Nene Leonor on her forever love and the good life

The eternally beautiful and most generous society doyenne, Nene Leonor.

One can think of a thousand superlative adjectives to describe Nene Leonor, from beautiful to smart to being best-dressed, fabulous and one-of-a-kind. But of her many traits, it is her capacity for loving and giving unconditionally that, to me, makes her very endearing.


As February, the month of love, reaches its final days, allow me to pay tribute to Tita Nene who, during her husband Jun’s 90th birthday a few weeks ago, pulled out all the stops to celebrate in style and with overflowing gratitude in her heart for the long, happy and fruitful years they, as a happy couple, have lived so far.

WITH the love of her life, Jun Leonor.

Indeed, this momentous event was a manifestation of her sincere and devoted affection for her dear Jun. Unfortunately, our once healthy and energetic Tito Jun seemed oblivious to the merrymaking that Tita Nene orchestrated on his behalf, as he had been ill for the longest of time, with no less than his faithful and dedicated better half taking good care of him hands-on, with the help of a phalanx of caregivers on eight-hour shifts the whole day. But then, he might have been aware of the festivities held in his honor, quiet as he was, as his faint smile somehow showed a glint of appreciation in his eyes.

Jun and Nene Leonor.
NENE and Jun with their children.

Fantastic food, as in every party hosted by this, one of Manila’s top hostesses, was in superabundance, and with Tita Nene’s famous frozen fruit salad, leche flan, crema de fruta, callos, salpicao, steaks and Caesar Salad, everyone just had to keep coming back to the long, elegantly decorated buffet table for more.

Jun and Nene Leonor.

Manila’s high society, the couple’s loyal friends and family members gathered at the fabled Leonor compound in Pasay City, the original address of the rich and well-born, long before their ilk moved to the uppity villages of Makati, and before these were invaded by the newly minted and social wannabes of all shades and persuasions.

Nene and Jun Leonor.
NENE Leonor with DAILY TRIBUNE columnist Agile Zamora.

Among the guests were society mavens — her amiga para siempre Nini Licaros, the inimitable Thelma Gana, old-family lady Millet Tanada, Nympha Valencia, Cory Navarro, Fortune Ledesma, Connie Guanzon-Garcia and Agile Zamora, the last swearing by her deep affection for the hostess she considers her mentor. 

IN a pre-Valentine’s dinner in Sta. Elena with Nena Tantoco, Betsy Tenchavez and Nini Licaros.

At home in genteel Pasay

Tita Nene could have chosen to uproot from the Leonor compound in this old elegant part of the metropolis, not far from the original homes of the Lopas and the National Artist for Architecture Pablo S. Antonio, and once, of the Rectos and Knechts, Osmenas and the Oppens, Rufinos, Palancas, Osmenas and Mapuas, and one that bears the distinguishing patina of age. But she simply chose to stay put with her family. She stubbornly refused to live it up and compete with the Joneses and, to this day, she holds on to the family’s prime property with the will of a woman of substance and one who is secure in her social status.

Indeed, Tita Nene could be stubborn, but if anything at all, it is to her credit that she has chosen to live happily in a home where she and her dearest Jun had accumulated happy memories and a legacy of graceful and elegant living which they have passed on to their children. Besides, being the smart woman that she is, why unload a piece of prime property that is sure to increase even more in value in the coming years?   

WITH bosom friend Nini Licaros.

But to emphasize her number one trait, Tita Nene is without a doubt one woman whose every act and every pronouncement is filled with love.  Her generosity and her kindness are without bounds and they do not distinguish between friends and strangers, the well-born and the humble, for what she possesses is a heart that understands and empathizes. When hurt and spoken ill of, Tita Nene easily forgives. And if she has hurt anyone, though without intending to, she is the first to make amends.

I am told that she has helped a lot and not made any fuss about her many acts of kindness, as many priests and nuns would attest. Not one to announce her many good works, she would rather keep them to herself, because, she says, why tell the whole world?

former Vice President Jojo Binay, Nene Leonor and dear friend Elenita Binay.

Smart at 91

Just recently, right after the holidays, I had the privilege of engaging Tita Nene in a leisurely conversation at the Manila Polo Club, thanks to her bosom friend Nini Licaros, who treated us to a delightful Filipino merienda near the pool. 

This being one of the rare opportunities to sit down with Tita Nene, I asked her all kinds of questions about her charmed life. Indeed, she shared with me stories that made me see and understand her beyond the glitter and glamour that have always been part of her persona.

In that one conversation, I got to know this one smart lady, one who, at her age of 91, has kept her keen mind intact, one that remembers names and recalls her wonderful experiences through the decades. And that goes all the way back to her teenage years when she was one of the beautiful teenagers who composed a clique that included her dear friend Mely Concepcion Hechanova, with whom she socialized a lot outside of her campus life.

She had been one young pretty lass, popular and fashionably dressed. The daughter of a chief engineer of Central Azucarera de Don Pedro Roxas in Batangas, she grew up in San Juan (now part of Metro Manila), where she first attended Saint John’s School. Then, for college, she first attended the newly founded University of the East, one that specialized in business and management. Her grades were so high (1.0 in most of her subjects) that she decided she qualified for admission to the University of the Philippines. And so, she did move to the State University where she became one of the most popular and attractive coeds.

WITH Edna Lhuillier.

Over tiny morsels of finger food, which she barely touched, pointing out that she is a light eater and can do without breakfast because she goes to bed at five in the morning and normally wakes up at five in the afternoon, and could survive on “chichirya” (junk food, if you please), she shared that today, because she was meeting up with us, she woke up at two in the afternoon instead, ran to the parlor and was whisked off to the Manila Polo Club by her loyal driver with her yaya attending to her every need.

I asked her how her typical day is and she said they are free of any worries because “I don’t read the papers, neither watch news on television.” Does she play mahjong? “No, never,” she said vehemently.  “No vices. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke.” And no, she does not listen to music, too.

Nympha Valencia, Alice Samson and Nene Leonor.

Volleybelle in her youth

What, then, occupies her, I asked, and Nini replied for her, “She just goes partying.”

“And I love dressing up,” Tita Nene added. She admitted to wearing Pitoy Moreno’s creations often “when he was still around because we were together in UP.”  Her UP days were brief because “it was very far then and I couldn’t live in a dormitory.”

No wonder that she loved to go shopping even then. Of course, as time went by, she graduated from Escolta as her favorite shopping place to Paris and New York, and the rest of the world. This was when she began traveling more frequently, often with her Jun and their children.

Looking back, she revealed that she met her future husband when she was working for the Puyats’ Manila Bank. “That’s where we met. He was an auditor and I was a bank teller. He was keeping an eye on me, you know. So, I asked him if he was ready. And my friends were telling me he was a good catch. We had a small wedding in Davao.”

Not that she was wanting in suitors, for there had been many, all from good families, including a handsome young man of American roots and the son of an industrialist who became an industrialist too and a presidential cabinet member.

No, she was not materialistic and neither socially ambitious. She chose the man who made her heart flutter and that was Jun Leonor.

Dating then meant dining out and playing bowling.  She was physically adept and even played volleyball. In her mid years, she played pelota right in their home court. “Friends loved to play here in our Pasay compound. I served them breakfast, lunch, merienda or dinner, whenever they came to play.”

Apprentice at the neighbor’s kitchen

That she loves to host parties and was even named one of the top hostesses by the society magazine Philippine Tatler, she attributes to her being a good cook, as her recent party in honor of her husband proved her culinary prowess.  One attends a Leonor party not just to enjoy the company but also to eat her signature dishes, her friends point out.

Her love for cooking began when she was a young girl who would observe “in the kitchen of our well-off neighbors in San Juan, actually my cousins. They always had buen comida and I would hang around their kitchen and watch the elders and the staff prepare their family specialties, especially the Filipino, French and European dishes. I would help, too,” she recalled. “The family owned ice plants and were supplying the restaurants of Manila and suburbs. Since it was liberation time, they received payments in dollars yet. There was so much money on their table, they could not count them all.” Not surprisingly, these were the Dayrits, who are well-known for their culinary prowess and their “Fountainableu” style of cooking.

Growing up with Mely

Another perennial friend was Mely Concepcion Hechanova. “We were always together. I gave a shower when she married Paing and she did, too, when I married Jun. We always attended each other’s jam sessions during our birthdays. And much later, when she could not go out anymore, I would visit her and she would ask me and our friends to have lunch in their beautiful family home.”

Fast forward to her senior years, Tita Nene claimed she has lived a happy and good life. There are issues and challenges to contend with, but she is not one to lose her peace and equanimity. “You cannot please everybody,” she pointed out. “I have lived my life the way I wanted to and I am at peace with myself. Life goes on.”

She sounded grateful that she “survived the pandemic. Covid came, wars came, so many things have happened and we all went through them and we remain unscathed. We are made stronger by trials. I was nine years old during the war. We evacuated to Batangas during the last part of the war and we lived a quiet and peaceful life there.”

As to her choice of Jun Leonor for her lifetime partner, she reiterated, “I had my share of rich suitors, if I may say this with modesty. But I didn’t care about their wealth or prominent family backgrounds. Actually as a young girl, I never thought of getting married or having a boyfriend, especially at that young age. Besides, I grew up in a conservative family. The values then were different.

“To be sure, I enjoyed my teenage years, so why should I commit myself to just one man and lose my social life which I was enjoying very much with Mely and our friends? We were not in a hurry to get married or to have boyfriends. For even then, I enjoyed going to parties.”

Society belle

Not surprisingly, hers was one of the young faces that adorned the society pages and teenage pages because a friend of mine, “Nimia Arroyo was a society editor at the Daily Mirror so she would always feature me. And then, my hairdresser would ask me to be on the cover of a magazine but something came up and I didn’t make it to the scheduled shoot. But I had other opportunities and exposures. We were young and carefree. But at the same time, we were responsible in our studies and we followed the rules at home. We received guests at home and we frequented each other’s homes.”

In the 1960s, she eventually married. After bearing four children, she gave birth at age 44 to the fifth one, who has Down Syndrome. The boy, David, is her living angel, one who behaves well and is a source of joy to her. “He is God’s gift to me and Jun. He never complains and he never gets sick. He is blessed as much as he is a blessing to us. I call him my miracle boy.”

Lucky to be able to help

As for her beloved Jun, “he had been a very good provider. His family invested in properties in the south. I am a happy wife. The least I could do for Jun is take good care of him. I am grateful for the happy times we have shared. I am who I am today because of God, my parents and Jun. He has made my life complete. And there is still so much to look forward to.”

Finally, as we were winding up, I asked her what her favorite charity was, knowing of her many beneficences. She said, “Nothing in particular, lahat naman (everything).”

“You are known to be helpful,” I pressed on. Nini clarified, knowing how generous her friend is. “Even if it’s not an organization, she helps them as long as she wants to help them.”

“Whoever asks me, I give right away,” Tita Nene exclaimed.

“You are so blessed,” I told her.

And she said, “Yes, at  least blessed because I have lived this long and I have the money to give.”

Well said by a grand dame who loves unconditionally and shares her blessings generously.