The first tycoon, Don Vicente Madrigal, and the women in his life

CYBER PROUST - Jojo G. Silvestre () - September 5, 2010 - 12:00am

MJ, my godson and ward, asks me if I have read all my books and I tell him “No.” He wonders then why I should still be buying from National Book Store and ordering more titles from my cousins in the United States, when I haven’t even finished reading the books I have. I clarify that I have read most of them from preface to index. As for the rest, they serve as references that I open to certain pages only, because they contain important information about the subjects that delight me. That, more or less, sums up my relationship with the books that I so love dearly they’re like boyfriends to me. I love some of them more, of course, and now and then pick my flavor of the month, as though they were ice cream. I don’t just read my books. I converse with them, too. And when I disagree with what they’re saying, I get into histrionics and they let me be. It’s naturally a one-sided argument, and how I can get away with it? But in fairness to me, I never, ever judge them by their covers.

My cousins have, through the years, been sending me books from the United States; that’s why I have enough titles about the Kennedys from the patriarch to Caroline and her daughters, the Vanderbilts, and so on. Thanks to them, I am able to follow my imaginary mentor’s advice that I read all the books that read like the ones I want to write. On top of all these, of course, I get vicarious pleasure from breaking bread with Gloria Vanderbilt now, and the Mrs. Astor more than a century ago. And I don’t even have to beg for an invitation.

The first tycoon

Recently, I went to Powerbooks and got myself The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by TJ Stiles. I couldn’t resist the temptation because the elite history buff in me says there’s no point in knowing about the Vanderbilt women if I do not know how they got into real money and, with it, their lofty social status. Okay, I’m not about to pretend I’ve read the opus from page one to page 719.

The book, winner of the National Book Award in 2009, traces the life of American business icon Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt “who, through his genius and force of will, did more than perhaps any other individual to create modern capitalism.” Stiles’ book “describes an improbable life, from Vanderbilt’s humble birth during the presidency of George Washington to his death as one of the richest men in American history. In between we see how the Commodore helped to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation. Epic in its scope and success, the life of Vanderbilt is also the story of the rise of America itself.”

The vanderbilt women

What tickles me and rouses my social climbing instinct is the book focusing on the female members of the clan, Vanderbilt Women: Dynasty of Wealth, Glamour and Tragedy, by Clarice Stasz. Four Vanderbilt women, through different generations, contribute to the Vanderbilt mystique as they cope with varied challenges, from emotional and social to political.

As Mrs. Astor, the leader of New York society, continued to refuse to accept the newly-arrived Vanderbilts, it was Alva Smith Vanderbilt who decided enough was enough. To celebrate the completion of the magnificent mansion her husband, William, built at 666 Fifth Avenue, she decided to host a fancy dress ball, to which she did not invite the daughter of Mrs. Astor. At the last hour, the Queen of the Four Hundred had to pay a call on Alva to secure the invitation that her daughter had been waiting for. Why, Miss Astor even rehearsed a quadrille with her friends, and while they all received their invites, she didn’t. (My ultimate reference on Mrs. Astor, also part of my shelf, is Mrs. Astor’s New York, Money and Social Power In A Gilded Age, by Eric Homberger.)

Consuelo Vanderbilt Marlborough Balsan was “forced into a spectacular but deeply unhappy marriage to the Duke of Marlborough by her mother, Alva.” She directed her attention and energy, instead, to helping poor women and children. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Consuelo’s shy and talented cousin, “lived a double life as a society hostess and devoted wife to her handsome and spoiled polo-playing husband. In Paris and Greenwich Village, she worked as a sculptress whose fellow artists became her lovers.”

Finally there remains Gloria Vanderbilt di Cicco, Stokowski, Lumet, Cooper, better known as the “original poor little rich girl,” whose mother and aunt fought for her custody. When she grew up, she became one of the world’s best dressed, and many more. Remember the Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, real or fake, that we all wore in the late 1970s?

