Old Manila's Most Legendary Feuds and Fights That Deserve Their Own Soap Operas
Prim and proper—if these are words you associate with the worlds of high society, fashion, and art, think again. There are bitter feuds over family wealth and petty quarrels over practically nothing.
While some of these rivalries had respect on both sides, some of them also besmirched the reputations of the parties involved with scandalous stories.
Family Feud: Ilusorio versus Ilusorio
It’s not uncommon for families to fight over their estate. The Ilusorios, however, took it to another level. It all started with patriarch Potenciano “Nanoy” Ilusorio, lawyer, entrepreneur, who earned the moniker "chairman for life.” He not only founded the Philippine Communications Satellite Corp. (Philcomsat) in 1966, the precursor of telecommunications, but he also helped establish the Baguio Country Club.
He was known to be close to the Marcoses and involved in the “XYZ scandal,” in which Ferdinand Marcos supposedly manipulated the stock prices of Benguet Mining for profit’s sake.
Potenciano married a woman who equaled his status, Erlinda Kalaw-Ilusorio, daughter of Maximo Kalaw. Her father was Manuel Quezon’s personal secretary and later a representative in the Philippine Assembly.
Even without formal training, Erlinda designed over 50 buildings, including the Ilusorio family mansion in Parañaque and her own mansion in Antipolo. An accomplished beauty, heralded the “Inter-Collegiate Girl of 1938-39,” she was also painted by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo and was an early practitioner of yoga.
Before his death in 2000, Nanoy’s estate was estimated to be between P1 billion to P2 billion. This amount was enough to trigger disagreements between Erlinda and Nanoy’s five children. Lin, Maximo, and Sylvia have accused Erlinda, Marietta, and Shereen of overdosing Nanoy with antidepressants, which led to his health deteriorating. Lin has also accused another brother, Ramon, of conspiring to be declared the sole beneficiary of Nanoy’s estate.
One day, after attending a meeting in Baguio, Nanoy was driven to one of their properties, a condominium unit in Makati, instead of to their house in Antipolo. This was the doing of Lin, Maximo, and Sylvia, who also did not allow Erlinda to visit her husband, their father. The same group of children did not allow their father to return to their home in Antipolo. This caused Erlinda to file a write of habeas corpus, which dragged on for years until the Supreme Court denied the petition. In fact, the family feud has dragged on for more than 15 years and has clogged the court system with more than 300 legal suits and counter-suits.
Both camps have produced books which each tell their own sides of the story. Erlinda wrote and published On the Edge of Heaven (Our Story) while a certain “Mia” who claims to be the illegitimate daughter of Ramon wrote Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Ray: The End of Feeling, which leaned towards the three sisters’ version of events.
When Nanoy passed away, it was Lin, Maximo, and Sylvia who produced Nanoy’s will, which disinherited Erlinda, Ramon, and Shereen. When Erlinda died in 2016, there were separate memorial events so that the warring factions wouldn’t run into each other. There is reportedly a feud over her ashes and her estate.
Argument Over Art: Jose Garcia Villa versus Salvador Lopez
Should art be used for social change or is art for art’s sake? This was the debate between Jose Garcia Villa and Salvador P. Lopez. Villa was not just a poet, a literary critic, and painter. He considered medicine and law before finally finding his heart in the arts.
Villa was the son of Simeon Villa, personal physician of Emilio Aguinaldo. He attended the University of the Philippines in 1929 but his writing scandalized some school authorities, notably his series of erotic verses called “Man Poems.” He was expelled then moved to the United States to explore a more liberal arts scene. He attended the University of New Mexico and then Columbia University, where he founded a literary magazine called Clay. He won several awards and was nominated for a Pulitzer.
His 1933 book, Footnote to Youth: Tales of the Philippines and Others, was the first Filipino book published by a U.S.-based publishing house. After writing and publishing short stories, he switched to poems and became regarded for his “Comma poems.”
On the other hand, Lopez was a writer, journalist, educator, diplomat, and politician. He studied at the University of the Philippines, during which he was the drama critic for the Philippine Collegian. From 1933 to 1936, Lopez taught literature and journalism at the University of Manila. He also became a daily columnist and magazine editor of the Philippine Herald until World War II.
He later became Secretary of Foreign Affairs and ambassador to the United Nations. From 1969 to 1975, he was also the President of the University of the Philippines.
While both well-accomplished, the two literary contemporaries did not agree on the purpose of art. For Lopez, art should serve a purpose, to change society. For Villa, this purpose should not be the main objective when creating art. The two published a series of essays that were directed at each other in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
“My friend Mr. Lopez wants social criticism in his literature, he wants the writer to be a social doctor, he wants social content in what he reads... The thing to remember is that literature is literature. If it is first of all, literature. if after having achieved this, it also achieves social criticism— then well and good,” Villa wrote to Lopez in 1937.
