Gowned and Catty

It was with undiluted pleasure that I was surrounded with various real-life versions of those memorable fictional characters:  Edith Wharton’s “Sillerton Jackson” and “Lawrence Lefferts,” Lev Tolstoy’s “Princess Yelena Kouragin,” Jane Austen’s “Mrs. Bennet,” Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Augusta Bracknell,” not to mention Truman Capote’s “Holly Golightly” and “Mag Wildwood” at a recent “society” gala at the Manila Peninsula hotel.  Although all was elegance and politesse during the affair, the cast of characters made it a veritable vicious comedy by their incessant carping about every noteworthy personality that had the fortune — or rather the misfortune — to enter the Rigodon ballroom amidst the flashes of the paparazzi…

“Dahling!!!  Hellohowareyou???”  And as soon as she passed, the tongues started wagging their inflammatory fires…

“Lovely dress but far lovelier earrings…”

“Where does she stand in the family quarrel???  Of course, her branch was never close to her aunt.  They didn’t even bother to attend the reading of the last will and testament.  Not that they need to inherit anything, they’re terribly rich.”

“It’s not a family quarrel.  It’s only her politician cousin quarreling with the cousins who inherited from their bitchy old aunt.  And that politician cousin will not quarrel with her — at least for now — because she didn’t get anything, much less bother to get anything.  They were never really close.  You know, everyone thinks she is a woman of style… but she is also a woman of substance:  after she separated from her husband, her parents refused to have anything to do with her.  She only had Php 5,000 left but built herself up from there.  Now, she is a self-made multimillionairess without the help of her family.  Remarkable lady.”

“Politician cousin is just pouring out all her sexual frustrations by creating this mess, you know.  They used to say she was a lesbian, until she married someone whom they used to say was gay.  Now, she’s correctly described as a politician;  she excels at it as she’s completely incomprehensible.  So really, politician cousin is just after some big money from her simple cousin.”

“You know, their simple cousin couldn’t care less if she inherited or not.  She is the richest one of them all because her Hetty Green of a mother has never lost a single cent in all her life!!!  The story of the one light bulb is true, you know.   And simple cousin’s husband is just getting progressively richer by the day.  Among family in private, she says that there are far too many properties and too many assets to manage, and manage well.  Nice, very nice problem to have, don’t you think???”

A not-so-pretty young thing entered with a posse of passably attractive ingenues doing “the attitude.”

“That girl, despite her airs, is actually illegitimate.  She shouldn’t even be carrying her father’s surname.  Her father had a relationship which his parents didn’t approve, his girlfriend was ‘pobrecita’ but very ambitious and determined to bear his child, come hell or high water.  And so there she goes…  But you can still see all that insecurity  in her, don’t you???”

“They’re educating her very well.  She is to be sent to the US for schooling.  Her father says she has the grades to be admitted to an Ivy League university.  Of course, he’s got the connections.  So there…”

“Poor lady.  Her playboy husband is bedding her best friend.  Always the case, isn’t it???”

“Does she know?  She must already know.  I mean, if the whole town knows…”

“Well, nobody expected their marriage to last in the first place.  Not with a husband like that, however handsome.  He’d sooner stick it into an SM salesgirl.”

And “Christina of Sweden” appeared…

“And whooooo made that horrible dress???”

“Bad taffeta.  Very bad taffeta.  Her designer took her for a ride!!!”

“A bad dress on a bad figure.”

“I predict that she will trip with that dress anytime now…”

“‘Hija,’ look at your ex-boyfriend.  Sooooo handsome…  And it’s that little ‘feissima’ mongrel who has taken your place!!!  My goodness, ‘hija, ‘look at all that you’ve given up!!!  He is going to inherit the bulk of his Papa’s estate:  the corporations, the banks, the houses, the boat, the helicopter, and everything else!!!  If I were you I would have never let him go!!!”  carped mestiza mama.

Mestiza daughter snapped:  “Mom, he can’t even get it up, OK???  Forget it!!!”

“Hellodahlinghowareyou???”

“I’ve seen that dress twice already…”  fashion observer murmured.

“Saw that in Chatuchak.  1,500 baht.”