The Vanderbilts are not known for philanthropy in the manner of the Fords, Rockefellers, and much later, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet: billionaires who would give their money away to the world. For the causes they believed in, of course. The Commodore was something else. In the Stiles book, one story stands out regarding Cornelius’s way of giving. Let me quote liberally portions about the Methodist Minister Charles F. Deems who became a regular dinner guest to the Cornelius Vanderbilt home. “Cornelius Vanderbilt heard that the minister was negotiating for the purchase of the Mercer Street Presbyterian Church for $50,000. ‘Doctor, I’ll give you that church.’ Deems flared indignantly. ‘There is not any man in America rich enough to have me for a chaplain.’

“‘Doctor, I don’t know what you mean. Lord knows I’ve got as little use for a chaplain as any other man you ever saw. I want to give you this church, and give it to you only. Now, will you take it?’

“‘Commodore,’ Deems replied, ‘if you give me the church for the Lord Jesus Christ, I’ll most thankfully accept it.’

“‘Now, Doctor, I would not give it to you that way, because that would be professing to you a religious sentiment I do not feel. I want to give you a church; that’s all there is.’

“The two men stood up together. ‘Commodore, in whatever spirit you give it, I am deeply obliged, but I shall receive it in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.’”

Don Vicente

While the Commodore was the first tycoon of America and the world, Vicente Madrigal was the first tycoon of the Philippines. So far, the only book that has been written about Don Vicente was authored by National Artist Carlos Quirino. Philippine Tycoon: The Biography of an Industrialist traces the life of Don Vicente from his birth in Ligao, Albay to his rise in Philippine industry. Quirino quotes President Manuel L. Quezon who described Madrigal as “brilliant, so hardworking and so keen a businessman that before he reached the age of 50 he became one of the few multi-millionaires in the Philippines. And I may add in passing that every cent he made, he made honestly and by the sweat of his brow.”

Quezon, Sergio Osmeña Sr. and Don Vicente were classmates, first in Letran for their bechillerato where the future tycoon obtained the grade of sobresaliente or excellent in all his subjects, including Latin grammar, analysis and translation; rhetoric and poetry; logic and moral philosophy; and geometry and rectilinear trigonometry. At the University of Santo Tomas, where the three enrolled in law school, Madrigal once again proved his brilliance by getting “excellent” in all his subjects, while Osmeña had one “failure,” and Quezon had two “very good” marks. 

Later, Quezon said in a public meeting: “Osmeña, Sumulong, Vicente Madrigal and myself were classmates. One of our subjects was political economy. At the end of the course, Osmeña and I chose the political part of the subject, while Vicente chose the economic part. And now, we are all in debt, while Madrigal is affluent.”

Several times I’ve heard some Madrigal scions talk about the book’s failure to expound on Don Vicente’s many accomplishments, especially his support for presidentiables who made it to the country’s number one position. Still, the book should be read by every student of entrepreneurship. This is a How To Be A Tycoon 101 for those who aspire beyond the sari-sari store or the tiangge stall that sells trinkets and what-have-you. It is also must reading for students of political science, as it illustrates the relationship between big business and the presidency.

From dreamer to ship owner

According to Quirino, “the small boy Vicente was fond of making tiny wooden ships or folding pieces of paper into the semblance of vessels during the rainy season, when puddles of water would form in the Madrigal backyard.” His mother one day teased him: “Those boats, Son, can’t carry you anywhere.”

“Yes,” said the boy, “but someday, Mama, I will own plenty of real ships and you and Papa will travel aboard them around the world.” It was a prophecy that halfway came true, as Don Vicente did become a shipping magnate; but by then, his parents were already dead, and he was only able to send his sister Rosario on an extended holiday in Spain.   

When he finally became a businessman as a coal wholesaler, his secret dream was to become a ship owner so he could buy coal directly from producers and mine owners. A ship was what he needed, and with the help of his friend Russell, he finally was able to buy his first seagoing vessel. His first act as the new owner of a 4,000-ton collier was to “put on denim or maong shirt and trousers and make a thorough inspection of the insides of the ship, from the bilge to the mast. He went around with a small hammer, poking and pounding at the walls and partitions, asking the mate and the engineer question after question, and emerging hours afterwards covered with soot and grease... Don Vicente was determined to learn about the operation and maintenance of a ship — and this he did, so that by the time he bought his next vessel, he knew about it as much as the captain and the chief engineer combined. Thus, when ship surveyors made a report on any of the Madrigal fleet, they had to be very careful — otherwise, Don Vicente would challenge any errors they made. This passion for detail and his retentive memory were mainly responsible for his success in the shipping business.”

Dinner with clavell

I once had breakfast with Dr. Danny Vasquez and his wife, Ising, the youngest daughter of Don Vicente, who was said to be her father’s favorite. Their daughter Marivic, who reads a balance sheet as though it were the ABCs, arranged the interview in connection with my oral history project on the Pioneers of Philippine Commerce and Industry, and the couple agreed to meet me at the Manila Golf Club. Dr. Vasquez recalls having met James Clavell at a dinner in Hong Kong. “He was introduced to me by my friend, Andy, the man who produced the Rambo movies. When he was told about the life of my father-in-law by Andy, Clavell became very interested,” said Dr. Vasquez. At one point, Clavell expressed his desire to do a movie about the life of Don Vicente. He died before he could even discuss it with the family. At the time the Vasquez couple were in Hong Kong; they were in exile due to family concerns regarding inheritance.

Don Vicente amassed his fortune before the war and was the number one ship magnate even before anyone had heard of Aristotle Onassis. The Madrigals owned more ships than most Greek ship-owning families. Of course, we all know about Rizal Cement, Jai Alai, and many more companies that he owned, including his part ownership of the Mandaluyong Estate. Don Vicente was ably assisted by his wife, the former Susana Paterno, a very creative woman who sewed and designed dresses.

Doña Susana may well be the original feng shui believer, except that the Filipino’s romance with wind, water and fire had existed even before she made a killing on any real estate property. If there was one person who knew about location, location, location, that would be Doña Susana. On second thought, location, location, location, as a number one rule, would probably apply to those who bought near the Madrigal properties as well. For all the successes that the Madrigal women have attained, they would not compare with the matriarch, whose numerous real estate investments contributed immensely to the family’s wealth.

Doña Susana’s beliefs

According to Carlos Quirino, “All the Madrigal enterprises had one peculiarity arising from Doña Susana’s superstitious beliefs. Employees never received their pay on Saturdays or Mondays whenever payday fell on those two days of the week. ‘After earning money all week, why let it out on the weekend?’ she told subordinates. ‘And on the very first day of the week to earn money, it’s just as bad to spend it…’ Again, whenever the Madrigals had a building constructed, the entrance never faced the west — for in that way, she claimed, money would go out fast. Don Vicente’s room never was located at the end of a corridor, and his desk never faced the outside door.”

The late Chito Madrigal-Collantes, her astute businesswoman-lawyer daughter, did it differently, and became much richer in her own right. The bottom line, she told me in an interview, is making the right decisions, and “in order to make a decision, you have to know what you are doing, the facts, the details, everything. Otherwise, you will go bankrupt.” It was only after her father died that she, herself, invested big, having received her fair chunk of her parents’ wealth.

I told her that she managed her resources very well, to which she replied, “Our father taught us so. We were taught to work. My father and my mother used to work in the office.” Chito shared with me her work ethic. “You have to know what you are doing,” she said. “Be honest. You have to do something good, for the people and the country.”

Between my first interview with Chito, in connection with the dissertation that I never finished, and my last interview for my research on Conchita Sunico and for my personal oral history project on upper class women, there was an interval of two decades. In 1987, I asked Chito about her social life, and she recalled the time she, Conchita Sunico, Chona Kasten and Mary Prieto were known as “the party girls.” “It was right after the war, and everyone wanted to forget, so we had all these parties.“ Twenty years after, she spoke of wanting to have done it differently. I reminded her that she played Leonor Rivera in a Severino Montano play. “That was a span of my life,” she said, “a stupid span of my life.” I don’t think playing the role of Leonor Rivera was something silly, I retorted, and she said, “I could have done something more to help people.” No, she did not regret it, she assured me, but insisted that engaging in activities to help the poor would have been the better option. “We all are not perfect. We do silly things,” she added. She didn’t mention that toward the latter part of her life, she put up the Consuelo Madrigal Foundation, which has been helping Bicolano families get out of poverty.

