January 25, 1982 12:00 PM

Tommy Manotoc was, by most standards, a success. Just 32, he had been the amateur golf champion of his native Philippines. In a nation infatuated with basketball, he also coached a highly successful professional team in that sport. But in matters of the heart, Tommy Manotoc’s reach exceeded his grasp, and that imperfection may have proved his downfall, if not his demise. Many of the details of what has happened to him are still shrouded in mystery, but one thing is clear. When he divorced his first wife to marry Imee Marcos, 26, eldest daughter of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Tommy fell afoul of one of the most daunting mothers-in-law in modern history: the notorious “Dragon Lady” of Manila, Imelda Marcos.

Imelda had big plans for her daughter. In pre-Diana days, she expressed the sweet, if silly, hope that Imee would wed Prince Charles. Last month, when Tommy, the happy-go-lucky jock, and the President’s daughter eloped in the United States, Imelda reacted to the news with rage. The young couple returned to Manila in search of a reconciliation with Imee’s parents and, perhaps to please them, lived apart. Then, without warning, the new bridegroom vanished.

The government maintains that Tommy was kidnapped by Communist guerrillas. The Manotoc family is convinced that responsibility for Tommy’s disappearance can be traced to the presidential palace. To complicate the situation, Tommy has close connections with Marcos’ political enemies. Two of his uncles were exiled because of their opposition to the regime. Tommy, however, was studiously apolitical. “He comes from the golfing wing of our family,” one of the activist relatives jokes. Adds his mother, Carmen: “Tommy didn’t have an enemy in the world until he started going out with Imee Marcos.”

By most accounts, it was Imee who enticed Tommy into the star-crossed liaison. She first took an interest in him at a golf tournament last February, sending word that she would like to hear from him. When he called, they made a date for a restaurant opening in Manila. The First Lady arrived separately at that event; she saw her daughter’s still married escort and later, at home, she was apoplectic. “I don’t know why Imelda was upset,” says one palace insider wryly. “Prince Charles was already engaged.”

Manotoc’s divorce in October scandalized Imelda. Although she has been publicly criticized by Manila’s Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin for her extravagance in showy public projects, the First Lady considers herself a devout Catholic. And in the eyes of the church, Tommy is still married to Aurora Pijuan, who won the title of Miss International in 1970. They have two children—Mavis, 9, and Tomas Jr., 4. Although Imelda would not be flattered by the comparison, she and Aurora are somewhat similar. Imelda is also a beauty queen: Miss Manila 1953. And like Imelda, Aurora is a person of strong will. “Until Tommy left the house last April 3 to live in an apartment, ours was what you would call a successful marriage, despite our violent fights,” she insists. “Successful because we lived our lives the way we wanted it—no pretense.” For Aurora, 32, daughter of a sugar planter, that meant dating other men, especially in the last two years. Tommy was at first reluctant to follow suit. “I used to say to him, ‘Go out and date some girls,’ ” she recalls. “He used to tell me everything. But after Imee, he became secretive.” Three days after moving out in April, Tommy asked Aurora for a divorce. “He probably did not want to embarrass the President’s daughter,” explains Aurora. “He informed me that Imelda had always opposed his relationship with Imee.” Tommy later told Aurora and others that Imelda “went berserk” when she met the couple in New York, around the time of their Dec. 4 wedding.

Tommy’s lack of social standing seems to have bothered Imelda even more than his previous marriage. She was raised on the poor side of a well-known family. “She has delusions of grandeur,” says Tommy’s uncle Eugenio Lopez, another Marcos opponent who lives in exile in San Francisco. “She and her husband didn’t want Imee marrying someone as common as Tommy.” Imee, however, has proved she can be as determined as her mother. She insisted on attending Princeton (but did not graduate) despite early student protests over her admission. Some students were disturbed about the presence of her gun-toting guards. Her parents bought her a house off-campus for security reasons, but she still managed visits—with a phalanx of agents—to the dormitory of a male friend. “Imee is an intelligent woman,” says Lopez, “but she is headstrong and used to having her own way in everything.”

Imee’s behavior since her husband disappeared has been curious. On Dec. 29 they had dinner together in a Manila restaurant. Next day she called his parents’ house, where he was then living, and learned for the first time, she says, that Tommy never returned. Her reaction on the telephone, says Tommy’s elder brother, Ricardo (nicknamed “Dini”), was “too cool.” According to Tommy’s uncle Raul Manglapus, now living in Washington, D.C., “Dini said that at first Imee said she thought it was Imelda who arranged the disappearance. But later she began to say it was the Communists who took him.” The Marcos family has since repudiated the marriage altogether. One of Imee’s first acts after Tommy vanished was to collect every available duplicate copy of their Arlington, Va. marriage certificate—including Tommy’s own, which she acquired from his attorney. Since then she has attended her law classes at the University of the Philippines, lunched with girlfriends at a fashionable Manila restaurant, and even attended a New Year’s Eve party. Some friends, pointing to the dramatic training Imee received in stage plays at Princeton, say she may be concealing her emotions. But whatever the motives, her apparent public indifference contrasts with the grim prediction of Manotoc family members that Tommy will never be seen alive again. His ex-wife, Aurora—who still offers to take him back any time—expresses more anguish than Imee. Recently Tommy’s daughter, Mavis, told her mother, “I hope Daddy’s hands are not tied and that he is eating fried chicken.” Admits Aurora: “I broke down and cried.”

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