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The ‘Lord Chamberlain of Malacañang’

One of the highlights of a formal Malacañang ball, from the Spanish period to our times, is the Rigodon de Honor, a court dance participated in by couples selected from Manila’s social, political, cultural and diplomatic set.

Most memorable was that held on the night of Nov. 4, 1930, a night of tragedy rather than joy. Hosted by US Governor-general Dwight Davis for the Philippine legislature and their ladies, the evening proceeded as it had many times before, and when it came to the finale or the “cadena,” the music stopped and all couples stood at their places to execute the graceful movements, linked hand to hand, that would create an undulating human chain to cap yet another splendid evening.

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All eyes were on Manuel de Yriarte, rigodon master, who lifted his silk handkerchief in the air, like an executioner poised to signal a volley of bullets on a condemned man. He stomped his foot on the hardwood floor and the music began. Dancing commenced — when, suddenly, Yriarte moved the handkerchief to his mouth and fell face down on the floor, unconscious.

Governor Davis pushed his way through the dancers huddled around Yriarte and, with the help of another man, carried the rigodon master into a nearby bedroom. Music continued, but failed to get people to dance. Sergio Osmeña and Manuel Roxas followed inside the room, now closed to all “uzizeros” except those of highest rank and pay grade. A while later, the governor emerged and declared the party over. Yriarte was dead.

Palace lights were dimmed as a sign of mourning. The corpse was collected by an ambulance and brought to Yriarte’s home on Roberts Street in Pasay, after a brief stop at the Philippine General Hospital to comply with death certificate formalities. His widow, Beatriz Pardo de Tavera, was stricken with grief, having celebrated her birthday just the day before.

All these details can be gathered from an album of press clippings made available to me by Mara Pardo de Tavera many years ago. But more important than Yriarte’s dramatic death was his colorful life, which connected the social history of Malacañang, from the Spanish to the American governors-general.

Manuel de Yriarte (1864-1930), at the time of his untimely death, was director of the National Museum of the Philippines and social secretary to the governor-general. In his youth, he attended military school both in the Philippines and in Spain, but ended up studying law in Madrid as preparation for a diplomatic career. He was a friend of Rizal and others of that generation; his portrait as a handsome young man in Europe was painted by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo.

He returned to Manila to a succession of posts: secretary of the interior secretary, paymaster of public works, official of the Philippine Census and secretary to the finance secretary until 1897. When the Spanish sold the Philippines to the United States following the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the Spanish government Archives in Manila were transferred to the Americans, and Yriarte became the first archivist in 1899. He remained so during the various changes the office underwent, from custodian of government records to an archives, patents, copyrights and trademarks office. He stayed on as director of archives, even if he was appointed second assistant executive secretary to the colonial government. His reputation as a collector and connoisseur led to his appointment as assistant director of the Philippine Library and Museum, concurrent to his post as assistant director of the Bureau of Supply.

But it was Malacañang under the American governors-general that made Yriarte shine and be known under many unofficial titles: “Lord Chamberlain of Malacañang,” according to Mrs. Stimson; “Chief of Protocol,” according to Gov. Leonard Wood; and “Premier of the Tennis Cabinet,” under the terms of Governors Henry Stimson (1927-1929) and Dwight Davis (1929-1932), the latter famous for the annual Davis Cup tennis tournament.

As the seat of government, Malacañang remains a mute witness to Philippine history. What back stories would it tell if its walls could talk? Fortunately, we have stray reminiscences like that of Yriarte’s that bring history to life. (More on Friday)

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Beatriz Pardo de Tavera, Dwight Davis, Looking Back, Manuel de Yriarte, Rigodon de Honor
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