Imelda Marcos

here lies love

Imelda Marcos (b. 1929) is the widow of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. In popular culture, she is remembered for her collection of more than a thousand pairs of shoes. She began her career as a local singer and model in Manila before meeting her husband. After the declaration of martial law in 1972, Imelda began holding positions in the national government that allowed her to travel the world and accumulate artwork and real estate. The couple consolidated their power allowing them to transport funds from the Philippine treasury into offshore accounts, such as banks in Switzerland.

President Marcos was accused of the assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr., leading to the People Power Revolution which forced the Marcoses out of office and into exile in Hawaii. After the death of Ferdinand, Imelda and her family were given amnesty by then President Corazon Aquino, Benigno Jr’s widow. Her return to the Philippines has since allowed her to restore her political dynasty. Despite numerous cases involving alleged corruption, she has not been imprisoned and continues to wield influence. Her ability to survive upheavals in her life has led her to be called the ‘Steel Butterfly.’

Imelda was born in Manila to Remedios Trinidad and Vicente Romuáldez, brother of Philippine Supreme Court Associate Justice Norberto Romuáldez. 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 (1930-2012), and Concepcion who spent their childhood in San Miguel, a middle class area of Manilla. After their mother died in 1938, the family moved south to Tacloban, where she was known as the ‘Rose of Tacloban,’ and was raised by her servant Estrella Cumpas. In the 2013 documentary film ‘Imelda,’ she claimed to have met General Douglas MacArthur when he landed in Tacloban at the end of World War II.

At the request of her uncle, Daniel Z. Romualdez, Imelda returned to Manila in 1950, where 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. Imelda would later join a beauty pageant known as ‘Miss Manil’ where she placed second but was named the ‘Muse of Manila’ after contesting the results. This led her to become a local supermodel with her pictures appearing in area magazines and newspapers.Before  meeting her husband, she briefly dated Benigno Aquino, Jr., who would later become a political rival. In 1954 Imelda married Ferdinand Marcos, a Nacionalista Party congressman from Ilocos Norte, to whom she was introduced by her uncle. The marriage resulted in three children: Imee, Ferdinand, Jr., and Irene. She also adopted a girl named Aimee.

In late 1965 Ferdinand was elected as the 10th President of the Philippines and she served as First Lady. The following summer Imelda became involved in an altercation with the Beatles when they toured the Philippines after they unintentionally snubbed her, failing to attend a breakfast reception at Malacañang. The snub was broadcast on Philippine television and radio. Ferdinand was increasingly unpopular domestically, and in 1972, in an attempt to hold on to power, he declared martial law. A few months earlier an assailant tried to stab Imelda to death with a bolo knife during an award ceremony broadcast live on television. The attacker was shot to death by police while she suffered wounds on her hands and arms that required 75 stitches.

Once her husband had consolidated his power, Imelda orchestrated lavish public events using millions of U.S. dollars in public funds to extol her husband’s regime and bolster her public image. Longtime US ambassador to Laos William H. Sullivan wrote that she had acquired enough power to be able to browbeat Philippine generals into wearing drag at her birthday parties. She secured the Miss Universe 1974 pageant for Manila, which necessitated the construction and completion of the 10,000-seat Folk Arts Theater in less than three months. She also organized the Kasaysayan ng Lahi, an extravagant festival parade showcasing the history of the Philippines. She initiated social programs such as the Green Revolution that intended to address hunger and a lack of farming by encouraging the planting of vegetables and fruits in people’s gardens. Other programs included a national family-planning program, and an African safari on Calauit Island.

During the early 1970s, she took control of the distribution of the bread called the ‘nutribun,’ which came from humanitarian relief organization USAID. In 1978, Imelda was appointed elected as a member of the Interim Batasang Pambansa representing Region IV-A. She was later appointed Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary and toured numerous countries, most notably the United States, China, the Soviet Union, Libya, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Cuba. Throughout her travels, she became friends with a variety of political figures including Richard Nixon, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, and Joseph Tito. A Wikileaks diplomatic note ‘claims she was waiting for Spain’s dictator Franco to die so she could fly to Madrid for the funeral.’

