A Farewell to Letty Jimenez Magsanoc who wanted to Change the Future, One Dictator at a Time

Letty waving my book around during the
2014 launch of SHINE in Manila.
On Christmas Eve, I was shocked and upset to hear that my lifelong mentor, Letty Jimenez Magsanoc -- who gave me my first job in journalism -- suddenly died. The Philippine Daily Inquirer gave me until 1 P.M. (Philippine time) on Boxing Day to submit a tribute. So after celebrating Christmas with my family, I worked late into the night writing my contribution, the first time I've had a news deadline in more than two decades. When I sat down to write the tribute, I found I wanted to write about all the things I learned from Letty as a writer. You can read my tribute: She taught me writing was never about the writer

Thirty one years ago, Letty recruited me and my best friend Frankie Joaquin Drogin to the staff of Mr &Ms Special Edition, a magazine dedicated to opposing the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s. Her daughter, Kara, invited us to write a tandem eulogy for the funeral. Amazingly, I just so happened to be in the Philippines to visit my family and so I was able to deliver the eulogy on behalf of Frankie and myself. 

Here it is, written by Frankie in Washington and me in London via the magic of Facebook  Messenger. Fellow reporters on the magazine JP Fenix and Fe Zamora helped us piece the story together.

The LJM Garments Factory.

This is where it all began. A makeshift sign stuck to an office door on the premises of the lifestyle magazine Mr &Ms.  Behind the door was an editor with some of the biggest balls in Manila, trying to tell a story that a dictator didn’t want told.

But if you flip through the first issues of the Mr &Ms Special Edition from 1983, you will find no mention of Letty Jimenez Magsanoc. Eggie Apostol was listed as Editor and Publisher, and until 1984, Letty kept her role a secret behind the LJM Garments Factory sign.

The two women were good friends, and when Letty was fired from Panorama for a critical piece on the inauguration of President Marcos, it was Eggie who dared publish in full what other media censored or rejected, such as “The Letty Magsanoc Story” by Noree Briscoe and “The Silencing of Letty Magsanoc” by SP Lopez.

Then Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, and the two women went into battle mode, creating Mr &Ms Special Edition to fill the news vacuum left by the Marcos-dominated media in the Philippines.

That first Special Edition  with a close-up of Ninoy’s bloodied face on its cover, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and Eggie made the decision to turn it into a weekly.

In that secret batcave worked a tiny editorial staff made up of Eggie, Letty, writer Fe Zamora, cartoonist Jess Abrera, layout artist Marlon Diamante and Nitz "Beauty" del Rosario. The photographer Mandy Navasero, who previously shot fashion and lifestyle for Letty’s previous magazine, switched modes to photojournalism, shooting many of the rallies that Fe Zamora wrote up for the Special Edition.

Frankie and I came into the picture when we asked Kara to get us an interview with her famous mother. We were college seniors writing a group thesis on Press Freedom with another good friend. When we met Letty, graduation and joblessness were months away so we asked Letty if she had any openings. To our surprise she told us to see her after we graduated.

Frankie and Candy as college seniors

We did, and she greeted us by saying, “Oh good, I need reporters. One of you can cover the opposition. The other, the KBL (Marcos' party). You decide.” And just like that, she gave us our jobs. It was typical of her management style. By treating these two know-nothing newbies as equals worthy of picking our own assignments, she gifted us with a sense of professional worth way beyond our due.
Frankie and Candy, now reporters for Mr & Ms Special Edition, posing while a demonstration is dispersed in the background.

Frankie and I were in the inseparable phase of our friendship. But that very first assignment during the 1984 parliamentary elections took us to opposite sides of the political divide. Though Frankie chose the Opposition and I, the KBL, we decided it would be fun to cover everything together (our reportage tended to focus on how much food was being served at a press conference). Letty finally found us out one night when she was watching the evening news. Frankie and I were caught on camera -- first, at a KBL press conference, and then, on the very same day, at an Opposition press conference.

I tell people that I think Letty hired two totally inexperienced and naive writers because we were so "tanga" we wouldn't be corrupted by the powers that be. The truth was that Letty got a kick out of discovering new talent and loved being around young people. Her protégés and apprentices could easily fill this room. Almost all of us who have worked with Letty have our own stories about how she singled us out and said, in her famous gravelly voice, “You GET it. You’ve GOT it.” Her heart was so big that she could fit us all into it. Her spirit was so generous it could embrace each of us fully.

A more recent pic of Frankie and me.

