What this story has to do with the end of the Cold War is unclear, but it does serve to illustrate the tremendous access and power Imelda enjoyed during her husband's reign. Indeed, during the later years of Ferdinand's presidency, when his health was declining, many speculate that she was more or less in charge. And after all of her encounters, Imelda could easily win the gold medal for name-dropping. Her circle was eclectic. She casually mentions, for example, the time she and her great friends Charles Lindbergh and Margaret Mead dropped in on the Tasaday tribe in the southern Philippines. But heads of state are her forte, as the photographs on display attest. She is pictured with every imaginable mid-20th-century chief, including Nixon, with whom she shares a piano bench while the president tickles the ivories. "He used to drop by our suite at the Waldorf and entertain us," she says. Then one finds her with Reagan, Ford, Johnson, Brezhnev, Pope Paul VI, Queen Elizabeth II, the Shah of Iran.
But, revealingly, pride of place on the piano goes to Mao, Castro, Qaddafi and, yes, Saddam Hussein. There seems to be a pattern. "All the bad boys are here," she says, laughing. "But they were nice to me. The newspapers were so nasty about these people! When a leader is there for more than 10 years, he must have been doing something right for his country."
Curiously, in recounting her conversations with these despots, Imelda adopts a little-girl voice. When she visited Iraq in the mid-Seventies, she recalls, Hussein asked her what she was interested in seeing. "And I said, 'I want to see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon,'" she chirps in the voice of a 10-year-old asking for a lollipop. In no time at all, she says, they were hovering in a chopper above the fabled site. "'Imelda, this is the Garden of Eden, the cradle of civilization.'" According to Imelda, he also took the opportunity to complain about how his oil revenues decreased when Kuwait annexed coastal land that he claimed was historically Iraqi. "Imelda, we are imprisoned by our cousins," she remembers him saying. "If we don't act now, we will never get it back."
Equally charming was Qaddafi when Imelda journeyed to Tripoli in 1976 on one of her many diplomatic missions. Muslim rebels in the south of the Philippinesthe only Catholic country in Asiawere becoming increasingly violent, and she headed to Libya to negotiate a settlement with the nations of the Islamic Conference, known as the Tripoli Agreement. The visit didn't start out well. The Marcos delegation sat in their hotel rooms for four days, as the mercurial Libyan leader refused to see them and unrest gripped Tripoli. After threats to blow up their plane surfaced, the Filipino emissaries fled to Romeall except the first lady. According to Imelda, when Qaddafi heard that she'd stayed, he summoned her. "I like your courage and commitment to peace," she remembers the dictator saying. He went on to say that "Islam is peace" and proposed, "Why don't you become a Muslim?"