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 a 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.
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 “
When Johnny and
Despite initial reservations, Recto gave his blessing to the couple. Johnny and
Techie remembers growing up with her father whispering to her how
Johnny was passionate about cars and horses;
The Connoisseur of Fine Things
Their traveling and partying were always complemented with fine clothes. The couple was 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
Were they living excessively? There were times
“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
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.
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.
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,
Johnny’s children seemed to have taken after his love of luxury and society.
Like Techie, Louie studied abroad. He continued to work overseas 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 nightclub scene, Johnny remains one tough class act to follow.
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*This story originally appeared on Esquiremag.ph
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors