Menchu Katigbak: The splendid life of a society swan

Hers is a story anyone would love to tell and retell, or hear and hear again. Chances are, as in the book of Menchu, so many things are left unsaid because if these were all said, a single book would not be enough.

Carmencita “Menchu” Katigbak’s story is one of love, passion, hurts and disappointments, social triumphs and power in its subtle workings, but mostly the good life and the people who live it and make it happen.

She is a woman of the world in the sense of one who has lived in, explored and enjoyed New York, Bangkok, Lausanne, Paris and, her current love, Singapore. Of course, her turf is in Manila with a Capital S and Capital P (as in Power), and Lipa the hometown of her roots.

MENCHU with best friend Susie and her daughter Marivic.


At a time when the term “socialite” can come cheap, trite or even undeserved, Menchu gives the appellation dignity, respect and the awe it once inspired. Her social credentials are, of course, impeccable. For starters, she attended the Chateau Mont-Choisi, a Swiss finishing school for debutantes and pre-debs belonging to royalty and the world’s upper crust.

A socialite today, in loose modern parlance, is perceived as being frivolous, one who attends parties because these men and women are party animals, or party people, as one columnist has named her weekly jottings about the social events of the day.

The enjoyment of life is what defines this breed and set, and yet, while Menchu, too, knows how to enjoy, and enjoy life with gusto, there is more to her and that differentiates her from the herd. No, she does not top her charmed life with an icing of well-publicized good deeds and philanthropic beneficence, even if she actually shares her bounty with those in need.

Menchu is of a different mold. She is a society swan in the manner of Truman Capote’s chums — Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwill. In our part of the world, think Chona, think Minnie, think Chito.  She may well be cast in the same crème de la creme mold, glamorous denizens of the inner circles of society, at the same time, ladies who have transcended the vagaries of time.

Just recently, Menchu was referred to by a diplomat friend as a global influencer, a 21st-century appellation that only a few are accorded. This one is applied to one who was once a señorita, colegiala and, yes, society girl, again in the tradition of Chona, Baby, Nelly, Chito and Ising.


‘The Katigbaks talk only to the Kalaws’

They don’t need family names, each as important as the other and of the same significance in society. Still, it’s one thing to say that she is Baby Fores, and another if she is Baby Arenas. There were two Vickys, one of national import and memory being the lovely teenager who stood as her father’s First Lady in the early 1950s, and there was the Madrigal matron, Vicky nee Abad Santos, who was low-key and the daughter of the World War II patriot, Jose Abad Santos, who refused to pledge allegiance to the flag of the enemies.

Menchu shares first name distinction with Menchu delas Alas Concepcion, also of Batangueña parentage, being the daughter of banker and finance guy and public servant Don Antonio de las Alas. Both aristocrats from Batangas, the two Menchus share many distinctions beauty for one, pedigree, for the other—but that’s as far as I would say, the aforementioned traits being obvious.

But to drive his point, Joe Guevarra, the humorous and well-placed columnist known for his tongue-in-cheek pronouncements, once said of the olden times, when the genealogical boundaries were well-defined (quote also taken from TSJ’s book): “In Lipa, the Katigbaks talk only to the Kalaws, and the Kalaws talk only to the Katigbaks.”

DINNER in Pili with Fernando and Zobel, Tessie Sy-Coson, Guilly Luchangco, Federico ‘Piki’ Lopez | photograph courtesy of MENCHU KATIGBAK

This self-confessed social climber, as his 8-to-5-and-beyond job would require him to be, admits to not having met (okay, having been introduced to…) the ebullient society hostess, traveler, culinary maven and friend-to-the-powerful Menchu Katigbak. Everything that I am writing here, I learned from the lady’s biography, Menchu, authored by lifestyle journalism icon Thelma Sioson San Juan, the two being decades-old friends.

Menchu, one finds out toward the end of the book, is the inspiration for her granddaughter Isabelle’s first tome, Abu, the Sad Princess. I look back on the pages I have read, the memories of Menchu’s lifetime so far, in all its seven glorious and electrifying decades, and I dare say, the description is most apt and is true as well in real life as Menchu today is “living happily ever after” having come to terms with the many issues that confronted her at various times, but more importantly, she is today a fulfilled mother and grandmother and a believer in Jesus Christ. But that is getting ahead of the story.


