Formidable mother unilaterally decided that we would all spend New Year’s Eve at her son’s English style residence. Despite our individual [ and separate ] plans, we all acceded because none of us wanted to displease Formidable mother. But we also wanted to see what her son’s [ the Banker's ] wondrous “I am in London” house was like…
We arrived at 8:00 p.m. that evening. Several valets uniformed in dark “barong tagalog” were on hand to signal cars, open and close car doors, and assist the guests in alighting. The facade of the house was Palladian in style ala Inigo Jones-William Kent-Quinlan Terry. The drive was paved with granite. And we entered the massive front door…
OH. It was English all right. Expensively English, not at all “desordre anglaise” shabby English [ which was actually the real, authentic, and correct "English Look" practiced in the great houses of Britain; but then, this was no down-at-heel English fortune, au contraire... ]. It was the way the “English Look” was done for the very rich from Mayfair to Regent’s Park all the way to Park Avenue and the Upper East Side in New York… It was “the look” done well in Manila, for once!!! It was not the “I want the ‘English look’ but on a shoestring potatoes budget” so often seen in Manila’s exclusive, and exclusively parsimonious, enclaves.
There was an ethereal, ineffably elegant scent inside the house. There were perfume burners, certainly by Guerlain of Paris, for the unmistakably expensive scent of “Imperiale” wafted throughout the palatial residence.
The hall of embassy proportions was Georgian in inspiration with a grand marble staircase on the right. The floor was conventionally European with white marble squares bordered by diamonds of black marble; Italian “pietra dura” marble inlay in a restrained neoclassical pattern lined the perimeter of the floor. A George I silver chandelier hung from the ceiling. A tall, tall Christmas tree decorated with antique French and German glass ornaments stood at the foot of the staircase. And to show that it was indeed the home of a young family, the youngest son’s toys were scattered about the hall. His toy car, inadvertently left beside the Christmas tree, was from FAO Schwarz in New York, no less.
Tall and glistening burled mahogany double doors heralded the drawing room. The elegant atmosphere reminded me of the San Francisco living room of the Gordon Gettys and the New York living room of the Milton Petries. The walls were upholstered in “moutarde”-colored French silk velvet, very Georges Geffroy and Victor Grandpierre. A large, pale 18th century Samarkand rug lay over the parquet-de-Versailles. Museum-quality 18th century English and French furniture graced the room. The upholstered, goose-down filled furniture, from Lenygon & Morant in London, was upholstered in a variety of silk damasks. Two English Chippendale cabinets held an assortment of French and German “objets de vertu” as well as antique Chinese ivory and jade. And the paintings. Oh, the paintings. The Banker had a taste for the Italian Masters, from the Florentine Renaissance onwards. There was a Giorgione, a Titian, a Veronese, a Tiepolo, a Guardi, a Canaletto, among so many other splendors. *nearly faints*
Another pair of elegant double doors led from the drawing room to the dining room. It was a room straight out of mid-eighteenth century Paris, with gilded boiseries in rococo style. A genuine French 19th century Aubusson rug was on the floor. We marveled at the marvelous room, for it was obvious that French stucco artisans had been brought to Third World Manila for the purpose. But instead of the expected round table draped with classical silk velvet or silk damask and surrounded by Louis XV or Louis XVI single chairs in the classical French style ala Chateau de Montgeoffroy [ where the first real dining room in 18th century France appeared ], a comparatively simple Filipino dining suite of mahogany and carabao bone inlay took pride of place. We were puzzled by the radical choice of furniture until we were cheerfully, and rather helplessly, told by the Banker himself that the suite had been a gift of Formidable mother early in their marriage. Oh. *breathless* It had better remain there then, despite their vast array of magnificent options at Didier Aaron and Kugel, lest Formidable mother become infuriated and summon the powers of hell… *fearful*
On another end of the drawing room were another pair of double doors that led to the library. It was, expectedly, the quintessential English room in the quintessentially English house.
Three pairs of French doors in the drawing room led to the arcaded “loggia.”
Lining the entire length of the ground floor hallway were magnificent examples of authentic Chinese Ming Dynasty furniture purchased from the unimpeachable Robert Ellsworth in New York, a collection begun by Formidable mother.
The powder room was a wonderfully stylish chinoiserie fantaisie with endless mirrors, French gilt-bronze fittings, embroidered Chinese silks, and all manner of rock crystal.
The aristocratic Anglophilia of the splendid residence was completely understandable. The master of the house, after all, had read at Trinity College at Cambridge, among the most august of academic institutions, and from his youth had been friends with the banking Rothschilds and Guinnesses. His was no ordinary education from the very beginning: it had been carefully thought out by his technocrat father and sophisticated mother.
