Until his last days in the intensive care unit, industrial trader and man-about-town Gabriel “Bong” Daza III was the life of the party. His image was defined by his company, the beautiful people—to use the ’70s term for the lifestyle set.
His actress-daughter, Isabelle, sent a 1975 photo of her father on a speedboat with political scion and best friend, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, another buddy and a bevy of bikini-clad girls.
Early this week at Makati Medical Center, Bong’s friends reminisced on their halcyon days of fun with him.
“His friends stayed for hours in the ICU,” said his ex-wife, actress and former Miss Universe Gloria Diaz. “During our honeymoon in Hawaii, our 30-minute breakfast was the only time we spent together alone. His friends crowded our pictures.”
Bong passed away due to cardiac arrest at dawn of July 14.
Night life mogul Louie Ysmael described to Lifestyle the quintessential Bong Daza: “We’ve been friends since the early ’70s. We both stayed in Paris in the mid ’70s, and in New York in the ’80s. We did almost everything together, everywhere. He was a hyper personality, full of life, funny, witty and generous to a fault. A super friend that is very hard to duplicate. He was like a brother. I will miss him terribly.”
Playing the field
Bong was born March 15, 1951 to lawyer Gabriel Daza, Jr., and culinary icon Nora Villanueva. His grandfather, Gabriel Sr., was a charter member of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines (BSP).
The eldest of five children, Bong studied at Saint Mary’s College in Minnesota. Meanwhile, his mother ran a Filipino restaurant in New York and a French restaurant, Au Bon Vivant, in the Philippines.
With a vision to introduce Filipino cuisine in Paris, Nora Daza sent her son to learn French at Sorbonne University.
At 22, Bong was tasked to set up and manage Aux Iles Philippines (The Islands of the Philippines) in 1973 in Paris. The restaurant drew favorable reviews from Le Monde and the International Herald Tribune.
Diaz’s first meeting with Bong in the late ’70s was uneventful. Her brother-in-law, entrepreneur and rural banker Alfredo Roa, had survived a plane crash and was recuperating in the Diaz house in Parañaque. Friends such as the younger Marcos, Bong and Gregorio Araneta III (who would marry first daughter Irene Marcos) would visit Roa.
In 1979, Diaz needed an escort to a movie awards night and Bong became her date. No formal courtship ensued.
“We dated other people. It was a more of friendship,” she said. It came to a point when they were so comfortable with each other that the topic of marriage came up.
The couple was married in 1986 in Manila, with a second ceremony in Diamond Head, Hawaii, attended by Bongbong.
“We were married for 10 years but got separated after 13 years. That’s not including the tampuhan,” said Diaz.
“Bong was a night person. He wanted me to go out at night with him. I’m a day person. That was a bone of contention. That was all we fought about. There were no women involved. Our body clocks were different. I thought I could adjust to him, and he could adjust to me.”
The couple had opposite personalities. Bong loved good food, fun and wine, which took a toll on his health in his later years. Diaz was a healthy eater and kept a regular fitness routine.
Bong would order the restaurant specials—salmon, roast beef and prime rib—just to enjoy the taste. Used to a European diet, he preferred bread to rice, and had wine with his meals. Accustomed to eating only freshly cooked meals, he never had unfinished food wrapped. In contrast, Diaz would take home the leftovers and reheat them.
When shopping, Diaz would visit a store a few times and ponder on her purchase. Bong knew what he wanted, and wiped out the shelves. During a visit to a Ralph Lauren boutique in America, he bought several pairs of socks, 35 T-shirts and 20 pairs of pants.
Bong wasn’t the doting father when their daughters, Isabelle and Ava, were infants. But as soon as they could talk, he began to spoil them. He’d come back and buy a P15,000 toy racing car for Diaz’s adopted son, Raphael, and equally lavished gifts on his girls.
Bong continued his restaurant career in Makati. He opened Bahay Bachoy, which became a hit in the late ’80s.
“It would still be open at 6 a.m. When he came home, I’d be up ready for jogging… If you hate somebody, you don’t kill him. You either make him produce a movie or run a restaurant [like Bahay Bachoy],” said Diaz.
From the late ’80s to the ’90s, Bong and a French partner also ran La Coupole restaurant. It was not only famous for excellent food, but was also one of the chicest party places. Their children developed a liking for foie gras, soufflé and baguettes.
He also ran independently as a councilor in Makati and served for three terms.
Bong lived his life to the extreme, until the marriage ended in annulment.
“He slept by day and woke up at night. For me, it was mortal sin. Our paths crossed once in a while during breakfast,” said Diaz. “But he didn’t fool around.”
Upon their separation, he made clear that everything belonged to his ex-wife and that she was not liable to pay any debts.
Three months later, he sent her an apology letter and some money for shopping in Hong Kong. The practical Diaz invested it in a condominium unit instead.
Diaz remained close to her in-laws while Bong joined the family gatherings with Diaz’s boyfriend, banker Michael de Jesus.
Bong also established a trading company, Maxinter Corporation, which specialized in industrial electrical, computer and communication accessories and services. It had blue-chip clients.
In the next six years, Bong’s new business prospered. To share his blessings, he surprised Diaz with a Mercedes-Benz. She quoted him as saying, “I owe you a lot.”
“The last time he talked about business, he was supplying lightning rods for municipalities and factories outside of Manila,” said Diaz.
Like papa, like kids
In his home, Bong still kept late nights, glued to his computer or listening to music. He would wake up at 9 a.m., after four hours of sleep. Diaz said his daughters, particularly Isabelle, have similar habits.
Bong’s health deteriorated the last two months. He ate very little and eschewed vegetables.
“He liked kimchi and a glass of wine, but didn’t like to drink water. This made him more acidic,” said Diaz. He refused to consult a doctor and preferred to take an antacid.
Isabelle made a surprise visit to his apartment and caught her father in a sluggish state. Unable to refuse his daughter, he went to the hospital and was diagnosed with extremely low levels of potassium, a mineral vital to heart function, digestion and muscle use.
When Isabelle prepared for her father some quinoa with kale chips, açai berry and chia seeds, he rejected it and said, “I don’t eat this sh-t!”
As his potassium levels normalized last Saturday, Bong was looking forward to leaving the hospital. Diaz asked if he would like to stay with her or in his home with a nanny.
“Get me a yaya,” he said. Those were his last words to her.
Bong was found early Sunday slumped over his bed. He slipped into a coma. News of his condition drove squads of friends to the ICU.
“Belle and Ava were surprised at the number of his friends. They all had stories about him which he never talked about,” said Diaz. His buddies had moist eyes as they reminisced about their friendship and their stay in his Paris studio.
Isabelle had feared that with her father’s fragile health, he wouldn’t be able to walk her down the aisle at her wedding in Italy this September. Bong had approved of Isabelle’s French fiancé, Adrien Semblat, country manager of Adidas Philippines.
Bong was one of the remaining figures in society who truly appreciated fine things, and was gifted with a sparkling personality.
“He was not rich, but he was giving. That takes a lot,” said Diaz.
The gallant bon vivant was known to send a bottle of champagne or wine to a group of ladies at another table. “How many guys do that today?” said Diaz. “When we got married, he’d pick up the bill of my friends. I realized that he was just that way. Bong was great as a friend.”