You are very well respected, I told Chito. “For people to respect you, you must command their respect,” she answered.

Sleepover at 77 cambridge circle

Around the late 1980s, Chito gave me a one-shot-deal job, which was to make a list of her books. As she wanted it done fast, I invited myself to sleep in her house over the weekend. Encarnacion, the nice and slim majordoma, had the room at one end of the library fixed for me. She said it was Chuchu’s room. Next to Chuchu’s room was a cubbyhole of a space that, Encar told me, the man of the house occupied. Adjoining it was Chito’s large bedroom.

At the other end, closer to the porte cochere, was her dressing room, which I caught a glimpse of. Dresses and shoes filled up the room. Had I seen them earlier, I would not be surprised that Imelda had as much. The Collanteses were away in Batangas. When they arrived the next day, Encar demoted me to the guest room in the basement.

Chito and Secretary Collantes owned the largest collection of books I had ever seen at the time in a private home. I used a wooden ladder, like the ones in libraries, to reach the topmost part of the shelf that lined the three walls of the library cum TV room. The books, like the framed photographs, spilled over to the anteroom and the bedrooms. I remember seeing a Luna in the living room, and a Manansala mural that extended from one end of the formal dining room to the other. There were more paintings on the wall of the staircase that led to the basement office. One day, the lady of the house hosted a Christmas luncheon for her women friends. I had my lunch in the library where Encar brought me soup and salad from the party in the lanai. I never felt any lighter. Now and then, when I want to lose weight and only take soup and salad, I tell my friends I’m on a Cambridge Circle diet.

Like their father, the Madrigal women supported the presidential candidates to their liking. Chito was the leader of the Lakambini group which supported Diosdado Macapagal in his 1965 bid for reelection. “He could have won, had he gone to the Iglesia ni Cristo, but he refused to do so,” Chito told me. Her elder sister, Macaria, was loyal to the Macapagals since she and Eva Macapagal were classmates. Ising and her husband Danny supported Ferdinand Marcos who wanted the surgeon to be the Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Doctor Vasquez had to refuse Marcos’s offer since he and his wife had to focus on the litigation proceedings regarding their inheritance. They finally settled with Ising’s brother, Tony, thus ending their six-year exile.

Pacita Madrigal, a ballerina in her youth, supported Ramon Magsaysay in 1953 with her Women for Magsaysay Group. Magsaysay later appointed her as Social Welfare Administrator. In 1955, Manang Pacita, as her supporters called her, topped the senatorial elections and, at age 40, was the lone woman in the upper house.

Decades later, Chito Collantes sat in the Interim Batasang Pambansa. In 2004, Jamby Madrigal, Tony’s daughter, made it to the Senate.

Yes, Ferdinand Marcos courted Chito, but as she often said, “It’s good I didn’t accept his proposal, or he would only have been president of Rizal Cement.” Doña Macaria, who served her parish as a collector during Mass, enjoyed dancing in her golden years. Manang Pacita, the original Robert Powers girl, preferred to keep to herself. Not much is known of their sister, Josefina, except that she married a very handsome man, Francisco Bayot, who became manager of the Jai Alai fronton frequented by Manila’s 400.   While Jamby is known to have been vocal about many issues when she was a Senator, her aunt, Chito, will always be remembered for her many pronouncements that reflected her wit, independence of mind, and the courage to speak of things as they were.

Social climbers all

In my last interview with the Chito, I asked how it felt to be a grand dame. She looked at me and said, “I am not a grand dame.” “Is there a typical Madrigal woman?”   “I don’t think there’s a typical Madrigal woman. No. Each one of us is different,” she said. Then she added, “Nobody tells us what to do. We do what we think is right.”

Finally, I asked her the question closest to my heart: “Would you like to say a few words about the evolution of Philippine high society through the years?”

 “I don’t know why they call it high society. And I have some friends who say that some people are social climbers. That’s nothing. What is important is we all do what we think is right. When someone says some people are social climbers, I say, all of us are society climbers,” Chito Madrigal-Collantes declared.

This, from a woman who was always at the top of society.

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Should you agree or disagree, praise or damn, please e-mail me at cyber.proust@yahoo.com

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