Nellie and Paz: The Women Who Drove the Luna Brothers Mad
Juan and Antonio Luna were the best of men, but they were also the worst of men.
The Luna brothers are usually held in the same regard as Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, and Apolinario Mabini. Juan's obra maestra, the "Spoliarium," still hangs in full glory at the National Museum to this day. The painting, depicting a scene from barbaric gladiatorial grounds, was said to be the artist’s subversive way of showing the country’s suffering under Spanish rule.
In recent years, Antonio Luna also enjoyed renewed fame, thanks to Jerrold Tarog's surprise box-office biopic. The film didn't shy away from the general's well-known temper and fiery moods. One scene even showed their mother talking about the moon, the English term for luna, and how it was always connected to madness.
A Foreshadowing of a Deadly Duel
Let's begin with the younger Luna, whose hot-headedness reached Europe. According to history books, Rizal’s gang of ilustrados was just like any other group of wealthy friends studying abroad.
Antonio may not have been known for his writing, but it was undeniable that he was very intelligent, maybe even enough for Rizal to invite him to write for the propagandist newsletter, La Solidaridad. Historians claim that Antonio was actually the writer Taga-Ilog, who documented his early impressions of Madrid in the now-infamous paper.
His writing caught the attention of a Spanish journalist named Mir Deas who criticized Taga-Ilog’s work in his paper, even calling him an “ingrate.” The journalist mistakenly tagged the older Luna as Taga-Ilog and this was the final straw for Antonio.
Not only did he write a response, calling Mir Deas as “mierdas,” the Spanish word for "excrement," Antonio also traveled from Madrid to Barcelona to find the offensive journalist. He caught Deas in a café, walked up to him, spat in his face, and cursed at him. Antonio also whipped out a calling card, which he proceeded to throw at Deas’ face, an act challenging the latter to a duel. He would detail this encounter in a letter to Rizal.
Panicked, Rizal asked their friends to help dissuade the stubborn Antonio from this potentially deadly fight. Antonio was considered a top swordsman and he would often be called as a “second” or replacement player in duels.
Deas, however, refused the challenge. Antonio's return from Barcelona was supposed to calm him down, but little did he know, he was about to be betrayed by a friend.
Nellie, Jose, and Antonio
Before Antonio left for Barcelona to search for Deas, he was involved with a girl named Nellie Bousted. Nellie was one of the daughters of Eduardo Bousted, a son of a rich British trader, who went to the East in 1826.
During his travels, Eduardo met a Filipina who came from the rich Genato family in Manila. Their marriage produced beautiful daughters, namely Nellie, Adelina, and in some accounts, another sister named Helen.
It was in that fateful summer of 1889 when Rizal first met the Bousteads in Paris. Since then, the sisters became part of Rizal’s circle of ilustrados, which included the Luna and the Pardo de Tavera brothers.
Nellie, in particular, was praised because of—as Tomas Arejola, one of Rizal’s friends describes—her “very thorough education, her very beautiful moral and physical qualities.”
The boys soon became interested in the sisters. When they made their intentions known, Rizal and Adelina often went on double dates with Antonio and Nellie.
Upon his return, however, Antonio began suspecting that Nellie’s feelings for him had faded. Worse, he thought her feelings have shifted to none other than the very friend who saved him from potential death.
Giving his friend the benefit of the doubt, Antonio wrote to Rizal, saying, “We have no reason to be cold to each other for many times I asked you if you felt love for Nellie and you told me no. Consequently, I was already sure of you, certain you are my friend…therefore chico, we ought to continue as friends as I thought we never ceased to be.”
Despite extending this olive branch, it seemed that Nellie had made her decision. Though there aren’t any records to show how Nellie’s feelings changed, one could only guess that the half-British, half-Filipina beauty, had grown wary of Antonio’s temper. (Unfortunately, it is also unknown how Adelina had taken the news, having dated Rizal earlier.)
To make matters worse, Juan also trusted Rizal more than his brother. Antonio's tuition and allowance would, in fact, be sent to Rizal first.
In the summer of 1890, both Antonio and Rizal attended a social gathering of Filipinos in Madrid.
After a couple of drinks, Antonio’s grudge and hot temper got the better of him. It was said that he made an offensive remark about Nellie and Rizal. Rizal demanded an apology from Antonio, but the latter ended up challenging the eventual National Hero to a duel.
Fortunately, their friends stopped them and Antonio was taken home. Juan reprimanded him and told his gang that if his little brother gets drunk again, he should be restrained, tied to a chair, and gagged if needed.
Juan also wrote a letter to Rizal, saying, “I suppose that this incident will not be the cause of any resentment between the Filipinos and Antonio, for, having taken back what he had said and gave them permission to tie him if he got drunk again, he showed that he was repentant of the evil he had caused the gathering and his friends…..It is true that Antonio has a strong character and he is very sensitive. This is very good if the cause is just.”
This was after Rizal’s extended stay at the Boustead’s winter residence, Villa Eliada in Biarritz, on the French Riviera in 1891. It was here where Rizal finished El Filibusterismo and, at the same time, became closer to Nellie and her family.
Letters from the Bousteads that survive to this day paint a peaceful time in Rizal’s life. It could also be deduced that Rizal asked permission from Nellie’s father for her hand in marriage.