“I’m sure she beat you to it.”

A handsome and macho “politico” strode into the room.  “Ssshhh… Rumor control says that he is a ‘Size 12’…”

“Really???  12 inches???  Impressive!!!”

“No, 12 years old!!!”

And the ascendant one glided into the ballroom…

“Hellohowyou…???”

“Wow… How was she able to afford that dress???  I’ll bet it’s a fake!!!  Where did she steal the gas to get here???  Or did she walk???  All those debts…!!!”

“I’m sure she hasn’t paid for that dress yet.  And she never will.”

“Such lovely girls.  So sweet.  They’re always together…”

“That’s because they are together.  What did you think???  And there’s more of them over there.  Sapphic is in.”

And John Travolta as Tony Manero strutted sexily into the crowd at full swing…

“Hi, dude!!!  What’s up???”

“Stud.”

“Rent boy.  You pay his rent.”

“Adventurer.”

“She left him already.  Caught him setting a date with her cousin.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Male cousin, dahling.  He likes it from all directions, you see.”

“She is the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen…”

“Dahling, I love your minaudiere!!!”  Where’d you get it???”

“Greenhills ‘tiangge’!!!”

Fashion model hissed:  “He’s the guy I was telling you about…  He’s rich:  several companies, houses in Ayala Alabang, Punta Fuego, Boracay, a yacht… He can have me anytime.  Better yet, marry me.  But I hear he is ‘not endowed’ down there…”

“Hey babe, small bulge, big pocket.  Can’t win ’em all.”  declared young fashion designer.

“Sir, would you like some foie gras?”

“Uhm, is that really foie gras?  Or is that ‘faux’ gras?”

“It isn’t foie gras.  Just be honest and say it’s liver spread.”

With characteristic naughtiness, I decided that I would step on every single long dress with a train in the ballroom during the course of the evening.  Just for kicks.  One, two, three…  Once, twice, thrice… I even managed to step on a particular gown [ guess who??? ] no less than fifteen times!!!  Bwahahah!!!   😛   😛   😛

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Beauty and The Belo

Everybody knows what a big success the dermatologist Dr. Vicki Belo is:  in the Philippines, quite simply, beauty is synonymous to the gorgeous Dr. Vicki Belo.

“Wow!!!  You’re so ‘Vicki Belo’!!!”  [ “Wow!!!  You’re so beautiful!!!” ]

“I’m having my ‘Vicki Belo’ this afternoon.”  [ “I’m having my dermatological appointment this afternoon.” ]

So when my dear friend, award-winning production designer Gino Gonzales said that his New York- based mentor and onetime professor Eduardo “Toto” Sicangco would be doing the production design for Dr. Vicki Belo’s anniversary party, and that “Venus would be emerging from a big seashell,” I knew that I would have to make a beeline for those sought-after invitations!!!  For not only was THE Dr. Vicki Belo giving a big party, two of the best-ever production designers of the Philippines would be staging it!!!

I earnestly requested Vicki’s elder sister Jackie to secure an invitation for me, specially in the event that the Cancio-Gonzalez siblings would have extra invitations…  Thanks to her, the elaborate invitation featuring “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli arrived one afternoon, declaring that it would be a “Venetian ball.”  Since I obviously couldn’t come as a Doge, I thought of coming as a gondolier…

The big day came and careless me, as usual, and also because of several bothersome concerns, had neglected to prepare an appropriate “Venetian” costume.  No Doge, no gondolier…  So I did the next best thing and threw on Italian clothes:  Giorgio Armani shirt, pants, and jacket and Ferragamo shoes.  I tied a silk scarf around my head.  I looked like a misplaced Chinese corsair!!!  Thus did I sally forth to the Belo “Venetian ball”…