‘White Matter’ by Lao Lianben

Jaime Ponce de Leon, dear Jaime, the man of the hour of Philippine arts for as long as Juan Luna’s missing masterpiece, remains ensconced at the Ayala Museum – gaining for the discoverer more than a foothold in our cultural history – asked me if I was interested in writing about the socially formidable Menchu Katigbak, and I readily said yes, having seen her photographs in the select and more discriminating society pages and columns.

I thought to myself it would be an opportunity to meet the lady face to face and add her to my glossary of so-called newfound friends, but that was not meant to be. I was, oh, I was treated to the next best thing – a copy of Menchu which, to someone who aspires to be a bibliophile, is all that matters in the world, except that I am first a social climber. And since I have not been allowed an audience, I take solace in the book and, as my honeyed revenge, will tell you what I feel about the lady who, I understand, could be frank and outspoken. Abrasive is too strong a word, and unfair for I am not sure if I will ever meet her in my lifetime, but I am told the lady will never mince words, that’s probably why she has legions of true friends who probably can give as much as take, or so I am imagining.

Lunch in the kitchen in Pili with Patty Araneta (left) and Monet Recio-Schem.

A painting that Menchu has kept all these years, “White Matter” by Lao Lianben, signed and dated 1997, has been featured as one of the rare pieces to be auctioned in Leon Gallery’s forthcoming magnificent September auction, with the starting bid of P2,600,000. So, there, if you’re wondering what Jaime, who moves around the best circles, has got to do with this enigmatic swan.


‘We are not rich’

But let’s stick to what the book says. While she intersperses in her narrative personal encounters with her subject, TSJ, for the most part, devotes the pages of this book to Menchu alone, and with our cosmopolitan lady, the many friends in the upper echelons whose lives she has touched and who have touched hers in turn.

Menchu, once she was ready to be told, heard it straight from her mother, “Tandaan mo, baka akala mo mayaman tayo. Hindi tayo mayaman. Kung napadala ka namin sa Switzerland at si Tita at si Tony napadala naming sa America, kasi nagpawis ako ng dugo (Remember, you may think we are rich, we are not rich. If we sent you to Switzerland and Tita and Tony to America, it was because I sweated blood). If you think you’re going to inherit something from us, banish the thought.  So if you don’t study well, bahala ka sa sarili mo (you’re on your own).”

The perfect words for the Asuncionista (Assumptionista) who much preferred to bake food for the gods, brownies and upside-down cakes and do naughty things like hiding the bell used to signal the start and end of class periods.

Her mother, the former Charing Roxas Dimayuga, who attended Assumption Convent, dealt in buying, developing and selling homes in the gated Makati villages. She also developed horizontal and vertical commercial spaces as well as imported retazos from abroad.

Wearing the Van Cleef earrings purchased before their public launch.

Her father, Enrique Luz Katigbak, on the other hand, was a top certified public accountant, an alumnus of the Northwestern University and a director on the boards of Monte de Piedad and Philtrust banks.

Of his connections, none is more eminent than his friendship with His Eminence, Rufino Cardinal Santos, archbishop of Manila and the first Filipino Cardinal of the Catholic Church.

It was not a happenstance that Menchu received the sacrament of confirmation from the Cardinal himself right in the Katigbak home, the first ever that was held in a private home if any other followed at all.

Like most children, Menchu recalls in the book how she detested being “slapped” by the pious prelate. If she was any pleased about her family’s closeness to the holy man, it was that the Assumption sisters did not expel her for her not-too-infrequent infractions because they went to her father if they needed something from the Cardinal.


Dona Aurora Recto for a ‘guardian’

Hers was a lonely childhood since her older siblings were away. They were the triple seven, which alluded to their being born seven years apart, with Menchu as the youngest.

On certain days, her parents, both busy, would deposit her in the home of the statesman Claro M. Recto where she would play with his favorite granddaughter, Techie, who had all these toys, Menchu could not help realizing her parents did not buy her a toy. She played with her jackstones while Techie had a closetful of toys, including a toy “cash register.”

Techie was so generous she was giving this fancy plaything to her, but Menchu refused knowing her mother would not approve. What she remembers best of that time was the sight of Dona Aurora, the first beautiful woman she beheld in her young mind and eyes, and from her, she learned her first lessons in etiquette, because the family ate with a full complement of silverware and flatware.

(To be continued)