The year was 1952, and Imelda Romualdez, 23, had just arrived in Manila from her home province of Leyte with a small native suitcase containing her entire wardrobe. Her purse contained 5 pesos (about $2.50), and her only jewelry was a worthless ring given away for the purchase of an ice cream cone.
As a poor relation of the prominent Romualdez family, her childhood had often been difficult. She wore hand-me-down dresses and at one stage lived with her mother and five brothers and sisters in a rickety garage a stone's throw from Malacanang Palace. A former family houseboy once bought her a new pair of shoes because, he told a biographer, "her old pair was so worn and torn."
So it was that in 1952, as a well-meaning relative showed Imelda to her room in her cousin's house in Manila and asked if she needed extra closet and drawer space for her clothes and valuables, she did not know whether to laugh or to cry.
That account of the debut in the capital of the future wife of President Ferdinand Marcos contrasts sharply with the image -- and the vast wardrobe with its 3,000 pairs of shoes -- that she left behind when she fled the Malacanang Presidential Palace with her husband, family and entourage seven weeks ago. Throughout her 20-year reign as the Philippines' "first lady," Imelda Marcos sought to obscure her humble origins as she acquired immense wealth, jet-set friends and an international reputation for profligate spending.
Today the long-suppressed account of her early years, "The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos," published in 1970 by Carmen Navarro-Pedrosa, is disappearing from bookstore shelves as fast as the aging copies can be found.
"The book has been vindicated in describing the origin of this compulsion to amass wealth," said Pedrosa in a telephone interview from London, where she has lived in self-imposed exile since 1972.
The book also contradicts the popular wisdom that it was Imelda, with her wastefulness and extravagance, who corrupted Marcos. In fact, Pedrosa makes clear, the corruption worked the other way around.
At the time of their marriage, "Imelda was a real country girl and basically a sweet person," Pedrosa said in the interview. "Marcos at that time was already a ruthless politician. She was a creature of Marcos."
With a warm welcome assured her under the new government of President Corazon Aquino, Pedrosa is flying home to Manila this week for the first time in 14 years. She said she plans to stay for two weeks, see Malacanang Palace -- now open for tours -- and eventually produce a sequel to her 1970 biography that will bring Imelda Marcos' story up to date.
After years of suppression, books that the Marcoses considered damaging or simply unflattering are enjoying a comeback as Filipinos indulge a fascination for the secrets and scandals of that 20-year era. Another of the genre, "The Conjugal Dictatorship" by Primitivo Mijares, a former Marcos aide and confidant, is currently being serialized in a Manila newspaper.
Mijares was forced to flee when his controversial book was published in the 1970s. He later disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Guam in early 1977 while on his way back to the Philippines. His wife, Priscilla Mijares, has accused Marcos government agents of having murdered her husband and is urging the Aquino administration to investigate the case.
Philippine readers also are awaiting the release here of another book, "Marcos' Lovey Dovie" by U.S.-based anti-Marcos journalist Hermie Rotea. According to a review in a Manila newspaper, the story of Marcos' 1968-70 love affair with Dovie Beams, a Hollywood starlet and former piano teacher from Tennessee, is a "voyeur's book" that "may turn off the serious reader." The book features what it says are transcripts of tape recordings that Beams made of lovemaking sessions with Marcos.
The upshot of the book, according to the review, is that Imelda Marcos discovered the affair, threatened to divorce Marcos in the midst of his 1969 reelection campaign and extracted virtual carte blanche for her spendthrift ways. As an act of appeasement, the review said of the book, Marcos even built a bridge between her native Leyte and the island of Samar and dedicated it to her as the "love bridge."
"Had the book's sources been properly identified," Manila Times reviewer Pablo Tariman wrote recently, Rotea's work "would have been as credible as Pedrosa's 'Untold Story of Imelda Marcos.' "
According to Pedrosa's book, Imelda Remedios Visitacion Romualdez, born July 2, 1929, in Manila, was the great-granddaughter of a Spanish priest on the side of her father, Vicente Orestes Romualdez. But little is known of the origins of her mother, Remedios Trinidad, who was raised in an orphanage where she was placed by own mother, a traveling jewelry seller.