To justify the multi-million U.S. dollar expenditure of traveling with a large diplomatic entourage using private jets, she would claim that her tours included securing a cheap supply of oil from China, Iraq, and Libya, which she also said was instrumental in the signing of the Tripoli Agreement of the Moro National Liberation Front. Her extravagances included US$5-million shopping tours in New York City, Rome, and Copenhagen in 1983, and sending a plane to Australia to pick up white sand for a beach resort. She made headlines when she tried to upstage Queen Elizabeth at the dedication of the Sydney Opera House.

Besides being an ambassador, Imelda also held the position of Minister of Human Settlements, allowing her to build institutions including Cultural Center of the Philippines, Philippine Heart Center, Lung Center of the Philippines, Philippine International Convention Center, Coconut Palace, and the Manila Film Center, most of which are still being used.

Imelda purchased a number of properties in Manhattan in the 1980s, including the US$51-million Crown Building, the Woolworth Building in 40 Wall Street, and the US$60-million Herald Centre. It was stated that she declined to purchase the Empire State Building for $750m as she considered it ‘too ostentatious.’ Her property also included jewels and a 175-piece art collection with works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Canaletto, Raphael, and Monet. When criticized, she responded that it was her ‘duty’ to be ‘some kind of light, a star to give the poor guidelines.’

Imelda was instrumental in the 1980 exile of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr., who had suffered a heart attack during his imprisonment. Martial Law was later lifted in 1981 and her husband, Ferdinand, was again elected president in what was considered a sham election. Ferdinand began to suffer from lupus erythematosus and Imelda started to effectively rule in his place. Aquino returned in 1983 but was assassinated at Manila International Airport. With accusations against her beginning to rise, her husband ordered the Agrava Commission, a fact-finding committee, to investigate her, ultimately finding her not guilty.

In 1986, snap elections were held between Ferdinand Marcos and Corazon Aquino, the widow of the former Senator and opposition. In spite of Ferdinand winning the elections, allegations of vote rigging led to mass protests that would be later known as the People Power Revolution. Imelda and her family fled to Hawaii via Guam. After they left Malacañan Palace, Imelda was found to have left behind 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 1,000 handbags, and 1,060 pairs of shoes. The exact number of shoes varies with estimates of up to 7500 pairs.

In 1988, Imelda, her husband Ferdinand, and Adnan Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian former billionaire and arms dealer, were tried by a Federal grand jury in Manhattan in a racketeering case. Charges included embezzlement of more than US$100 million from the Philippines to buy three buildings in New York City and fraudulently borrowing US$165 million from American banks to refinance the buildings and buy additional property. The couple pleaded not guilty. Imelda’s US$5-million-dollar bail was posted by tobacco heiress, Doris Duke, who befriended her while she lived in Hawaii. Actor George Hamilton was a witness for her defense. The case ended in acquittal in 1990. Ferdinand died in exile in Hawaii in 1989. Aquino refused to permit the repatriation of his remains for national security reasons, but in 1991, Imelda was allowed to return home through an amnesty proclamation.

After her fall from grace, Imelda was allowed to return to the Philippines through a presidential pardon by Corazon Aquino. The following year, she ran for president in the hotly-contested 1992 presidential elections, finishing 5th out of 7 candidates with 2,338,294 votes. In trials held that year, Imelda claimed that her fortune came from Yamashita’s Gold (the alleged war loot stolen in Southeast Asia by Japanese forces during World War II and hidden in caves, tunnels and underground complexes in the Philippines). In 1993, she was found guilty of corruption by a Manila court and sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison. She was set free on bail and filed an appeal. This was just one of approximately 100 cases involving US$350-million allegedly held by the Marcos family in Swiss banks. The Swiss federal tribunal ruled in December 1990 that the money would only be returned to the national government in Manila if a Philippine court convicted Imelda in a fair trial.

In 1995, she was elected as a congresswoman of Leyte, representing the first district. Initially, a disqualification case was filed against her, but the Supreme Court ruled in her favor. In 1998, Imelda would again seek the presidency.She ran but later withdrew to support the eventual winner Joseph Estrada. She finished 9th among 11 candidates, but Estrada’s administration would be instrumental in the dismissal of the cases filed by the Aquino government through Ombudsman Aniano Desierto, who said that technicalities and a lapse of the prescriptive period for filing cases were an obstacle. In 1998, the Sandiganbayan (a special Filipino appellate court) convicted her on charges that she had entered into an agreement disadvantageous to the government. On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the decision and cited Sandiganbayan Justice Francis Gatchitorena for his alleged bias against Imelda.