As always, I was already late as I arrived at 8:00 p.m..  I entered through the separate ballroom entrance of the Makati Shangri-La Hotel as the invitation had specified.  I went up the escalator to the Rizal ballroom.  Oh my, it was really a full-blown gala event…!!!  Waiting at the top of the escalator was a horde of paparazzi ready to shoot the rich and the celebrity guests.  Thank goodness the young and pretty actress Y*smin K*rdi dressed as Marie Antoinette was ahead of me so she attracted all the attention of the eager photographers.  I passed through the back of the paparazzi and proceeded to the registry table where I signed my name under beautiful Hong Kong socialite Audrey Puckett-Chiu.  I slipped through the back of the announcer, received a nice papier mache mask from the Belo staff, wore the mask, and finally entered the ballroom.  Since I was not used to wearing masks — with eye slits some millimeters off my own eyes — I bumped into at least 12 different people on the way to Table  # 13…  Whattaklutz!!!   😛

OhmyGod, I was the least-costumed.  The affluent and beautiful — simply beautiful — guests really took the “Venetian ball” attire seriously and were resplendent in silks and satins.  Oh well, I wouldn’t be seen the moment I sat down anyway, I thought to myself as I made my way to Table # 13, which turned out was to the immediate right of the stage…   😛

I arrived just in time to see burlesque queen Dita von Teese’s first number called “Birdcage”…

The guests were requested by Dr. Vicki not to take photos or videos of Dita von Teese’s performance…

Woohoo!!!

Odd, but the loudest cheers came from the gay men in the audience.  Perhaps they were fantasizing about performing as Dita von Teese themselves in private.  The real men were just dumbstruck and certainly sizzling inside their pants.

Sarah Geronimo.

Regine Velasquez.

Senator Mar Roxas.  The launch of the Ike and Nena Belo foundation.

Christian Bautista.

Dr. Vicki again reminded the guests NOT to take photos or videos of Dita von Teese’s performance…

Then burlesque queen Dita von Teese’s second number called [ Champagne ]  “Toast”…

Woohoo!!!

Again, the loudest, most rambunctious cheers came from the gay men in the audience…  The real men were simply sizzling in their pants.  I knew that there would be plenty of “Dita von Teese-ing” that night in the gay, and even straight, guests’ homes.  Dita von Teese the burlesque queen was a big hit at the Belo bash!!!  I knew she would be the talk of Manila in the days to come…  I was sure that many libidinous old politicos would be fuming that they had not been invited to see and drool over the voluptuous Dita von Teese’s performances!!!

It was past midnight and the party was going on strong.  But I had a string of commitments the next morning so I had to leave.

Thank you Vicki, it was the most marvelous evening of the year thus far…!!!   😀

[ It so happens, through a fortunate circumstance, that Dr. Vicki Belo is a Gonzalez second cousin of mine  { Vicki’s adoptive mother Florencia “Nena” Singson Gonzalez-Belo, Vicki’s biological mother Imelda Concepcion “Conchita” Singson Gonzalez-Cancio, and my father Augusto Beda Arnedo Gonzalez, were Gonzalez first cousins }.  And that I am close enough to her eldest blood sisters Charo Gonzalez Cancio-Yujuico and Jackie Gonzalez Cancio-Vega. ]

The Bag Gag

Pray tell, ladies, what is with this current fashion for bags the size of suitcases???

The power and the glory

The long-lived beautiful matriarch of a very grand Manila family — Josephine Murphy de Cojuangco, also known as “Dona Nene” — passed away at 98 years old early last week at 5:00 a.m..  By 8:00 a.m., word had been discreetly sent out to relatives and close friends as well as to the people of the legendary Cojuangco family seat in Paniqui, Tarlac.  The old people in Paniqui — various lifelong retainers and other employees — bowed their heads in mourning and remembrance, saying:  “Wala na ang Dona Nene, wala na ang kahuli-huliang manugang ng Dona Sidra.”  [ “Dona Nene is no more, gone is the last surviving niece-in-law of Dona Sidra.” ]

By dusk, all of affluent Manila already knew about her passing and they promptly prepared themselves to offer condolences to the very prominent family — one of the last, great, and powerful of the venerable old Filipino business and political dynasties.

Because of Dona Nene’s wishes for a very simple, quiet, and quick funeral, as well as the Cojuangco family’s desire for privacy, it took a few days before formal death notices for the Filipino public — whole page ones — appeared in the major newspapers, with the assent of the eldest son, Eduardo Murphy Cojuangco Jr. also known as “Danding,” one of the Philippines’ most powerful men.

