Cherry Bomb: On Dovie Beams and the Marcos Administration

Among all the mistresses that Pres. Ferdinand Marcos had, the name of American actress Dovie Beams stands out in public memory. The saucy details she shared of her two-year-long affair with the Philippine president, as well as the audio tapes containing their intimate conversations, have overshadowed her acting role in Ang Mga Maharlika, the 1968 film about Marcos’s alleged war exploits. Caroline S. Hau, professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University, describes Beams’s exposé as a “bombshell” or, in Filipino, a bomba—appropriately so, as the scandal fed the press, fuelled public discontent against the administration, provided ammunition for the strongman’s critics and opponents, and chipped Marcos’s carefully crafted public image.

Several writers and journalists allege, moreover, that the bomba pushed Imelda Marcos into an unprecedented level of influence and power. However, Hau disputes this popular theory in her article titled “Dovie Beams and Philippine Politics: A President’s Scandalous Affair and First Lady Power on the Eve of Martial Law,” published in our September–December 2019 double issue. Her analysis of the Beams exposé and of women in politics challenges what she deems as oversimplified views of the dynamics in a conjugal relationship and of women and power.

In examining the details of the affair, Hau uses journalist Hermie Rotea’s Marcos’ Lovie Dovie, a book that Beams herself had originally collaborated on and provided materials for until falling out with Rotea. Although Rotea provides the most complete account of what transpired between Beams and President Marcos, Hau remarks that both his “(re)writing” and even Beams’s recollections “need to be taken with a grain of salt.” It is difficult to determine fact from fiction in the narratives spun out of the scandal, especially as these narratives have been tailored and used to advance various agenda.

What gave Beams’s exposé such an explosive quality was not novelty, as she was hardly Marcos’s first mistress, but her excellent timing. Marcos had just secured his second term in the 1969 election, billed “the dirtiest, most violent, most corrupt election since 1946” by foreign media. The succeeding year began with the First Quarter Storm, which started in January (see Karlo Mikhail I. Mongaya’s article on Resil Mojares and militant protests of the First Quarter Storm here), and saw four major typhoons between September and October. Beams’s “detonation” of her bomba on 11 November capped off that year, resulting in protests against the “moral bankruptcy of top government officials” and the highly unequal “special relations” between the Philippines and the United States. The volatile circumstances contributed to the potency of her bomba; Hau opines that in less turbulent conditions perhaps an affair with a beautiful white actress could have instead boosted Marcos’s “masculinity” given the inclination of men to brag about their virility.

Political rivals (some of who were thought to have enabled Beams to “detonate” her bomba) and organizations critical of Marcos weaponized the scandal. While Marcos’s opponents vilified him, protesting groups ridiculed and laughed at him—an explosive act, Hau notes, that is “capable of either reinforcing or transforming the social order.” Laughter yanked high-ranking officials such as Marcos himself off of their self-erected pedestals, dropped them to the level of ordinary people, and thus challenged and undermined his authority. Pointing to these developments, Hau posits that the Dovie Beams affair provides a good case study of “the possibilities and limits” of scandals in affecting political perception and reality. Following Resil Mojares’s framework on exposés in general, she demonstrates that Beams’s exposé performs three functions: analytic, in that it exposes the ills of society and government; preventive, because it “introduc[es] checks to the abuse or miscarriage of authority”; and preventive, as it lays the foundation for corrective measures.

Beams’s exposé effectively shattered Marcos’s “carefully crafted public image and persona” and laid bare not only his infidelity, but also the “sham” of an “ideal marriage” between the First Couple. Immediately after the “detonation,” Marcos and his team sought to mitigate the damage by defaming Beams. Ten articles in the crony-owned Republic Weekly employed “a battery of negative gender stereotypes” against Beams and selectively quoted a psychiatric report from her divorce proceedings with ex-husband Edward Boehms.

In addition, the publication drew a contrast between Beams and Imelda by praising the latter’s upbringing, descent from wealthy Philippine sugar barons, selection as Miss Manila, and her tolerance for her husband’s “weakness for women.” “Of these so-called facts, the first three have been disputed,” Hau dryly comments. Much effort had been put into constructing the Marcos mythology and romance, such as the production of Iginuhit ng Tadhana. This 1965 biopic starring the country’s top actors at the time portrays Ferdinand promising to his mother that he would be loyal to the woman he would marry. Hau thus remarks that the Beams scandal “brutally underscores the fact that even marriage to the ‘ideal’ Imelda, with her beauty and illustrious family name, poses no obstruction to Ferdinand’s compulsive gallivanting.”

