Oscar De Zalameda, Dahlin’, Is Gone
OSCAR DE ZALAMEDA, DAHLIN’, IS GONE
By Jojo G. Silvestre
The mention of Lucban town, in Quezon province, conjures up an image of color, gaiety and warm hospitality. What comes first to mind is the Pahiyas Festival, which wakes up an otherwise quiet town when people from all over the world come to witness four days of ritual and merry making, as the locals show off the best of their harvest of fruits and vegetables, and display in front of their houses kiping, or rice wafer shaped into chandeliers and huge flowers. The kiping ornaments become the center of attention as they catch the light of the sun and transform into a rainbow of colors. Indeed, a fabulous sight on a bright and happy day in May.
Nothing of such luminescence shone on the day townsmen and relatives buried Lucban’s most famous son, Oscar de Zalameda. Instead, large drops of rain pelted the roof of the parish church as a mass was being said for the repose of his soul. As his remains were brought to the cemetery, where the family mausoleum that he built for his parents awaited him, a dark and tumultuous sky wept, as though expressing not just sympathy, but that something was wrong or amiss. It was, after all, the final procession of the cosmopolitan artist who, upon his return from his highly successful European sojourn in the mid-1960s, impressed and wowed his countrymen and, in turn, was wined, dined and feted by the crème de la crème. This was the burial of an important man, the toast of society from the late 1960s all the way to the 1970’s, but where was everyone?
“Dahlin’” was how he called his celebrity and high society friends, all of whom lapped up his paintings. The Blue Ladies displayed a Zalameda in their living rooms alongside the Amorsolos and Manansalas. Rich businessmen gifted their wives and their most favored paramours with a Zalameda. And each time motors industrialist Ricardo Silverio visited Oscar and saw a dozen paintings in a corner of his atelier, he bought them all even before they could be exhibited. No wonder that on opening nights, almost all of Zalameda’s works were tagged “reserved,” much to the dismay of his well-heeled fans, including social climbers who knew that a painting of his in one’s living room was all that was needed to proclaim that the owner had arrived. They had all come to his exhibit openings, and even to the little parties for ten that he hosted in his pied-a-tier in Palm Village, invitations to which they had all sought. Not for this final farewell party. Most of them didn’t even know about it.
Still, the important ones in his life were there. His only living sister, Adoracion, was there, along with his nephews and nieces. Most importantly, present too were the children of a couple whose lives, it has been said, were intertwined with his. The loyal and the faithful came. As for the rest of his friends, and they were many, they would have gone, had they but known. But years earlier, they had lost touch, for he had distanced himself away from them. This, after an unfortunate incident that led to one of the most interesting and most talked about legal cases in the country. To some, it was funny, but to many who knew the protagonists, it was truly sad, for once upon a time, they were all friends, and they had all enjoyed the good times together, when most of them were young and at the height of their artistic careers.
Depending on who you are talking to, they called themselves the Mabini Group or the Adam’s Family. It was an exclusive group whose members were in the arts and lifestyle industry. While Ben Farrales, Casimiro Abad and Pedrito Legaspi, were busy dressing up the most beautiful women of Manila, Eddie del Rosario, provided the flowers the matrons needed for their vases and corsage, while the Swiss Ben Fah sold antiques from Europe. Danny Dolor, although an art enthusiast, was the odd man out being a banker and businessman. Joaquin Imperial and Edgar Ramirez designed and decorated the most beautiful homes in Forbes Park and houses in the other ritzy enclaves. Oscar supposedly asked them to decorate the home of a beloved friend, one to take care of the bedrooms, and the other, the living and dining room. Edgar it was who thought of designing a dining table with a mirror top, so that when a guest sipped his soup, he could see a Zalameda painting, the size of the whole table, smiling from the ceiling. Later, it would be copied by others and there’s no telling which gentleman in which enclave of the rich was Zalameda’s beloved.
