Mary Prieto: The Quintessential Society Lady of the Philippines
This feature story was originally titled as An Icon Named Mary, and was published in the July 2013 issue of Tatler Philippines. Some information and photos first appeared in another story published on the February 2008 issue. Mary Prieto passed away last July 11, 2009, two months after her husband Leopoldo.
As a style icon, Mary Prieto influenced generations. Before World War II, she was the first actress in Philippine cinema to buck the conservative dress code by appearing in shorts and slacks. From the fifties to the seventies, she was a model and an admired socialite. From the eighties until the early 2000s, Prieto became known for her advice on fashion, etiquette, decorum, and, invariably, matters of the heart. In 2003 when she was 83, she appeared in a Bench campaign on its fashion for all ages. In her later years, she was admired for the generosity of her spirit. The wrinkles on her face were etched with experience, adding character to her chiselled features.
Maria Luisa Hernandez was born in San Francisco, California. Her father was a Filipino lawyer named Generoso Hernandez; her mother, a Mexican named Marina. Generoso moonlighted as a musician in jazz clubs in California, while Marina was hands-on in raising and shaping Mary. Later, the father took his small family back to the Philippines.
The Filipinos’ fascination for Caucasian-looking actors got the teenage Mary a job in the movies despite her American accent. She made her foray in the thirties when the local film industry was in its infancy. Parlatone, one of the top four film studios then, put Mary under intensive training in acting and image building. Honorata “Atang” dela Rama, the country’s first film actress who later became National Artist for Theatre, coached Mary on Tagalog intonations and inflections. Nonetheless, the dialogues weren’t too difficult since the scripts were tailor-made for the budding actress whose character was an immigrant from the United States.
Using the screen name Yolanda Marquez, she debuted in Milagro ng Nazareno (Miracle of the Nazarene), co-starring with Angel Esmeralda. It turned out to be a big hit, making Mary a star. While most actresses were dressed in long frocks and baro at saya (the Philippine national attire), Mary was the first to make a statement by wearing clothes that were comfortable yet chic.
Friends attributed Mary’s impeccable style to the studio days when actors and actresses were trained to be well-groomed even off-camera. Her look was described as quintessentially American, classic pieces enhanced with tasteful accessories. And, she always wore shorts even after a certain age.
Mary worked with other great stars of that generation such as Rogelio dela Rosa. But her tenure with Parlatone was short-lived. When one of the owners of the film studio invited her for dinner, Mary told him that she was always chaperoned by her mother. If Ms Hernandez wasn’t invited, Mary would not be allowed. The young actress was slated to play the lead in Pugad ng Aguila (Eagle’s Nest) but lost the part—perhaps, due to the aborted date.
Prieto then moved to Philippine Films and played the lead opposite Leopoldo Salcedo in Magdalena at ang Dahong Lagas (Magdalena and the Fallen Leaf) with an aspiring actor named Ely Ramos. Later, she left Philippine Films and transferred again to Sampaguita Pictures where she played the supporting role in the musical Madaling Araw (Dawn).
On a break from work, Mary went out with friends to attend the Ateneo-La Salle championship match of the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball games. In the victory bonfire of La Salle, she was introduced to her soul mate, Leopoldo Prieto, who became known as the father of the Philippine Basketball Association.
Mary resumed her movie career, but it was aborted by the outbreak of World War II. In her memoirs, No Regrets, she candidly talked about the hardships of war. After being stranded in Cebu for three months, she rode on a batel (a barge with sails) to the Batangas port. On the bus to Manila, she witnessed how the Japanese soldiers maltreated the Filipinos. She had to fend for herself, working as an office assistant and a telephone operator. She even opened a tea shop with her friends.
With the hope that General Douglas MacArthur would return to defeat the Japanese, Mary finally married Prieto and had their first child, Mary Lou, after the Liberation period. She had three other sons: Mike, Leopoldo Jnr, and Antonio.
Mary was quietly raising a family when the impresario and society doyenne Conchita Sunico knocked on her door and asked her to model for a fashion show. “Afterwards we ordered our gowns from the States and had fun doing the show. That incident was the beginning of my becoming a society girl,” wrote Mary in No Regrets.
Mary modelled with other chic socialites who became her close friends, like Chito Madrigal-Collantes and Chona Kasten. They called Sunico “Mother Hen.” “She always used to keep us in check. She would admonish us when she thought we did something wrong or when we were getting out of hand,” Mary had said.
