Social climbing by reading Harold Robbins, Kerima Polotan and F. Sionil Jose
People refuse to admit they are social climbers when they really are. I, for one, would not admit I am even if I keep saying I am. My reason? I am more of a high society enthusiast, someone who does not intend to literally mix with the upper echelons, but more of a couch potato kind of climber, if you will. I lap up everything about high society, even when I don’t intend to be in it. To be explicit, I read about high society, I research on the Internet about high society, and when I sit or stand close to one who is of it or in it, I lend both of my ears and after hearing all that has been said of society, I rush home where I fall into a stupor and transform myself into a clone of Lulu Tinio or her daughter Lisa.
Unless, of course, I win the lotto, in which case the first thing I would do is to seek membership in the FCCP, which, as they say, is the ultimate vehicle to making it to the annual ball of Mellie Ablaza. Mellie, everyone agrees, is the nicest lady in town and if she invites you to her parties, it’s because she wants you to enjoy them. If she does not invite you, ergo, she does not want you to enjoy them. And that’s probably why some people don’t like her. They are not invited to her parties and therefore, she (and not they) does not belong to the rarefied circles of our society.
Funny that members of the Old Guard don’t mind at all that she hosts these fabulous parties which, she insisted to me once, I should never compare with those given by the hostess with the mostest, the late Conchita Sunico. How could I when those parties were held in the 1960s or earlier? But, on second thought, I knew about them because, well, I read about them in the society pages so I knew about the admirals who came and her co-hosts like Don Luis Araneta and the late Peggy Lim and the rest of the late gang, Chona Kasten, Chito Madrigal Collantes and Mary Prieto, the last two, you won’t believe (I am sure you will believe), I met because I made sure to meet them. So, am I a social climber?
To go back to Mellie, I am lying. I have actually received invitations from her. Once for the Tiara Ball and the other for the Mellie in Wonderland Ball and I did not attend both because, as I was saying, I am not a social climber (boo-hoo-hoo). Truth is, I didn’t have a respectable tiara to put on my head, and much as I implored her son Junjun to dress me up as one of the animal characters, he wouldn’t. I was and I still am too big to be a rabbit. Actually, I asked him to dress me up as a Playboy bunny and he said no such animalistic creature existed in Alice’s Wonderland.
But I’ll tell you what, I bagged something else from Junjun and his siblings. They authorized me to write a book about their mother and it’s coming out anytime soon, and I must tell you, if you want to be in the know, it is this book that will tell you all — tell you all about her, and tell you how she came into her enviable position today. Or unenviable, depending on how and what you think of her. Clue: she is not who you think she is, for Mellie, it turns out, has been donning all these costumes since she was a little girl. No wonder she is sweet, and we all agree she is, as life has been very, very kind to her. She didn’t go to a finishing school like the other Pangasinense Marietta Primicias Goco, who didn’t like every moment of her stay in Europe because she knew then that her brains were made for something more than learning how not to dip her fingers into the finger bowl, but Mellie, instead, went to the University of the Philippines where she took up law and had for classmates people like Reynato Puno, and television network owner Felipe Gozon who was, in an earlier time, the classmate of my NFF (for Newfound Friend) George Sison. And that’s as far as I will tell you.
I am co-authoring the Mellie Ablaza book with Boysie Villavicencio who made sure to add the Arneow flavor to my original Echague Central School style of writing. And with Chit Lijauco editing, expect some Maryknoller rewriting so I am sure to come out of this one, come launch time, as refined as any colegiala can get.
The A to Z of social everest
And to go back to the subject of read-ing materials, I am putting together a list of books — books that one must read if one wants to social climb with both gusto and vengeance because a) they tell of the lives of the rich and the wellborn, and one can always imitate them; and b) among their major characters are social climbers from whom one can always learn a trick or two.
Aristotle Onassis once said that if you want to be rich, live with the rich. Cyber Proust (that’s me, in case you forgot) says, if you want to become one of Manila’s 400 but haven’t been invited to the Tatler Ball, which is only the first station in your climb to the Social Everest, you can always read the society pages and when you go home to Echague, Isabela, where I come from, you can always drop the names of the people you “met” through Pepper Teehankee, Maurice Arcache, and oh, yes, Johnny Litton. There are other equally informative, entertaining and truly “it” society columnists but they are not kapamilya even if they are kapuso, so I am not mentioning their names. But here, there and everywhere, you find someone like Becky Garcia who, I must assure you, was not named after Becky Sharp.
