Everything You Need To Know About Manila's First 'It' Girl
This is the story of Chona Recto Kasten, the ultimate socialite of the 20th-century. Town&Country Philippines spoke to her daughter, Maria Teresa "Techie" Ysmael-Bilbao to detail the late icon's life. The elements of this story are based on Bilbao's accounts and the book La Divina: The Life and Style of Chona Recto-Kasten, also co-written by Bilbao.
The talk of legendary 20th-century socialites will, without fail, bring about a roll-call of iconic names: Gloria Vanderbilt, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, Babe Paley, C. Z. Guest, Slim Keith, and Gloria Guinness, among others. All decidedly well-bred, these multi-hyphenate women possessed style, beauty, grace, and substance.
Chona Recto Kasten
In our side of the hemisphere, there is, of course, the inimitable Chona Recto Kasten. Often considered the Philippines’ ultimate society darling, Kasten was born during a time when elegance and sophistication were standard: Back when “lunching” was preferred rather than nights out, when ladies would change clothes up to four or six times a day, and made-to-measure couture was de rigueur. “We always had to be dressed for every meal, including breakfast,” Kasten would say. It was part of her father Claro M. Recto’s house rules, guidelines she would follow and eventually pass along to her children. The long list of no-no’s included no oversleeping (or coming to the table in a
The Recto family; Chona with father Claro M. Recto
Born Maria Priscilla, Kasten was the youngest of four children to Recto and his first wife Angelina Silos. Growing up, Kasten was affectionately called “Chona” by her father. A name derived from the Spanish word
When it was time for her education, Kasten momentarily moved back up to Manila. She studied at St. Scholastica’s College and flourished under the company of friends, parties, and admirers—as any young woman would. Even then, Kasten was the belle of the ball, garnering awards and nominations for prom queen at schools like Ateneo and La Salle. A lauded statesman and decorated poet, Kasten’s father would tell her to prioritize her lessons instead—with class honors expected. No single dating was allowed and a 12-midnight curfew was imposed and followed until she was 18. On the occasion that Kasten would break the curfew, which became more frequent as she grew up, Recto would ground her.
Soon, Recto’s worst fears were realized when Kasten met the dashing bachelor Johnny Ysmael. Like the Rectos, the Ysmaels were part of Manila’s 400. The 400 was made up of an elite group of society families who possessed wealth, education, prominence, and pedigree. The Ysmaels descended from a line of Lebanese elite, who were among the first to settle in the Philippines. A prominent matriarch, Dona Magdalena Hashim Ysmael-Hemady was the founder of Magdalena Estate through her ownership of several parcels of land in Quezon City. Aside from property, the Ysmael clan was tied to the Ysmael Steel plant, a company that once held the title of leading manufacturer of steel and home electric appliances, and was later involved in importing Fiat cars.
Recto soon shipped his daughter to Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York to continue her studies (and delayed Ysmael's courtship in the process). As the war broke out, Kasten was recalled and picked up by Recto in New York and the two made their way back to the Philippines. Ysmael’s courtship continued and Recto predicted that the two would get married. They would go out on dates and dance the nights away. Eventually, the two were headed down the aisle. Despite his initial reservations, Recto gave his youngest daughter away and went on to approve of Ysmael. Soon, the couple had one child after another, Juan Johnny "Piqui" Ysmael, Jr., Teresita “Techie” Ysmael-Bilbao, Mario Ramon "Ramoncito" Ysmael, and Luis Miguel "Louie" Ysmael.
Chona with her children
“My father was very vain. He liked to dress up, just like my mom. They loved fashion, both of them. His passions were cars, horses, and clothes. And my mom’s were clothes, accessories, and travel. They both loved to travel. And they 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,” the couple’s only daughter Techie Ysmael-Bilbao recalls.
Some of Kasten’s fondest memories were traveling the world with her great love Johnny. She would tell Bilbao about his romantic gestures and how they’d dance to “La Vie en Rose” while in France and Switzerland. They would gamble extravagantly at Monaco, with bills paid by Ysmael’s grandmother Dona Hemady. In Los Angeles, they’d double date with Hollywood stars Tyrone Power and Linda Christian. The couple counted international figures as friends, namely the legendary playboy (and rumored assassin) Porfirio Rubirosa, Ricardo Montalban, and Marques de Portago.
The kids with Linda Christian and Tyrone Power
It was during one of their travels that Kasten’s life would forever be changed. After suffering from pneumonia and driving top-down during winter from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Madrid, Ysmael’s condition worsened and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Stubborn as he was, Ysmael didn’t adjust to his sickness. “The hell he
“She suffered in silence. She prayed a lot. She was exemplary in how she dealt with life.”
