, Carlito Dimahilig, lined up to directly receive the award from the First Lady. He was approximately 27 years old and a little over five feet at the time of the incident. Without any warning, Dimahilig drew a machete-like bolo knife and tried to stab Imelda Marcos to death. Luckily, Marcos was quick to cover her chest with her arms. By doing so, she was able to protect her vital organs from the direct assault.
Congressman Jose Aspitas and Linda Amor Robles (secretary of the beautification campaign) came to the rescue, only to suffer minor lacerations themselves. Finally, the Marcos security police fired two bullets in Carlito’s back, killing the assailant on the spot. Imelda Marcos was immediately rushed to a nearby hospital via a helicopter. She suffered several wounds on her hands and arms which required a total of 75 stitches.
Conspiracy theorists believe that the Imelda Marcos assassination was just a staged attempt to get people’s sympathy. For one, the incident took place in the same year that Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law. In addition to that, Carlito Dimahilig seems to be a less than credible assassin based on his skills. Apart from using a bolo instead of a gun, Carlito also failed to inflict fatal wounds to Imelda despite being at close range and having the time to do so.
Imelda's Lavish Lifestyle
During the Marcos years, Imelda was high-profile member of the international jet set. She partied with Andy Warhol at Hippopotamus in New York; befriended Van Cliburn; and sang "We are the World" with George Hamilton and arm dealer Adnan Khashoggi.
While Ferdinand spent his three terms as president, from 1966 to 1986, engaged in rampant corruption, political repression and human rights abuses. Imelda spent her tenure as first lady buying shoes, rare artwork, multimillion-dollar properties and, of course, lots and lots of jewels. At the time Marcos was ousted Imelda owned 508 floor-length gowns; 15 mink coats; 888 handbags; 1,220 pairs of shoes (down from the original estimate of 3,000) and 65 parasols. One pair of shoes had batteries and glowed in the dark. Her collection of jewelry included a Bulgari bracelet valued at $1.2 million.
Catherine A. Traywick wrote in Foreign Policy, “When Imelda fled Malacanang Palace with her husband in 1986, she left behind a personal safe filled with "freshwater pearls, a grocery-size carton of beaded turquoise necklaces, miniature standing trees carved out of semiprecious stones, hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry, and a reported $50,000 worth of gold coins," as well as thousands of designer shoes, hundreds of designer dresses and five shelves of designer purses. (Imelda has joked that the Philippine government has left her with nothing but "junk," which she refers to as "The Imelda Collection: Guaranteed to tarnish and disintegrate.") [Source: Catherine A. Traywick, Foreign Policy, January 16, 2014 \^/]
Once during a two month shopping spree in the United States Imelda spent $4.46 million. She wrote 47 checks for things like a $200,000 jeweled bracelet form Cartier, $228,000 worth of clothes at Emmanuel Ungaro and $10,340 in bed sheets. During one two day spree in New York in April 1979 Imelda spent $280,000 for a necklace with emeralds and diamonds; $18,500 for a yellow gold evening bag with one round cut diamond; $8,975.20 for 20-carat gold ear clips with twenty-four baguette diamonds; $8,438.10 for 18-carat gold ear clips with fifty-two tapered baguette diamonds; and $12,056.50 for 20 carat gold ear clips with diamonds. Imelda once said, "I could buy anything I wanted" and if you can count your money then your are not rich.
The Marcos house was decorated with works of art by Pissaro, Michelangelo, Picasso, and Gauguin. She liked to brag that the sculpture of David’s head that she owned was the only privately held marble work of Michelangelo outside if Italy. Imelda picked out the art works herself but is some cases their authenticity was questioned. In Marcos years these works hung Malacañang Palace near photographs of Imelda with Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Douglas MacArthur and Charles Lindberg.
