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Close Up Elvira Manahan, Society And Fashion Icon Remembered

Elvira Manahan, Society And Fashion Icon Remembered

Elvira Manahan, Society And Fashion Icon Remembered
By Marge C. Enriquez
October 19, 2020
She was, quite simply, larger than life. Elvira Manahan was a society and fashion icon whose reputation remains unrivalled to this day. All that came to an end the day she was murdered on October 14, 1986—leaving behind a legacy of glamour and mystery. Who was she? We recall a woman in search of happiness, love and her place in this world

This feature story was originally titled as Elvira, Remembered, and was published in the inaugural issue of Tatler Philippines dated September 2001. 

If there was any Filipina who embodied true style, it was the late Elvira Manahan. More than just a fashion icon; she was an iconoclast. She was bizarre, yet admired and even loved for her eccentricity. By the social conventions of her time, which lasted well into the '80s, she was campy and shocking, often too voluble in her speech and laughter. Elvira created her own reality. There was nothing predictable about her except that she threw you off with her snappy, impromptu remarks, and that she would make impossible demands on all those around her.

"With her, an ordinary day turned out to be special. An adventure," recalls Nestor Torre, who directed and later co-hosted with Elvira the pioneering late-night TV talk show Two for the Road. The director and editor is compiling anecdotes about Elvira for a book.

In New York during a fashion shoot
In New York during a fashion shoot

Elvira was a journalist's dream subject. Today, this writer can't find anyone in the Philippine social landscape—young or old—who is as fascinating a subject as Elvira was.

"She's very unique. Wala pa kaming nakitang ganoong katindi yung dating. I think it was the combination—she was beautiful, sosyal, and wacky. She didn't care for image but for reputation; she knew the difference between the two. Image is something technical you present to your public while reputation is something you earn. She earned her reputation first as a great beauty, then on television as a great personality. The camera loved her. You could take huge close-ups," says Torre.

Her laughter—not her expensive wardrobe—put her a cut above the rest. Journalist Abe Florendo compares it to the sound of a bullfrog's croak refined to an allegro pitch in a conservatory of music. "She was one of those people who cared little about what people said. She would laugh aloud at a time when it was considered uncouth. People thought she was attracting attention," says George Sison, who was a talk show's astrologer and Elvira's friend. "That's a Cancerian laughter. Elvira said, 'The reason I laugh this way is that if I stopped, I'd start crying'."

Elvira's legendary laugh "didn't always signal enjoyment. When she met a person who was nasty, her laughter had an edge. It was like a warning"
 
The way she will always be remembered. | PHOTO: Jaime Zobel de Ayala
The way she will always be remembered. | PHOTO: Jaime Zobel de Ayala
Her last portrait. | PHOTO: Jaime Zobel de Ayala
Her last portrait. | PHOTO: Jaime Zobel de Ayala

Torre points out that her laughter had different meanings. "It didn't always signal enjoyment. If she didn't like you, she might even laugh. When she met a person who was nasty, her laughter had an edge. It was like a warning."

In her time, high society looked down on people in show business. But Elvira went ahead and delivered strong performances in films, appearing in Ishmael Bernal's directorial debut, Pagdating sa Dulo—this, just after she had a facelift. He assured her that since it was a drama, she wasn't going to be made to laugh and stretch her muscles.

Read also: 12 Filipino Film Directors That Have Shaped Philippine Cinema

Portait by Bob's
Portait by Bob's

In the Charito Solis movie Ang Pulubi, Elvira deglamourised herself by playing a convict. "I think she was bored with what people thought about her," says Torre. In 1980 designer Christian Espiritu made his foray into film direction with Alaga, a movie about society matrons dallying with younger men. Elvira appeared gratis et amore.

Before "generation flex" (a term used to describe mature people who act young and hip) was coined, Elvira personified it. She got along with younger people. She did things that prim-and-proper society women didn't do.

Because she was vivacious, men gravitated to Elvira, never mind that she was married. On a trip to Italy, recalls Torre, the men were awed by her ebullience and forgot that she was a woman of a certain age.

Recalls Sison: "She would go out for dinner because she found, say, this person to be interesting. I would go to the same restaurant with a friend without her date knowing that she had a chaperone along. Her husband knew we were there," says Sison.

Salon of Madame Vionnet in Paris
With husband Dr Manahan in Rome
As a teenager
Dressed as a princess at one of Don Luis Araneta's costume parties. with her Nubian slave
 

People would gossip about Elvira, and Sison would tease her about her reputation. Elvira would sigh that if just 10 percent of it were true... She simply had a zest for living that rubbed off on those around her. This attitude—together with that trademark guffaw, the fluttering fan and the unfinished cigarette—carried her buoyantly through life and enabled her to hurdle everything with aplomb. Hers was a classic model of the victory of attitude, long before attitude attained its current meaning.