In contrast to Imelda’s very public life in the 1990s, her life in the first decade of the 21st century was a bit more private as she had retreated from politics and focused on her trials. In December 2000, she suffered a blood clot in her brain but recovered. In 2004, the Global Transparency Report published a study that showed she and her husband amassed a fortune of $5-10 billion. By 2007, Imelda still had 10 pending graft cases. She was acquitted in 2008 by the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch of 26 of 32 counts of dollar salting (removing dollars from the Philippines and transferring them to another country without approval from the Central Bank) involving Swiss bank accounts due to reasonable doubt. Imelda, in reaction to her acquittal, said: ‘First of all, I am so happy and I thank the Lord that the 32 cases have been dismissed by the regional court here in Manila. This will subtract from the 901 cases that were filed against the Marcoses.’

In 2010, Imelda ran for the second district of Ilocos Norte to replace her son, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., who was running for Senate under the Nacionalista Party. She defeated her nearest rival Mariano Nalupta, Jr. with 80% of the vote. She held the position of Millennium Development Goals chairperson in the Lower House. In 2011, the Sandiganbayan’s Fifth Division ordered Imelda to return US$280,000 in government funds taken by her and her late husband from the National Food Authority. In 2012, Imelda declared her net worth to be US$22-million. She was listed as the second-richest Filipino behind boxer Manny Pacquiao.

Early in 2013, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released an expose on offshore leaks that included the name of her eldest daughter, Imee, among the list of wealthy people involved in offshore financial secrecy. It was revealed that Imee had been helping her mother, Imelda, to hide portions of President Ferdinand Marcos’ wealth in tax havens including the British Virgin Islands. Also that year, the sale of two Claude Monet paintings, ‘L’Eglise de Vetheuil’ and ‘Le Bassin aux Nymphease,’ became the subject of a legal case in New York against Vilma Bautista, one-time aide to Imelda. The Monet paintings, along with two others, were allegedly acquired by Imelda during her husband’s presidency using the nation’s funds. Bautista’s lawyer claim that the aide sold the painting for Imelda but did not have a chance to give her the money. The Philippine government currently seeks the return of the painting. ‘Le Bassin aux Nymphease,’ also known as ‘Japanese Footbridge over the Water-Lily Pond at Giverny,’ is part of Monet’s famed ‘Water Lilies’ series. Her secretary was sentenced in 2014, and later that year three collections of her jewelry: the Malacanang collection, the Roumeliotes collection, and the Hawaii collection; along with paintings of Claude Monet were seized by the Philippine government.

Imelda’s lavish shoe collection including white Pierre Cardin heels now lie partly in the National Museum of the Philippines and partly in a shoe museum in Marikina. Typhoon Haiyan damaged her ancestral home in Tacloban, which also serves as a museum, although she still retains homes in Ilocos Norte and Makati, where she resides. Her net worth is assumed to be US$5 billion, making her the third richest Filipino after Henry Sy and Lucio Tan and the richest woman in the country.

In 1996, British musician Mark Knopfler wrote the song ‘Imelda,’ which was featured on his album ‘Golden Heart.’ She was the subject of the 2003 documentary film ‘Imelda’ by Ramona S. Diaz in which she was interviewed about her life as a First Lady. She returned to the fashion scene by making a public appearance in 2008 on ‘Project Runway Philippines.’ She previously tried a comeback in 2006 by designing jewelry dubbed the Imelda Collection. She celebrated her 80th birthday in 2009 with a lavish party in the grand ballroom of Hotel Sofitel in Manila. Her party was reminiscent of the extravagant gatherings she held as First Lady. Opera singers and a pianist performed on a stage adorned with her portrait. Marcos-era friends showed up, including Japanese socialite Ratna Sari Dewi Sukarno, a widow of the former President of Indonesia, Sukarno, who flew in from Japan just to attend the party.

In 2010, British producer Fatboy Slim and American musician David Byrne created a concept album called ‘Here Lies Love.’ It centers around the life of Imelda leading up to her family’s exile in Hawaii. The album features many guest singers including Cyndi Lauper, Florence Welch, Tori Amos, Sia, and Santigold, alternately playing the roles of Imelda and her servant, Estrella Cumpas, on each its tracks. In 2013, The Public Theater in New York presented a staged musical version of the album.

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