It was at the height of the Philippine presidential elections campaign that I became familiar with Miss Caroline Kennedy; NOT the Caroline Kennedy, daughter of JFK and Jackie O., but Caroline Kennedy –journalist, radio producer, actor, director, TV presenter, professional traveler, author, intrepid NGO worker, Obama campaigner, and mother, among other things.
A lot of propaganda on behalf of the Marcoses designed to aid the campaign of Marcos scion Bong-Bong, a strong contender for the post of vice-president, was spreading like wildfire on social media. To somehow counteract the distorted representation of past occurrences, I took it upon myself to do some research on the Marcoses from sources that were written in the past, not recently, and not just for the campaign of whoever.
Though I seem to digress, my research led me to the likes of Caroline Kennedy who witnessed firsthand the life of the Marcoses just before and during their rise into power, and who also happened to be a close friend of Imelda Marcos’ niece Betsy Romualdez.
Though Caroline’s memoirs do reveal the extent of the excesses of the Marcoses, she also bluntly mentions in her blog her not-so-pleasant recollection of the late Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., whom she also met as a journalist, where she points out the striking parallelisms between the FM and Ninoy personas.
Caroline’s firsthand knowledge of those times and of such personalities certainly piqued my interest, and it was a real pleasure getting to know about her fascinating life.
Describe your life as a child
I have always considered myself extremely lucky. I had two sets of loving parents. My mother left home when I was four so I have little recollection of her from my early years. My father remarried the extraordinary woman who had looked after me since I was 6 months old. It was an incredibly successful and supportive marriage. And I had an extremely happy childhood. I grew up, the fourth of six children, in the country surrounded by woods, vegetable gardens, fruit cages, ponds, and places inhabited by rabbits, guinea pigs, dogs, cats, chickens and donkeys.
My mother remarried a swashbuckling Highlander from Inverness-shire who was part James Bond and part politician but mostly an intrepid adventurer. It was from him I gained both my interest in politics and my love of travel.
From the age of five, or thereabouts, I knew I would be a writer and a traveler. I was fascinated by books, particularly those about remote places. I was even more intrigued by the lives of the early mariners and explorers who visited them. My favorite quote was the one of St. Augustine of Hippo who wrote, “The world is a book. And those that do not travel read only one page.”
At the age of ten I was sent off to boarding school, following in my older sisters’ and brother’s footsteps. My end of term reports always repeated the same mantra, “Caroline has a good brain. It’s a pity she doesn’t use it more often!”
But, as I explained to my father, I was filling my head with epic stories of travel, in Asia, in the Far East and to the ends of the world. And, although I enjoyed English Literature, art, Latin, French and public speaking, I had no time at all for mathematics, science and algebra. Why would I need those, I would ask him, if I planned to grow up to be like Gertrude Stein, crossing the desert astride a camel or, like Francis Young husband, following the Silk Road to the “roof of the world”? For Gertrude Stein was my heroine. And I was certain that, like her, I would one day be as comfortable “sitting in a palace with kings as I would be squatting with nomads in a tent in the desert.”
Tell us about your career path
My very first job when I was 16 was as a shop assistant on the women’s floor of Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. It didn’t take long for me to realize I wasn’t cut out for sales and, as soon as I had saved enough money, I applied for a US green card.
In those days, it was pretty simple to get one. After passing an initial medical exam and promising that I had no plans to assassinate the President of the United States, the Vice Consul shook my hand and said, “Congratulations, Miss Kennedy, you now have your US residency!” He went on to say that everyone in New York would love my accent. He wasn’t wrong on that score.
In the early 1960s, a British accent in the US was much more of a novelty. To Americans, I came from the land of King Arthur, the Tudors, Shakespeare and the Lakeland poets and, as such, I was welcomed and doors were opened. Before long, I was invited to produce an all-night radio talk show on 1010 WINS New York. I had six hours a night to fill, from midnight till 6am, six nights a week. I would arrive home at 7am every morning, shattered but ecstatic. I considered it to be the perfect job. I met everyone – movie stars, stage actors, politicians, ballet dancers, writers, publishers, musicians and explorers. I was on first name terms with people like John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Art Buchwald, Edie Sedgwick, Joan Crawford and Bill Paley.
My boyfriend at the time, Joe Dever, was the gossip columnist of the New York newspaper, the World Telegram & Sun. We lived together in a studio above Carnegie Hall. Through Joe, I received invitations to theater openings, movie premieres and junkets such as the opening of the casino at the Sheraton Hotel in Aruba, the 50th Anniversary Tribute to Ethel Merman in Washington, and the opening of the ballet “Sleeping Beauty” with Nureyev and Fontaine at the Lincoln Center.
Those were heady days for me.
But I had not forgotten I wanted to be a writer. I kept a diary and wrote copious articles about my experiences and my daily encounters. Finally, the chance came that I had been waiting for – a chance when I was able to scoop over every other journalist in New York.
