By James S. Kunen Scot Haller Maria Wilhelm Victoria Balfour
November 21, 1988 12:00 PM

As the morning sun gilds the hills above Honolulu, the second-floor window of a Spanish-style house opens, and a stooped figure appears on the tiny balcony. Exiled Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, wearing a neck brace and a royal blue velour robe with pink pajamas peeking out at the bottom, beckons to his first lady in the yard below. “Imelda,” he calls to her weakly, “I have good news. They’ve stayed the subpoena. We don’t have to go tomorrow.”

The former president is referring to the latest in an ever-lengthening list of indignities inflicted on the Marcoses by the law. In the Philippines, they were the law. Now they’re the target of numerous criminal investigations and had been ordered to appear at the FBI offices in Honolulu to supply voiceprints and handwriting samples; that ordeal, at least, has been postponed. “Thank God,” cries Imelda from the lawn. “Our first good news.”

She has just returned from a trip to New York, where she was arraigned on racketeering charges in federal court. “It was worse than Gethsemane,” she says. “It was like being on the cross.” The former first lady was lined up for mug shots and fingerprinted with filthy black ink. “I came here with beautiful clean hands, now you dirtied them,” she says she told the lawmen. Turning to her visitors as Ferdinand looks on from above, she says, “I didn’t want to dirty the hands of the president. Only mine—that was okay.”

But a federal grand jury had found that their hands were far from clean to begin with. According to the indictment, Imelda and Ferdinand plundered $103 million in Philippine government funds, then soaked U.S. banks for $165 million more in a fraudulent financing scheme and secretly purchased four Manhattan buildings with the loot. What’s more, the indictment alleges that, with the aid of cohorts including Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, they continued their financial finagling after accepting asylum in the U.S., using various front men to disguise the ownership of the properties. If convicted, the Marcoses could face 20 years in prison. Ferdinand, who said he was too ill to travel, was temporarily excused from the arraignment.

But he phoned his wife daily to commiserate about the “outrageous” charges and had a welcome-home party ready upon her return. When Imelda’s’ black Lincoln pulled in from the airport, Ferdinand, in a wheelchair, was waiting at the front door with a group of family and friends. The house was festooned with heart-shaped red Mylar balloons bearing such encouragements as I Love You and You’re the Greatest, and a buffet supper had been laid out by the pool.

The next morning, the tables were still strewn with penny candy and ceramic duck centerpieces filled with pink and blue artificial flowers. The smallish swimming pool with a curving slide needs cleaning. It’s a far cry from the opulence of the Malacañnang Palace, where the Marcoses used to serve up beluga caviar by the kilo, but Imelda doesn’t seem to mind. Every heroine must endure tragedy. “It’s made me very human,” she says. “Before, I was Imelda, the first lady. Now I am Imelda the deprived, the crucified. Suddenly now I am a human being.”

And she’s a human being newly concerned about her mortality. Imelda insists she bears on her body scary reminders of her trip to New York—pinpricks that she claims were inflicted upon her by crowds of indignant demonstrators. She says she now has “black things” down her back. “I didn’t feel it until much later,” adds Imelda, who further claims that other members of her entourage suffered similar prickings. “I might have to have an AIDS test,” she tells her visitors, to which Ferdinand instantly responds, “Don’t say ‘might.’ You have to.”

The divine Mrs. M certainly had braved the crowds in regal style at her arrival in Manhattan federal court. A former beauty queen herself, Imelda was arraigned in the same courtroom where onetime Miss America Bess Myerson’s bribery-conspiracy trial is proceeding. Imelda decisively won the defendants’ evening gown competition, sweeping into court in a turquoise silk terno, the Philippine national dress, and spike-heeled black pumps. She says her lawyers wanted her to duck in through the courthouse’s back door, but she refused. “I’m not going to crawl in,” she says. “I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Leaving court, Imelda returned to her $1,800-a-night Waldorf suite. During her New York stay, she prayed conspicuously at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and some of her entourage were seen carrying shopping bags from elegant boutiques up to her room. (She insists that publicity-seeking merchants sent up the bags on their own.) “I always enjoy New York, no matter what my situation is,” she says, “because New York is the world cultural and financial center.” Then, apparently intending to strike a sympathetic chord in her host city, she goes on, “and I like New York because it’s also a lot of Jews—’Jew York,’ you know. Now I feel like a Jew pursuing my Israel, my motherland.”

There was some question as to how long the self-styled Israelite would be wandering the concrete desert, for federal Judge John Keenan ruled that she couldn’t leave the area without first posting $5 million in bail—and Imelda claimed she didn’t have it. In fact, her lawyer said, all of the Marcoses’ identifiable assets in the world had been frozen by various courts. Even Switzerland’s judiciary, in an unprecedented move, lifted that country’s banking secrecy laws to ice $1.5 billion in holdings thought to be controlled by the Marcoses.