YOUNG WIDOW

Elvira Ledesma of Silay City was said to have come from a modest family but that it was her well-to-do grandmother who raised her. There were stories that Elvira was already wacky in her childhood, probably taking after her lola. In her teens, she became the toast of the town for her beauty. Although she had many admirers among prized catches, Armando Eduque was the one for her.

Read also: Inside The Storied City Of Silay

In his letter to Viring (Elvira's nickname), dated April 29, 1944, he wrote about how he missed her while on a visit to his family's farm. "I left Manila, but you were branded on my memory, eating deeper and deeper into it with every minute and mile that took you further and further away from me. I could see you in the windshield of the car, in the heat waves that shimmered along the road, on the tops of the suitcases beside me. I could see you everywhere," he wrote.

They married when she was in her late teens. But Armando Eduque died not long after, under circumstances that left his young widow disconsolate. In 1945, the occupying Japanese poured gasoline on the Eduque residence and set it on fire. The Eduques fled to an air-raid shelter in the nearby Madrigal compound. Later they returned home and made a dugout in their yard where they hid for a couple of days. Their pet German Shepherd kept barking, however, and Eduque was afraid that it would call the attention of Japanese soldiers to them. He decided to take the dog away. Elvira recalled that a lot of shooting followed. The Americans arrived not long after but Eduque never returned. A few days later, she found him dead on the street. She tried to remove his wedding ring but the flesh came off his finger.

Dressed up as a valkyrie for a TV special where she lip synched an aria from "Ride of the Valkyries", costume done by the late Maning Obregon
At home
Wearing a gown by the late Ramon Valera
 

Elvira had terrible nightmares about the tragedy and would often wake up with self-inflicted scratches. She sought psychiatric therapy.

She was pregnant with Jose Armando (named after his grandfather) when she met with her second husband, her obstetrician Constantino 'Tito' Manahan. Her marriage to Dr Manahan was said to be one for the books. Sison recalled how they teased Elvira about the romance. "The courtship began with her legs wide open!" Three sons followed: Juan (Johnny), Constantino Jr (Bonggoy), and Jose Maria (Joselito).

Bea Zobel says she has never met another man as devoted to his wife as Dr Manahan. He would tell Ms Zobel how he enjoyed seeing his wife all dolled up for social functions, and that her elegance was beyond comparison. Unfortunately, because of his work he couldn't socialise with her much. He was exhausted from his hospital duties and had to rise early for work. "If Tito didn't work as much as he did, he wouldn't have been able to afford to give Elvira all that she wanted," Ms Zobel adds. 

TV PIONEER

The marriage brought her to high society fame. Elvira was always among the best dressed at charity balls. As such, she was a good choice for the society column that media tycoon Eugenio Lopez Jr asked her to write for the Chronicle. But her husband strictly forbade her, knowing that her predisposition for devastatingly direct pronouncements could get her into trouble. Instead, Lopez invited her to host Two for the Road on television. The timing was perfect. The offer came just as Elvira was growing weary of her society lifestyle—going to the salon, playing bridge or mahjong, lunching and socialising and sleeping. "She wanted more out of life but she didn't know what. She realised, however, that it wasn't all about possession and status. She wanted to express a lot of things but couldn't until she found TV," says Sison.

Read also: How Eugenio "Geny" Lopez Jr Founded And Grew The ABS-CBN Empire

With Mercy Tuason & Oscar Obligacion in a TV show
With President Marcos and Imelda
A family portrait—1981
Hamming it up on the beach
Entertaining Pat Boone
 

Two for the Road gave her a sense of purpose. As a pioneer, she made the talk show into something that people looked forward to. Thirty years ago, viewers didn't stay up till 11 PM to watch talking heads. "People would watch her for her jewellery and clothes. She chose clothes that were telegenic," recalls Sison. In a tribute to Ramon Valera, Elvira surprised everyone with her extensive collection of clothes from the legendary couturier. Torre estimates she must have had more than 50 of his pieces.

Torre, who directed the original Two for the Road, recalls that with a five-day schedule of live telecasts, tension was occasionally high on the set. She didn't get along with her first co-host, the late Joey Lardizabal. He tended to cut short and ignored the fact that he was sharing the spotlight with a colleague. Naturally, Elvira didn't allow that. "She was unpredictable," says Torre. "On the show, you could always expect the unexpected."