Imelda’s Jewel Collection
The jewelry collection now in custody of the Philippines government consists of 760 pieces, including a 150-karat Burmese Ruby, a 30-karat Bulgari diamond bracelet that was valued at $1 million in 1986, diamond-studded belts and hair combs, tiaras, necklaces, brooches and earrings studded with valuable gems. The U.S. Customs seized millions of dollars worth of jewelry she took with her to Hawaii. In a vault held by Marcos, the Swiss central bank also found a ruby and diamond tiara worth about $8 million. The jewels are expected to eventually be auctioned off with the money going to the Filipino people.
Josephine Cuneta wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The government holds about 760 pieces of Mrs. Marcos’ jewelry in three collections, valued at a total of $6 million. That includes 300 pieces of jewelry retrieved from the Malacanang Palace right after People’s Power Revolution, 400 items confiscated in Hawaii, and 60 items seized by the Philippines’ Bureau of Customs from a Greek national accused of smuggling the jewelries out of the country. The commissioner dismissed speculation that some of the jewelry had been stolen and replaced with fakes. “They are all accounted for.” [Source: Josephine Cuneta, Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2013]
In 2014, rappler.com reported: “Mrs Marcos' jewelry, worth at least $8 million, have sat in a bank vault for decades after being seized as part of assets allegedly plundered by the Marcos family before it fled to US exile in 1986. Mrs Marcos' Roumeliotes Collection is composed of 60 pieces of more extravagant jewelry and loose gemstones seized from Greek national Demetriou Roumeliotes on March 1, 1986 at the Manila International Airport as he was about to fly abroad, according to the PCGG. The Hawaii collection consists of trinkets and baubles found inserted among the Marcos family’s luggage when they landed at the Honolulu International Airport on February 25, 1986, the PCGG said. [Source: Rappler.com, January 13, 2014]
Mrs. Marcos maintains she should get the jewelry back, her lawyer said. Robert Sison, a lawyer for Mrs. Marcos, said she can prove her ownership of the jewelry and the PCGG has no right to possess it. “The jewels have never been sequestered, let alone subject of any court proceedings,” he said. In January 2014, an anti-graft court this week ordered Imelda to forfeit more than $100,000 worth of jewelry on the grounds that it was ill-gotten.
Imelda’s Shoe Collection
When the Marcoses fled the Philippines in 1986 they left behind staggering amounts of personal belongings, clothes and art objects at the palace, including at least 1,220 pairs of Imelda Marcos' shoes. Marcos's shoe collection become one of the most notorious symbols of excesses of the Marcos period. Imelda has long maintained that she collected so many shoes partly to promote the shoe industry in the Philippines town of Marikina.
John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Investigators found 1,200 pairs of size 8 1/2 AA shoes at the Manila presidential palace. The new government put them on display to symbolize the former first lady's extravagant lifestyle. An additional 1,600 pairs were found in another Marcos home. Not since Cinderella had shoes commanded so much notice. Imelda immediately became an international joke. Yet she insisted her shoes vindicated her: "When they broke into the palace, they went into my closet looking for stolen loot," she said in an often-repeated line. "And all they found were shoes, beautiful shoes." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2006]
Kate McGeown of the BBC wrote: “Not surprisingly perhaps, Imelda's shoes are the part of the collection that is best accounted for.Photographs of row upon row of designer footwear, left in the presidential palace when the Marcoses fled to Hawaii, became the symbol which summed up their lavish lifestyle.Many of these shoes are now in a special museum in Marikina, an area north of Manila known for its shoe manufacturing. Others are in the National Museum, along with some of Mrs Marcos' gala dresses. [Source: Kate McGeown, BBC News, January 25, 2013]
Jim Gomez of Associated Press wrote: “Her massive shoe collection, including top U.S. and European brands, astounded the world and became a symbol of excess in the Southeast Asian nation, where many still walked barefoot out of abject poverty. The clothes and shoes of the Marcoses were not among the assets allegedly stolen by them and sequestered by the government following the dictator's fall, according to Presidential Commission on Good Government official Maita Gonzaga. [Source: Jim Gomez, Associated Press, September 23, 2012 <*>]
