By Peter Carlson
March 03, 1986 12:00 PM

Before they fled the country they had plundered and brutalized, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, 34, Haiti’s shy and weak-willed “President-for-Life,” and Michèle Bennett Duvalier, 35, his beautiful and flamboyant wife, threw one last party. They invited their closest friends to the elegant white National Palace for a final midnight champagne toast, and then hopped into a BMW for a ride to the airport that was named after Baby Doc’s father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the notorious dictator who had ruled with voodoo and violence for 14 years before his death in 1971. At the airport the Duvaliers drove through a gauntlet of photographers. Baby Doc, at the wheel, was characteristically impassive, but Michèle, wearing a chic white turban, flicked the cigarette she held in her long fingers and exhaled theatrically for the paparazzi. And then, after a perfunctory ceremony, they stepped aboard a U.S. Air Force C-141 cargo plane and flew to France.

As news of the exile spread, Haitians celebrated with revelry and rioting. In the mountains north of the capital, mobs sacked the couple’s country home, carrying off everything of value—furniture, light fixtures, even the plumbing. Soon all that was left was garbage. But what garbage it was—empty boxes from Saks Fifth Avenue and an envelope from Cartier, a shipping label from Harrods of London marked “one of 20 lots” and addressed to Mrs. Michele B. Duvalier, First Lady, Palais National, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. That designer trash was the residue of a shopping binge that helped to topple the 28-year Duvalier dynasty. In November, Michèle had spent a reported $1.7 million in the classy shops of New York, Paris and London. A few weeks later an oil tanker refused to unload its precious cargo in Haiti because the government couldn’t pay for it. Transportation in the impoverished nation sputtered to a stop, fueling the rage that exploded into protests that toppled the regime.

Meanwhile, across the globe, as the Duvaliers went into lavish exile, another dictator’s free-spending wife continued in power thanks to an election marked by massive fraud, intimidation and murder. Imelda Marcos, at 57 still the “Iron Butterfly” of the Philippines, has for so long been known for her profligacy with a peso that her excesses draw little comment. Even during the most heated campaign since her husband became president in 1965, allegations that she and Ferdinand Marcos had secretly purchased—in New York alone—real estate worth about $350 million caused more ripples in the U.S. than at home.

The Marcoses predictably denied the real estate charges, brought by Rep. Stephen J. Solarz of N.Y., and Imelda, determined to keep her ample power, stumped hard for her ailing husband against opposition candidate Corazon Aquino. Coiffed and clothed to elegant perfection, often wearing ruby, diamond and sapphire earrings in her party’s red, white and blue colors, she campaigned in her own inimitable style. “Cory Aquino doesn’t use makeup; she doesn’t do her nails,” the former beauty queen told one crowd. “Filipinos ask only one thing from life—beauty. Beauty is the supreme value, above money and power. And Filipinos who love beauty will vote for Marcos.”

Though their styles—and their situations—differ, Imelda Marcos and Michèle Duvalier are heirs to a long and colorful tradition in politics. They are “dragon ladies”—women who exploit their beauty to marry into power and then use their influence to make that power their own, sometimes eclipsing their husbands.

Daughter of a financially shaky coffee exporter and small businessman, Michèle Bennett Duvalier was born outside the circle of the Haitian elite. Sources say she first met the porcine Baby Doc when they were students in Haiti, where Duvalier was known to his classmates as “Baskethead.” In her teens Michèle came to the U.S. and attended St. Mary’s School in Peekskill, N.Y. She later worked as a secretary in Manhattan. In 1973 she married Alix Pasquet Jr., the businessman son of a Haitian who was killed trying to overthrow Papa Doc Duvalier in 1958. They had two children—Mix, 12, and Sasha, 10—before it ended in 1978. After the divorce, Michèle worked as a desk clerk and public relations woman for Habitation LeClerc, a posh hotel in Port-au-Prince. “She had many, many unhappy love affairs,” claims a Haitian friend. “She tried to kill herself many times. She took sleeping pills and was brought to the hospital.”

