The Brief But Remarkable Life Of Johnny Ysmael, Millionaire Playboy
Johnny Ysmael had the world.
It came with his last name: the Ysmaels were among the so-called Manila’s 400, a list of elite families who had wealth, education, prominence, and most importantly, pedigree. Johnny was one of the most eligible bachelors of his time.
The Ysmaels came from a line of Lebanese immigrants who had settled in the Philippines. The family matriarch was Doña Magdalena Hashim Ysmael-Hemady—Emme to her grandkids—who made her fortune buying up land in Manila and Batangas. Her first big success came in the 1930s, with the development of an hacienda in the outskirts of San Juan into a large subdivision called Magdalena Estate, which eventually became New Manila. The family also owned Ysmael Steel, once the leading manufacturer of steel and home electric appliances; later, they were the importers of the Fiat cars from Italy.
Johnny was Doña Magdalena's favorite and she spoiled her niño bonito by giving him everything he wanted—a custom-made Ferrari, expensive trips, the latest signature clothes. She even paid off his gambling debts.
Bon vivant Johnny lived fast and, unfortunately, died young. His story, however, is a reminder of the elegance and opulence of times gone by.
It's difficult to talk about Johnny Ysmael without mentioning Maria Priscilla Recto, undoubtedly Manila’s very first It girl. She was the youngest child of Claro M. Recto and his first wife, Angelina Silos. Her father called his favorite “Chona,” which came from the Spanish word "pichona" or "my little pigeon." As Johnny would later do, the Filipino statesman spoiled his daughter with clothes, jewelry, and travel.
Johnny was Doña Magdalena's favorite and she spoiled her niño bonito by giving him everything he wanted—a custom-made Ferrari, expensive trips, the latest signature clothes.
Chona had many friends and admirers during her time at St. Scholastica's College. She was prom queen of both Ateneo and La Salle. Though she loved to party and mingle, her father was very strict and she was forbidden to participate in dates, had a midnight curfew, and was expected to be a consistent honors student.
When Johnny and Chona met before the war, they felt an instant attraction. Chona, however, was sent to Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York—which delayed Johnny’s courtship as well as the young couple’s blossoming love. Chona returned when the war broke out, and fortunately, Johnny was waiting. They soon rekindled their relationship, went on dates, and danced and partied the nights away.
Despite initial reservations, Recto gave his blessing to the couple. Johnny and Chona married in a simple ceremony in December 1941. The intimate yet elegant wedding took place at San Agustin Church, amid the ruins of Intramuros. Children quickly followed: Juan Johnny "Piqui" Ysmael, Jr., Teresita “Techie” Ysmael-Bilbao, Mario Ramon "Ramoncito" Ysmael, and Luis Miguel "Louie" Ysmael.
Techie remembers growing up with her father whispering to her how guapa Chona was because of her unparalleled femininity. Chona reciprocated this love by telling her children how much Johnny loved her, maybe even more than his elegant clothes, racehorses, and fast cars.
Johnny and Chona shared their taste in exquisite things—fine clothes and fashion. In 1951, when the couple was in Europe, he asked his wife if she wanted a Balenciaga chinchilla fur coat or a diamond-studded Vacheron Constantin. Chona wanted both, and of course he delivered.
Johnny was passionate about cars and horses; Chona loved to travel. Both loved to dance. “They would go around the world and learn dancing: Argentina Tango, Cuban mambo, cha-cha, and then flamenco in Spain…pasodoble,” Techie recalls in the Town & Country Philippines feature on her mother.
The Connoisseur of Fine Things
Their traveling and partying were always complemented with fine clothes. The couple were always dressed to kill. “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,” Techie wrote back in 2014.
She added: “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,” Techie wrote.
The couple kept high-profile friends. When they were in Los Angeles, they would double date with Hollywood stars Tyrone Power and Linda Christian. They also hung out with notorious womanizer (and rumored assassin) Porfirio Rubirosa, the actor Ricardo Montalban, and the Marques de Portago.
Johnny was passionate about cars and horses; Chona loved to travel. Both loved to dance.
Were they living excessively? There were times Chona thought they did. Techie recalled her mother’s lamentations that Emme had spoiled Johnny rotten by giving him everything he wanted, which included funds to buy a custom-built sports car, a gorgeous 1951 two-tone 250hp Vignale Coupe which then cost $25,000. The car, which was featured in Road & Track magazine, was built according to Johnny’s designs. After the completion of the bodywork, the forms and instructions for building were thrown away so the car won’t ever be replicated and be truly 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 Street,” Techie wrote.
