By Roy Rowan
March 29, 1976 12:00 PM

Sirens howl and sounds of Von Karajan surge from the stereo as the chauffeur-driven Cadillac and its convoy of bodyguards swoop along the Manila waterfront. “I want to reclaim from here to Sangley Point,” Imelda Marcos grandly proclaims. “By adding half a mile of beach here and moving the airport there we can relieve the congestion. Then we will leave someplace for the people to do a little fishing.” Rarely thinking small, the chic, darkly beautiful Philippine First Lady has plunged into her latest role—governor of sprawling metropolitan Manila—with typically unbridled self-confidence. “I’m going to see what Mayor Daley has done in Chicago to filter river water,” she announces. Then, as the Cadillac turns into lush Rizal Park, she rolls down the back window and extends a graceful hand to be touched by a group of squealing women. “When a person touches somebody, or kisses somebody, or embraces somebody, why do they do it?” she muses afterward. “They want to see if you’re real.”

The women can be forgiven for wondering. One of 10 children of a scholarly lawyer from the island of Leyte, Mrs. Marcos has followed a storybook path to riches and power. A former Miss Manila, she was working as a secretary in a bank in 1954 when she married a young Philippine politician named Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos today is the island nation’s dictator-president, and Imelda, who has been ranked among the world’s 10 richest women, has emerged as an aggressive political activist. Survivor of a 1972 assassination attempt (seen live on Philippine television) in which a young man slashed her hands and arms repeatedly at a public ceremony, she is not only her husband’s cultural czarina, ambassador-at-large and de facto vice-president, but also his possible successor.

The Marcoses met when the handsome Imelda (“dressed in house clothes, wearing slippers and crunching watermelon seeds,” according to the official version) visited the Philippine House of Representatives, where her uncle was Speaker pro tern. Marcos was a Liberal from Luzon; she was an opposition nationalist from Leyte. “I first heard his voice coming over the loudspeaker, denouncing the position of my relative’s party,” she once recalled. “When the debate was over he tried for about five minutes to get someone to introduce us. Finally he walked over and asked me to stand up. Then he measured himself against my height [at 5’7″, she is slightly taller than the president] and said, ‘Perfect!’ Later I found out he spent the night calling friends and telling them he was in love.” They were married 11 days later and have three children—daughter Imee, 20, a junior at Princeton, Ferdinand Jr., 17, known as “Bongbong,” and Irene, 15.

Mrs. Marcos is often criticized for her excessive devotion to jewelry and expensive clothes and for her jet-set partying with friends like Cristina Ford, Dr. Christiaan Barnard and Gina Lollobrigida (who is currently photographing two books on the Philippines for the First Lady). Mrs. Marcos airily dismisses the charges. “People say I’m too much, too lavish, too extravagant,” she observes. “But I’m a total person. When you love, how can you say I love you 10 percent or 20 percent? Either you love or you don’t.” She brings the same sense of blitzkrieg involvement to an ever-widening range of personal projects—the magnificently equipped Philippine heart center, a multi-million-dollar cultural complex and Folk Arts Theater, a new nutrition center and a gleaming family planning headquarters. (“I had nine brothers and sisters,” she jokes. “Of course, that was before my population center.”) “They call me ‘The Orchid,’ ” smiles Mrs. Marcos, “the way my projects grow on air.” Philippine businessmen, however, refer to her as the “Iron Butterfly” and complain that they are regularly pressured to support her philanthropies. The B.I.R., which takes the biggest chunk of their profits, they say, is not the Bureau of Internal Revenue but the Bureau of Imelda Romualdez (her maiden name). “It’s the rich you can terrorize, not the poor,” says Imelda. “The poor have nothing to lose.”

Though her public appearances were once mainly decorative, they have recently assumed growing importance. In 1973 she flew to the Middle East to meet with Arab leaders during the oil boycott. “We had been put in the same category as the U.S.,” President Marcos explained later. “The First Lady put us back on the friendly list.” Nearly a year later, she was off to visit China where the emotional Imelda wept when a million people turned out to welcome her in Tientsin. Her audience with Chairman Mao paved the way for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Peking and Manila. Today, at 46, she has lost a little of her glamorous sleekness but is still regarded as the most effective link between the austere 58-year-old president and the 42 million Filipinos scattered over the 7,100 islands that he rules. “The president runs away from all the protocol,” Imelda says to explain her socializing, “so I am left with it.” She vigorously defends her husband’s decision to impose martial law in 1972 rather than accept a constitutional limitation of two terms in office. “We have tried your way and it didn’t work,” she once told an American interviewer. “You can afford democracy because you are so rich. In the Philippines there was anarchy. We had to do something to stop it.”

At first Marcos was reported uneasy at the prospect of appointing his wife governor of Manila, with responsibility for nearly 8 million people. “Just imagine if the First Lady becomes governor,” he once told a delegation backing Mrs. Marcos. “Then I’ll be the First Lady of the governor.” Although Imelda is widely acknowledged as the Philippines’ second most powerful political figure, Marcos prefers to deny it. “She is not powerful,” he has insisted, “just close to the powerful.” Mrs. Marcos is content to leave it at that. “All I do is give my husband information,” she maintains. “He executes. That’s his work.” Though she is a decidedly liberated woman in a society with a muscular macho tradition, she deflects such observations with a graceful allusion. “Genesis, here in the Philippines, was by Divine Wind,” she informs a visitor. “The bamboo was split, and there was born man, called malakás, meaning strong, and woman, called magandá, meaning beautiful. Each had a role to play.”