But skeptics point out that the $2.6 billion thus far recovered by the Philippine government and the $2.7 billion more that has been located still probably leaves plenty of Marcos mad money squirreled away around the world. The Marcos family and their friends—who virtually monopolized the Philippines’ economy and allegedly used the national treasury as their private bank account—are adept at moving money through dummy corporations. Investigators also claim to have Ferdinand on tape talking about $14 billion in gold hidden somewhere in the Philippines. At one point he reportedly offered the Philippine government $5 billion if he and Imelda were given safe passage back to their homeland. If such caches exist, the Marcoses would be understandably reluctant to tip off investigators by dipping into the funds for bail.

But Imelda still has some friends in high places, including the New York penthouse that Doris Duke calls home. Having already lent her private white Boeing 737 to fly Imelda and her entourage to and from the arraignment, Duke—who also has a lavish estate in Hawaii called Shangri-La—quickly agreed to pledge $5.3 million in municipal bonds to secure the bail. “I believe in loyalty to friends, fair play and simple human decency,” says Duke, who has known Imelda since the ’60s. “Therefore I refuse to abandon friends just because they are accused by a prosecutor.”

Duke, 75, the only child of American Tobacco Co. founder James Duke, inherited $100 million at the age of 12 when her father died in 1925, and she was dubbed “the world’s richest girl.” Forbes recently estimated her fortune at $800 million. Her many glittering parties and two dismal marriages (including one to Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa) made gossip headlines for years, capped by a flurry of publicity when she accidently crushed her interior decorator to death with her car in 1966. She now lives in seclusion, shunning the public attention she gained for her eccentricities—she studied with a Hindu yogi in the ’50s and later sang in the gospel choir of a black church in Nutley, N.J.—and her philanthropy (she started a foundation, with the help of Jackie Onassis, to restore old mansions in Newport, R.I., where she keeps a pair of camels on her estate).

“Doris Duke has saved my faith in America,” says Imelda, who admits to “a feeling of abandonment” by such erstwhile friends as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who have now left her to twist slowly in the wind. “Doris Duke is the realization of that beautiful lady, the Statue of Liberty, who says at the threshold of this great country, ‘I embrace the oppressed, the deprived of mankind.’ ” She presses her red-and-white manicured fingertips to her breast to indicate that Imelda Marcos is one among the huddled masses. “You may not know it,” she says, “but I’m fighting for all of your rights.”

Marcos says she is confident that the American justice system will vindicate her. “There is nothing wrong with the system,” she observes, “but there are some people who use it for their own ulterior and selfish motives.” She declines to say who those people are, but hints that the Aquino government is manipulating the U.S. courts for “selfish” ends. “The indictment,” she explains, “is giving everybody now a license to steal. They’ve taken everything we had, everything including our good name. We have worked so hard to be the symbol of what each and every Filipino would like to fight and die for: freedom, justice, democracy and, above all, human dignity.”

Such statements are difficult to reconcile with the history of the Philippines under the Marcoses’ rule—a reign of repressive terror and personal enrichment with few parallels in recent history. But Imelda Marcos delivers them with a fervent belief that could no doubt overwhelm any lie detector. “Somewhere along the line she reached a level of derangement,” says Tomas Gomez III, the Aquino government consul general who keeps an eye on the Marcoses in Hawaii. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Imelda comes by her self-delusion honestly. Despite documented torture and murder by the Marcos regime, the U.S. for two decades supported the conjugal dictators as bulwarks against communism. Richard Nixon hailed Imelda as the “Angel from Asia,” and in 1981 Vice-President Bush toasted Ferdinand in Manila: “We love your adherence to democratic principles.” Who can blame Imelda for being confused?

She still insists that she and her husband will one day return to the Philippines, “because that is where the Lord has destined us to be born, and I don’t think anyone can stop that,” she says. And she admits to no fear of going to prison. “We are already in prison. I don’t know why they are asking for bail. We are in prison! It’s worse than Alcatraz. You cannot imagine the inhumanity! The Marcos story is a saga of man’s inhumanity to man.”

“Prison” in this case, is a 4,500-square-foot residence overlooking Honolulu and the Pacific. “It may not be home, but at least it’s where love is,” Imelda tells her visitors. “Ferdinand is here.” Though the home, which nominally belongs to a close associate of the Marcoses, is worth about $2 million, the furnishings are less than presidential. In the living room is a blue-gray velveteen sofa with matching chair. A picture book of the Philippines lies on a burled coffee table, and a Philippine flag is tacked to the wall above the fireplace. In front of the fireplace sit two white plastic chairs, one of them heavily cushioned for the ex-president’s use while greeting guests. Religious statues are everywhere. Plastic images of the Blessed Virgin are even propped in tree branches outside.