Soon, suitors knocked on Kasten’s door. There were, of course, royal and courtly gentlemen such as Aga Khan IV. In Manila, she met American businessman Hans Kasten. Two years after Ysmael's passing, the two were headed down the aisle. Together they had a son, Hans Kasten V. After their marriage, Hans managed Chona’s trust fund and the children’s inheritance money from the Ysmael fortune and used it to build their 14 Tamarind home at Forbes Park. Things soon went downhill.
Ahead of her time: Kasten in Greece wearing Pucci and a hobo bag in the '50s, years before both were in fashion
Powerless, Kasten instead chose to focus on her children and travels. Instead of leaving it all to the yayas, Kasten was a hands-on mother, says Bilbao. “She was strict in a very gentle way. She never spanked us, I don’t ever remember being spanked. We’d be sitting somewhere, just one look and we’d know to put our legs and knees together,” she says. “As we grew up and got to know her, she was more, a friend—she was like the sister, a friend.” As things turned sour at home, the children were sent to boarding schools abroad. Louie in Cheshire Academy in Connecticut, Ramon in Boston University, Techie went to fashion design schools in New York and California while the eldest, Johnny stayed behind.
A young mom; Kasten with son Louie Ysmael
Eight years after Ysmael passed, Kasten’s beloved father died of a heart attack in Rome during a cultural engagement. After, Kasten mourned the death of her son Ramoncito who died in Madrid at 24. Save for these moments, Kasten kept her composure at all times. “She suffered in silence. She prayed a lot. She was exemplary in how she dealt with life,” Bilbao says.
Kasten with her signature hairstyle
During one of her travels, Kasten met the Duke of Aquitaine, Don Gonzalo de Borbon and they fell in love. However, nothing further went on between the two, as Kasten didn’t want him to abdicate the throne.
Apart from travel, Kasten would dabble in modeling with her friends and fellow society models Chito Madrigal, Mary Prieto, Elvira Manahan, and Imelda Cojuangco as a fabulous pastime. She’d enjoy wearing the designs of legendary designers and friends Ramon Valera, Slim Higgins, Ben Farrales, Aureo Alonzo, Christian Espiritu, Inno Sotto, Pitoy Moreno, Pepito Albert, Chito Vijandre, and Rusty Lopez, among others. She would appear, immaculate, in advertisements for Pond’s and Cutex and joined fashion groups such as Conching Sunico’s Karilagan and Joji Velarde’s Pacifica. Her reputation as a fashionable
Kasten was also the subject of several great painters. It was in fact, Amorsolo who gave her the nickname ‘La Divina,’ or the divine. “He just found her aura to be very ethereal, that’s why he called her the divine. Then after that, it caught on,” says Bilbao. One of her most notable paintings is, of course, the Claudio Bravo, “The Bravo, it came at a time when she couldn’t afford to
Portrait of Chona by Claudio Bravo
“She was very attractive. Everywhere we went, heads would turn. Even women’s heads! I remember my brothers would say “Mom, mom! That guys following, looking or following you,” and she’d ask, “Where?” She’d pull out her compact and pretend she was primping. We’d continue walking but she could see from the back of her compact if he was cute,” Bilbao recalled. A character, Kasten always liked to confuse people with regard to her age. When they’d ask the dreaded question, she’d reply, “Not quite 40,” when in reality, she’d be in her 50s. “There were rumors about this, that, or the other. She took it nicely, she would just say,
During her later years, La Divina separated from Hans and no longer wanted to carry the Kasten name anymore. "She was referred to as Chona," says Bilbao.
She took on a number of jobs: As a professional trainer at Philippine Airlines and fashion designer for Rustan’s. A fully packed day started with a visit to Aguinaldo, Philippine Airlines, Rustan’s, Cibeles, the Joanne Drew figure salon, the Cora Doloroso career center, and San Miguel. Nevertheless, she would have time to take Italian and Flamenco lessons, have lunch with her girlfriends, and go to fashion shows, balls, gala events, and dinners.
Kasten always had fresh flowers on her morning breakfast tray
In her 60s, La Divina was diagnosed with colon cancer. Fearing she would lose her hair, she opted out of chemotherapy. Cancer left La Divina frail and weak, and from her usual 110-115, she had deteriorated to 60 pounds. At 4:15 a.m. on April 4, 1987, the great dame of Manila died from the toll cancer took on her at Makati Medical Center. La Divina left instructions to be cremated in her favorite silky cotton Christian Dior dress, with requests for a pink silk-lined closed casket display—the last link to an era of elegance and sophistication.
Chona Kasten and Techie Ysmael-Bilbao
Sources: Maria Teresa “Techie” Ysmael-Bilbao; La Divina: The Life and Style of Chona Recto-Kasten by Techie Ysmael Bilbao with Jose Mari Ugarte