Rotea would go on to claim that the scandal caused Imelda’s ascent “from ceremonial First Lady to a conjugal tyrant reminiscent of Evita Peron of Argentina.” Subsequent writers would either build upon his assertion to explain Imelda’s rise to power or challenge it. Journalists generally asserted that Imelda used the affair as “leverage to acquire more power,” with Ferdinand conceding gifts (like the San Juanico Bridge, which connects Samar Island and Leyte province, her home province) and government posts to his wife to appease her. Meanwhile, Philippinist scholars “[offered] no definitive take” on Imelda’s appointments as minister of Human Settlements and governor of Metro Manila, to name a few positions she acquired. They did, however, describe the First Couple’s relationship as “one of ‘mutual blackmail,’ ‘a curious mixture of collaboration and conflict.’”

Sources closer to the Marcoses suggested otherwise. Imelda’s niece Beatriz Romualdez Francia claimed that her aunt gradually developed a hunger “for attention, power, and luxury” by 1974 onwards, long after Beams’s exposé. Primitivo Mijares, based on information from Juan Ponce Enrile and other officers who worked with Marcos, described “a more generalized pattern” of Imelda or her relatives acquiring concessions from the unfaithful president after catching him red-handed.

Hau’s criticisms can be summed up in two points. First, “simplistic pop-psychological, gender-inflected analyses of love and marriage” form the base of “the cruder renditions of the Dovie-Beams-scandal-as-turning-point-for-Imelda [thes[e]s].” These theories, Hau asserts, overlook the complexities of a marital relationship. “[P]eople do separate from, or else stay married to, each other for any number of reasons, despite—in some cases because of—the infidelity that causes pain and suffering in a spouse,” Hau reflects. She points, as proof, to a “reconciliation between Ferdinand and Imelda” that took place after the Beams affair. Indeed, such relationships cannot be simplified as a repeatedly unfaithful man just buying his wife’s patience with “sex, shopping, or, in this case, power.”

Second, Hau argues that the accounts of Imelda’s growing influence in the Marcos government rest on flimsy “commonsensical assumptions” about the relationship between women and power. These theories treat Imelda’s case as exceptional in the face of “the power that ought to accrue (or, more important, not accrue) to women,” particularly First Ladies in unelected positions that supposedly limit them from taking direct political roles in their spouses’ governments. Additionally, analysts tend to compare Imelda with “other ‘exceptional’ women in power,” such as Perón, and imply that unconventional Third World politics result in such developments. However, Hau identifies similarities between Imelda’s achievements and those of American First Ladies. Like Imelda, these women campaigned on behalf of their husbands, travelled domestically and abroad as emissaries, chaired various committees, and more.

Hau also notes that women “with this much access to and influence over their spouses” always face harsh criticism “for their ‘arrogance’ and other so-called attitude problems.” During the 1965 election, Ferdinand’s opponents “capitalized on the ambivalence aroused by Imelda’s visibility as political wife and active campaigning” and conducted a smear campaign by spreading manufactured nude photos of her.

So what caused Imelda’s “rise” to power? Simply put, the declaration of martial law. The Marcos dictatorship removed all opposition: political rivals, the free press, and checks and balances in the government. As Hau succinctly remarks, “Imelda metamorphosed into the ‘Steel Butterfly’ because she could do so and did so from 1972 onwards: there would be no institutional mechanism to hold her decisions and actions to public accountability, and there would be no one, not even an increasingly debilitated Ferdinand, to stop her from doing what she wanted.” Without anyone to challenge the Marcoses through formal legal procedures, underhanded means like blackmail, or ridicule and “subversive laughter,” the First Couple acquired and wielded absolute power.

While the scandal did not directly produce the “Steel Butterfly” that helped terrorize the country, it did expose the ugly truth hiding behind the glamor of the Marcos mythology, provide ammunition for opponents and critics of the kleptocrat, and enable cronies to “cement, even exploit, their close ties to the president for their own gain.” Thus, no one can doubt the explosive impact that Marcos’s momentary amour with Dovie Beams had on Philippine politics.

Read the full article of Caroline S. Hau in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, volume 67, number 3–4, 2019.

Hau recently received the Grant Goodman Prize in History and Historical Studies for 2021. Click here for the full story.

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