Anyway, NFF George once gave his OTP Becky (as in old-time pal) a copy of a list written by Tarossa Subido, not of books but of family names of those of high society. Lest I be accused of playing favorites, I have decided to enumerate them from A to Z, all of whom NFF George concurs to be part of the original Manila’s 400. The roll call, rest assured will be fast: Abad Santos, Aguinaldo (the General’s family), Aguinaldo (the businessman), De las Alas, Albert, Aquino, Araneta, Benitez, Buencamino, Cojuangco, Feria, Fernandez, Fortich, Gabaldon, Gonzalez, Guerrero, Hontiveros, Jacinto (of steel and banking), Kalaw, Katigbak, Lacson, Laurel, Ledesma, Legarda, de Leon, Lichauco, Lopez, Lovina, Madrigal, Magalona, Marquez, Montelibano, Moreno, Nakpil, Osmena, Padilla (of Rizal), Pardo, Paterno, Prieto, Puyat, Quezon, Quirino, Recto, Roces, Rodriguez (of Rizal), Romualdez, Romulo, del Rosario, Roxas, Rufino, De los Santos, Sevilla, Singson-Encarnacion, Sison (of Pangasinan), Sunico, Syquia, Tuason, Valdez, Ysmael, and Yulo.
A challenge to social climbers
So, here’s the challenge to social climbers. How can you connect all these names, just like what you do when you connect the dots in the children’s game, and come out with an idea of how the 400 are related to one another, whether by consanguinity, affinity or coincidence? You can begin with any family name because that’s where the challenge lies. To pick the right name after the other to be able to connect all 60 names without, to rephrase someone else’s favorite line, your eye lashes falling off your eyes.
For example, Chingbee Kalaw is the niece of Maria Kalaw who was Carnival Queen years before the reign of Conchita Sunico, the sister of Meding Rufino, whose daughter Marixi married Alex Prieto, and both produced Sandy, who married Philip Romualdez, whose great grandfather XXX was a brother of the grandfather of George Sison who was a friend of Ninoy Aquino who married Cory Cojuangco who was a friend of Mercy Tuason and so forth.
If you go as far as 20, you get a rating of 33 percent, which hardly makes you a certified social climber. You have to be able to connect 10 names to be on first name-calling basis with the woman who insinuates herself in every photograph; at least 20 names to join the ranks of the left to right brigade; 30 to even be considered a candidate for an honorary consulship; 40 to get a nod from Irene Martel Francisco, just make sure you contribute to her magazine’s favorite charities; 50 for Rustan’s friendly sales people to smile at you; and 60 to make beso beso with Bea Zobel, and please don’t call her Doña because she deplores the title. And we’re talking of just one beso, so make that right cheek, please.
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According to NFF George, though, the list has gone up to 4,000, proving all along that Malthus was right about exponential growth. And here I am jostling for the 4,101st position. I should probably go home to Echague and be with my fellow Yogads, the ethno cultural group they used to love to label as lost but which isn’t really so, for if it were lost, how could Tingting Cojuangco have easily got wind of its existence when she was doing her master’s thesis in the Pontifical University? Besides, if it were so very lost, why should Petrona Lim be in Forbes Park, dancing with her set, and building homes for retired priests? I should probably call her Tita Pet, but I’m not sure she will allow me. Did you know that a branch of the Montinola family belong to the Yogads of Echague, too? The horsy Clarissa Coscolluela, of course, descends from a grand lady of my hometown, Paquita Zarate Oledan, whose son Pepe was a favorite dancing partner of someone my NFF George holds dear in his heart now. How very dear, I cannot tell, although the erstwhile Conde de Makati insists, he never, never, never (that’s three times said by me, not him) really hated the Marcoses, only the many ills attributed to the Marcos administration. Talk about reconciliation! And when the Conde, in their reconciliation dance asked You Know Who how she felt “about all your cronies and friends who betrayed you,” she replied, “I made all of them rich,” and after a long pause, added, “I have forgiven them all.” (By the way, George’s other partner in his pre-martial law Select talent agency was Pepito and not Ramyl Rodriguez. My mistake!)
Pitoy Moreno’s books on manila’s well heeled women
And while we’re at it, I should probably make another correction, because someone very close to Pitoy Moreno, and that’s his sister Virgie, says that when he was supposed to have gotten into a fight with Dahlin Oscar Zalameda, it wasn’t Pitoy whom the late painter was aiming at and instead — this is stale news — it was at a man called Teyet. The good or bad news is Pitoy didn’t even remember who Dahlin Oscar was when told of the latter’s demise.
