The major major ways to climb the social Everest according to Jane Austen, Truman Capote and Edith Wharton

CYBER PROUST - Jojo G. Silvestre () - August 29, 2010 - 12:00am

The Sound of Music remains to be my favorite movie, not even if I saw Like Water for Chocolate, A Walk in the Clouds and The House of Spirits. And not even if I imagined myself mingling with the characters of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which every social climber worth her climbing gear (read: Birkin) should watch again and again.

Of late, I laughed and cried while watching Letters to Juliet in a Glorietta moviehouse much to the consternation of my niece Tonette. With the dainty sophistication of a grand dame, I wiped my cheeks, and not my eyes, as I shed tears, afraid that they would turn into puffballs if I rubbed the tissue paper too strongly. My sob story reminds me of a lady whom, when her husband died, looked up at the ceiling each time she wanted to cry. She was afraid that if her tears fell, the mascara would smear the windows to her soul. The only time I looked up at a ceiling and kept at it for minutes, never mind that I strained my neck, I was in the home of art collector Teyet Pascual. I couldn’t take my eyes off the masters who were staring back at me from above.

I love romances and even the happiest moments in a movie make me cry. That’s probably why I love The Sound of Music, the musical film that I watched when I was eight years old in the company of my cousin, Manang Glo. She provided a running translation for me in whispers loud enough for the child seated next to us to hear and understand the problem that was Maria. The moviehouse was called EVER which, I was to learn later, stood for the Rufino siblings — Ernesto, Vicente, Esther and Rafael, as if you didn’t know. Just to check my SCQ or Social Climbing Quotient, Ernesto married Elvira Baltazar, Vicente married Meding Sunico, and Rafael married Julie Abad. I’m afraid I can’t get a perfect score. Will someone please tell me if the Esther in the EVER became Mrs. Galvez? Goodness, I used to remember these names like an evangelist who can tell who married or lived with whom in the Bible.

My brilliant Manang Glo it was who, when she saw I was fascinated by the women in the social pages, explained to me who they were and what they stood for, and told me of the world that they occupied, short of saying, stop it, you’re meant to be a doctor like your father. But then, she also said I should probably be a journalist and write a column like Max Soliven, whom she liked and respected. I couldn’t tell her I wanted to be like Lina Flor and Carmen Perez.

But to go back to the Von Trapps, I would have loved to be the cunning Baroness who was after the stern Captain’s heart, except that she didn’t bag him and I am too kind to children to be a cruel witch to them. (That’s bruha in Pilipino.) And speaking of cruel characters, my friend Rodney said no one can beat Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and her ambitious stepsisters when it comes to social climbing by marrying up, although one of the sisters is supposed to be a simpleton who can’t decide whether to be nice or mean to Cinderella.

Also, I love movies with grand houses for a setting, though I didn’t finish Gone with the Wind. I’m doubly thrilled by scenes with grand staircases probably because I was never a proper debutante. The movie Titanic, with all its social characters, including an Astor who went down with the ill-fated ship, appealed to me not because of Leonardo DiCaprio, but the magnificent staircase and, of course, my favorite character, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, the parvenu who saved many lives because of her stubborn will.

Anyway, merrily we climb along today as I share with you some books that, as I was saying, should be read by those who would dare make it to the kasosyalan summit. 

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton brought me to a time and place I might have gladly lived in, except that I’m too scandalous to have been allowed to live that long in the proper and staid old New York of High Society. I would have run to Paris where I’d be in and out of love, and no one would care.

To go back to Maria, she is, to me, the quintessential lady who marries up. But there are variations, of course. You don’t have to be a yaya to the children of a widower don or sultan. You can be a caregiver. Or you can be a dance instructor. Whether the old rich dying man marries you is something else. We have the likes of Rose Lacson Hancock who had to fight for her right as her husband’s heiress, and she eventually got what she wanted and, most importantly, what she deserved.