When a young Fe Zamora witnessed the Sept. 21 demonstration at Mendiola which left 11 rallyists dead, she took her account to Letty and Eggie. Fe was in the right place at the right time. Mr & Ms had loads of pictures, but no words to go along with them. They bought Fe's story.

In the age before mobile phones, Fe didn't even have a telephone at the boarding house where she lived. Two weeks after her article came out, she saw a notice in the letters section: "If you know Fe Zamora, please tell her to report to Mr &Ms.” And so it was that Fe became Letty’s most senior reporter.

Joey Nolasco, Tita Eggie’s nephew, found his way from the Times Journal to a desk at the Special Edition and has worked at Letty’s side every since.

Mr &Ms bought a lot of stories from a local news service, and Letty noticed most of the bylines belonged to Jp Fenix, a friend of Kara’s. "Why don't we hire you na lang?" Letty said to JP. “We can probably save some money.” And so JP joined the staff, which later came to include the sandal-wearing JR Alibutud, the poetic Roland Pascual, and a smiley Dante Javier.

The pantheon of contributors is a respectable list: Aida Sevilla-Mendoza, Ceres P Doyo, SP Lopez, Doris Nuyda, Belinda Olivares-Cunanan, Cherie Querol, Ninotska Rosca, Ike Suarez, Louie Beltran, Joker Arroyo, Monica Feria, Paulynn Sicam, Ducky Paredes, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Max Soliven, Larry Henares, Tony Gatmaitan, Sylvia Mayuga, Lita Logarta, Esther Dipasupil, Corito Fiel, Erness Sanchez, Edith Regalado, Maynard Macaraig and so many more.

The Special Edition’s narrow, rectangular room was the only smoking zone in Mr &Ms. We worked in an un-lifting fog, and our clothes reeked of tobacco. A few desks sporting typewriters and piles of newsprint crowded the space. Letty presided at a desk at the far end of the room, her hands moving between her keyboard, the ubiquitous green pen she used for editing, and a lit cigarette.

Before there was cut and paste, there was tear and staple. We banged out our stories on long swaths of newsprint, tore them into manageable pages, and marched our offerings to Letty’s desk. Letty was the master of the art of rearranging paragraphs to suit her style of storytelling. It would evolve into the signature style of the magazine and later the Inquirer. A detail would catch her eye, and she’d move it to the top.

“This is a good paragraph. This should go higher!” was a refrain of her editing.

Her nose for news was unerring, but she also had a taste for the weird and the wonderful, for irony and sarcasm. She knew the Pinoy appetite for entertainment and humor, and served hard news with a side of light. She wanted both her reporters and readers to have fun. Writing for Mr &Ms sometimes felt like writing for MAD Magazine.

Above all, Letty demanded heart from her writers. She was bored by dry recitations of facts. She put a premium on passion and on the human face of a story.

She always said the people she worked with made her look good. It’s important to remember the crew members who supported editorial over the Special Edition's lifetime: the production group led by Mang Joe Ocampo, artists Chuchi Quevedo Sy and Gij Ramos, subeditor Sarah Carino, Rebecca Vinavilles, Lani Montreal, admin guys Eres, Lolita, Josie Magtoto and Butchie Tan.

A parade of the best photographers in the Philippines marched through our doors. Johnny Villena, Melvyn Calderon, Val Rodriguez, Claro Cortes, Bullit Marquez, Romeo Gacad, Joe Galvez, Luis Liwanag, Erik De Castro, Alex Baluyut, Rey Vivo, Ed Santiago, Mandy Navasero, Ding Navasero, Jun Aniceta, Momoy Fuentabella, Albert Garcia, Edwin Tuyay, Rhodel Pena, and on and on.

It was a photographer’s magazine, every spread covered with black and white images, some of which became iconic photos of the era. Letty used photography to demonstrate the bitter ironies of strongman rule. When Marcos used the campaign slogan "Now More than Ever," she used the blurb over a picture of a beggar and an emaciated baby. When the regime published a pamphlet giving the government answers to questions like "What is the state of the President's health?" (answer: "These are irresponsible reports in the Western press") and "Has the president lost popular support as claimed by some segments of local and foreign media?" (answer: No), Letty published the complete text of the propaganda alongside photographs of Marcos looking deathly ill and other images that provided a sharp contrast to the words.