But the household staff—some of whom now wear T-shirts that say Don’t Worry/ Not Guilty—is properly obsequious, and large. (Consul General Gomez estimates that at one time the household payroll ran about $80,000 a month.) It includes a hairdresser, priest and piano player, because Imelda still likes to sing for family and friends—”Don’t Fence Me In” is one of her favorite selections.

The former first lady also keeps her spirits up by shopping. Though she’s democratically expanded her range to include Penney’s and Foodland, she always goes in style, pulling up in a black stretch limo with at least two aides in attendance. She’ll signal one staffer to pick up the produce and another to pay for it with crisp $100 bills. Nothing, she says, can suppress “my effort to show beauty in the spirit,” though “maybe now my effort is plastic tablecloths that I buy two for $5.”

But Imelda has not entirely abandoned her upscale tastes. Her favorite haunt is the designer couture department of the Liberty House department store. She sometimes visits two or three times a week, buying up to 12 outfits at a time, though she often sends them back for cash refunds later. The shop clerks are no longer delighted to see her coming. “Nobody wants to wait on her,” says one saleswoman. “She takes an hour of your time, and it’s all coming back anyway.” But she’s still a favorite in shoe departments, having snapped up $8,000 worth of footwear in a single visit to a Honolulu mall. Imelda prays as she goes; she has been seen pacing the aisles engrossed in a prayer book while her aides settle up.

She continues her devotions at home, where a toolshed has been decorated with tissue paper and tinfoil to serve as a private chapel. Again, she says she’s making the best of a bad situation. “It’s an attempt to make a cathedral,” she says. “If we don’t have it, we can dream about it.” Imelda says she has witnessed a miracle at this homemade shrine—a brilliant flash of light in the sky—not once, but seven times. As it happens, she considers seven a lucky number, a fact that helped investigators searching for her wealth: Many of her numbered bank accounts included the number 77.

With even her lucky numbers turning unlucky, it’s not surprising that Imelda is depressed. “She wants to act like a happy person,” says Filipina singer Imelda Papin, a friend, “but you can tell inside she feels really sad. You can see it in her eyes.” Friends of Ferdinand whisper that the former first lady should see a psychiatrist. (She was hospitalized in New York in 1958, reportedly for manic depression.) But Imelda says she and her husband have gained new strength from their trials. “I’m more spiritual and more practical,” she says. “The president’s health has deteriorated because of these inhuman atrocities, but this is his shining moment. He’s never been more heroic or more full of wisdom.”

Still, Ferdinand, who appears frail and glassy-eyed though mentally alert, isn’t up to accompanying Imelda when she goes out on the town. She’s a regular customer at Keo’s restaurant, a celebrity hangout, though the owner says she and her entourage have to wait for a table just like anyone else. (Once seated, she says that she sometimes tweaks her FBI tails by inviting them to join her; they always decline.) In the past year her occasional escort Jim Nabors has accompanied her to a Tina Turner concert and to see local comic Frank De-Lima, who specializes in mimicking Imelda Marcos. (Nabors had brought a shopping bag into which Imelda’s party of 12 dropped their shoes, to serve as a prop in case Imelda was called on stage. She wasn’t, but she liked the act.) Now Nabors, like so many of her celebrity friends, seems to be keeping his distance. One exception is Cristina Ford, who telephones regularly and visited the Marcoses in Hawaii a couple of times. “If this did not happen,” says Imelda, “I’d go through life not knowing who my true friends are.”

Those loyalists who do visit the house on Makiki Heights Drive may take their leave with the ritual salute, “See you in Manila.” But that faint hope must be growing dimmer, even in Imelda’s mind. She likes to believe that, as President, Bush may be more helpful than Reagan has been. “He was CIA at one point. He should know that we are not stealers. We are freedom fighters.”

But as grand juries and a House subcommittee continue their investigations into the Marcoses’ ill-gotten gains, the legal noose grows inexorably tighter. Imelda, in her exile, struggles to maintain appearances. “I’ve been trying all morning to hide my wrinkles from you,” she coquettishly tells a photographer. Asked to take off her shoes and lean toward the camera, she giggles, “Shoes are very important to me, you know. Cinderella had her shoes.” Even more than her shoes, there’s one thing she won’t surrender. “Dignity is most important,” says Imelda Marcos. “That’s what it’s all about.”

—James S. Kunen, and Scot Haller and Maria Wilhelm in Honolulu, Victoria Balfour in New Jersey