In the mid-eighties when John Robert Powers, a modelling and personality development school, opened in Manila, directress Tessie Macasaet invited Mary along with her daughter Mary Lou Prieto-Lovina, Kasten, Vicky Zubiri, and Baby Prieto to join the faculty. “Mary was an asset to JRP. She taught social graces to housewives, future models, young professionals, and college graduates who wanted to enhance their image. I invited her because she was well respected in society. She volunteered to teach without pay,” recalls Macasaet.
At JRP Mary’s style was sporty. “She was like always going to play golf, never with frills. She was articulate in her speech and very careful with the words she spoke. It probably came from her training as an actress,” says Macasaet. She also observed that Mary liked to mix with young people. “I saw her a lot in Coco Banana [the top disco in the seventies],” Macasaet continued.
“Mary had a lot of flair, which was picked up by her children,” added Macasaet. And it was not just flair that they got from their mother. Macasaet said that Mary’s children were like her, never demanding attention. “They were brought up well,” she said.
HEART OF GOLD
Life wasn’t always about glamour. when her friend Kasten was stricken with cancer, Mary gave tremendous moral support and raised funds for the hospital bills.
Another turning point was the death of her youngest, Antonio. “Perhaps it was a wake-up call for me. I was not very religious or spiritual. Was it God’s way of telling me to get back on track, to take stock of my life and do something better with it? I started to be more prayerful, attending Mass regularly,” wrote Mary in her memoir. Thus, she organised weekly Bible-reading sessions in her home.
In her later years, Mary maintained an advice column in the Lifestyle section of The Philippine Star titled “Just Asking.” For a woman of a certain age, she was still alluring. She maintained her good looks and health with a diet of chicken, fish, vegetables, and fruits. She eschewed smoking and drinking. She kept active by walking as a daily exercise. Socialising was limited to theatre performances, lunches with friends, meetings with civic groups, and charity work.
One of her secrets to looking good at a certain age was dressing appropriate to her age. In her Philippine Star column, she said mature women could look fashionably young without exposing too much skin.
“An older woman can still look sexy in luxe fabrics like silk, leather, and cashmere or in solid, rich colours like black, champagne, chocolate, wine, and plum. This look will be just as attention-getting if paired with statement accessories that make an impact. Women over 50 can’t go wrong with this mantra in mind: tailoring, classic shapes, minimalist pieces. If a woman has good legs, she can go short but not too short. Her skirt should fall around the knee.”
Mary also believed in the Audrey Hepburn philosophy of dressing: If you look good in a certain style, get more of the same in different colours.
GETTING TO KNOW HER
It was a privilege to meet such a venerable personality as Mary. I remember being assigned to interview her daughter but was given the address of the parents’ condominium unit instead. Mary came out looking crisp in a navy T-shirt and white shorts. She was taken aback by my “trespassing.” Hearing my explanation that I was sent to the wrong place, she humbly apologised and politely gave the unit number of her daughter.
Through the years I would see her in cocktails, elegant in her little black dresses and sparkling white pearls. When I interviewed her on Chona Kasten for Philippine Tatler in her Forbes Park home, Mary, then 82, was well turned in a simple but elegant dress, low pumps and sheer stockings. She sat upright with no unnecessary distracting movements. Mary spoke with her words enunciated. Her candour was refreshing. She never dodged questions but answered diplomatically. No wonder she was called Miss Manners.
One of Mary’s most influential columns was on her Three-Day Diet. Women who followed it reported immediately losing 10 pounds. It goes like this. For three consecutive days, the diet requires a controlled proportion of protein and carbohydrates and very low percentage of fats. For instance. Day One: for breakfast, black coffee or tea, 1/2 grapefruit, and a slice of toast with two tablespoons of peanut butter; for lunch, half a cup of tuna, a slice of toast, coffee or tea; and for dinner, three ounces of meat, a cup of string beans, a cup of peas or carrots, a small apple, and a cup of low-fat frozen yogurt. The three-day cycle is broken by four days of normal eating but limited to 1,200 calories. Thereafter, the three-day diet resumes.
In the later years, Mary would be seen in a wheelchair. She refused to wear a hearing aid. Still, friends and relatives close to her saw a gracious spirit who loved solitude as a way to connect with God.
She died of pneumonia and its complications in June 2009, just two months after her husband’s demise. Mary was 89. Among her greatest accomplishments was a long marriage and close-knit family ties.
During the wake, there were two black-and-white portraits that showed Mary in her quintessential style: a simple fluid gown with a bolero jacket and a black, spaghetti strapped gown with a matching opera pearl necklace.
For Marta Lovina, her grandmother Mary defined the true meaning of poise. “She constantly drummed into our heads that we had to look good, no matter what we were feeling or how our day was, or who we were going to see or the occasion we were going to attend. We remember her as a woman of style and substance, grace and propriety.”