But that’s Pitoy. Sometimes he remembers, and sometimes, or maybe all the time, he forgets. I am told that Pitoy used to remark to friends, “Sino yan?” when referring to some people he did not exactly not know. If you bump into him and greet him, don’t wonder at all if he asks who you are. But if you must social climb, you should read Pitoy’s two outstanding books, The Kasalan and The Philippine Costume. While scholarly, with Marian Pastor Roces doing the research, the books contain pictures that should make any one like me drool. For they show, in the first book, the weddings of the year since the American Occupation and not because I am interested in the grooms; and, as for the second book, they show very interesting photos of Manila’s well-heeled women in their Filipiniana finery, some of them dancing the rigodon in Malacañang.
Malacañang is, of course, the seat of power and it being so, the center of social life in the capital, not unlike Washington DC, but why compare our ever loyal and beloved city with the capital of the land of milk and honey? While that’s another story, it certainly brings us closer to our purpose. For right beside me is a side table where I put, one on top of the other, books that I brought with me from my library-cum-home in Cavite, the erstwhile land of the Tulisans, now a contiguous project site in the manner of the early Quezon City of the Tuasons, I am tempted to call it Project 9.
Among the book titles is Tide of Time authored by Marisse Reyes, presidential cousin, her mother Josephine being the sister of her Auntie Cory, P-Noy’s mom. This came out in the mid-1990s and if Marisse danced her way through every page of the way to 30 or last dot, it does not show here, for it is such a well-researched opus that traces the roots of the Cojuangco family. She probably danced because it is a very graceful book, don’t ask me what I mean. Just read it. Somewhere towards the end, one reads of the family struggle during the Martial Law years when its favourite son-in-law was incarcerated. Not that Esting Teopaco was not a favorite. On the overall, it’s a book that every social climber should read, not only because you get to read about Rapa Lopa’s forebears, the very good-looking Rapa being such a big name to drop today, but also because, if you were to invent your roots, this book allows you a glimpse into how many prominent families grew in stature before World War II and even before the Philippine Revolution, lost their fortunes and bearings during the Japanese Occupation, and after 1945, successfully recouped everything they lost. And if you doubt where the Cojuangco money comes from, read this one, and no, I am not usurping the scholarly lady who writes about her husband’s family. Sugar, turned into wine, is the secret of the family fortune. The GIs didn’t seem to mind it tasted cheap.
So, let me first share with you how I ever came to know of such first names as Meldy, Prissy, Elvira and Celine. By Celine, I, of course, mean Celine Herras, lest you mistake it for a younger woman who is getting married soon, or so I’ve heard, but that’s not news anymore. Celine is a Lacson, as in Mari Lacson, our man in Paris decades ago when Virgie was in Paris, too. Remember? But I am not linking the two except that Mari modeled for Virgie’s brother. One of my late Mom’s best friends, by the way, was Bebet Lacson, who continues to outlive her cousins Rene and Nelly.
It is oh so getting roundabout when all I’m trying to say is at age nine, I turned the pages of the daily that my family subscribed to, and when I reached what I was later to know as the society page, I was impressed with what I saw – women in their muumuus, with their hair coiffed, all standing from left to right, I mean not the hair but the women, many of them with their arms entwined into each others’, as though activists in a barricade ready to face the Metrocom and the water cannons, except that they’re all relaxed, and in the prevailing fashion of the time, looking away from the camera and smiling at an imaginary apparition, if that’s not being redundant.
In the years after Ninoy was killed, I saw in the magazines the very same faces that I first saw in the society pages. They were wives of congressmen, one of them on the best-dressed list, so thin, so elegant and so brave. Others were, of course, on the other side of the barbed wire. To put it figuratively, that is. For in the days that ensued, they were not even in Malacañang. They had all retreated back to their homes, and the only ones left were the seven dwarves (remember?) and the others who were, well, the nouveau blue, and one, who wasn’t really nouveau, but who had come back from her New York exile. And, of course, there was Josie Vergel de Dios, who stuck it out with the couple.
I was most likely 10 years old then, and in grade four when I discovered the society page. In third year high school, I began my romance with Amelita Reysio Cruz’s “Merry-Go-Round” column. And with it, my addiction to “Social Climbing with the Conde de Makati.” Better than any upper! While my classmates chattered during break time, I was all alone and quiet intently reading the latest on Lucy Laperal, Viring Ongkeko, Zita Feliciano, Loleng Panlilio, Puring Aquino and her Mariposa mansion filled with antiques, Dely Castillejo and her daughter, the winsome Rose Teodoro who, bless her soul, lost some and how.