In one episode, Elvira mistakenly introduced an ambassador as being from Chile. The people on the floor signaled that he was from Argentina. Elvira blurted, "Why, is Chile not in Argentina?" The ambassador found it hilarious. She once introduced ex-president Joseph Estrada, then the mayor of San Juan, as the famous mayor from Pasay City. She would warn the production assistant not to give her anything to read, especially advertising spiels, at the last minute. Once the material for a soap brand arrived so late that Elvira had to read the script without any rehearsal. After reading the tagline—"Maja, the soap of beautiful women"—Elvira's rejoinder was an incredulous, "It is?"

While other women were discreet about surgical enhancement, Elvira went public. In 1970, she announced on television that she was going to be off for two weeks as she was about to have a facelift. Fans wrote asking why she needed one. She replied, "I have to be kind to the people who look at me. I owe it to my family and the people who watch me."

NAIVITE

Her absurdness was part of her charm. Over dinner with the Russian ambassador, the envoy complained to Elvira that every time he looked for a house the landlords kept raising the prices. Elvira chided him, "That's your karma for invading Afghanistan." Who would have said such a thing to an envoy?

Once she broke her tooth when she slipped while singing an aria to her husband while walking on the edge of her bath tub. Elvira had such a beautiful singing voice that Torre wanted to cast her in the Broadway musical Mame because she was Auntie Mame in every sense of the word. She demurred but she found other ways of using that talent.

When Sison was the associate producer for An Evening with Pilita, the production staff had to disguise the fact that Pilita was pregnant with Eddie Guttierrez's son, Ramoncito. To hide it, Elvira lent Pilita a loose gown while she herself wore a billowy tent. They sang a duet and she looked even more pregnant that Pilita. Elvira could also be naïve. Once a visiting producer from the legendary film studio MGM flirted with her, but the woman was thoroughly oblivious to the fact. When the flirtation became more pronounced, she firmly expressed her disinterest, leading the producer to curtly tell her, "Oh you're trying to play prim and proper. I bet you're the type that screams." She called Sison to ask what he meant. On hearing the explanation, she gasped, "How dare he!"

In the pre-Martial Law days, Sison attacked the Marcoses for their excesses in the newspaper column. One day, the American starlet Dovie Beams rang up the newspaper to expose her affair with then-president Ferdinand Marcos claiming she had a recorded tape of their lovemaking. Sison got the recording, complete with sound effects. After listening to the tape which allegedly recorded Marcos' screams during orgasm, Elvira was embarrassed and wondered if maybe it was not Marcos but Vic Pacia, referring to the late comedian who used to mimic the president. When Imelda Marcos learned that Sison had met with Beams, she asked Elvira to facilitate a meeting between Sison and the First Lady, which she did. When George Sison and Elvira arrived at Malacañang, over dinner, Imelda finally reproached the newspaper columnist. "How can you people write that we want to stay in power forever? How inconvenient it is to live in the palace. For every room there's a guard. There's no privacy. When we make love, Ferdie would scream."

Elvira started kicking Sison's shins under the table. She was finally convinced that what she heard on the tape was the real Macoy.

Marcos kept his mouth shut.

Elvira sharing a private moment with then-president Marcos (looking on are Greggy and Irene Marcos-Araneta)
Elvira sharing a private moment with then-president Marcos (looking on are Greggy and Irene Marcos-Araneta)

LIFE IN LONDON

Before Martial Law, Elvira met a London-bred Arab named Ali Aziz. He was the financial consultant of Marcos and the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. He came into her life when Elvira experienced a slump in her marriage. She was weary of complaining that Dr Manahan had no time for her. Friends of the doctor were quick to defend him, pointing out that he was dedicated to his profession. He was one of the best obstetricians in Manila and had elegant bedside manners. To people such as Bea Zobel, he was more than a doctor but also a father figure and counselor.

At any rate, Elvira moved to London without Dr Manahan. She lived in the British capital from 1972 to 1977, assuming the life of Lady Elvira. She confided to Sison, however, that she felt restricted there. She couldn't laugh the way she used to. She stopped seeing her Filipino friends. When Jaime Zobel de Ayala was the ambassador to the Court of St James, Elvira would visit Bea, whom she knew held Dr Manahan in high esteem. Elvira never brought her friend Ali Aziz to the embassy out of respect for Ms Zobel.

Elvira confessed to close friends that Dr Manahan was the man in her life. He gave her the freedom to be herself. Aziz loved her too much—to a fault. During her absence, Dr Manahan dated a younger woman but friends and relatives knew that he was merely biding time. 