“After the 1986 revolt, Aquino had Imelda Marcos' shoes displayed at the presidential palace as a symbol of the former first lady's lavish lifestyle. The shoes were then removed from public view and stored in the palace basement when Aquino stepped down in 1992. Mrs. Marcos once claimed most of her foreign-branded shoes were fake, though that has never been independently verified. But the world's fascination with her footwear, including a battery-operated pair that blinked when she danced, has ensured a hefty price tag. A 1990 U.S. charity auction of one pair donated by her fetched $10,000. <*>
“Imelda Marcos claimed many of the shoes were gifts from Filipino shoemakers in suburban Marikina city, the country's shoemaking capital. Marikina officials borrowed 800 pairs of her shoes in 2001 for a shoe museum, which has become a tourist spot.Unapologetic about the past, Mrs. Marcos said her shoes became her best defense. "They went into my closets looking for skeletons, but thank God, all they found were shoes, beautiful shoes," she told reporters when she inaugurated the shoe museum. <*>
“Massive flooding, however, damaged dozens of pairs of Marcos' shoes in Marikina in 2009. About 765 pairs, including famous brands like Gucci, Charles Jourdan, Christian Dior, Ferragamo, Chanel and Prada, survived the Marikina floods. The shoes, size 8 1/2 to 9, still look remarkably new due to meticulous museum care, which includes displaying them in airtight and dust-free glass cabinets in an air-conditioned gallery, away from direct sunlight. The shoe collection draws a daily crowd of 50 to 100 Philippine and foreign tourists, who almost always leave in awe, museum manager Jane Ballesteros said. "The first word they utter is 'Wow,' followed by the question, 'Was she able to wear all of these?'" Ballesteros said. "When I say, yes, look at the scratches on the soles, the next reaction is, 'Really?'" "It's amusing," Ballesteros said. "Her shoes never fail to astound people years after."
Neglect Ruins Marcos' Prized Shoes
Jim Gomez of Associated Press wrote: “Termites, storms and neglect have damaged part of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos' legendary collection of shoes and other possessions left behind after she and her dictator husband were driven into U.S. exile by a 1986 popular revolt. Hundreds of pieces of late strongman Ferdinand Marcos' clothing, including the formal native see-through barong shirts he wore during his two-decade rule, have also begun to gather mold and fray after being stored for years without protection at the presidential palace and later at Manila's National Museum, officials said. [Source: Jim Gomez, Associated Press, September 23, 2012 <*>]
“More than 150 cartons of clothes, dress accessories and shoes of the Marcoses were transferred to the National Museum for safekeeping two years ago after termites, humidity and mold threatened the apparel at the riverside palace. They deteriorated further at the museum after the fragile boxes were abandoned in a padlocked hall that had no facilities to protect such relics and was inundated by tropical rains last month due to a gushing leak in the ceiling, museum officials said. Museum staffers, who were not aware the boxes contained precious mementoes from the Marcoses, opened the hall on the fourth floor of the building after noticing water pouring out from under the door. They were shocked to see Marcos' shoes and gowns when they opened the wet boxes, officials said. <*>
Workers hurriedly moved the boxes to a dry room and some were later brought to a museum laboratory, where a small team of curators scrambled to assess the extent of the damage. Some items have been damaged by termites and mold beyond repair, according to museum curator Orlando Abinion, who is heading the effort. "We're doing a conservation rescue," Abinion told the AP. "There was termite infestation and mold in past years, and these were aggravated by last month's storm." "It's unfortunate because Imelda may have worn some of these clothes in major official events and as such have an important place in our history," he said. <*>
“AP journalists saw a badly tattered box at the museum filled with damaged and soiled leather bags and designer shoes belonging to Imelda Marcos. Termites had damaged the heel and sole of a white Pierre Cardin shoe. Other shoes were warped out of shape or badly stained. About 100 of Ferdinand Marcos' barong shirts were squeezed tightly into another box, some still attached to plastic hangers. A white barong shirt on top, with the presidential seal emblazoned on its pocket, had reddish stains and a sleeve was nearly torn off. <*>
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015