Kerima Polotan on the rich, spoiled society girl
Ferdinand Marcos may have succeeded in closing down the papers and there-fore, the society pages, which were banned in their original form, but there was no way the dictator could stop my imaginings that I was a society girl. For I soon discovered Kerima Polotan and her anthologies. First was The Author’s Choice in which I lapped up essays like “The Man with a French Wife,” in which she describes the matron “who attends French language classes and describes her pretty dress as madly-delicious, haunts art galleries and antique shops and comes home with tons of expensive garbage, and lies flat on her back on the bed, jacks up her hips and pumps an imaginary bicycle upside down.” In my young mind, this was the ultimate sophisticated woman, my idea of the rich, spoiled society girl. Of course, I enjoyed another essay, “The Woman of Fashion,” which details the wondrous efforts of Conchitina Sevilla and Marilou Mabilangan in creating the ultimate woman in their Karilagan Finishing School where they taught social graces and modeling. Allow me to quote Kerima who quotes Marilou: “The proper kind of modeling where the model glides, not walks, on a bed of roses without crushing a single petal…” Imagine me the next few days of my life doing my version of the glide when no one was looking. I was, by the way, a fat teenager.
In her other book, Adventures in a Forgotten Country, she shared the comic misadventures that she went through as she joined Ma’am in Iran where the Bash of the Century was held. It was a parody of the Iranians’ mishandling of the arrangements, especially for the press, from the chaotic airport scene to delayed flights to wrong room assignments. I overlooked all those and instead enjoyed the parts where the beautiful Imelda Marcos met Cristina Ford and so on. Not long after, the Women’s Magazine serialized Love Story by Erich Segal, which I read from week to week and learned about Harvard, Radcliffe and the Old Guard. Simultaneously serialized was a collection of stories about American upper-class institutions and the Rockefellers, Du Ponts, Fords and the Vanderbilts. I dreamt of becoming Gloria Vanderbilt, happy at last, from night to night. I had imaginary friends too, among them Charlotte and Anne Ford and Happy Rockefeller. What a summer!
My vicarious social climbing journey went on to its next phase when I discovered The Rothschilds: A Family Portrait by Frederic Morton, a pocket book that was waiting to be bought in a magazine rack that stood near the entrance of the Jeepney coffee shop. It was time to meet the nobility. This was the year I wasted one school year of college in Manila. For instead of attending classes, I went to the National Library where I read all the back issues of all dailies. Not the front pages but… need I tell you? At the Thomas Jefferson Library, I read A Separate Peace by John Knowles, all in one afternoon, and cried and cried for the preppies who went to war. Young as I was, I liked the book, not knowing why, but it surely touched the status seeker in me. It is after all a must read for those who would understand the prep school tradition.
Harold Robbins on the jetsetters
Then came Harold Robbins, the man who invented haute sex. My bible, when it came to the jet setters, was The Adventurers by Harold, and soon, my mom (who read detective, war, history, and romance stories and biographies of the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Errol Flynn) and I were reading every book of his, from The Betsy which was said to be about Henry Ford to The Stiletto and to The Pirates which was about the Oil Gulf Sheiks and the Middle Eastern potentates. Then came Sydney Sheldon with his The Other Side of Midnight and his other salacious novels, so simply written I thought I could be a billionaire overnight just imitating what the protagonists did. My education on the good life, of course, included Jacqueline Susan’s Valley of the Dolls and The Love Machine, add to these several years later Scruples and Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz. My mom had a copy of The Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Ford and my Auntie Sita had her book about the Sekloong Dynasty of Hong Kong by Robert Taylor. They were fun to read and I thought they were the ultimate literature, so when I went to Silliman as a National Fellow of its National Summer Writing Work Shop, and the other attendees were talking about the literary greats, I couldn’t say a thing. I was there as a fellow for the poetry that I submitted, and all I knew of the craft was Rolando Carbonell and his Beyond Forgetting. Of course I knew the tree that I shall never see, the captain who was, oh, my captain and this, my favorite… “Music I heard with you was more than music, bread I broke with you was more than bread, now that I’m without you, all is desolate, all that was once so beautiful is dead.” I don’t remember the poet.