It has been said that Zalameda was a faithful lover. To the end, so to speak. But if he was not so much lucky in keeping his fortunes intact, as whispers would say, he was lucky to have had someone who, with the family that this man eventually raised, was loyal to him. If the greatness of a man is to be measured by his gratitude to someone who had loved him, truly this beloved one stands tall and singular among those who, faced with the same circumstances, would have hidden and shrunk in shame. Some men, it must be said, are more men than others. Secure in themselves and with their manhood, they keep their cool in the midst of cheap talk. This one, I am told, shrugs off insinuations, for who can tell the truth? That this legend and icon of a man is the reason over which two celebrities, one being Oscar, would fight a duel of butter knives, or whatever they used, no longer matters. So many stories have been said of this episode in Oscar’s life that one who did not see it happen can get confused with all kinds of versions. One version says a presidential daughter stopped them. Another says she said, “don’t’ stop them, don’t stop them.”
Many believe it was Oscar who started it. It is after all, a jealous lover who starts a fight. “And knowing Oscar, who loved to drink, it was not surprising that he should challenge the other, and even be the first to attack,” says one friend, who would rather not be named. “For sure, it was not a premeditated murder, as the plaintiff was supposed to have claimed.”
The same friend, tells us why all these happened. “Ours had been a happy group. Our leader was Joaquin Imperial, whose shop we frequented because he loved to host dinners. He had a good cook, who took instructions from Joaquin. Joaquin was the kind who would call us anytime and say, ‘I’d feel bad if you didn’t come for the pochero.’ Other times, we would go to China town, to eat in a restaurant called Seekee. We watched movies and went up to Baguio together. Today we would be watching a fashion show at the Top of the Hilton, and the next, we were off flying to Hongkong, because the couturiers and interior decorators among us needed to buy something for their clients. Naturally, some of us brought our partners. Hongkong was near, and it didn’t cost much to travel then. Some of us went to New York together, and we hang around Greenwich Village.”
It was a snob group that had its regulars and some who would come occasionally, especially because some had more time than the others. Ramon Valera came now and then. So did Techie Bilbao, along with her husband, Mike. Pitoy Moreno was another on an off guest. And Nomer Pabilona, who occasionally came, if he was not styling the hair of the First Lady of the Philippines and her friends. They shared stories, and when they joked, they joked hard.
Once, an antique dealer, who was a partner of another regular of the group, told Oscar that a famous designer invited Oscar’s beloved to become his model, and that the beloved had agreed to go to the designer’s atelier so his clothes could be measured. Whether it was a joke or not, no one could tell, but that gave Oscar some serious food for thought. And since Eddie kept teasing him about it, Oscar all the more became suspicious and very very mad.
The rest is high society history. The Oscar de Zalameda that the group once knew and broke bread with gradually retreated. A friend observes, though, “it was not just the end of our happy times together. It was also the start of his slow death, for after that, he was not his usual, happy, self anymore.”
“We were all affected,” recalls Nomer. He and Oscar, once upon a time starting from the 1970s, were very close to each other. While Nomer’s shop was along Polaris in Bell air, Oscar lived along Makati Avenue, when it was somehow still a genteel part of the town, with a few establishments here and there, and none of the seedy night life. “He would walk to my shop,” says Nomer, “and we would talk and talk and talk. Other times, I was the one who went to him and I would see him paint. He also loved to go out of town, preferably to beaches where no one recognized him, because he was ashamed of his “chicken” legs, so we would go as far as La Union. One time he was bitten by a leech (linta) and his face swelled. I was so nervous that I didn’t know what to do. It’s good that a fisherman in his boat passed by, and seeing what happened to Nomer, he suggested that we apply plain vinegar. So, that was the cure, and we were both laughing because the only vinegar available was the potent Ilocano vinegar, which was probably why he healed faster.”
Such was their relationship that Oscar simply let his hair down in Nomer’s presence. “Gone was the Parisian accent, as he spoke to me in the old Quezon province Tagalog intonation that he grew up with. And when no one was around, or when he was with us, just his close friends, he did not mince his words. When there was reason to be mad, he would say the Tagalog ‘four letter word’ which starts with P. But who cared, we were real, and he was one real person.”
“Of course, in the company of socialites who adored his works and laughed at his jokes, he was a totally different person,” says a banker-educator-hotelier friend who also collected his works. “And he had a way of walking, posing and moving. He had a peculiar way of turning, so he could project his best angle.”
