Passions and Obsessions

Manila’s ‘Madame X’ resurfaces

The story of the talked-about woman from the war era is retold as her Amorsolo portrait goes on the block

Fernando Amorsolo's Portrait of Maria Buenaventura Castro–Espinosa 'Madame X'

The elegant Alfonso Zobel home on Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard). Image courtesy of descendants of Alfonso Zobel and PhilStar

(The portrait of Maria Castro-Espinosa, alias “Madame X”, by Fernando C. Amorsolo, oil on canvas, from the ‘50s, will go on the block at the Leon Gallery’s Asian Cultural Council auction on February 18 (onsite and online), along with other storied artworks and collectibles.)

There were several Filipinas who rose to fame as well as notoriety during World War II.  However, no one had an epic, intriguing, and romantic story like a prewar Hollywood movie as Maria Castro-Espinosa aka “Madame X,” an amazing entrepreneur who rose to become one of the richest Filipinas during and after the war.

She was an industrious, excellent businesswoman who spent long hours at her desk working on her various enterprises.  Prewar, she was already into buy–and–sell and export. With boundless energy, she’d buy and sell everything imaginable—rice, sugar, fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, liquor, jewelry, silver, gold, sand, gravel, cement, steel bars, wood planks, paint, furniture, charcoal, coal, residential real estate, commercial real estate, etc. Aware that she was under suspicion of collaboration with the Japanese during World War II, she insisted:  “I simply wanted to do business;  I enjoyed doing business.  You could be Filipino, American, British, German, Japanese, whatever … I would still do business with you if I will make money!  There are no distinctions where money is involved!”

She was known for unapologetically splendid dance parties during World War II where her guests were the Japanese military officialdom, prominent Filipino politicians and businessmen, and beautiful and talented ladies.  That, at a time of the greatest deprivation.  According to her contemporaries, the hardworking Maria was “oozing money from her ears” and “she knew how to enjoy life.”  She worked hard for her money, knew how to spend it well, and enjoyed the best things life could offer.

One of her memorable real estate purchases was the splendid French Mediterranean–style Alfonso Roxas Zobel–Carmen Herrero Pfitz mansion designed by “DBF” (de buena familia) and de alta sociedad architect Andres Luna de San Pedro y Pardo de Tavera, on Dewey boulevard (now Roxas Blvd.) corner Padre Faura street.  She lived there in style for years, and it remained with her family for decades as a valuable rental property.

Her numerous real estate acquisitions were legendary.  Maria Castro- Espinosa’s real estate holdings crisscrossed downtown Manila and its suburbs—from Divisoria to Binondo, Santa Cruz to Quiapo, Escolta to Avenida to Dulumbayan, to Ermita and Malate along Dewey boulevard.  She had commercial and residential properties everywhere.

Espinosa was given the monicker “Madame X” after the war when she was embroiled in a huge tax case filed by the Philippine government covering the numerous properties she acquired during World War II.  Not wanting to mention her name out of politesse but wanting to talk about her just the same, Manila society took to calling her “Madame X.”

Fernando Amorsolo’s Portrait of Antonia Buenaventura vda. de Castro (1868-1950)

(After the war, she was handed a P2million BIR assessment for unpaid tax on “war profits”. It made such a ruckus that a special panel, the Pedrosa Committee, was formed by then Secretary of Finance Pio Pedrosa. The Committee, in fact, would double the assessment and the decision was upheld by President Ramon Magsaysay.)

Fernando Amorsolo’s Portrait of Agapito Castro in Masonic attire

She was an inveterate real estate investor.  When the selling of the North Forbes Park area began in the 1960s, she promptly bought seven 2,100 sqm properties in a row for her son and daughters.

The Espinosas had one son and several daughters.

The family of Madame X in 1949

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