By Roger Wolmuth
Updated April 07, 1986 12:00 PM

On one of her European junkets some years back, Imelda Marcos made a terrible discovery just after her plane left Rome. No cheese. Not a nibble’s worth anywhere on the plane. But no problem, at least for the high-flying First Lady of the Philippines; Imelda simply ordered the jet back to Rome, where the oversight was corrected.

Among those who learned of it, that midair U-turn came to be known as the “Great Cheese Scandal.” It was, of course, only a taste of the scandals to be revealed once Imelda, 57, and her husband, Ferdinand, 68, had shut the back door to their Malacañang Palace and hurried off into exile. In the five weeks since their overthrow Imelda has emerged as a one-woman balance-of-payments problem, a seemingly psychopathic buyer who squandered her country’s treasury on everything from Bulgari baubles to macadamia nuts. “I’m basically humble,” Imelda claimed last year—a view not widely shared. “Compared to her, Marie Antoinette was a bag lady,” says N.Y. Congressman Stephen Solarz, who is investigating the Marcos millions.

Visitors to the Malacañang Palace—now a museum by order of President Corazon Aquino—seem to agree with Solarz’ assessment. Descending the stairs from the former First Lady’s sumptuous wood-paneled bedroom into the 5,000-plus-square-foot basement beneath, visitors gasp at the now famous inventory of Imelda-wear: the 2,700 pairs of shoes (size 8½), the 500 mostly black brassieres (34B), the suitcases filled with girdles (size 40 and 42), the 1,500 handbags and the 35 large standing racks with the fur coats and the 1,200 or so designer gowns she did not pack for her most recent trip. According to her friends, the dresses were worn only once and some had taken a year to embroider by hand.

“In the Philippines we live in a paradise. There are no poor like there are in other countries,” Imelda told a Palace visitor four years ago. More amazing than that statement was the fact that Imelda seemed to believe it. During shopping trips to New York she stayed at a government-owned six-story town house adorned with van Goghs, Picassos and other masters and with its own mirrored disco, or at the regal Waldorf Towers, where she tipped bellboys $100 and kept a standing order for $1,000 in fresh flowers daily. On jaunts to Rome she lived at the elegant Hotel Excelsior on the Via Veneto just a short limousine ride from the shops she loved to patronize or in a $1,437-per-day royal suite at the luxurious Grand. Besides the usual bodyguards, her retinue (which, depending on the trip, required up to 25 more rooms) invariably included a maid whose sole duty was caring for Imelda’s jewelry. After socializing—often with such longtime pals as Cristina Ford, Luciana Pignatelli Avedon or actor George Hamilton—Imelda would resume her journeys in a private twin-engine plane complete with built-in shower and gold bathroom fixtures. Once, after a dinner party in Rome, Imelda invited her companions back to her Excelsior suite for drinks. As she showed off some of her gowns, a friend said, “Madame, why don’t you show us what you wear with them?” Happy to oblige, Imelda hauled out two large cases; one, covered in black crocodile, was filled with jewelry in a series of drawers, each color-coded by stone (emeralds, rubies, sapphires, diamonds). The other was crammed with U.S. greenbacks.

Imelda made most of her purchases in cash (and expected as much as a 35 percent discount). Given her husband’s $5,700 annual salary, the source of Imelda’s loot is now the focus of investigation by lawyers, accountants and politicians from both the U.S. and the Philippines. Papers found since Marcos’ fall suggest that $1.5 million spent by Imelda during a 1981 trek to Kenya, Iraq and New York came from the Philippine intelligence service budget. The prodigal purchaser carted 20 trunks of store-bought goodies—and 500 boxes of macadamia nut candies—back to Manila with her that year.

Even an incomplete picture of Imelda’s spending shows equal shades of avarice and obsession. A July 1978 trip to New York yielded a $1.43 million batch of Bulgari jewels, including a $1.15 million emerald-and-diamond bracelet. “She remembered the price of every piece,” an Italian socialite says. “These jewels were an investment.” In 1981 she bought New York philanthropist Leslie R. Samuels’ entire collection of art, English antique furniture and ceramics for more than $4.5 million. On her 1983 trip to Rome, Copenhagen and New York, Imelda outdid herself, spending $7 million in 90 days. The tab, recorded in a spiral steno notebook by her secretary, included $10,340 to Pratesi for bed sheets, $43,370 to Asprey for sterling silver serving dishes, $560,000 for antique jewelry from Fred Leighton, $451,000 in gems from Cartier, $19,400 in assorted towels, tablecloths and sheets, and $3.5 million in payments to Mario Bellini for a Michelangelo painting. “They call me corrupt, frivolous,” she complained, uncomprehending, in a New York Times interview later. “I would not look like this if I am corrupt. Some ugliness would settle down on my system.”