The beautiful matriarch had been a formidable force in the family.  Born to an American-Irish-Canadian father and an Ilocano mother, Josephine “Nene” Murphy y Beley grew up in Baguio.  She was courted by the young Eduardo “Endeng” Cojuangco y Chichioco, the gentleman farmer scion of a very rich Chinese-Filipino “hacendero” family from Paniqui, Tarlac but her father objected.  They forthwith eloped.  The happy marriage was blessed with six children [ three boys and three girls ] but ended early with her husband’s unnecessary and untimely demise in his early 40s in 1952.  She and her children were consequently sidelined in the vast business affairs of her husband’s family by the elder, more assertive members.  Being a highly-disciplined person, she mustered all her resources and efficiently managed her husband’s businesses.  She raised her children well with an iron will.  Two decades later, the family fortunes turned for the better and her favorite eldest son “Danding” gradually became one of the country’s most powerful men.

She was laid in state in the biggest mortuary chapel of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel along Broadway Avenue in New Manila, a church of which she was a major benefactress from its earliest years to the present.  Her last gifts were the new stained glass windows of the church.

Inside the mortuary chapel, the elegant casket was closed.  According to her daughters, Dona Nene was arrayed in an elegant long dress by couturier Roy Gonzales of R. T. Paras;  she clasped a rosary from Rome blessed during the 03 June 2007 Canonization of Saint Marie-Eugenie de Jesus [ Anne-Eugenie Milleret de Brou ], foundress of the Religious of the Assumption, given by Mikey and Lizette Cojuangco [ son of her nephew Ramon Uychuico Cojuangco and Imelda de la Paz Ongsiako ].  On top of it was an exquisite round arrangement by Margarita Araneta Fores’ “Fiori d M” of several hundred white cattleya orchids flown in from the Eduardo Cojuangcos’ “Hacienda Balbina” in Pontevedra, Negros Occidental [ the gardeners had been instructed by Gretchen Oppen-Cojuangco to pick every single cattleya bloom in the plantation for her mother-in-law’s wreath ];  many of the white cattleyas were of the “Dona Josephine Cojuangco” variety registered internationally.  Below the casket was an elegant mass of several hundred white “Casablanca” lilies.  Beside the casket was a luminous, recent oil portrait of the very beautiful Dona Nene by the discreet Spanish mestizo artist Rafael del Casal [ a favorite of genuine Manila high society ], as she looked prewar.  There was also a small, draped table with small framed photographs showing Nene with her husband Endeng and their children.

Before the closed casket was transferred from the mortuary chapel to the church for the funeral mass, heiress-restaurateur-florist Margarita “Gaita” Araneta Fores — whose maternal grandmother Ester Araneta de Araneta was a great friend of Dona Nene’s; the two were part of a group of patrician ladies [ Pacita “Nitang” Moreno de Lopez, Aida Lopez Laguda-Sotto, Amparo Lopez-Pineda, Lolit de la Rama-Lopez, the Tanjangco sisters, et. al.;  now all gone ] who liked to play the traditional, old-fashioned card game of “panguingue” — herself directed the arrangement of the bier in front of the main altar, imparting her famous exquisite taste to the final ceremonies of her grandmother’s great friend.  The last time Dona Nene and her great friend Dona Ester saw each other was at the ladies’ room of a restaurant where both families were having lunch.  Not long after, Dona Ester passed away but Dona Nene was not informed so she would not be saddened.  Dona Nene always wanted to visit Dona Ester, but excuses were always made by family members to prevent her doing so, until she herself passed away.

Aware of the maxim that “too many cooks spoil the broth,”  that there would probably be too many members of the family “calling the shots,”  Danding Cojuangco unilaterally decided that his niece, Dr. Isa Cojuangco Suntay-Dister, would be the COO chief operating officer of Dona Nene’s last rites.  After all, being the only doctor in the family, she had taken good care of her Lola Nene throughout the years…

Just hours before the funeral mass [ the day before the actual funeral ], Dr. Isa flew the ECJ helicopter to faraway Paniqui, Tarlac to oversee the preparations there.  Paniqui Mayor Dors Cojuangco Rivilla was on top of the situation.  His mother, Lourdes “Lulu” Uychuico Cojuangco-Rivilla [ daughter of Antonio Cojuangco and Victoria Uychuico, Nene’s in-laws ] had already arrived from Manila to assist him with further preparations.

