I investigated the crimes of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos — and loved 'Here Lies Love'
Lewis M. Simons is the author, most recently, of To Tell the Truth. He also wrote Worth Dying For, the story of how the Philippines' Marcos regime was overthrown, and The Next Front, which traces the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Southeast Asia.
Never in all my years of investigating the crimes of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos did I remotely imagine that one day the murderous, kleptocratic former first couple of the Philippines would be strutting their stuff on Broadway. And that I'd be one of those sharing the joy.
Yet, at a recent sold-out matinee, there I was, while the Marcoses — well, actors playing them — hoofed and belted their way through Here Lies Love, the tragicomic rock musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim.
Full disclosure: Having covered the Marcoses and witnessed their appalling behavior firsthand, I'm not a fan. But, despite anticipating personal disgust, I was on my feet along with a thousand or so others at the landmark Broadway Theater. I brava'd Arielle Jacobs as a plaintive Imelda wondering "Why Don't You Love Me?" and heartily applauded Jose Llana/Ferdinand's glad-handing audience members as he campaigned for office. At other moments I choked back tears.
Many in the audience were Filipinos, tourists visiting from their homeland, as well as U.S. residents and citizens. Some were old enough to have lived through the Marcoses' 21-year conjugal dictatorship. Others were too young to know of any Marcos other than the former first couple's son, Ferdinand Jr., aka Bongbong — now, remarkably, the country's president.
After the standing ovation, I chatted in the lobby with a group of women who were college classmates in Manila when Filipinos rose up and carried out the bloodless, so-called People Power Revolution of 1986, toppling the elder Marcos. "We marched and shouted for Marcos to be overthrown," said Dolores Mendoza, now an accountant in New Jersey.
What was her reaction to what she'd just seen onstage? "I cried," she said. Still dabbing at her eyes with a crumpled tissue, she added, "I looked around and the other Filipinos were weeping too." Many still were, as they shuffled toward the exits. "It touched my heart," chimed in one of Dolores's friends. "But it was fun, too!" And I heard laughter.
On Sept. 1, 1983, I marched in intermittent rain and steamy heat through the streets of Manila, mobbed by a million Filipinos like Dolores and her friends. They were accompanying the bloody corpse of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., Marcos' political enemy, who had been assassinated days before as he stepped off a plane, returning from exile in Boston, to challenge Marcos for the presidency.
Three years later, I gaped from an unsteady perch atop the locked gate of Malacañang presidential palace as U.S. military helicopters lifted the Marcoses, a clutch of their cronies and a huge load of loot into the black night sky.
When they landed in Honolulu, their luggage definitely was overweight. Hastily packed crates were filled with millions of dollars in cash, stocks, jewelry and a case engraved with the words "To my husband on our 24th wedding anniversary" containing gold kilobars. Left behind were Imelda's now-infamous collection of 3,000 pairs of shoes, 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 888 handbags and French perfume in gallon bottles.
Leading up to the dramatic evacuation, I had broken a story that Gen. Fabian Ver, the chief of the armed forces and Marcos' cousin, had organized Ninoy Aquino's murder. And two colleagues from the San Jose Mercury News and I uncovered much of the Marcoses' wealth, hidden in Manhattan and San Francisco real estate, Caribbean shell companies and anonymous Swiss bank accounts.
The series of articles, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, helped convince Filipinos to vote Corazon "Cory" Aquino into office and Marcos out. Of the estimated $10 billion to $30 billion the couple stole, the government has recouped just $3.6 billion.
Massive theft was the least of the Marcos crimes. During nine years of his martial-law reign of terror, over 3,200 Filipinos were killed or "disappeared" by police and government-controlled thugs, 70,000 imprisoned and 34,000 tortured.
Ferdinand died in Hawaii in 1989. Two years later, President Aquino allowed Imelda and her children to return to the Philippines. They were charged with tax fraud and corruption. It came to nothing.
Imelda flitted in and out of politics and the fashion business for the next few years. But her true purpose and greatest achievement was getting her son Bongbong into the mahogany-paneled office from which Ferdinand had been driven by the mob howling for his head that tumultuous night in 1986.
Bongbong Marcos won nearly 59% of the 2022 vote, the largest margin since his father's 88% 41 years previously, the outcome of a boycott by the opposition.
Today, while the characters of Imelda and Ferdinand garner curtain calls on Broadway, their son runs the country. He has established himself as a firm friend of the United States. As his father did during the Vietnam War, Bongbong turned the trick by offering military bases to U.S. forces as they gear up to potentially face a threatening China.
Which brings me back to Here Lies Love. Having seen and enjoyed the show in New York, I now realize that I missed the obvious during my years in Manila. The Marcoses, the now-94-year-old Imelda in particular, had for years captured the affection and votes of ordinary Filipinos by entertaining them. The crowds were enraptured by the elaborately lacquered hairdos and the gorgeous butterfly-sleeved terno dresses. And that breathy voice.
She gave them a fleeting thrill of excitement, of proximity to glamor. And a little cash. As she dished out small peso bills, they pleaded, "Ma'am, Ma'am," hands grasping. Roman emperors quieted the restive populace with bread and circuses. Marie Antoinette suggested that starving peasants eat brioche. And the Marcoses sang.
On their last day in the Philippines, a few hours before being airlifted into exile, the couple stood on a balcony of Malacañang Palace for their own swearing-in ceremony, although Cory Aquino had taken the oath of office as president hours earlier.
Staring into each other's eyes, they serenaded a smattering of last-ditch supporters with a duet rendition of "Because of You."
I watched, slack-jawed, on the TV in my hotel room. It was more mind-bending than what I just saw on Broadway.
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