The tour stepped off today from the nine-story Herald Center, allegedly part of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos' estimated $300 million in New York real estate holdings, wound past Isi Fischzang Diamonds on West 47th Street, which is said to have sold a $280,000 carved emerald necklace to Imelda Marcos, then headed up Fifth Avenue past such Marcos haunts as Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Bulgari.
Back by popular demand, it was "In the Footsteps of Ferdinand & Imelda," a $5, three-hour chance for New Yorkers to wear out a little shoe leather seeing the reported properties, banking landmarks and favored shopping sites of the former Filipino first couple.
Like other Manhattan walking tours, this one featured a flag to keep strollers together (it was a yellow pillowcase mounted on a yellow mop handle, the color being the favorite of Philippine President Corazon Aquino, Marcos' successor) and a mimeographed map of attractions. But there were differences. Guides Lee Bearson and Russell Miller declined to use a bullhorn ("too authoritarian"). And when it came time to decide whether to walk or take a bus up Sixth Avenue, "we present the issue to the people," Bearson said. "And the vote-counting is very straight."
The initial Marcos walking tour three weeks ago was to have been a one-shot lark, according to Bearson, a 28-year-old graphics designer. But in addition to 40 participants, it attracted half a dozen journalists and a camera crew and resulted in three radio reports, local television coverage ("at 6 and 11," Bearson notes) and wire service features. Before long, media outlets from London to Tokyo were on the phone. "It had its own momentum," Bearson says. "And we succumbed."
Yesterday's version drew about 20 walkers, including Miller's mother, plus wire service photographers, reporters for two Japanese newspapers and a four-person crew from the BBC. And though no date has been set for a third tour, Miller and Bearson are available to discuss publishing deals, videocassettes and perhaps endorsements for walking shoes.
The momentum began when Bearson was showing out-of-town friends around New York this spring as local papers were daily divulging more details of the Marcoses' holdings. He was thus able, when passing the Crown Building at 57th and Fifth, to point out that Ferdinand and Imelda are said to have picked it up for $51 million and change.
It was his friend and fellow Harvard grad Miller, 30, an editor of the children's magazine 3-2-1 Contact, who suggested coordinating the show into a tour. They spent several weeks wading through news accounts and recording details on index cards. "When we plotted things on a map, it was amazing how it fell into a pattern," Bearson says. "We mainly did it just because it could be done."
The guides, easy to spot in white panama hats with florid, tropical hatbands, were liberal with their wisecracks -- at 66th Street and Fifth Avenue they pulled out two cans of Dole pineapple chunks and a can opener from a shoulder bag to give participants "a taste of the Philippines." Miller, in fact, has been known to stage New Jersey-themed birthday parties, in honor of his native state, in which guests come dressed as slot machines and toxic waste dumps. But Bearson acknowledged that "there's somewhat of a political point" to the Marcos tour. "I don't mind pointing up the continuing scandal of how this money was thrown all over New York. It's more than a joke."
Money figured prominently in the tour of "20 more or less historic sites" promised on the promotional posters. There was the Swiss Bank Corp. on Fifth Avenue, reportedly home of a $9.35 million account, part of "$800 million, give or take" the couple kept in Swiss banks, according to the tour. From the teller's window, the guides pointed out, Imelda could gaze at a mural of the Matterhorn, "probably the only thing in Switzerland she couldn't buy."
There was the Citibank branch on 51st, conveniently located near the Olympic Tower, where the Marcoses reportedly owned five co-op apartments. Imelda apparently kept $272,000 there in an account under a false name ("mad money," said one tour-taker). If she used her Citicard to withdraw the maximum $200 a day from the automatic teller machine, the guides calculated, it would take her three years, eight months and 14 days to squander the balance.
From the Olympic Tower uptown, the group had a clear view of "the sun glinting off the gold leaf of the crown of the Crown Building," Miller said lyrically.
"A significant amount of gold is missing from the Philippine treasury since the Marcoses left," Bearson said.
"But we're not drawing any conclusions," Miller added.
On West 57th, the group stopped at the New York Land Co. offices, where Ralph and Joseph Bernstein manage the Marcos holdings, according to congressional testimony. They also stopped a few doors down at the Hammer Galleries, where three years ago Imelda Marcos reportedly picked up 52 paintings by a little-known and not very respected impressionist for $273,000.
"Are we going to get any diamonds on this tour?" inquired city employe Camilla Flemming of Brooklyn, as the tour stopped at Van Cleef, where the Marcoses spent $100,000 on jewelry repair. Bearson and Miller scoffed ("Get, get, get, that's all anyone cares about on the Marcos tour," said Bearson) but a couple of blocks uptown at Bulgari they did, indeed, pass out lucite gems.
Such baubles, plus the pineapple chunks, photocopying costs and press releases, have kept Miller and Bearson from realizing any profit. But they seem to be learning a little capitalism from the Marcoses: Miller spent Saturday night printing up yellow souvenir T-shirts, "cotton-polyester, hand-printed, and we'll be glad to autograph them." They sold for $6 apiece.
Tour-taker David Bain of Brooklyn, author of "Sitting in Darkness," a book on Philippine-American relations, was impressed. "The ingenuity of these two guys," he said, "would make any hustler on the streets of Manila proud."