Vicente Romualdez proved a failure in the family law practice and was overshadowed by his more accomplished brothers, Norberto and Miguel, who became nationally prominent as a Supreme Court justice and mayor of Manila, respectively. With five children by his first wife and six -- including Imelda -- by his second, Vicente Romualdez often found it hard to make ends meet.
A rocky home life was compounded by disputes between Imelda's mother and her stepsisters. During one separation, Pedrosa writes, Imelda's mother sold sausages and sewed dresses to support her children. A subsequent reconciliation did not last, and Imelda's side of the family moved to a garage in front of her father's house.
After her mother died of pneumonia when Imelda was eight years old, and with creditors about to foreclose on the mortgage on their house, her father moved the entire family to Tacloban, Leyte. Their poverty deepened, and the family eventually moved into a ramshackle abode that a nun quoted by Pedrosa described as a "poor man's Quonset hut." Wearing her mother's dresses, which were several sizes too big for her, Imelda would plead for extra helpings when she was sent out to buy food for the family.
But she came to be admired for her unaffected beauty and lovely singing voice, and she developed a strong will to succeed. She demonstrated it when she moved to Manila to live with her cousin, Congressman Daniel Romualdez, who later became speaker of the House of Representatives. After losing the "Miss Manila" beauty contest, she made headlines when she tearfully protested to the city mayor. In the end she was awarded an alternate title, the Muse of Manila.
In April 1954, two years after moving to Manila, Imelda was nibbling watermelon seeds in the congress cafeteria when she was spotted by Congressman Ferdinand Marcos, then 37 and a rising political star. Although she was wearing a simple housedress and slippers, Marcos was struck by her beauty and asked a newspaper reporter to introduce him. She offered him some of her watermelon seeds.
What followed was an 11-day whirlwind courtship that culminated in their marriage in Baguio. Shortly after the civil rites, Marcos presented his bride with a thick envelope filled with cash, Pedrosa writes.
Besides the beauty of the innocent and unpretentious provinciana, (provincial girl), Marcos, who hailed from the far north of the Philippine archipelago, was also attracted by the political name and regional influence of the Romualdezes, Pedrosa says. The match offered him a chance to broaden his base of support for a future presidential run by linking up with one of the most prominent families in the Visayas, the chain of islands in the central Philippines.
In any case, marriage to Marcos brought profound changes for Imelda.
"She told a cousin that what overwhelmed her was the amount of money she had to handle," Pedrosa writes. "She had been used to a life which budgeted 5 pesos [about $2.50] from day to day; suddenly now she was managing a home which paid a cook 120 pesos [about $60] a month. It was to her, at the beginning of a new life, sheer extravagance and waste." She took the matter to Marcos.
" 'Look Ferdie,' she confronted him. 'I'll cook and you pay me the 120 pesos.' "
But Imelda soon learned there was plenty of easy money to be had with Marcos, and she became known as a collector of clothes and jewelry, Pedrosa says. Marcos also molded her into an accepted member of Manila high-society, a political ally and, eventually, a prospective successor.
She became a highly popular campaigner, tirelessly entertaining crowds with songs when Marcos ran for president in 1965. He credited her with winning at least 1 million votes for him -- his margin of victory.
However, what Pedrosa had conceived as a "Cinderella story" drew an angry reaction from the Marcoses in 1970. By then they had built up Imelda as the daughter of an aristocratic, affluent family, according to Pedrosa and others.
When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, Pedrosa said, she was out of the country and decided not to return when she learned she was subject to arrest. Bookstores hastily removed her books and stored them in warehouses.
Now, with the few remaining copies being snapped up, Pedrosa says U.S. publishers are interested in reprinting "The Untold Story" as well as the sequel she is working on.