(The writer covered EDSA I for the Asian Wall Street Journal, and was a Time magazine writer and editor for 12 years. He is now editor of Power magazine in Hong Kong.)
I WORKED with Nelly far longer than anyone at Time magazine. We first teamed up when Tommy Manotoc was kidnapped. As many in Manila will recall, the story broke at Nelly?s apartment in Ermita on Dec. 31, 1981.
At the time, I didn?t know the Marcos-era Philippines very well. I was backstopping for an Asian Wall Street Journal Manila correspondent who was away on a Christmas holiday, and I was grateful to get an invitation to Nelly?s place on New Year?s Eve. My wife and I were standing with beers, ready to celebrate Pinoy-style, when someone tapped me on my shoulder to say that a press conference was starting.
?Where?? I asked.
He pointed with his chin. ?In Nelly?s bedroom.?
That was strange. And in Nelly?s bedroom we heard an even stranger story about a secret marriage between Tommy and Imee Marcos, a final dinner at Las Conchas restaurant, a kidnapped Mitsubishi Galant Sigma, a plea from Malacañang for the family to stay silent, which they decided to disobey ? to save their son?s life ? by breaking the biggest story of the year in Nelly?s bedroom, above the VD clinic in Ermita, on New Year?s Eve.
Only in the Philippines
Even though we were competitors at that time, Nelly and I joined forces the next day to track down the story. We went to Las Conchas to ask the waiters what the couple had eaten, stalked Imee at UP Law School, and finally went to Malacañang to tell Greg Cendaña [Minister of Information?Ed] that we were about to break the story of Marcos? kidnapped secret-son-in-law. He was there on New Year?s Day, and acting very nonchalant.
A dud call
While we were in Malacañang, Nelly somehow got Imee?s private telephone number. We called. A male answered.
?We know about Tommy,? we said portentously, kind of muffling our voice.
The guy, a security man perhaps, was utterly unruffled. ?Who?s we?? he asked.
That was a dud call.
Time has a very unfair system of bylines and credits in which the writer of the story ?usually the re-writer ? gets the big byline at the top and the reporters receive credits in miniscule type way down at the end. This is true even when the writer is in an office in the Time-Life building in New York, as far away from Manila as you can get.
I have received a lot of those big bylines, but they?re unfair for three reasons. One: lots of people can write Time magazine style. Two: almost any correspondent or bureau chief or editor from Hong Kong can fly into Manila and ask questions in an interview with the president or a Cabinet minister or the wannabe coup leader set up by Nelly Sindayen, and many did over the years, including me.
But very few reporters can score the difficult interviews, get the scoops, secure the private phone number of a dictator?s daughter whose husband has just been kidnapped by ? communist rebels ? or get invited to a Makati society party in which a coup is being planned on speakerphone. And then publish that information, get in hot water with the government, and less than a week later, sneak into an Army camp to talk to the rebel general who was on the speakerphone ? even though he?s under house arrest. That was the role Nelly performed for Time, and better than anyone I have known in my business.
Unafraid to tell it all
I want this tribute to be a reminder to everyone: Nelly was a journalist who wasn?t afraid to tell the truth. No matter what the government threatened her with, as happened recently, long after the days of dictatorship, under Raul Gonzalez. That?s the journalists? job, that?s their passion, and that?s what Nelly will be remembered for by her colleagues and the young people who aspire to be the new generation of Nelly Sindayens. It?s a difficult job, a hazardous job, and I can?t imagine many people doing it with the joy, the friendships maintained, and the uniquely Philippine grace that Nelly had.
But I can easily imagine many generations of Filipinos doing it in any way ? in fact, I can?t imagine otherwise. The Philippines is a country that knows the value of freedom. You?ve chosen it over a fuller rice bowl. God bless the Filipinos.
Now I want to get personal. A few years ago, Nelly and I were on an assignment and we stayed at the Manor hotel at Camp John Hay in Baguio. We agreed to meet at the piano bar at 6 o?clock to make dinner plans. The piano bar at that hotel is just that: a white grand piano with stools around its perimeter and a jolly pianist who could play many songs without sheet music. As it turned out, we never went to dinner.