In 1985, Malacanang announced that the soldiers accused of murdering Aquino would stand trial at the Sandiganbayan. Letty and Eggie decided to launch another tabloid-sized weekly. They called a meeting with the Special Edition staff at Eggie's house to discuss it. Letty wanted to call it The Philippine Inquirer. But Eggie thought it should be something like “JAJA”, a take-off from the Justice for Aquino, Justice for All – which would be easier for newsboys to say than ‘In-queerer” or “In-querrer!’” Luckily Letty won the argument, otherwise we’d all be talking about the Philippine Daily Jaja today, which sounds like a bad character from Star Wars.

Letty asked JP and me to become staff writers at the Philippine Inquirer weekly. But I was reluctant. I really didn't want to go. I was happy at the Special Edition. It was obvious to me that covering boring lawyers at the Aquino-Galman murder trial wouldn't be as fun as working at Mr &Ms.  Letty got us to join the Inquirer by giving us a raise. Apparently she fought hard to give us more money. In the end our monthly pay -- the princely sum of P1,760 – was raised to P2,350.

Letty, me and JP soon after the Philippine Inquirer weekly was launched.

Letty edited both papers at the same time. The Special Edition went to bed past midnight on a Thursday so it could hit the streets on Friday morning. The weekly Inquirer was put to bed on a Friday night to hit the streets on Mondays. I say night but it was really morning by the time we finished.

Letty was constantly on the phone. "Marty, go na to bed" " Marty, you were bitten by mosquitoes?" "Marty, almost there." (Her youngest, Marty, was about seven years old, and very persistent) But by then it would be three, four or five am. Time for bibingka or tapsilog at Good-Ah in Greenhills.

I was surprised when Letty introduced society pages to the Inquirer, written by Maurice Arcache and photographed by Alex Van Hagen. Maurice swanned in and swanned out with the tall brooding Alex – leaving the office fragrant for weeks afterward. It was my job to write the captions for the photos of society events and parties.

I have to be honest. Captioning those photos -- with a French dictionary because "tres tres chic" sounded so much more stylish than my own vocabulary -- felt like a demotion. Why do we have to have a society page? I whined to Letty. Her reply: "Every person who is featured is likely to buy ten copies each." JP asked Eggie and Letty the same question but got a different answer. They said: "We are doing it for the NPA. When they finally take over after Marcos they will have a hit list." I'm sure they were just joking.

The weekly Inquirer became the Philippine Daily Inquirer. JP went off to work on the daily and I returned to the Special Edition as associate editor. By then Frankie had moved on to a job with an American network. When the People Power Revolution (also known as EDSA, which was where it happened) ended the rule of Marcos, it also ended the run of the Special Edition. We had won. We had achieved our goal. Marcos was gone. But what were we to do next?

Letty and Eggie in front of the Mr & Ms offices cheering a celebration rally of the downfall of Marcos in 1986

I found out quickly enough. A few weeks after the revolution, I turned up at the office to discover that Eggie had turned the Special Edition into the Agribusiness Weekly. Imagine coming to work thinking that you were a political writer only to find that you were now going to be a farm reporter. I quickly applied to move to the Daily Inquirer.

Soon after, I married my foreign correspondent and left to live in London. Frankie, who returned to work for the Inquirer for a spell in the 90's, also married her foreign correspondent and moved to Washington. “Leave your husband!” Letty told Frankie every chance she got. “Leave him and come back to the Inquirer.” I can’t say she said that to me. I wonder why.

With Letty at my book launch in 2014
Whenever one of her former reporters turned up for a visit, Letty would make a lovely fuss. At one dinner Letty hosted for me, she had a beautiful buffet with a large portrait of me in the middle. It looked like some kind of altar.

Except the portrait ... it wasn't me. it was Lani Montreal, who worked at the Special Edition in 1985-1986. "Letty," I said, trying to be diplomatic. "I don't think that's me." "It's definitely you," she said. "I got it out of the Photo library and it was in your file. You really used to look like that." Someday, when I pass away, the Inquirer is going to publish an obiturary about me and they are going to publish it with a photograph of Lani Montreal.

Mr & Ms Special Edition was an important moment to those of us who were a part of it. Many of us were at the beginning of our lives as writers and the time we spent with Letty was a coming of age. In storytelling, there is always a character – an Obi Wan Kenobi, a Yoda -- who takes the hero by the hand and leads him or her into adventure. For us, that special character was Letty Jimenez Magsanoc.

After the fall of Marcos, Letty liked to say: “Edsa is our backstory. It’s in our DNA.” Generations of journalists can say the same of her. LJM is our backstory. She’s in our DNA.

Read my tribute to Letty which appeared on the front page of the Inquirer on 27 December 2015

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