Nevertheless, Michèle became a particularly popular fixture on the Port-au-Prince party scene in the late ’70s, at a time when Baby Doc, who had inherited the presidency in 1971, was sowing his wild oats. He was, by all accounts, smitten by the beautiful, self-assured divorcée. “Jean-Claude had never met a woman like her,” says a friend. “He went cuckoo.” But at that time, “Jean-Claude was monstrous,” recalls a female friend of Michèle. “He had those stupid long sideburns, shaped like boots, and he was fat, fat, fat.” In fact, all the corpulent and dim-witted Baby Doc had going for him was his power. After playing hard to get for a while, Michèle apparently decided that the power was enough. They were married on May 27, 1980. The $3 million wedding was the most lavish spectacle of the Duvalier years. Michèle imported a Givenchy gown and a hairdresser from Paris for the ceremony. The couple was feted with a 101-gun salute and $100,000 worth of fireworks, and the poor (80 percent of Haiti’s people earn about $100 a year) were provided with free soup and rum for the august occasion. “It was so beautiful,” remembers one guest. “But in retrospect, that was the beginning of the end. The spending never stopped.”

Michèle always loved money, but in the first two years of her marriage, she spent a good bit of it on the needy. Her Michèle B. Duvalier Foundation supported hospitals, clinics and pharmacies, and she made frequent inspections to ensure that they operated efficiently. But Michèle’s largesse soon took a bizarrely baroque turn. She would appear on TV dressed to the nines, handing envelopes of money to the indigent. And her attire bloomed garishly. “I remember her all in silver—and this for a 5 o’clock reception,” sniffs one stylish Haitian. Another comments, “She had too many things, and she thought she had to wear them all at once. It was a delirium she was in all the time.” The delirium got worse. “She would buy truckloads of dresses from Valentino. She had Boucheron, the Paris jeweler, fly to Haiti to sell jewels to her—not $200,000 worth but millions, millions,” says a Haitian socialite. Another friend tells of buying dozens of pairs of $500 Susan Bennis Warren Edwards shoes for Michèle during a shopping foray on Park Avenue. “She wore earrings that looked like lanterns,” says Suzanne Seitz, a Port-au-Prince hotel owner.

An acquaintance of her interior decorator reports, “She once saw a rare Louis XV chandelier and insisted on having several. She got 12.” Others talk of a $50,000-a-month flower order from Miami to decorate the palace and the President’s four villas.

Shortly after her marriage, Michèle won a palace power struggle with her mother-in-law, Simone, the former First Lady of the Republic. “They hated each other,” one source says. “Michèle would tell her mother-in-law, ‘You’re not the one in bed with him. I am.’ ” The feud, which ended with Simone’s departure from the palace, sometimes took a comic turn. Insiders tell of Michèle buying a large parrot and teaching it to swear. “The parrot was placed outside Simone’s bedroom window,” one source says. “Every morning Jean-Claude’s mother would wake up and hear ‘F—- you’ from the bird.”

She bore Baby Doc two heirs—François Nicolas, 3, and Anya, 1—and officials marveled that the grandfather of her children by Duvalier had killed the grandfather of her children by her first husband. Michèle herself quickly seized power from the timid and parochial President-for-Life. Says one palace watcher: “She told Jean-Claude, ‘If you will not be a man like your father, I will put on his trousers.’ ” First, she took control of the President, overseeing a diet and exercise regimen that trimmed off 70 pounds of fat. Then she took control of the country, issuing orders, attending cabinet meetings and speaking for her inarticulate husband during his infrequent interviews.

But in Haiti, more than words were needed. It is a country where the main causes of death are malnutrition, diarrhea, tuberculosis, malaria and other preventable diseases—a country with an illiteracy rate of about 90 percent. Under Baby Doc the economy, already the worst in the western hemisphere, crumbled. As the people sank deeper into poverty, Michèle became more ostentatious—she reportedly spent $75,000 for a “freezer” in which to store her fur coats; her father and family became increasingly wealthy.

Then last November Baby Doc’s feared Tontons Macoutes fired on student demonstrators, killing three. That sparked more protests, which soon escalated into open rebellion. By the end of January Duvalier was pondering his options, unable, as usual, to make a decision. Mother Simone urged him to stay and fight. Michèle was for running to join a fortune of at least $400 million safely stashed abroad. Michèle won again, but exile has not proved easy. No country seems to want the Duvaliers. The French offered them eight days of haven, and the Duvaliers rented an entire hotel in the Alpine village of Talloires for their 22-person entourage. After a week no permanent asylum had been found. Despite their enormous wealth, Jean-Claude and Michèle Duvalier remain a parasite king and queen without a country.