A favorite book of mine is The Fortune Hunters: Dazzling Women And The Men They Married. Author Charlotte Hays tells the lives of beautiful women who married rich men because they were either too beautiful to be ignored by their rich and powerful husbands, or they knew which guys to look for, seduce and inveigle into marrying them. Well, that is not always the story. Some familiar names include Mercedes Kellogg who became Mercedes Bass, Princess Diana, Carolyn Bessette who married America’s Prince Charming John F. Kennedy Jr., Wallis Duchess of Windsor, Jackie O, Pamela Harriman who first married the son of Winston Churchill before she played mistress to Gianni Agnelli, and Melania Knauss who became the third Mrs. Donald Trump. Not all of them are household names in this part of the world, but they have their counterparts and I am not about to name names.

How else does one make it? Join the beauty contest, take the crown, and flaunt your title. Or you can be coy even if you were once a prostitute. Be a geisha, be a courtesan, like someone I know who knows how to make her man feel good. She is not, by the way, a real woman. But the woman I know who knows how to make her man happy sits closely beside her general, files his nails, and in her throaty voice, whispers in his ears like Lady Dracula would suck blood from her ill-fated lover’s neck. He is thrilled, of course. And they’re only talking about the latest coup d’etat.

A classic that’s everyone’s favorite must-read for those who would climb the stairway to social heaven is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I have never read it. And since everyone is into chick-lit I decided I’d finally get myself a copy at the National Book Store. To my amazement, I didn’t only get myself a cheap paperback copy, I also found a companion to it. Flirting with Pride and Prejudice is a collection of recently-written essays that, according to its back cover, “take a fresh and humorous look at Austen’s classic tale of looking for Mr. Right, marrying rich and finding a true love in the process.” If you want to marry Mr. Right-cum-Rich in this time of the YouTube and Facebook, read this one. It shouldn’t be hard to bag a man of immeasurable means as the opening of the novel affirms for all time, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” On the other hand, if you are a man, it’s equally true that many young women, many of them belonging to families who own the top 200 corporations, are in need of husbands. The queue isn’t too long, so there’s a good chance for our social climbing hunky young men to finally get to bed and sleep happily ever after with not necessarily beautiful women, instead of getting by with a beautiful and happy man who cannot offer a lifetime security.

My favorite, though not a classic, and non-fiction, is The Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black And White Ball by Deborah Davis. Truman was riding high on the success of his creative non-fiction account, In Cold Blood, and wanted to reward himself. He decided to give himself a “great, big, all-time spectacular present.” This would turn out to be the bal masque that had the rich, famous and powerful begging Truman for an invitation. Topping the guest list were the women he called his “swans,” rich, beautiful and possessing a great personal style.  

Marella Agnelli was the wife of Fiat’s Giani Agnelli. Her face, according to the author, “combining the strong features on a Roman coin with the mystery of a Botticelli Madonna, always appeared cool and knowing, as if she were watching from on high, observing lesser mortals at play.”

Gloria Guinness was “the ultimate... a slender woman with a perfectly coiffed cloud of jet black hair, bright, expressive eyes, a knowing smile, and an air of perpetual youth and easy elegance... Gloria said that her family sent her to Europe when life in Mexico became dangerous, but rumors persisted that Gloria came from nothing and supported herself by working in a Mexican dance hall, where she dazzled men with her sultry charm.” Gloria was married several times, at age 23 to the German Count Franz Egon von Furstenberg-Herdringen. She next tied the knot with a younger man, the grandson of King Faud I of Egypt, and finally hooked the sea-loving Thomas Loel Evelyn Bulkeley Guinness, who owned homes in Paris, Switzerland, Normandy, Palm Beach and New York, as well as airplanes and helicopters.

The other swans were Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, Pamela Harriman, and the woman “who was the goddess Truman always imagined — and desperately wanted — his mother to be. Barbara “Babe” Paley was beautiful, refined, stylish and completely at home in the rarefied worlds of money, power and high society.” In the Philippines, she would be Meldy Cojuangco.

Babe Paley’s life is more detailed in the book, The Sisters, by David Grafton, who narrates the biography of the three Cushing sisters — Babe, who became Mrs. Mortimer and later Mrs. Paley; Betsey who married a Roosevelt first, and then a Whitney; and Minnie who married an Astor whom she would divorce and change him for an artist surnamed Fosburgh, a homosexual. Vincent Astor, her ex husband, later married Brooke Astor who, when she was widowed became New York’s grand dame whose celebrated life would later turn into a tragedy, with a son supposedly maltreating her in her old age, and stealing the millions that she had meant to give away to charity after her death.