When, after graduation from the Isabela State University, where I learned how to plant rice, caponize a chicken, and graft floral plants, I went to the University of the Philippines to try to read anthropology, I ended up dreaming of a thesis on the Upper Class Filipina and even if I hadn’t even prepared a proposal, I painted the town society red, or probably black as in the black dress that was very “in” then, and interviewed so many beautiful, rich and glamorous women, among them Mary Prieto, Ching Montinola who was then the basura queen, Josie Vergel de Dios who was the president of the Sparklers Club that she founded, Chito Madrigal-Collantes who gave me the “extra job” of classifying the books in her very impressive library (It had everything I wanted to read), and yes, Conchita Sunico, whose heart broke each time Vilma Santos taped her television show in the Manila Metropolitan Theater. The only one who wasn’t glamorous was the simply beautiful Tita Mila Magsaysay whom I met because of Tita Baby for whom I worked for a year when Rachel was still in college. Of course, I interviewed Tingting who asked me to help her with her many researches from Muslim culture, to MILF history, and from Kapampangan folklore to national defense issues. I preferred to chaperone Mai Mai and China, though, and that’s how I met constant visitors like JM and Cari Lagdameo and their sister Reena who all remain to be my friends, even if we get in touch by FB only. I had finally arrived, ha, ha, ha.
The best part about having Tingting for my boss, aside from my accompanying her to Mindanao and she leaving me for two months of field work on an islet called Taluksangay where I lost my virginity every night, was raiding her refrigerators and pantry when no one was looking, and that made daughter Pin very, very mad because she was in charge of those things even when she was already married to golfer, sounds buff and photographer Jojo Tuason Guingona who was so good-looking.
Stephen Birmingham on america’s hidden aristocracy
Anyway, because of my imaginary thesis and the papers that I was supposed to do, I read E. Digby Baltzell’s The Philadelphia Gentlemen, Cleveland Amory’s The Proper Bostonians, and so on. A friend in the dorm who now works as an expat newspaperman in China gave me my copy of America’s Hidden Aristocracy by Stephen Birmingham and I was never the same again. The next 10 years or so, I went to Recto, all the stores that sold used books and, of course, the reputable National Book Store and looked for all the Birmingham books. Then came Dominick Dunne with his Two Mrs. Grenvilles and my favorite of all these, People Like Us, which I bring with me everywhere I go, its characters having become my family, including Lil Althemus, the matriarch, her brother philanthropist Laurance Van Degan, her daughter Justine, and the social climbing Ruby Renthal who was so elegant one wouldn’t know she used to eat artichoke with a knife and fork. Birmingham and Dunne write differently but they succeed in showing the nuances of the upper class way of life.
So, before I go to sleep, I read the book that I feel like reading, because I’m that kind of a reader. And I read several books at the same time. Well, not really at the same time. Not even Jose Rizal was capable of doing that. Neither Manuel L Quezon III nor Teddy Boy Locsin. I am pinning my higher hopes on Bianca Locsin and Teddy Kalaw IV. As I come to think of it now, the Philippine STAR Lifestyle Journalism Awards have put me in the same league as these two, and it seems I’m getting closer to fulfilling my social aspirations day after day. I wonder when Vivian Yuchengco and Trina Yujuico Kalaw will finally invite me to lunch, though I shared the table with the latter during the awards luncheon, and as she saw me opening my lips and saying nothing, she said, don’t memorize your speech or you will forget it. And that’s exactly what happened. The effect of these women on me can be so disastrous, I end up a nervous wreck, for truly, they are the epitome of who I really want to be – a true blue society girl, if the term is even used today. Can I still be an “It” girl at 53?
F. Sionil Jose on three filipino women
So, what else is on my side table that I read now and then? The $20,000,000 Honeymoon: Jackie and Ari’s First Year by Fred Sparks; Answered Prayers by Truman Capote, especially the chapter on La Cote Basque; 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building by Michael Gross; The Rich, The Wellborn And the Powerful – Elites and Upper Classes in History edited by Frederick Cople Jaher; Audrey Style by Pamela Clark Keogh; Jackie – Her Life in Pictures by James Spada; and Fabulous by Rupert Jacinto which I open each night and look at the women I want to be and all the women I will never, ever want to be. To be fair, there are more of them worth liking.
Reading can be fun. I learn from the characters and I live their lives. Finally, the book that I love the most to keep going back to, because it’s well written, and because its characters seem so familiar I could rattle off names whose memoirs will probably read almost the same, is Three Filipino Women, three novellas all in one book, by Frank Sionil Jose. I am attracted to the pretty and brainy barrio lass who becomes a senator because of the many patrons who make her dreams come true. She slept with some of them, of course. In the second novella, a prostitute becomes the paramour of a dictator of a neighboring country and gets rewarded with a house in Forbes Park. And the third is about a young activist who lives in a tony Makati village. I read all three novellas and I tell myself each of these women lives in me, and I in them.
For that’s what social climbing by reading is all about.