Imelda didn’t have to travel, of course, to spend her spare change. Back home, while preparing to play hostess to European royals and notables at the 1979 opening of the Marbella beach resort outside Manila, she noticed that the sand on the beach wasn’t white enough. What to do? Dispatch a plane to Australia for a load of the right stuff.

That same year she celebrated her 25th wedding anniversary. For the occasion she outfitted the palace with new porcelain, Broggi silverware, Baccarat glassware and Austrian crystal chandeliers, bought a silver carriage complete with eight white horses, hired trumpeters in full regalia to herald the arrival of guests and constructed a stagelike chapel in the palace hall. Estimated cost: $5 million. Daughter Irene’s wedding to Gregorio Araneta III four years later was even grander. In the town of Sarrat, where the vows would be exchanged, the free-spending First Lady ordered the building of a luxury hotel and a new airport, had local homes refaced to look like 17th-century Spanish dwellings and arranged for 500 first-class cabins on an ocean liner for guests. The estimated cost of all that was $10.3 million.

Home or abroad, what Imelda wanted she usually got, from the $450 four-foot-tall sugar Santa she scooped out of the window of Bloomingdale’s during a Christmas shopping trip to Manhattan to the $2,000 in chewing gum she once bought while passing through the San Francisco airport. “If she saw a blouse she liked, she’d buy 10 dozen,” says Carmen Navarra-Pedrosa, a Philippine-born author and longtime Marcos watcher. “If she didn’t like it that much, she’d buy five dozen.” And if she really loved anything, she wanted it all for herself. She ordered all bottles of a certain perfume removed from duty-free stores in her country, until she tired of it.

But why, especially in a country with an average per capita income of only $822 per year? “She may have had delusions of grandeur and omnipotence, where no choices have to be made,” says Dr. Muriel Winestine, a psychoanalyst and associate professor at the Cornell University Medical College. “To say ‘I’ll just buy the green gown’ is already a limitation of one’s power. This could lead, if she saw a pair of shoes she liked, to her saying, ‘I’ll buy them in every color.’ But just because Mrs. Marcos shops a lot doesn’t necessarily mean it’s compulsive,” cautions Winestine. “It could also be greediness.”

Those closest to Imelda cite her impoverished childhood as the likely source for the buying bug. “I think this ‘avarice’ may be the result of being born poor—always protecting yourself against your background,” says Bonnie Swearingen, the wife of former Standard Oil (Indiana) board chairman John E. Swearingen and still an Imelda loyalist. During the Japanese occupation, Imelda’s family lost all of its valuable possessions “except one necklace of very small diamonds,” recounts Swearingen. “They would sell it off, one stone at a time. I can hear Imelda now, saying, ‘and that last diamond necklace put food on the table.’ ”

For the Marcoses, the days of deprivation are not likely to return. Tracking down the millions in foreign banks and the property holdings in New York, Rome, London and elsewhere may prove too difficult for the most dedicated detectives. At the Palace, 67 clothes racks were left standing empty, the whereabouts of their contents now unknown. At the government’s New York town house, several priceless paintings are also among the missing. And Imelda, even in exile, shows no sign of opting for economy. During just four weeks of isolation on Air Force bases in Guam and Hawaii, she and the Marcos entourage ran up a $40,000 tab at the PX’s for “personal necessities.” For the moment, the U.S. taxpayer is footing that bill, though Congressman Solarz suggests that the visitors will be dunned. It probably won’t matter to Imelda. A person who worked as her press aide for five years thinks her employer couldn’t stop shopping now even if she had to. “In the beginning, Imelda merely collected possessions,” she says. “In the end, she became possessed by them.”

—Written Roger Wolmuth, reported by domestic and foreign bureaus