Imelda Marcos does not have to face that particular problem—at least not yet. While the Duvaliers were fleeing Haiti, Ferdinand Marcos was “winning” reelection; Imelda, far more vigorous than her 68-year-old husband, who is said to have had three kidney transplants, remains, as she likes to put it, “Mother of the Nation.”

Her image was not always so maternal. Daughter of a lawyer, Imelda was born into a lesser branch of the politically powerful Romualdez family. At 18, she won a beauty contest and the title “the Rose of Tacloban.” At 24, her looks and singing ability made her the “Muse of Manila” at the 1953 Philippines International Fair and Exhibition. A year later she was working for a banking magazine when she met Ferdinand Marcos, then a young congressman. Eleven days later they were married, which explains Imelda’s 11-carat diamond engagement ring and 11-diamond wedding band. Imelda bore three children—Imelda (Imee), now 30, Ferdinand Jr., 27, and Irene, 24—and soon caught the Filipino equivalent of Potomac fever. When her husband ran for the senate in 1959, she campaigned strenuously. She did the same in Marcos’ successful 1965 presidential bid. As he consolidated power (he declared martial law in 1972), she became the second strongest politician in the nation, holding such positions as Governor of Metro Manila and Minister of Human Settlements. She used her clout to build cultural, arts and nutrition centers, but she also built a personal fortune estimated at $1.6 billion, making her perhaps the world’s richest woman.

Her shopping flings are legendary. For one of them, in 1982, she arrived in New York with 40 assistants and 300 suitcases. According to an associate of a New York antiques dealer, in 1981 Imelda bought a Park Avenue apartment and its contents for $9.5 million, but the building’s board refused to let her move in. So she gave away the furnishings and instead took over an East Side property that was owned by the Philippine government. That was on a Monday. Imelda announced that by Friday the building, which was in poor repair, must be totally refurbished for a Halloween party the next day. She imported laborers from the Philippines who worked around the clock to install everything from pink silk wallpaper in her bedroom to a hot tub in the maid’s bath. By Friday she had bought and arranged $1.5 million in furniture and paintings to adorn the place and had her party. Imelda still wasn’t satisfied. She decided security at the building was not good. She stayed instead at the Waldorf Towers, ordering $5,000 in flowers for her arrival and $1,000 in fresh bouquets every day.

Some people have questioned how all this has been possible on President Marcos’ $5,700 annual salary as president. A 1980 study, however, estimated that the Marcos family owned or controlled some 900 major corporations in the Philippines. Political power has been a big help to the family’s finances. For instance, Cory Aquino’s family—longtime rivals of the Marcoses—once owned the islands’ largest ground-transportation company. The government regulated fares, however, and her family was never able to win a fare increase. The company eventually was driven into bankruptcy. It was then taken over by one of Imelda’s relatives, who soon won profitable fare increases from the government. By such tactics Imelda’s riches have grown.

Despite her imperial style, in last month’s campaign Imelda addressed crowds as “my fellow poor” and entertained them with love songs to her husband. “Vote for Marcos,” she urged. “You will get two for the price of one—the President and me!” On the campaign trail, she dressed dazzlingly, sometimes changing outfits five times a day. She mocked Aquino’s sedate style and justified her own excesses with an odd ideology of beauty. “People criticize me for loving beauty,” she said in 1983. “They think beauty is a luxury, and yet it’s beauty that feeds the soul.” Recently she gave that concept a new spin, telling reporters that her husband would win the homosexual vote because hairdressers and couturiers would be afraid of losing their jobs under less regal rulers. “And the guys said, ‘You know, we gays, we are men become women because of our reach for beauty,’ ” Imelda told the press. ” ‘Because we love our jobs and we love beauty and we love love and we love God, so we are for Marcos.’ ”

Marcos may remain in power, but the opposition, led by the increasingly charismatic Cory Aquino, promises to keep up the pressure with demonstrations and strikes. Those efforts—coupled with pressure from the U.S.—may lead Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to their own late-night flight into exile. Imelda claims that she is ready for that—or worse. “One of these days, you will see me hanging from a tree,” she said three months ago. “So what else is new? I don’t want to be an old, ugly corpse. The beauty about me is that I’m not attached to anything, not even to life.”