My godmother, Olga Horstig, the top film agent in Paris, was bringing Brigitte Bardot to New York for her first visit. It was to publicize her Western film, “Viva Maria.” No one was allowed anywhere near Brigitte’s suite at the Plaza Hotel – except me. Olga invited me to spend the whole day with her and Bardot. And it was my big moment.
I wrote my first professional article, “See you in the Movies – Backstage with Brigitte Bardot,” and it was an immediate success. I had been able to do something none of the other New York journalists or columnists had been able to, including Joe.
I returned to the UK in 1967 and went to work for BBC News. But, after the excitement of my life in New York, I couldn’t get used to a sedentary job researching the news stories of the day. I yearned to travel. Early the following year, I set off alone across West Germany, East Germany, Russia, Siberia, Japan, Hong Kong and ended up, not in Vietnam where I had planned to be a war reporter, but in the Philippines.
How did you meet BenCab?
To those who do not know about Benedicto Reyes Cabrera, BenCab for short, he is a famous Filipino painter who was awarded the title “National Artist of the Philippines” in visual arts in 2006. He was also married to Caroline with whom he has three children.
As it happened, in 1968, after travelling alone through West Germany, East Germany, Russia, Siberia and Japan, I boarded a boat from Yokohama to Hong Kong. There I planned to apply for my visa to Saigon since it was my primary objective to cover the Vietnam war.
On the boat, I met a young Filipino couple from New York, filmmaker Henry Francia and his fiancée, poet Betsy Romualdez. We became good friends, spending four days constantly in each other’s company. During those four days, we heard the news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination and shed tears together at the final passing of Jack Kennedy’s dream of Camelot.
Henry and Betsy invited me to their wedding in Manila and, since the Vietnamese Embassy was taking too long to process my visa to Saigon, I decided to make a side trip to the Philippines for three weeks. That decision was, in retrospect, the most impactful I have ever made. It literally changed the course of my life! Through Betsy (who turned out to be the niece of the First Lady, Imelda Romualdez Marcos) I met writers, newspaper editors, poets, dancers, artists, actors and, yes, her aunt, Imelda Marcos.
Betsy owned Café Los Indios Bravos, a famous watering hole for the literary crowd. And, later, with the advent of Martial Law, it became a gathering place for Marcos dissidents.
On one of the first evenings at Indios Bravos, Betsy introduced me to an upcoming young artist, Ben Cabrera (known as BenCab). It was certainly an immediate attraction although he already had a girlfriend at the time. But her parents soon bundled her off to Spain, and Ben turned his attention to me.
Ben was eager to see Europe, not only to visit the art galleries and museums but, especially, to see original paintings and sculptures that he had only seen, as yet, as reproductions in books and magazines. He had never travelled out of the Philippines before so he was eager to embark on the biggest adventure of his life.
The year that I spent in the Philippines was arguably the most varied and productive I have spent in my life. Through Betsy and her contacts I was offered a daily TV show, a weekly column, TV and film roles, was introduced as a new character, “Caroline London”, in a daily comic strip in the Manila Times and learning about the inner workings of the Marcos family.
After a year of living together, Ben and I decided to get married. We left for Europe, passing through Thailand, India, Nepal, Switzerland, Rome, Madrid, Cuenca and then Paris, where Ben was representing the Philippines in the Paris Biennale. By the time we arrived in Paris, we had absolutely no money left and found a hotel on the Left Bank that cost the equivalent of one pound a day.
A month later, in October 1969, we arrived in London and settled into my flat in Draycott Place, Chelsea. We got married at the Chelsea Registry Office on King’s Road.
Ben adapted well. It was a very productive time, and his art was evolving. He enjoyed experimenting with different mediums. He bought a printing press and learned how to make etchings, aquatints and silkscreens. He started making resin bronze sculptures. Art materials were abundant and he made full use of them. I think even Filipino art critics are unanimous in their agreement that BenCab’s London years were his most varied, most challenging, and most artistically successful.
In early 1972, after the birth of our first child, a son, Elisar, we moved back to Manila. There, in 1973, I gave birth to our daughter, Mayumi. Martial law was declared in September that year which prevented us from returning to London. We stayed in Manila for the next two years. Ben painted and I wrote “subversive” articles! I also wrote some chapters for Filipino Heritage, an encyclopedia of the Philippines published by Paul Hamlyn.
Back in London in 1977, I gave birth to our third child, Jasmine. Ben gave several exhibitions during this period, in London, New York and Manila. He was becoming extremely popular as an artist. He began to get homesick. His paintings were becoming more “Filipino” and less influenced by European art. He wanted to make a name for himself in his own country and he hankered to go back. I was hesitant because I knew how restrictive life under Martial Law was. I also wanted to bring up the children in England because I had seen how spoilt so many of our friends’ children were in the Philippines. I realized life would have been easier for us, we could afford domestic staff to help in the house and with the children, but I preferred that our children learnt how to help in the house rather than expect others to do things for them.