We were told by the staff that Formidable mother was seated at the “loggia,” a big arcaded space beyond the drawing room and the dining room. And there she was. Formidable mother, who was as big as her immense fortune [ think Mrs. Catherine Mingott in "Age of Innocence" ], sat on a distinguished English 18th century George III gilt armchair at a round table with all of the requisite teeny-weeny Parisian chinoiserie bamboo-style gilt chairs. We greeted her enthusiastically but we immediately sensed that she was already exploding her own New Year fireworks…
Formidable mother was in a snit when we arrived. She was breathing fire. She looked regal and beautiful in a dark-colored couture gown by Valentino Garavani detailed with black lace and black jet beads [ uncharacteristic of her: She was, in her later years, usually dressed in elegant, white Swiss fabrics ] . Her blonde hair was elegantly and expensively coiffed by the salon of the Hotel Intercontinental. She was wearing some of her favored, custom made [ as in made for her!!! ] Fulco di Verdura and Bulgari jewelry, which she had purchased in Rome back when she “could still run.” The stylish mix was punctuated by some of the rarest and most expensive pieces of precolonial Filipino gold jewelry, of which she had a very important and renowned collection. She wore her splendid jewelry with a casual, everyday air; actually, she seemed to be bored with them. She was shod in dreadfully expensive but comfortable shoes from a Parisian shoemaker. But she was extremely displeased — livid, actually — to see some of her relatives which her son had dutifully invited. She hurled invectives at them like popcorn while the staff tactfully led them away…
The evening’s august guests continued arriving. Among them, the sons of Manila’s [ and the Philippines' ] premiere Spanish mestizo family and also the sons of Cebu’s premiere Spanish mestizo family. Leading bankers and technocrats. Socially invisible heiresses. The Paris-based sister of the Banker’s wife, who was “Madame la Baronne de **********,” and a few others, whose names were all synonymous with wealth, power, and influence.
They all proceeded to the “loggia” to greet Formidable mother, who was as grand a doyenne as any. She knew all of them; she knew the lowdown on all of them. The most respectable were received with enthusiastic greetings, warm embraces, and “beso-beso” kisses on both cheeks. The banking colleagues were greeted warmly with firm handshakes and a kiss on one cheek. The wheeler dealers and their ambitious wives were met with curt “hellos” and lukewarm handshakes.
Mrs. Banker had not yet made an appearance to their guests. She was still busy all around the house and specially in the kitchen, directing her staff and attending to the myriad details of the evening. She was an heiress of an old Chinese fortune in Manila. They literally owned blocks after blocks of the city’s old but most viable business district. She was not a particularly beautiful woman, but she had the “X Factor”: she could be made to look like the most glamorous woman in the city. Because she was very rich even on her own, she had a considerable “armory”: piles of boxes of gowns from her couturiers in Paris, rows of current Chanel suits, racks of Blahniks, Choos, and Louboutins, a mountain of Shu Uemura and Murad, and a vault full of contemporary Parisian haute bijoux: Mouawad, Cartier, Van Cleef, and JAR. All that, when she would rather dress in a comfortable cotton top and jeans. She did not exactly get along with Formidable mother-in-law, or rather, Formidable mother-in-law did not exactly get along with her. At best, they had a grudging respect for each other.
The Banker finally came down to meet his guests, a stylish latecomer at his own party. He had come from another, more formal New Year’s Eve gathering and he had rushed upstairs to his baronial bedroom for a change of clothes. He had discarded his English bespoke dinner jacket for a more casual, more avant garde, and still frightfully expensive long-sleeved shirt, pants, and shoes he had picked out in Paris on yet another business meeting just a few days ago. He was a handsome and strapping man, and he was a fortunate combination of his Southern Tagalog father’s high intellect, incisive business acumen, and executive drive and his mother’s cosmopolitan Mediterranean-Oriental looks, high artistic tastes, and exceptional personal style. The Banker was a “Renaissance Man” in many ways.
Conversation was at fever pitch when something seemed to have fallen, crashed rather, in the drawing room. Formidable mother was further incensed when she saw one of her late husband’s Chinese business partners whom she never liked and never trusted; She thought, rightly, that he was always out to put one over them, or over anybody for that matter. She had strongly hurled the big Hermes bag which her maid carried — heavy because it contained her gold accoutrements and everything else — in his direction, inadvertently displacing one of a pair of gilt bronze Empire torcheres by Thomire on pedestals which flanked one of the drawing room doors.
Happy New Year!!! *giggles*
After a pause, the impossibly polite crowd continued yacking as if nothing had happened.
You see, Formidable mother was really something else. As a Sophia Loren character once said: “I’m Italian!!! I don’t have to make sense!!!”
We all left the Banker’s New Year’s eve party with “loot bags” filled with goodies from “Fauchon” in Paris. Those were all sent every year from Paris in early December by Madame la Baronne de ********** for her sister, Mrs. Banker. The Banker kept an arsenal of expensive gifts — art works, luxury gold and silver objects, vintage French wines, French comestibles, French clothing, Italian leather, etc. — for his friends in one room of his splendid house.
It was truly a happy New Year… The next day, a chatelaine from Bauhinia road complained to her newly arrived but fantastically rich neighbor on Intsia road that his bullets from last night’s revelry had rained on her house and nearly killed one of her beloved poodles. The arriviste neighbor did not apologize in person, which would have been the proper thing to do, but he promptly sent a generous cheque. His neighbor on Bauhinia road was insulted, because she was very rich herself, although of the old variety.
Such nice problems to have.