Enough of sad stories. Babe Paley, early in her life, landed on the International Best Dressed List and became a Hall of Famer. When I think of her, I think of our many society women who, in the years before martial law, made it to the prestigious Best Dressed Awards. The first time the awards came out in 1967, the women who made it were Chona Kasten, Prissy Sison, Chito Madrigal then Mrs. Vasquez, Meldy Cojuangco, Remy Arguelles, Baby Forest, Elvira Manahan, Nelly Lovina, Pressy Lopez and Gretchen Cojuangco.

The 1968 awardees were Prissy Sison, Chona Kasten, Meldy Cojuangco, Baby Fores, Remy Arguelles, Letty Montelibano, Tingting Cojuangco, Celine Heras, Gretchen Cojuangco and Elvira Manahan.

For the next awards, voted for their poise, personality, consistency, grooming, flair and accessories were Tingting Cojuangco, Meldy Cojuangco, Celine Heras, Chona Kasten, Baby Fores, Elvira Manahan, Prissy Sison, Fe Dolor Serrano, Stella Marquez and Minnie Osmena, the last lauded for the way she carried herself in the presidential election where her father Serging ran against Ferdinand Marcos.

In 1971, the winners were Tingting Cojuangco, Celine Heras, Remy Arguelles, Letty Montelibano, Stella Araneta, Fe Dolor Serrano, Techie Ysmael, Lydia Rodriguez, Mely de Leon, and Margarita Sison.

These women, I read somewhere, shopped at Rustan’s and Lord and Lady, bought imported dresses or had their fineries made at New Yorker Gown Salon, and constantly appeared in a magazine column called “Who Wore What When.” 

Let’s play an easy game this time. All you have to do is name those who made it to the glamorous list three times and became a Hall of Famer. Some of them didn’t make it to this “most wanted to be in” list because martial law was declared. Incidentally, Imeldific was out of the race, although she would have easily made it, for despite all that has been said of her, she was, especially as a First Lady, a very well-dressed woman, the epitome of Filipina elegance.

The master, Ramon Valera, and the other Spanish-speaking couturiers, along with Imelda Reyes of The Plaza fame, were behind the selection of the best-dressed women. A book about the Dean of Philippine Fashion is on my shelf. Titled Valera, Cada Traje Es Una Obra Maestra, and published by the Tantoco-Rustia Foundation, this coffee table book shows his masterpieces worn by his muses, among them, Imelda Marcos, Luz Puyat, Chito Madrigal, Chona Recto, Elvira Manahan, Fe Dolor-Serrano, Betty Favis Gonzalez, Baby Arenas and Prissy Sison.

I once had a chance to converse with his nieces Pilar Valera Jimenez, Paching Valera dela Fuenta, Corazon Valera Pellicer, Goya Feria Reynoso, Titang Zulueta Sandejas and Peching Zulueta Gomez.

As a brother or brother-in-law to their parents, their Tito Ramon was very thoughtful. Pilar, whom I call Tita Pi, recalls that each time her father, Jaime, celebrated his birthday, “ Tito Ramon would ask him, kuwarta o kahon? And my father would say, kuwarta at kahon, and Tito Ramoning would give him both.”

Being close to his siblings, Ramoning dressed them up. One time, he made a gown of yellow and purple for his sister Didi Feria. It was then a far-out combination that elicited “oohs” and “aahs” from her friends.

He was close to his sister-in-law Nene Ching, Tita Pi and Azon’s mother who also had a dress shop. Tita Pi recalls, “He would ask her to pray when he needed something from above.” Azon narrates, “Tito Ramon was quite insecure about being alone in the hospital. So, one time he was sick and saw my mom who had come to take care of him, he said, all right, I’m okay, the Pompadour is here,” referring to Nene Ching’s always impeccably-coiffed hairdo.

Their Tito Ramon played favorites among his nephews and nieces and didn’t mind showing his attitude. Tony, Tita Pi’s youngest brother, was among them.