Apart from cars, Johnny was fond of horses. As a boy, he rode horses around New Manila with his close friends—a circle that included Benny Toda, who would one day own Philippine Airlines; and Enrique Zobel, who led the transformation of Makati from a swampy hacienda into the business district that it is today. They were birds of the same feather, all wealthy young scions from prominent families who were always described as "dashing": Zobel was known as one of the country's most talented polo players in his prime, while Toda was a licensed pilot who was known to fly his own plane to his private island, famed for its parties.
Johnny showed exceptional resilience, like the relentless courage he showed during the war. In December 1944, he and Miguel Perez-Rubio, statesman and boyfriend of his sister Luisa, planned the escape of Manuel Roxas to guerilla territory. On January 3, 1945, Johnny was arrested by the Japanese Kempeitai. Miguel was arrested a month later. They endured prison and interrogation until his father-in-law and President Jose P. Laurel interceded, and they were both released in March.
Unfortunately, the flip side of Johnny's tenacity was his stubbornness. One fine winter day, Johnny drove his convertible top-down from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Madrid. He was just recovering from pneumonia, and so the road trip worsened his condition. He was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis, yet he didn't even flinch at the diagnosis. “The hell he cared with not eating breakfast, and going out in the cold when it was winter, in lightweight clothes, as long as they were nice,” recounted Techie.
They were birds of the same feather, all wealthy young scions from prominent families who were always described as "dashing"
The family was asked to go back to their house in Quezon City, where Johnny stayed in bed, breathing through an oxygen tank. For a month, Johnny suffered. “I knew he was gone when he stopped moving and I heard the sobs of my mother, which later turned into wails. It was one of the very few times I saw my mom lose it,” Techie recalled.
Johnny was only 32.
When he died, his hearse was pulled by his favorite horse, Don Juan. Chona even pointed out to her children that the horse’s head was bowed down.
Doña Magdalena was heartbroken. She had lost her only heir of legal age, leaving her no choice but to transfer his rights to Johnny’s brother, Felipe “Baby” Ysmael Jr., who was only a baby that time. Coincidentally, it was also during that time Ysmael Steel was being established. Baby eventually became the owner and managing director of Ysmael Steel when Doña Magdalena passed away.
Ysmael Steel prospered with the manufacturing of steel and home appliances under the trademark of Admiral. A famous Manila landmark back then was the gigantic Ysmael Steel robot which sprawled the lawn of their factory on España Extension. The company also owned a basketball league that time, their most notable rival being YCO, which was owned by Don Manolo Elizalde.
Unfortunately, Baby seemed to have inherited his Johnny’s love of gambling, and he squandered the family fortune. After a series of bad business decisions, he sold Ysmael Steel to the Guevarras of Volkswagen before migrating with his family to Australia.
On the other hand, Chona remarried two years after Johnny’s death, to American entrepreneur Hans Kasten. Unfortunately, Hans and Chona weren't blessed with the same blissful relationship that she enjoyed with Johnny. Chona instead focused on her children and travels, making her name for herself in fashion and advertising. Though never without suitors, she always referred to Johnny as her true, great love.
Johnny’s children seemed to have taken after his love of luxury and society. Piqui, also known as Johnny the Third, inherited his father's vintage car collection, which he hasn't parted with to this day. Techie was a consistent honor student and had a flair for fashion, similar to her parents. During her commencement exercises, she even wore broke the rules and wore a mini-dress. Like her parents, she also loved to dance. She later became a model, designer, consultant, and author.
Like Techie, Louie studied abroad. He continued to work overseas and and bought a Ferrari with his first million. He returned to Manila in the '70s where he became known as Louie Y. He was one of Manila’s most eligible bachelors; at one point he dated Isabel Preysler, who would go on to become Julio Iglesias' wife. He was later responsible for putting up Kuya Pare in Mile Long, Euphoria (the old Where Else), Venezia (which became V Bar), and Nuvo, among others. Currently, he's a partner at Privé and The Palace.
Out of all Johnny’s children, Louie seems like the one who inherited his father’s ardent passion for partying, as the younger Ysmael lives out his years like his father never did. But though he's made his own mark on Manila’s night club scene, Johnny remains one tough class act to follow.
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Louie Ysmael on His Late Brother Hansi, Beloved Mom Chona, And Missy, the Only Woman He Wants to Grow Old With
Who Were Manila’s Original Society Families?
The Human Side of Chona Kasten
Everything You Need To Know About Manila's First 'It' Girl
Accept Criticism, Graciously Ignore Gossip, and Other Lessons From Chona