In the adjacent room, a group of overweight guys were drinking heavily. It was Johnny Walker, and their tumblers were large and full. Nelly looked at them, looked away in her sphinx-like way, looked back dubiously, and muttered to me in that low sotto voce of hers, pointing with her chin: ?Corrupt. Bad guys, Spaethie.? (I will note: she is the only person who has ever called me ?Spaethie.?)
Ultimately, they joined us at the piano, and it turned out Nelly was wrong. They were good guys, our kind of guys, human rights activists, architects, etc. And they wanted to sing. Hey! We were around a piano. The pianist could play anything. The night was young ? and as Nelly would say, ?So are we, Spaethie!?
But the guys were drunk and, to quote the porter in Macbeth, the Johnny Walker provoked their desire but took away their performance. In terms of tune, certainly, but also with the lyrics: our lounge-buddies didn?t know the words to any of the songs they desired to sing, or if they knew them, they were too drunk to remember.
But as many people know, Nelly knew the words to every song ever written, down to every last verse. Nelly was a sashaying encyclopedia of lyrics. She loved the melodies deeply, but she truly adored lyrics. Some of her e-mail messages to Time were composed almost entirely of lyrics from various songs. There was something very Filipino, colonial, and literate about this passion of Nelly?s.
?Summertime? was her signature performance piece ? she sang it huskily and with great control and beauty ? and I don?t think I ever heard her sing another song in public. If you asked her a lyric, however ?
I can?t think of one song I associate with my late mother. A handful remind me of my late wife Ritsu. But Nelly, oh lord: scores of songs will bring back her unforgettable voice, laugh, and that amazing smile.
Nelly and I spent countless hours in cars in Manila, in the provinces, on helicopters, and from those long rides, and the Magic-Sing dinner parties and late nights at karaoke bars in Manila (including Filmore Avenue!).
I associate so many songs with her: ?Don?t Cry Out Loud,? ?Goldfinger,? ?Kahit Isang Saglit? (which she helped me sing many a time), ?Lonely is a Man Without Love,? the theme from ?The Valley of the Dolls,? ?What Matters Most,? ?That Old Feeling.?
I could go on for a very long time.
So there we were in Camp John Hay at the white grand piano with stools around it, some ?pica-pica? ordered, beer for me and Coke Light for Nelly and lots of Johnny Walker for the local guys who wanted to sing but didn?t have the words. Here?s how it went.
The pianist was at his instrument. One of the attorneys or architects stood to his right pawing a big tumbler of Scotch. Nelly stood on the left of the piano player feeding the lyrics in a low voice just before each line.
Nelly [from left]: ?In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking ? ?
One of the guys [from right]: ?In olden days a glimpse ? !?
Nelly: ?Now heaven knows, anything goes.?
The guy: ?Heaven knows ? !?
The piano player changes songs and Nelly?s helping the next guy.
Nelly: ?Saving nickels saving dimes, working ?til the sun don?t shine ??
The next guy: ?On Blue Bayou!?
Another guy. Nelly [from left]: ?I?ve grown accustomed to the tune she whistles night and noon/Her smiles, her frowns, her ups, her downs ??
This went on for hours. ?Some Enchanted Evening.? ?You Ain?t Nothin? But a Hound Dog.? ?I Fall in Love Too Easily.? ?Old Man River.?
The ending verse
The last time I saw Nelly, I mentioned that I had purchased a Linda Rondstadt CD of standards and discovered the song ?I?ll Be Seeing You (In All the Old Familiar Places).? She knew it better than me, and we kind of sang along. That?s how we were. We shared the songs we loved. The two of us agreed that the song?s ending verse was lovely.
I?ll be seeing you;
In every lovely summer?s day;
And everything that?s bright and gay;
I?ll always think of you that way
That?s how I feel about Nelly Sindayen.
[Spaeth can be contacted at email@example.com]