Lopez answered this in his essay Literature and Society, which won the 1940 Commonwealth Literary Awards.
"When a writer uses words purely for their music or purely as an instrument of fancy, he may claim that he is a devotee of pure art, since he insists on using words only in their strictly primite qualities,” Lopez wrote.
According to the poet, it was Villa’s refusal to mix art and politics that Lopez couldn’t take. Despite their disagreements, Lopez regarded Villa in high esteem. He described him as "the one Filipino writer today who it would be futile to deride and impossible to ignore… the pace-setter for an entire generation of young writers, the mentor laying down the law for the whole tribe, the patron saint of a cult of rebellious moderns."
High Fashion Faux Pas: Pitoy Moreno, Zalameda, Teyet Pascual
Late fashion designer Pitoy Moreno was larger than life. He didn’t just dress Philippine high society, he also created ensembles for royalty such as Princess Margaret of Britain, Princess Suga of Japan, the Marquesa de Villaverde, Queen Sirikit of Thailand, Queen Margarita of Bulgaria, and Queen Sophia of Spain. He also had fashion around the globe, including Paris, London, New York, Rome, Madrid, Copenhagen, Athens, Vienna, Moscow, Morocco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, and more.
The “Fashion Czar of Asia” also grabbed headlines because of his rivalries with other artists and fashion designers. One of these was painter Oscar Zalameda. The rumor was the fashion designer and the painter were fighting over a basketball player. At one point, when the two met during the opening of Solana restaurant in Mabini, it was reported that they attempted to stab each other.
Later on, it would be clarified that they didn’t really fight over a boy and that they didn’t really try to stab each other with knives. The two just had a misunderstanding and instead of knives, they threw harsh words at each other. The most physical they got was when Moreno poked his finger at Zalameda’s barong. The painter, on the other hand, threatened to throw a plate at him. To protect himself, Moreno grabbed a nearby fork.
Another fashion designer who also had a known rivalry with Moreno was Teyet Pascual. The two shared the same high-profile clientele. One time, during a lavish wedding, Pascual, who was the style director, dressed the help in Moreno’s creations.
During another highly publicized event, Moreno supposedly tapped Pascual’s shoulder from behind and then he disappeared fast into the crowd. Their shared group of high society friends has egged them to reconcile several times but the two remained friends and rivals until their deaths.
Artistic Differences: Ishmael Bernal versus Lino Brocka
During the Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema, two directors were pitted against each other by critics and audiences alike. Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka studied at the University of the Philippines at the same time and they were even members of the same drama club.
Though they have both created films that portray the ills and realities of society during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bernal did not shy away from creating what he called “bubblegum” commercial films. He was heavily influenced by directors from across the globe, having been immersed in the Paris art scene for quite some time.
One of the few times that Bernal and Brocka did find each other on the same side of the fence was when they were fighting film censorship.
It was their admirers and film critics who would continually dissect and compare their works but both directors are worthy in their own right, having been both proclaimed National Artists for Film for their contributions to the industry.
Catfight: Dewi Sukarno versus Minnie Osmeña
Dewi Sukarno, a Japanese geisha, was only 19 when she became the third official wife of Indonesia's founding President, Sukarno. As a young social butterfly, she began to rub elbows with the upper echelons of society and at one of the parties, she met Maria “Minnie” Victoria Osmeña, the granddaughter of former Philippine President Sergio Osmeña.
Philippine socialite Minnie was at a party in Aspen on January 1992 when she got into a verbal and physical fight with Dewi. A few months before this incident, Dewi had already gotten on Minnie’s nerves during another party at Ibiza. This time, Minnie announced her intention to run as vice president of the Philippines, which Dewi belittled and even laughed at.
However, it was the encounter at Aspen that people remember. This was because after Minnie allegedly made a remark about Imelda Marcos that irked Dewi (who happened to be a friend of the first lady), Dewi hit Minnie with a wine glass.
In an interview with The New York Times, Dewi remembered seeing a “little, little line on her forehead” from which “blood started to come, very little.” This wound, however, needed 37 stitches to close.
Minnie sued Dewi as she should. In a plea bargain, Dewi was sent to jail for disorderly conduct.
''How can you charge me with second-degree assault with intent to kill? You don't go to a New Year's party thinking to kill Minnie Osmena! In any party, a glass can break,” Dewi later told The New York Times.
During her time in jail, Dewi confessed she was happy because it felt like a dormitory and she felt like a student again. She had obviously been given preferential treatment as she could fill her room with paintings and other trinkets.
''I was completely in another world and I didn't have to think of anything. It was one of the most precious experiences I have ever had in my life. I really cherished that experience,” she said.
After her stint in jail, Dewi published a book containing her semi-nude photos. It was sold only in Japan and it was banned in Indonesia for fear of tarnishing her husband’s reputation. When the book came out, Minnie made sure people knew her opinion of it—that Dewi only came out of the book because she was broke.