Elvira came home in July 1977 and told her friends that she was "sick". When Mother Teresa visited the country, Elvira, Ms Tuason and Ms Zobel heard early morning Mass and sought the saint. Elvira told Mother Teresa that she had been away from her family for many years, and that she would like to work with the nun to compensate for her absence. "I was amazed. Mother Teresa who didn't know Elvira, advised her, 'You stay home and take good care of your husband and children. Your role is in your home," recalls Ms Zobel. Elvira eventually returned to their home in Forbes Park.

A young, impressionable Elvira meets Hollywood heartthrob Marlon Brando
A young, impressionable Elvira meets Hollywood heartthrob Marlon Brando

'TWO FOR THE ROAD' REDUX

In 1979, Two for the Road was revived as a weekly talks show directed by Maria Montelibano. Torre became her co-host. The topics were serious and unusual, such as lunar cycles and UFOs. The show ran for seven years.

"She could be very focused," says Torre. After the assassination of opposition leader and former senator Benigno Aquino Jr, Montelibano produced a tribute to her late uncle. Torre and Elvira supported the tribute despite the fact that she was close to the Marcoses. "Elvira was her own person. She didn't follow any rules. When she came back, she was organised. She was no longer unpredictable. She had learned the craft of interviewing. She became more people-centred. She was more interested in getting statements from her guests, which greatly helped the audience in knowing them better," says Torre.

Read also: Journalist Teddy Benigno Writes About Ninoy Aquino's Life, Patriotism, And Sacrifice For The Philippines

When they travelled together, Torre escorted Elvira on her shopping sprees. Contrary to her image of being extravagant, Torre says she was very discriminating in her purchases. "She would buy expensive things after a lot of comparing and figuring out. We'd go into a classy store and she would try on 30 pairs of shoes and not buy anything. In her mind, she was tying them up with a certain outfit," says Torre. "I can't say that she was vain. When we met at her home, she'd show her big arms. She wouldn't fix her hair or wear any makeup. With people she didn't know, Elvira had a reputation to uphold. To people she knew, there was no pretense."

Beneath the strong and effervescent persona, Elvira was in pursuit of happiness. She focused more on what she could do for others. She supported young scholastics for the priesthood.

Ms Zobel once expressed her rancor toward somebody and Elvira advised her, "Bea, don't forget what I'm going to telly you. If you have bad feelings toward someone—that could hurt you and might bring you sickness. You have to learn to forgive and forget." She started to explain to her the karma of sowing what you reap.

SHOCKING END

Sison used to warn Elvira to avoid using her favourite expressions such as, "I need that like a hole in the head" and "When I die, I'd like to go with a bang!" He told her, "You should stop using those phrases, otherwise you'll attract that into your life." She told Sison that a young man named Jaime Balatbat had been calling her. She perceived him to be mentally unstable. He would call her and tell her his problems. "One thing about Elvira is that she's a sucker for sob stories. She would talk to him on the phone for hours. There were even nasty rumours that he was her lover. I don't think so. You would not misconstrue that her reaction to him was attraction." Besides, at the time Elvira was already pushing 60. Balatbat was 27.

Read also: The World-Renowned Portrait Artist Claudio Bravo And His Colourful Years In Manila

Portrait by Claudio Bravo | PHOTO: Raymond Lauchengco
Portrait by Claudio Bravo | PHOTO: Raymond Lauchengco

On October 14, 1986, news of Elvira's death shocked the public. According to reports, Balatbat entered the Manahan residence at 8 AM supposedly to get his commission from a real estate deal. He was the companion of a real estate agent negotiating the sale of the Manahan's Forbes Park home. Suddenly he stabbed a maid with a blunt instrument, then shot another maid who had rushed to help her. He hit another servant with a 15-pound dumbbell. Another helper and a neighbour's driver found Elvira slumped on her worktable bleeding in a room on the upper floor. She had been shot in the head. The victims were rushed to the Makati Medical Center. Elvira underwent brain surgery but died at 7 PM.

To this day, the motive for the killing is sketchy. Suffice it is to say that Balatbat already had a criminal record, which included a near-fatal assault on a US embassy official. He was jailed for claiming the lives of Elvira and her two helpers. Two years later, he died in a prison fight.

After her death, Ms Zobel recalls that she saw Elvira in a dream. The next day she met Elvira's granddaughter, Samantha Eduque, in the beauty parlour and told her about the dream. Samantha repeated the story to her grandfather. Dr Manahan became jealous because he had been waiting for a sign from Elvira. He, however, would have his turn during a visit to Rome, where he had gone to talk to a priest, Padre Gino, who was known to have a stigmata. Dr Manahan went to see him not expecting anything but spiritual consolation. When he came back to the hotel, he opened the window and smelled roses. "Whether it was his imagination or not, for him Elvira was sending a signal," says Ms Zobel.

