How the Marcoses Plundered the Philippines for Designer Clothes, Priceless Art, and New York Real Estate
In the opening scene of The Kingmaker—the latest entry in documentarian Lauren Greenfield's exploration of how the super-wealthy live—Imelda Marcos steadily flicks note after note of Philippine pesos out of her car window, bedraggled children politely accepting with a thank you. More children arrive. Then more. The crowd soon becomes frantic, adults jumping the queue. Just as the crowd reaches fever pitch, the traffic light turns green. The former First Lady's motorcade leaves, window wound up, the slums of Manila quickly left behind.
It captures the central tension in Marcos: a philanthropic smokescreen that hides the legacy of the Philippines' biggest bank robber. The 90-year-old is really just returning what is due. During her husband's reign, the late Ferdinand Marcos plundered the coffers of the Philippines for more than 20 years, cutting costs on building projects, embezzling overseas aid funds, and maintaining a rabbit warren of Swiss bank accounts—all to the tune of an estimated $10 billion.
Governmental corruption is nothing new (nor have we moved past it in the global west—just ask Donald Trump's current administration). But the Marcos family took personal interest to a professional level. As Marcos guides the audience through her home, we're told that, following her husband's deposition, they were left with nothing. Her gilded bungalow, full of vases and diamond-encrusted tat and portraits of the former First Lady in her youth, is a very strange interpretation of nothing.
Although, compared to what she used to have, it must seem a pittance. In their prime, the Marcos family subsisted on a diet of diamonds, gold bullion and Porsches: Imelda even boasted of a Bulgari bracelet that was valued at $1 million back in 1986 (a price tag that would fetch more than double by 2019's standards). She had bulletproof bras. Various notebooks detailed sprees that included $451,000 on Cartier jewels, $43,370 on Asprey sterling silverware, and even $2,000 on chewing gum.
The American wife of a Marcos cabinet member recounts a similar tale. Gazing out at the Manhattan skyline, the First Lady asked her entourage if they liked New York's Crown Building. They replied positively. "Good," Marcos said, "because I'm gonna buy it." And so began the accumulation of a portfolio of prime American real estate, with the Marcos family extending their bejeweled grip to a Wall Street skyscraper, a Fifth Avenue tower, and further holiday homes in Beverly Hills, New Jersey, and across 13 acres of Long Island.
What's more, Filipino authorities seized over 100 missing paintings believed to have been purchased with laundered cash. In 2014, one popped up at an auction in New York, eventually selling for $43 million. That painting was Monet's 'Le Bassin Aux Nymphéas'. Three other impressionist pieces followed suit, and sales were eventually traced back to Marcos. She proclaimed innocence. She also once paid $3.5 million for an original Michelangelo.
The height of her ostentation, though, was perhaps Calauit Safari Park. In 1976, the then president approached Tony Parkinson, a Brit in the business of zoological translocation, with an idea. His wife had just been on safari. The Philippines, she deduced, deserved its own version. So that meant exporting tonnes of exotic animals to a small island off the coast of Palawan, all under the pretense that the Kenyan government had requested assistance in the conservation of endangered animals. An international body found no such request. The distance from eastern Africa to the Philippines alone was enough to discourage the project. It only took a briefcase of cash to persuade Parkinson, though.
More than 250 families were displaced to make way for the new residents. One woman, speaking to the camera in a memorable scene, says she'll never forget how the Marcos regime chose its pets over its own people. Natural bamboo forests were cleared to create a quasi-savannah. Gazelles, impalas, giraffes, zebra, and waterbucks soon arrived. The island thrived, and it made for a perfect family getaway.
But paradise was lost. Following a bloodless 'People Power' revolution, in which the populace railed against nine years of horrific martial law, the Marcos administration fell. And with it, Calauit. With no official gamekeepers, and no knowledge bestowed to the remaining island residents, animals overpopulated. Giraffes with shorter necks were observed. It wasn't unusual for a male baboon to mate with his biological children, and for them to mate with one another. "It's the damage you can't see that's most worrying," Parkinson tells the camera, reflecting upon his part in the Marcos empire. Imelda's reasoning for the whole charade was simple: "I just wanted to make things beautiful."
Like Calauit, the Marcos family swiftly vacated their official presidential residence at Manila's Malacañang Palace. Raiding protestors found a horde of treasures including 15 mink coats, 508 couture gowns, 888 handbags and, most famously, 3,000 pairs of designer shoes. And that was just what the Marcos's staff hadn't had time to pack into the family's escape plan to Hawaii. Many accused the family of smuggling further valuables amongst the Marcos infants' clothing; "diamonds in diapers," she says to the camera with a wry smile, as if we're to find such claims incredulous.
What should leave the world incredulous is that Imelda Marcos evaded conviction. Twenty-eight individual criminal charges were dropped. Despite a commission specifically made to recoup the ill-gotten wealth of the Marcos family, only a fraction was ever returned.
And the money still talks. The oldest son, Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos is a senator, and one on good terms with the current, right-wing populist leader Rodrigo Duterte. His presidential campaign was heavily funded by the Marcos dynasty. In turn, Bongbong's pitch for vice-president was actively endorsed by Duterte. The Marcos matriarch still lives a life of leisure, too, fully coiffed, in designer clothes, and handing out dollar notes at any public appearance on the campaign trail. She even scored her own tenure in the Filipino congress.
But on top of the corruption, and the immense plundering from public coffers, the wreckage of the Marcos family is still yet to settle. In the first act of The Kingmaker, the frail matriarch shuffles between aisles and aisles of baroque-framed photographs depicting various meetings with world leaders. One assumes the garden-based exhibition was organized especially for the camera. And, as she discusses a particular episode with Chairman Mao, a frame is nudged by accident, shattering on the floor. She moves onto the next, as if no such calamity occurred. A nameless staff member hastily sweeps away the mess. He is paid no heed.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.