The erstwhile bombshell of the silver screen, Lilia Dizon is known these days as the mother of great actor Christopher de Leon. During the 50s however, she reigned supreme as a sophisticated actress whose landmark performances celebrated the strength of the Filipinas.
She made her mark in classic movies such as Gerry de Leon’s “Sanda Wong,” “Kandilerong Pilak” which won for her the Asia’s Best Actress award in 1954, “Haring Kobra” with Rogelio dela Rosa, “Bathaluman” with Mario Montenegro, “Tucy Dides,” “Doce Pares,” “Magkumpareng Putik,” Kaaway ng Babae” and “Ikaw ang Buhay Ko,” among others.
While she basked under the klieg lights in strong woman personages, in real life she mustered the same, not by choice but by force of circumstance. Indeed, Lilia’s life imitated her art.
In the real world, Lilia Dizon is Claire Strauss—the only offspring of a Filipina, Regina Dizon and Abe Strauss, an American, who, by birth was a German-Jew. In 1940, her father went to the United States leaving Lilia with her mother in Baguio City. “Looking back, it was a good decision because the war broke out the next year. He would have died had he stayed,” Lilia mused.
Near the end of World War II, Baguio City became one of the last fortresses of the Japanese. “Just before the liberation, we had to walk on foot across the mountains of Baguio going to Ilocos, to escape the wrath of the desperate Japanese soldiers,” she recalled.
Lilia didn’t quite remember how she hurdled the exodus, but her natural agility was put to good use when she joined showbusiness. In fact, the vitality in her movement was the singular factor why she nabbed her first lead role in the 1948 movie “Kaaway ng Babae,” where she had to run and act like a man. Later in life, Lilia would again run. This time, not for reel but from Gil, her husband of eighteen years.
She started almost everything early. At 15, she was a stage singer at Lotus Theater. When she turned 16, she was discovered for the movies by writer–director Susana de Guzman. At 17, she wed Gil de Leon, who was 16 years her senior. And at 36, she was a separated woman.
Lilia said, she had no choice but to leave her first marriage. “I have to do it because I’d go crazy. Our marriage lasted for eighteen years only because I couldn’t give up my career, and my kids were too young—- Boyet, Pinky and Melissa. But after eighteen years, I said, enough is enough. I packed my bags and went to my father in the United States.” In 1966, Lilia left everything behind– her career, her house, her children and her past. She went to her father Abe, who was living in Salinas, California.
Lilia considers her first marriage as the most difficult phase of her life. “I was working very hard. I have to balance my roles as an actress, a mother, and a wife to a very jealous husband. I have a house, an apartment, my own business. The fact that I have a solid career because I was a contract star, only contributed to the ruin of my marriage.
“The fans thought that I was suplada because I was never carinosa. I was polite but not sweet. Little did they know that it was really hard for me to appear happy, because I have a very sad private life.”
Before Gil died however, they were able to patch things up. But looking back, Lilia could only sigh in disbelief as to how they survived the tumultuous relationship. “Our marriage was a regular fare in the media at that time. I would always run away, and each time, he would try to win me back. One time, Gil even went to Rafael Yabut’s radio program to ask for my return. And then, I would give him another chance, but he’d hurt me again.”
Lilia’s dad Abe was still alive, when her marriage crumbled. “He petitioned me and I was able to get a U.S. citizenship, by birth. My stepmother loved me so much,” said Lilia.
She worked in a bank in Hawaii for four years and stayed in California for a good eighteen years. She met and married Antonio Abad, and they have two children, Antonette (Toni), a singer, and Corrie (Sanders), who is now based in Singapore.
In 1974, she came back to local films and did two movies. One of which was Lino Brocka’s “Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang” that launched Christopher de Leon, her only son, to superstardom. However, Lilia had to forego her showbiz career because Toni and Corrie were still studying in California.
Lilia puts premium on education. In fact, her only regret in life is her failure to get a college degree. “For me, it (education) is very important. If you have a good education, you can do anything. I wasn’t able to finish my studies because of the war, and then, the movies came. But I advised my children to finish their studies. Three of my five children have finished college. And with Boyet’s (Christopher de Leon) achievements, what can I ask for? God is good. I’m very proud of him. And of course, Pinky also, who is a very good actress.”
Despite the shaky past, Lilia harbors no resentment. “I know, deep in my heart, that God would make my life better. Even as a young girl in Baguio, I was religious. Without my strong faith in God, I might not have survived my life’s ordeals.”
Lilia traced her deep religiosity to her Jewish origin. “I am conscious that I’m a Jew. I believe that Jews have a special place in the Lord’s heart. Remember the Jews who joined Moses in the exodus to the promise land? ‘Di ba, hindi sila pinabayaan? May epekto sa kin yun e.”
Lilia is the archetype of reinvention. From the starry-eyed
Baguio girl named Claire, she reinvented herself and became Carol Strauss, the 16-year old singer at Lotus theater. When she joined the movie industry, she metamorphosed again and became the sensational nymph of the silver screen named Lilia Dizon.
In her private world, Lilia also changed her last name twice, from De Leon, when she married Gil to Abad, when she married Antonio. Now she’s back to her old self as Claire Strauss—- a true survivor. She has weathered her parents separation, survived one world war and endured two marriages (She has been divorced from Antonio for five years).
Alone but not lonely, Lilia is living la dolce vita as grandma to fifteen grandchildren. She now travels to and from the United States, where she has some investments.
Lilia is the epitome of strength in her screen performances, but none of those fictional characters is even close to the toughness of Lilia as herself, the inimitable Claire Strauss. (For comments, send e-mail to email@example.com)