What they loved about him, of course, was the way he said, “Dahlin” and because he loved to drink more than eat in parties, his favorite line was, “I need a slug of gin,” which could be scotch, but most often, champagne. Another predictable statement of his was “I just arrived” which could mean anything. “When he said that, we, his close friends would laugh, for we knew, he simply meant arriving from his apartment or Lucban. But most of his rich friends always thought that when he said that, he meant Beirut or Paris or one of those capitals, and he would just leave it at that.”
“He could actually bluff his way, when he said those things, and only he could run away with it, because that was plausible with his international jet set accent in a husky, bedroom voice, and his expensive outfits including Brioni suits from Italy.”
But it was all for fun, and we knew it and when no one was around ,we would all laugh,” says another friend who, again, refused to be identified. When someone in the press shortened his middle family name, Deveza, to De, he intentionally did not ask that it be corrected. “It fit him to be called De Zalameda because he behaved like an aristocrat in public,” said the same friend.
For a number of years, Oscar lived in the Intercontinental Hotel because he had “an ex-deal with the management.” Plastered all over the hotel were his paintings, entitling him not only to a suite but food that he ordered from the hotel’s restaurants. “More often, we invited him not only because it was an honor to be around him. He was fun, and his presence was refreshing and never boring,” says a socialite whose portrait he did.
Among his socialite chums were Zita Feliciano, Offie Recto, Ruby Neri, Criselda, Fe Dolor Serrano, Nena del Rosario, Maritess Lopez, Elvira Manahan and Luz Puyat Martel. He and the late Luz hit it off, so that, according to Nomer, a night with them meant “non-stop laughter.”
But he could be sad, too, “for he had his melancholy moments,” says Nomer. “I would tell him, ‘ayan, weeping willow ka na naman.’ I knew it because when these moods came, he painted in grey. He could be very sensitive. And when he was mad, which we termed ‘red light’, he was really mad.”
Somewhere along his long years of friendship with Nomer, Oscar got himself a place in Palm Village, which is not far from Rockwell. “I would visit him there, and I would tease him about his maintaining a cook when all he loved to eat was fried galunggong. But, of course, he ate with excellent silver and china, so it was all in style.”
When Oscar finally kept to himself and refused to see his old Mabini friends, he developed a new set of friends, many of them diplomats, or he renewed ties with those who had nothing to do with the scandal that made him retreat to an inner world. This was a more subdued Oscar, no longer flamboyant, but still elegant and sophisticated.
One of them was Bing Nieva Carrion, former Sales Director of the Manila Pen who later became the first woman Assistant Vice President of Coca Cola Bottlers Philippines. A no-nonsense woman who eventually reinvented herself as a prolific coffee table book creator, publisher and author, Bing first met Oscar when he used to frequent the Manila Pen Lobby. This was in the mid 1970s. She recalls that sometime in 1987, Joann Walter, wife of Coca Cola Bottlers President John K. Walter, wanted to buy a Zalameda painting “having seen his work in somebody’s house, and she fell in love with the splash of colors.”
Bing brought Joann to Oscar and she bought two of his paintings which Bing, in a South American sojourn, would later see prominently displayed in the Walters’ living in Chile where her husband John was assigned. “Oscar was delighted, and much later as we became closer, he gave me a painting of a woman with large pink flowers strewn in front of her. To me, it was his way of showing his deep appreciation for our friendship. Since the painting symbolized our friendship, it has always been hanging in pride of place in my office where I can see it every day, reminding me of the giver and his artistic talent.”
Over the years, Bing and Oscar did not see each other. Most likely, that was when he withdrew from society and refrained from visiting the usual places where the rich and famous converged. Years later, when Bing had left Coca Cola Bottlers, and was busy with her Seagull Philippines publishing house, she and Oscar bumped into each other at the premiere lounge of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank where, it turned out, they both did their banking business. As though there was not a long gap of years since they last saw each other, they rekindled their friendship.
“He immediately invited me to dinner the same week,” she recalls. We met at the lobby of the Peninsula Manila, and with my son Aris, we had dinner at L’Incontro, his favorite Italian restaurant located along Nicanor Garcia in Makati. He left his car at the Pen underground parking area where he said, he paid a monthly fee even if he lived in Rockwell. We would all ride in my car.”
