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THE FLAIR, the lan, the presenceChito Madrigal in her dowager years



Eulogy to glamour, and the grit behind it

By Bambi Harper
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:11:00 03/30/2008

Filed Under: People, Lifestyle & Leisure

MANILA, Philippines - I must have been in the sixth grade, or maybe first year high, when I chanced upon a black-and-white photograph of two sisters, Ising and Chito Madrigal, in black and white Valera gowns with the caption ?Sinner or Saint??

Of course, Chito was the girl in black. It seemed to me so daring then, so sophisticated, although I wasn?t familiar with the word yet. I thought, ?That?s the way I?d like to look.?

Many years later at a New Year?s party at Don Antonio Rocha?s residence, I wore a gown of 40 yards of black tulle with tiny spaghetti straps and billowing layers of tulle for the long skirt. By then I had forgotten about the photo, although obviously it had remained in my subconscious.

Consuelo Madrigal belonged to that special group of men and women whose sense of magic and mystery a young girl could only gaze at in awe. They had glamour, the lot of them: Nelly Lovina, Aurora Recto, Chona Kasten, Mary Prieto, Elvira Manahan, Nelly Lacson Gonzalez.

They had that indefinable aura that made heads turn when they walked into a room?a certain verve, an air of assurance, of entitlement. They were so self-assured of what they were, who they were. If ever they felt sad or lonely or depressed, the photographs that stared at you from the society pages didn?t show it. They looked perfectly lovely every time.

Of course it was an illusion, but that is the whole point of glamour.

Naturally, they were all?as some people so euphemistically like to say these days?de buena familia, convent-bred, well-traveled women of the world and very lovely.

Although, we hasten to add, being glamorous does not equate with being pretty. On the contrary, many pretty women are far from glamorous, in the same manner that many glamorous women are not necessarily pretty.

In that rarefied world, the men were just as glamorous and legendary: Enrique Zobel, Andy Soriano, Benny Toda, Charlie Palanca (these last two despite their height, or lack thereof, were apparently lady-killers), Johnny de Leon. The wide grins, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, elegant black tie?from their pictures alone you could almost hear the big bands of the period, like Bimbo Danao or Tirso Cruz swinging into Cole Porter?s ?Night and Day.?

It was a world where you almost believed nothing bad could happen, where there was no pain or heartbreak or old age or sickness. And death had no dominion.

Halcyon days

Consuelo Alejandra, as Chito Madrigal was baptized, was a child of privilege in those halcyon days before World War II. She grew up in a house in Paco, ?a huge, massive, imposing mansion,? as she recalled it in her 1997 coffee-table book, ?Picture Me.?

The house was surrounded by a garden whose heavy ornate wrought-iron grilles were eventually donated by her father, D. Antonio Madrigal, to the government. They now guard the entrance of Fort Santiago in Intramuros.

The mansion?s grounds were once the campus of De La Salle College. ?It was a world... isolated and sufficient unto itself, with playgrounds and courts and gardeners and drivers and personnel and friends...?

It was this world that gave Chito the strength and courage to overcome personal tragedies: failed relationships, deaths of dear ones and even a bout with cancer that would prevent her from ever having children of her own.

Aside from regular classes at the Assumption Convent in Herran, the Madrigal children were provided with ?a small army of tutors? for painting, singing, piano, solfeggio, horseback riding, tennis and harp-playing. It was expected in those bygone days that well-brought up young ladies would likewise be accomplished in the arts.

In 1940, four of the seven Madrigal children left for the United States. Chito was to finish her college studies at Rosemont in Pennsylvania and earn a law degree from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. It was one of her regrets that she was never able to practice law, even if she passed the American Bar and even worked briefly for the Department of the Interior.

It was upon her return to a devastated Philippines in 1946 that Chito blossomed into a leading civic and society figure, raising funds for various causes such as the Red Cross and the Cancer Society. She also established Friends of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where she had served as honorary chairperson for the past several years.

It wasn?t surprising that she was always considered one of Manila?s best-dressed women?without having to pay for the honor. She was proudest, though, of her conferment of the Order of St. Sylvester, the highest honor for a lay person given by the Church.

Curtailed social life

With time, as Chito herself said, her social life was curtailed by choice, not least by the fact that Society as she knew it from the 1950?s to the 1980?s was dead.

There was the rise of new classes, and with them a change in values, almost as if a revolution had happened. She felt like a ?member of an ancient regime that has been banished or decapitated.?

She said she ?missed the manners of the old times, the sense of well-being and sure-footed security that growing up in a nice home, in a proper family atmosphere? could bring. She regretted the ostentation she observed, the ?pushiness? that today goes with being ?in society.?

Now that she, too, has gone to join Chona and Elvira and Nelly and all the glamour girls in that grand ballroom in the sky, let us bid Chito farewell, aufwiedersen, au revoir, hasta pronto.

We?ll miss the flair, the lan, the presence. Yes, they don?t make them like they used to.

The author is a writer on Filipiniana and is now the head of the Intramuros Administration.

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