This division put a strain on our marriage for a few years before we decided to part ways. Ben returned to the Philippines in 1984, and we divorced in 1985. By that time, I had thrown myself into researching a book about the Profumo Scandal and its central character, Stephen Ward.
Did you expect the overwhelming response to your blog posts about the Marcoses?
When I set up my blogsite a few years ago, I had no plan for it other than to be an outlet for chapters of my memoirs. It came as a huge surprise that anyone paid attention to it. But, once Filipinos all around the world discovered it, they were the ones who turned it into a forum between pro and anti-Marcos elements.
I am amazed and somewhat overawed by the fact that a few of my articles have been read by over 700,000 people! I am very hesitant to say that would make me an “expert” on the Marcos period but I have certainly learnt a whole lot more by some of the very knowledgeable and detailed comments left on my site.
I am actually very grateful to some of these young readers as they are far more erudite and far more well-informed about the Philippine Martial Law era than I am. What I believe is of interest to them is that I was there. I wrote and reported on what I saw happening in front of my eyes. And I was fortunate to have my friend, Betsy Romualdez (a niece of the then-First Lady), giving me behind-the-scenes stories that many journalists did not have access to.
My most famous article while I was living in Manila in 1969 was not, in fact, about the Marcoses. It was about Senator Ninoy Aquino, Marcos’s most outspoken opponent. The article became an “overnight sensation” as it gave a very different view of the Senator Ninoy who, until then, was the darling of the various anti-Marcos factions in the Philippines. What I wrote portrayed him as immensely vain, hugely ambitious, and very much in the pro-US mold of Marcos himself. People were shocked and disappointed, and Aquino himself went to ground for six weeks following its publication.
At this stage in your life, which activities, would you say, are your top priorities?
I have worn many hats during my life and all have seemed to fit perfectly! But a consistent thread that has been woven into the fabric of my life in the past 17 years is my love of whales. I am so awed by these gentle, magnificent creatures that I come, year after year, to my little red house beside the ocean in Newfoundland to spend my summers with them. Being in their proximity, studying their behavior patterns, learning about their lives, is both a privilege and a gift. They have a calming effect on me, and I cherish every moment in their company. At the end of the summer I come away feeling refreshed, my batteries recharged and my mind, body and spirit entirely regenerated.
I wish to spend as much time as possible with my children and grandchildren, to complete my memoirs so, at least, one day my grandchildren will know who I was, and to finish off my first novel, a historical novel based on a true story, and set in Madras during the time of the East India Company, and in the Philippines during the Spanish period. If I succeed in all three, I will be prepared to retire as an eccentric old woman surrounded by whales. But, as it is very unlikely any of these efforts will be completed in the foreseeable future, I am unlikely to face disgraceful obscurity quite yet
My mother was from the beautiful city of Dubrovnik. It was very clear to me, as soon as I saw Dubrovnik being bombed, that I should do something. Little did I realize, as I gathered donations for my first convoy, carrying medical and surgical supplies, down to the war-torn former Yugoslavia, that this would become my life for the next ten years.
On one of my return trips to London, I became a Founder Trustee of the London International Gallery of Children’s Art that was going to open in Hampstead. I agreed to set up an exhibition of refugee children’s art from the former Yugoslavia for the gallery’s maiden show. Actress and Hampstead MP, Glenda Jackson, opened the unique show and, following its success in London, it travelled to the UN and was opened there by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and NY Senator Hillary Clinton.
For three years I worked in the former Yugoslavia during the Balkan War (1992-95). When the war ended, I was invited to work for the Leonard Cheshire Centre for Conflict Recovery based at University College London. I was sent out as In-Country Manager to Azerbaijan, following its war with Armenia, to work with refugees and displaced people, setting up surgical interventions and physio treatment to those with disabilities.
Our first patient was a small boy, Mushvig, who had been seriously burned when a burner exploded in his tent, leaving him with third degree burns on his lower body and left leg. Untreated in the refugee camp, he would certainly have died of septicemia.
This, undoubtedly, is the line of work I am most proud of in my life. Apart from saving many refugees from a future limited by their disability and a lifetime of dependency on others, we were able to improve and enhance their lives. This thought alone is very gratifying.
I am also proud of the fact I wrote a book, “An Affair of State”, in 1987, about a political, sexual and espionage scandal that took place in the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although it received much press coverage in 1962, when the story broke, it was not until my research and publication of the book that the true story emerged. It immediately became a No. 1 bestseller, a goal I had dreamed about since my childhood. It was republished 25 years later under a new title “How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward” when Andrew Lloyd-Weber used it as the basis for his eponymous musical, “Stephen Ward.”
Such has been the exciting life of Caroline Kennedy as she continues to thrive and live her many passions, taking on new challenges, continuing to seek for herself what else life has to offer… or, alternatively, what she can offer life.