Over pasta and red wine, he urged Bing to write his story and produce a big coffee table book which would contain all his life’s works. A few dinners followed and she asked him to list down the collectors who bought his paintings so that Bing and Oscar could call them and take photos of the art works. She recalls being introduced to a Chinese art patroness who he was convincing to finance the printing cost. In time, though, the would-be bankroller disappeared from the scene, most likely having migrated abroad. Bing and Oscar’s dinners became less frequent until, again, he disappeared from her life. She now remembers him to be a “gentleman of the old world, always fun and properly dressed. He would ask me, Dahlin’ Bing, where are we dining tonight?’”
Today, Bing treasures a silver cookie jar given to her by Oscar one Christmas. She always fills it up and shares it with whoever comes to visit and relax in her Poggenpohl kitchen. The next Christmas, he gave her two giant throw pillows, one orange and the other purple, which now sit on Aris’ grandfather’s chair .
Art patron Danny Dolor, Zalameda’s friend and collector, takes pride in a painting, that the artist gave him, for it includes a dedication, written in long hand, that says: “A Danny, Avec tautes mes sinceres amitres. Oscar” with the date 8/20/68. The work was part of the artist’s sailboats series. At home in Forbes, Dolor has 8 Zalamedas that include “Heat of the Night” depicting a couple making love, Mango “Vendors”, and the Long Wait, showing a naked man and a woman taking a rest from their nocturnal activity.
It is said of Oscar that he was a generous man. He is known to have helped in the education of his relatives. His townsmen came too, to seek his help. He did not refuse them. He was a caring townsman and relative and if they saw his occasional moods or histrionics, expressive as he was, they alluded it to his artistry.
When he suffered from a cerebral stroke that rendered half of his body , and his doctor in Manila advised that he be brought home to the province, his kin took care of him. His maternal nephew, Noel Deveza, became his companion at home. It was out of affection that they cared for him. Back in Lucban, he was considered a treasure. In his heydays, he brought friends from Manila for the Pahiyas Festival. They all stayed in the beautiful house that he built.
But these friends, the celebrities, the socialites and his collectors were not there. It’s probably better that way. For as the news of his demise went around, the friends from whose company he retreated at the height of the scandal that rocked Manila’s polite, but sometimes bitchy society, could only say good words about him. He was, after all, a true friend to them.
They remember that he had come home in the 1960s, after having exhibited in Beirut, Rome, Mexico, Paris, San Francisco, Beverly Hills and New York. His works, moreover, are in the collections of the Guggenheim Foundation, Count of Bourbon-Parma, , Baron Alix de Rothschild, Prince Carol de Hohenzollerns, Galerie Jeanne Bucher, among others. They recall that he received such prestigious awards like the Prix de les Critiques I Paris, the Premio Internationale dela Pesca in Italy, the Priz die Lusel in Hamburg, the Art League of California Award in San Francisco, among others. Of course, back home, just recently, he received the Presidential Medal of Merit from then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The collectors, moreover, are taking a second and third look at their Zalamedas, and are trying to determine the difference between the artist’s original works and the similar works of a certain Oscar Salita, who, a collector says, “copied Zalameda but never equaled him.” It is said that Salita was hated and despised by Zalameda, next only to you-know-who. One collector couldn’t help sharing that after she hang a Zalameda painting of a couple making love, she would stare at it when she and husband are on the verge of doing the same act, “and I would enjoy it more.”
On the other hand, tongues have begun to wag again. But who cares when, daaahlin’, Zalameda is up there, and those who might be affected by rumors don’t care at all. He loved them and they loved him. In the end it is all that matters. And if the collectors get richer because the value of their Zalamedas has risen, that is their awesome luck. Some people invest in ternos that end up in bauls. Others invest in Zalameda paintings that end up beautifully on one’s wall. While Zalameda, as Bing puts is,” is now painting the lovely colorful flowers of heaven against the backdrop of the blues skies.”
“Oscar de Zalameda is gone from this earth. But only physically. He shall live in our hearts and minds forever because he has touched and inspired us with his colorful art works that speak volumes of the unique quality of the artist and the man that he was,” Bing says it for everyone.