At her funeral
At her funeral

A SON SPEAKS

To the public, Elvira Manahan was larger-than-life. To her children, she was human. "I found her different from the person she was at home to the person she was at socials. When she was with friends, she was the life of the party. She was always laughing. She was like a butterfly. At home she was down-to-earth and very businesslike because of her TV show," says Jose Armando Eduque, or Mandy, the eldest of her sons.

People would then wonder why the four sons were quiet while their mother was the complete opposite. She liked to dominate whatever situation she was in. If a conversation or party got boring, she had to liven it up. "Our stock answer was, 'It's because of that'. Whenever there was a conversation, we never had a chance to put in a word," explains Eduque. "I got the impression that my mother was playing a role when she was socialising. She had an image that people expected of her and to a certain extent, she wanted to live up to that. That's the way she was."

Her children didn't get to see much of her as she had her social obligations. Eduque recalls that his mother tried to tutor him, but that only lasted for three weeks. A Chinese amah took care of them.

As a mother, Elvira was a character. When Eduque started dating at 16, the first girl he took out was Tessie Aquino (now Senator Oreta), who was slightly older. On their dates, he would find his mother in the same place. At his senior prom, his mother found a way to get invited. With her daughter-in laws, Elvira was said to have had her likes and dislikes. Nestor Torre once jested that if he ever wrote a play about a mother/daughter-in-law relationship. Elvira would fit the role of the madrasta. Although Elvira had her preferences, she was never rude toward any of her in-laws.

In 1965, the young Eduque eloped and married against his parents' wishes. There was a time that Elvira blamed his first, Cynthia Serrano. After a while, however, Elvira and Cynthia became good friends. Although Eduque's first marriage didn't last, it taught him valuable lessons that he shared with his mother. He became reacquainted with her relatively late in life. They wrote to each other when she lived in London, and occasionally she sought her son for advice. It was as if he had become an older brother giving advice to a younger sister. He told her not to act simply because she had an obligation to her family. "Your life is too complicated for you to do things on the basis of what you think other people want," he wrote her one time.

"I think she appreciated that we were talking to each other like adults," says Eduque. "She knew in the past that I didn't approve of her. I thought she was too sosyal."

Elvira valued the fact that her son had come to understand her.

They saw each other as equals rather than the traditional mother and son. "We could be open to each other and not be afraid," he says. Five months before she died, she sent Eduque a birthday card. "Thank you for being my son, for being in my life and for teaching me over the years the many lessons of love—for helping to heal the hurts and make good the deficits of the past."

To the public, Elvira and her husband seemed worlds apart. She loved the nightlife and the limelight, while Dr Manahan didn't socialise and was very self-effacing. Her social butterfly image could be attributed to the fact that the responsibility of parenting came too soon. "She was 18 when I was born, then my brothers came one after another. She was too young to be with kids. Or maybe she simply wasn't a homebody. She was intellectually hungry. I don't know if my stepfather would have preferred it otherwise. He realised that she wasn't the run-of-the-mill housewife. He spoiled her tremendously. He gave her everything she wanted. He told me, 'If only I had spoiled your mother a little bit less, I'd be much richer'. But that was his happiness—making her happy."

Her relationship with Dr Manahan went beyond husband and wife; it had the undercurrents of a patient-doctor association. When things got tough, Elvira leaned on Dr Manahan for support. The public did not see this. "Everybody said my stepfather was inaapi. She always did what she wanted to do. If he got left behind, so be it. It's not easy being the lifejacket. My stepfather would sleep early because he had to get up at 5 AM. In the middle of the night, somebody would call him and he would go back home to get some more sleep. I think she was rebelling against that life. At the same time, he was her bedrock."

Elvira had her anxieties. "I take it back to when my father (Armando) died," says Eduque. "She was young, pregnant and very much in love with him. I remember Dr Manahan would say how she would get nightmares. I think the trauma stayed with her for a long tome. She also didn't come from a well-to-do family. Her grandmother, who was well off, raised her instead of her parents. The rest of the siblings stayed with the parents. I don't think she had a strong sense of family because of that. I only thought of her as fragile, to which people will no doubt say, 'I think you're talking about the wrong person'."

What would Elvira look like today? She was 59 when she was died. "When I close my eyes and think of her," says her first-born, "I see her for what she was then."

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