The congregation during the funeral mass represented the very best of Filipino families, not only in terms of sheer wealth and influence, but also in terms of high education, moral uprightness, cosmopolitan personal style, and surprisingly enough, good looks.  There were beautiful women and handsome men all over.

The eulogy delivered by her eldest son, Ambassador Eduardo “Danding” Murphy Cojuangco Jr. was the loving tribute of a powerful — almost omnipotent — man to his revered mother:  “My only fear is that what I will say may not be able to do her justice.”

“I carry my father’s name but everything else I am, I owe to my mother…”

After the funeral mass, there was an elegant dinner catered by Margarita Fores.  Then the family and their friends took leave of each other to rest a few hours in preparation for the 5:00 a.m. departure for the ancestral domain of the Cojuangcos in Paniqui, Tarlac.

The early 5:00 a.m. departure from Mount Carmel church for Paniqui, Tarlac was the thoughtful decision of “Danding” so his mother’s funeral cortege would not cause traffic in the city, the NLEX North Luzon Expressway, and the MacArthur highway.  So determined was Danding to leave the Mount Carmel Church at exactly 5:00 a.m. that he had left his wife Gretchen behind, still preparing herself, at their Balete Drive residence — “I will not have my mother wait for anyone.”  Gretchen finally caught up with the rest of the family at the Santa Rosa de Lima Church in Paniqui, Tarlac.

Meanwhile, in Paniqui town in Tarlac, trucks had been delivering cement and asphalt 24 / 7 as the main roads were hurriedly repaired.  The torrential rains had caused the first two layers of cement to be washed over and third layers had to be applied.  The old Santa Rosa de Lima Church had been repainted and new lights were installed 24 / 7 in time for the funeral mass of the town’s beloved “Dona Nene.”

As planned, the funeral cortege of 50 cars proceeded smoothly from Manila because of the early hour.  All the toll fees of the many cars that composed the cortege had been settled in advance.  When they reached the first town of Bamban, Tarlac, they were met by escorts as the cortege, which had increased to 150 cars and grew longer with every municipality it passed, proceeded to Paniqui town.

The rains were so heavy in Tarlac that the six siblings thought of postponing the funeral of their mother.

The funeral mass was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. at the Santa Rosa de Lima church.

“Meldy [ Imelda Ongsiako-Cojuangco ], Monching’s wife, wanted to come all the way from Manila for the funeral.  But we told her that she didn’t have to because of her delicate health;  we understood her situation.  After all, she’s a walking time bomb with two aneurysms.  If either or both of those explode… !!!  Meldy kindly sent her children in her stead.”

“It was so nice to have representatives of the other two surviving branches of the [ Cojuangco ] family present at the funeral mass:  Tio Pepe’s, Tio Antonio’s, and ours.  Peping had just come from a trip abroad and had rushed to Paniqui with Tingting and his two daughters for the funeral mass.  Lulu’s family was there, Monching’s too.  And of course, all of us, including our children and grandchildren, were there for Mama.”

At the church, Ambassador Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. delivered another stirring eulogy in amazingly fluent, flawless Kapampangan and Ilokano, the dialects spoken by generations of the Cojuangco family.

“Dona Nene” was interred alongside her husband, Eduardo “Endeng” Cojuangco y Chichioco, at the legendary Cojuangco “ermita” chapel / mausoleum in Sitio Caniogan, Barangay Matalapitap, the very “barrio” where, more than a hundred years ago, the pioneering patriarch Ingkong Jose and his children Ysidra, Melecio, and Trinidad Cojuangco y Estrella slowly settled after their transfer from Barasoain, Malolos, Bulacan.  For years after Eduardo’s death, his faithful widow “Nene” ordered holy mass at the “ermita” every 13th of the month which she, usually accompanied by her youngest daughter Isabel, would travel the long distance from Manila to attend.

