Imelda Marcos doesn’t live here anymoreBy Cristina DC Pastor
With charm and graciousness, Consul General Mario de Leon Jr. and his wife Eleanor welcomed guests to their Upper East Side townhouse, located in a neighborhood known for its genteel, pre-war condos and elegant shops. It was the recent Evening with the Consul General, a traditional Christmas dinner where he opens the door to his official residence and introduces the Grand Marshal of the Philippine Independence Day Parade.
“So where are you keeping the paintings?” I asked, a cheeky riposte to the ambassador’s warm greeting.
Gamely, he laughed. I half-expected the Congen to reply in kind, but he probably thought the timing called for a more careful answer. Weeks earlier, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had announced the indictment of Imelda Marcos’ loyal secretary Vilma Bautista for tax fraud. She and her two Thai nephews allegedly sold valuable works of art once owned by Imelda and did not pay taxes from the proceeds. The paintings, which included two Monets, once graced this Manhattan townhouse, the one I was visiting for the first time that evening. The paintings disappeared after the Marcoses fled Manila in 1986. The DA’s investigation situated them in Bautista’s care when the Marcoses went into exile.
De Leon explained that when his family arrived, all possessions owned by the Marcoses had long been removed. Former Consul General Cecilia Rebong, the tenant preceding him, undertook the renovation of the luxury apartment after clearing budget hurdles so that it may serve as the official residence of the consulate’s top official. He explained that the unit consisting of six floors is split between him and Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippine Mission to the United Nations. Cabactulan occupies the first three floors, and De Leon the next three floors above them. They have separate entrances.
De Leon is no stranger to tacky Marcos jokes. Since he, his wife and daughter moved into the former home of Imelda Marcos on East 66th about two years ago, he has had a stream of visitors who couldn’t resist asking questions like: ‘When can we have a disco here’? or ‘How big is the shoe closet?’ referencing Imelda’s obsession with footwear and frivolity.
“From what I was told, Imelda never even slept in the fourth, fifth and sixth floors,” De Leon told The FilAm. “She slept on the lower floors, and used the upper floors for entertaining.” Various reports would account for Imelda’s Manhattan townhouse among the four or five pieces of pricey addresses she acquired in the course of her frequent visits to New York while shopping for 8.5-size Chanel and Dior shoes.
The current townhouse, as occupied by the Consul General’s family, begins on the fourth floor, which serves as the reception hall, where public events are held. The fifth and sixth are private floors where the bedrooms and family rooms are kept from view. A white wooden stairway leads to the family’s sanctuary.
Dr. Prospero Lim, the 2012 PIDCI Grand Marshal from Imelda’s home province of Leyte, said he had been invited a couple of times when Imelda was the reigning first lady. He recalled attending cocktails to celebrate a Filipino artist and fashion shows by Imelda’s couturiers. CEO Loida Nicolas Lewis, who attended the PIDCI event, said she had never been to the townhouse when Imelda lived here. But her mother came to the building after the Marcos Regime had fallen in 1986 and glimpsed Imelda’s altar with images of the Santo Nino and Buddha. “Imagine that,” she shrugged.
The renovated townhouse intones elegance in pure white. On one side is a spacious music room with a grand piano at the corner and two living room sections. On the opposite side across a hallway is the large dining room where a long buffet table dressed in embroidered linen held the trays of food. Thick curtains in gold matched the yellowed paisley carpeting.
In this house where the De Leons will be spending the holidays with their daughters, the only reminder to Imelda’s incandescent presence is its generous size. The furnishings are homely yet modern and had nothing of the gilt-trimmed fineries Imelda’s Era evokes. And certainly nothing on the walls that closely resembled a Monet. Manny Baldemor’s paintings are clustered alongside works of other Filipino artists. The centerpiece is De Leon’s favorite: a terra cotta wall art by Virginia-born potter Hadrian Mendoza, showing rows of Asian-looking heads with no two faces looking alike.
As guests gathered around the piano for some relaxation and caroling, they sang “Feliz Navidad” to their hearts’ delight, substituting the folksy “Pulis na hubad” lyrics, indifferent to formalities and protocol. Nope, Imelda doesn’t live here anymore.