Another one was Bambi, son of Ramon’s sister Lulu Zulueta. “He once gave our mother a bag made of fur,” relates Peching. “It was very expensive but we didn’t like it. We even made fun of it. We were laughing when Tito Ramon heard us. When he found out the reason, he got mad and scolded us. ‘Don’t laugh because it is a beautiful bag,’ he declared, and we all had to suppress our giggles.”

He eavesdropped on his nieces when they were talking with friends over the phone. Azon remembers the time she had just arrived from Spain. “My friend asked what ballpen is in Spanish. I said pluma. Then, a voice on the extension phone said, No, es poligrafo.”

Ramon was a stickler for proper manners. “When we were eating talangka, which we enjoyed very much, he would remind us, dos dedos or two fingers, meaning we could not use the other fingers while eating ” remembers Titang.

He saw Azon eating shrimps one time, and corrected her immediately, “Never use a steak knife for your shrimps.”

As their style mentor, their Tito Ramon was exacting. If he didn’t like what they were wearing, he would not let that pass, and say, “Que Fea.”

When Tita Pi and her sisters, as little girls, would dress up on Sundays for Mass, their Tito Ramon would watch them to make sure they wore the right dresses with the right shoes and socks, and the young girls’ accessories that they all had. When they turned into teenagers, Ramon insisted that they wear makeup. Every time he saw Azon in rollers, he would say, “So, we now have a Marie Antoinette.”

Ramon designed Goya’s high school graduation gown. When one of the family maids joined the Maid in the Philippines contest, he had her wear the same gown, and she won.

Peching once visited him. “When he saw that I was in a red, white and blue outfit, he stood up and said, I can now sing the national anthem.”

When he saw that something was amiss in the gown of the young Pilar, who was attending a party, he cut out lace flowers and pinned them on her attire. “While dancing, I was very cautious because I was afraid I would be hurt by the pins stuck all over my gown,” shares Tita Pi.

His nieces shared with me tidbits on their Tito Ramon’s style and way of life. He had a striped bathroom. His den in Greenhills was black and white. Aqua was his favorite color. He decorated the house of his sister Nena Gabaldon, and had Chinese lanterns hung in the trees.

When he watched the Oscar Awards, he guessed the winners, and his choices always won. His Christmas presents had custom-made personalized wrappers. He had a silver straw, with a spoon at the end so he could use it for stirring his juice or iced tea.

On the women that he dressed, they have interesting recollections, too. His loyal clients included Chito Madrigal, Baby Fores, Gretchen Cojuangco, Pacita delos Reyes, Medong Favis, Betty Gonzalez, Pitang Eusebio and, of course, Elvira Manahan. Their Tito Ramon gave Elvira, who was aspiring to be an actress, a gown that she wore for the vaudeville. He dressed up Primo Santos’ daughter, Marilyn, from her baptism to her wedding. Another young woman, Melba Tumang, wore a Valera for her first communion and the other milestones of her life. Charing Custodio wore a Valera each time she went out to dance on Tuesday nights. Tito Ramon was very close to the Vera Perezes, and by extension, to the showbiz people. Among the stars, his favorites were Barbara Perez and Gloria Romero. He made the wedding gown of Rosemarie Sonora. Some of his favorite models were Cherrie Pie Villonco, Toni Serrano, Conchitina Sevilla, Margie Santamaria, Pearly Arcache, Tina Santos, Elsa Payumo, Joji Felix Velarde and Mila Lichauco. A close friend and a client was Doña Orang Hidalgo, the mother of Lulu Tinio. He would admonish her not to be too thrifty. His girlfriends were Luz Puyat and Bading Eraña. Mrs. Marcos’ gowns were in crates. He designed several gowns from which she could take a pick for a particular occasion. He was really inspired by Imelda because she had a good figure. She had a size 10 mannequin in his atelier. The last wedding gown he made was for Apples Pelaez. When he died, Mrs. Luz Magsaysay said, “I lost two Ramonings in my life.”

If he were alive, Ramon Valera would be 98 years old, come Aug. 31. To the master we say, Happy Birthday!

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