Sunday Lifestyle

Daddy Johnny

LA DIVINA - Techie Ysmael-Bilbao - The Philippine Star

I’d like to begin this week’s column with a little info on my father’s family. The founder of the Magdalena Estate, where the Ysmael fortunes were rooted, was Doña Magdalena Hashim Ysmael (later Hemady). Her heir was her grandson and my dad, Johnny Ysmael. Sadly, my father died ahead of her, so when the family corporation Ysmael Steel was being established at the time, my dad’s baby brother Felipe “Baby” Ysmael Jr. took over.

In an article for this daily written earlier this year, my disco-king brother Louie was quoted as saying, “My great-grandmother was the one who bought all these properties in Manila and Batangas when they cost only centavos.” When Emme (Lebanese for lola) died, Tito Baby became the owner and managing director of Ysmael Steel. He was a young tycoon then, much younger than the esteemed Don Manolo Elizalde, who owned Ysmael Steel’s basketball rival YCO. Ysmael Steel prospered with the manufacturing of steel and home appliances under the trademark of Admiral, later importing Fiat cars.

They were part of the basketball league at that time. The YCO and Ysmael Steel teams lorded over Philippine basketball. A famous Manila landmark was the huge Ysmael Steel robot on the sprawling front lawn of their factory on España Extension. Tito Baby eventually sold Ysmael Steel to the Guevarras of Volkswagen when his whole family moved to Australia. According to Louie, Tito Baby ran the family company well until he unfortunately made a lot of wrong business decisions, causing Ysmael Steel to fail and squandering the family fortune on the gambling table.

So much has been said about my mom (Chona Kasten), but because of Daddy Johnny’s untimely demise, very few can tell and retell stories about him and his dashing, debonair ways. But because we were his children, we were told stories by grandparents, aunts, uncles (like Tito Miguel Perez-Rubio), and friends, and they all agreed he was a real charmer. 

He met Mommy Chona when the war broke out and she was recalled from Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York. They dated and danced the nights away while my lolo (Claro M. Recto) predicted that the glamorous couple in love would soon walk down the aisle and tie the knot. He was right.   

My mother recounted how he loved her, with his elegant clothes, racehorses, and fast cars. He was always romantic and danced with her to La Vie en Rose all night when they were in France and Switzerland. They were always dressed to the nines — linen, cotton, and sharkskin outfits in the summer, and well-cut tweeds, knits, and cashmere in the winter. His watches and accessories were branded then. Auntie Rosie Kanaan and my dad’s sisters Tita Luisa and Tita Nena swore he spoiled his wife and four children. He always whispered in my baby ears how guapa my mom was because she was sooooo feminine. He loved Hollywood and my mother even told us that he knew Bugsy Siegel. They gambled extravagantly in Monaco at night, and Emme paid all his bills at the Casino Royale. 

He was Emme’s niño bonito. My mother lamented about his grandmother Emme spoiling him rotten and giving him everything he wanted, including the funds to order a Ferrari custom-built exclusively for him — but he passed away before ever getting to drive the car. My father was definitely a sports car enthusiast, among other things, and that gorgeous 1951 two-tone 250hp Vignale Coupe — which was featured in Road & Track magazine — cost $25,000. The car was built according to my father’s designs, and after the completion of the bodywork, the forms were thrown away so the car could truly be “the only one of its kind.” Like most of Daddy Johnny’s cars, it was super-chromed and light in weight because all the bodywork and interior fittings were molded and cast in aluminum. He even bought electric cars for the boys and they drove around the house on 7th St.

One day in Madrid, after a road trip in a top-down Alfa Romeo, my dad was diagnosed with tuberculosis as his coughing made him cringe in pain. My mother tried to control his soft drinks early in the morning. Doctors said he was going to live in pain for a month and then die, so he asked to be brought home to die in the Philippines. He was 32 years old.

There we were in Baguio because he wanted us to be away so we wouldn’t catch anything. If I remember correctly, we were celebrating my cousin Carlos Perez-Rubio’s birthday with a party at Villa Lupe, and we saw my dad breathing through an oxygen tank. I knew he was gone when he stopped moving and I heard the sobs of my mother, which later on turned into wails. It was one of the very few times I saw my mom lose it.










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