After the interment, the family hosted a luncheon for everyone who had condoled with them.  Manila’s longtime premiere caterer “Via Mare” catered lunch for 1,500 guests.  The popular “Red Ribbon” bakeshop catered the subsequent “merienda.”  Lunch was also served to 1,000 mourners gathered outside the restricted premises.  Packed lunches were also distributed to some 8,000 sympathizers.  Paniquenos ventured that, had it not rained torrentially, some 40,000 Tarlaquenos had planned to attend the funeral of their beloved Dona Nene Cojuangco.

Like his five siblings Manuel “Manoling,” Henry, Mercedes “Ditas,” Aurora “Rory,” and Isabel, Ambassador Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. tirelessly attended to the very many friends of the family present during the final rites for their well-loved mother “Dona Nene”:  “Pasensya na po kayo sa kaunting nakayanan ng aming pamilya…”

It was a loving farewell with such dignity and grace, tempered by patrician understatement.  One instinctively knew that it had taken decades of affluence and education to achieve that kind of discernment and distinction.

COJUANGCO IN EXCELSIS.

*unfinished*

Redeeming Values

The dizzying rise in the price of oil worldwide has wrought havoc in the lives of people everywhere.  In the Philippines — where being poor is the norm — the steep rise in the prices of basic commodities has left “Juan de la Cruz” the Filipino Everyman catatonic as he is simply unable to “make ends meet” in his daily struggle to merely survive…

However, long before this current crisis, years and even decades ago, I had already come across people, their [ very ] comfortable personal circumstances notwithstanding, for whom simplicity and frugality had always been the preferred way of life.

There was a Laguna dowager who lived in a splendid home filled with unparalleled treasures which she and her husband collected zealously during their marriage.  Yet she lived, and dressed, simply and occupied herself everyday with unending work and prayer.  She led a very disciplined life.  Every early evening, she went to her ledger on an antique lectern in her boudoir and wrote down all the day’s household expenses down to the last centavo.  For all the splendor that surrounded her, she remained grounded in life’s realities and was very charitable, in her own inimitable way, to the less fortunate.  She defined “blessed are the poor in spirit.”

There is an unassuming old lady of a vast Manila real estate fortune — buildings upon buildings in the old commercial districts of Quiapo, Binondo, and Divisoria / Tondo — living in Forbes Park who, despite her great wealth, lives a life of “moral decency” [ by her own words ] and understatement.  She generously supports several charities anonymously and spends endless hours of prayers before her simple altar.  Despite her age and health, she still troops to the Guadalupe public market for foodstuffs, to Divisoria for textiles, to the Greenhills “Tiangge” for fancy jewelry and is — as with most of the established rich — always on the lookout for bargains.  She wants to leave a legacy of education, hard work, duty, decency, and an honorable surname to her children and grandchildren as these were also handed to her [ and her siblings ] by her distinguished parents who were pillars of morality in their lifetimes.

I remember a dear, uberrich Spanish mestiza friend of mine whom, for all the great international wealth of her family, lived contentedly in a three-bedroom condominium unit of modest proportions [ in a building owned by her mother along Roxas boulevard ].  There was her husband, she, her baby daughter, and the irascible, all around “yaya”-cum-cook-cum-maid with whom she had frequent arguments.  No visible “status symbols” such as “important” art and furniture; everything simple, comfortable, and tasteful.  In amazement, I told her:  “I admire you, you live so simply considering what you can really afford.  Way below your means.”  And she answered:  “I have everything I need, Toto.  I’m happy.  A few problems here and there but nothing really terrible.  I’m OK.”

One would suppose that having grown up in a rich family in Forbes Park, graduating at the top of the class at an Ivy League university, marrying an heir to a great agricultural and manufacturing fortune, having many children, and living in a commodious contemporary home would mean a socialite’s life — filled with endless parties, couture dresses, and haute bijoux — for this lady in Ayala Alabang.  But NO.  She took after her very sensible mother and father who built up their own great fortunes.  She is a traditional homemaker:  takes care of her children, delights in cooking and baking, and likes to sew, making her children’s clothes as well as her own.  Truly an admirable lady in this day and age.

It seems that the greater the wealth, the greater the understatement.

The moral responsibility of wealth.

*unfinished*