Rizal’s friends were also ecstatic about the news. Fellow propagandist Marcelo H. Del Pilar even teased Rizal that he should rename Noli Me Tangere to Nellie Me Tangere.
Months after their confrontation, Antonio conceded to Rizal upon hearing his friend’s intentions.
Ambeth Ocampo relayed a letter from Antonio for Rizal in his column: “With respect to Nellie, frankly, I think there is nothing between us more than one of those friendships enlivened by being fellow countrymen. It seems to me that there is nothing more. My word of honor, I had been her fiancé, we wrote to each other. I liked her because I knew how worthy she was, but circumstances beyond our control made all that happiness one cherished evaporate. She is good; she is naturally endowed with qualities admirable in a young woman and I believe that she will bring happiness not only to you, but to any other young man who is worthy of her. I have prolonged this letter, lad. I congratulate you as one congratulates a friend…"
Nellie’s father had no objection to the marriage but her mother was not convinced that Rizal could provide her daughter the luxuries to which she was accustomed. The decision, however, ultimately fell to Nellie, who rejected Rizal’s proposal when the hero wouldn’t meet her demand of converting to Protestantism.
Though both heartbroken, the two parted as friends. In her farewell letter, again published by Ocampo, Nellie wrote, “Now that you are leaving I wish you a happy trip and may you triumph in your undertakings, and above all, may the Lord look down on you with favor and guide your way giving you much blessings, and may your learn to enjoy! My remembrance will accompany you as also my prayers.”
Proving that she was a woman of her own mind, Nellie had narrowly avoided two potentially disastrous marriages. If Antonio’s volatile behavior was an indication of how he could have been as a husband, then it’s not far-fetched to think that Nellie could have suffered a similar fate as Paz Pardo de Tavera, the older Luna’s unfortunate wife.
Paz and Juan: A Happy Beginning
The year was 1886 and Juan Luna, then only 29 years old, was at the top of the world. Just two years ago, his "Spoliarium" won several gold medals at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes, which put him on the radar of the global art scene. That year, however, he reached new heights—not because he won another prestigious award, but because he was marrying the love of his life.
Paz Pardo de Tavera was the daughter of a wealthy political family in self-exile. They were Filipinos with Spanish noble blood and according to some historians, they fled to Europe to escape persecution from anti-reform Spaniards.
Having grown up in Paris, Paz was sophisticated and cosmopolitan. She was a linguist, having mastered French and English. When Rizal met Paz, he described her as “very amiable and also very Filipino. She dresses with much elegance.”
Paz and Juan met through common friends—Rizal yet another link to this pair. It wasn’t long until the two wed, Juan nearing his 30s and Paz, only 21 years old.
Not everyone was happy with this union, however. Paz’s mother, Doña Juliana Gorricho, did not approve of the painter. It took Paz’s brother Trinidad, a common friend of both Rizal and Juan, to convince Juliana that Juan was not a “vulgar native.”
They went around Europe, including Venice and Rome, for their honeymoon before finally settling in Paris. The first few years seemed blissful and they even welcomed a boy named Andres, otherwise known as Luling.
After Andres, Paz unfortunately miscarried and this tragedy aggravated the growing tension between the couple. Realizing that it was difficult to get by with Juan’s unpredictable earnings as a painter, the family was forced to downsize and move to 26 Villa Dupont, 48 Rue Pergolese in Paris.
Doña Juliana wanted to help her daughter so she stayed in the house to run and finance the household. This also included paying the expenses for Antonio’s education, who stayed as a guest for a time.
The couple's marriage was already on the rocks when Paz went on a trip to Mont-Dore in Central France. Here, she met an older man named Dussaq and the two seemed to have formed a friendship. Paz’s mistake was speaking about Dussaq to Juan, who was enraged with jealousy.
A Crime of Passion
Things took a turn for the worst when Dussaq visited the Luna residence on September 4, 1892. Suspecting that Paz was cheating on him, Juan assaulted and beat her. He also destroyed Paz’s clothes and things. For the headstrong Parisian, this was the last straw.
Unfortunately, she instinctively and mistakenly ran to where Dussaq was staying. Juan then felt that his suspicions were validated and he dragged his wife back home the next day, where he beat her with his cane. Doña Juliana couldn’t stand this abuse and it was said that she called upon her sons, Trinidad and Felix, to fetch them.
There were several versions of what happened next. One account said that Trinidad and Felix did drop by to visit that morning but left and waited at a nearby café, which could have been part of the plan. They ran to the house when they started to hear gunshots. The other version was that Juan found out and fired at the brothers. Juan then chased Paz and Doña Juliana around the house. The two were eventually cornered in the toilet where he shot them in full view of Andres, their son.
Doña Juliana immediately died. Paz, stubborn and strong in life as she was at the brink of death, fought for her life for 11 more days before succumbing to her head wound.
Of course, Juan was imprisoned for this crime but the Luna family pulled some strings to make Juan’s life comfortable in the Mazas prison in France. Not only was he in one of the bigger cells with plenty of light, but he also had the privilege of being visited by his son three times a week. Aside from that, he also had access to canvasses and paints.
In the letters he sent from prison, he was confident he would get out and even knew that he would be out by January 1893. His assumption was only off by a month: he was released in February 1893.
Juan wouldn’t completely get away with murder, however. After his release, he stayed again in Madrid but on December 3, 1899, he sailed to Hong Kong in the aftermath of the revolution. He arrived in good health but days later, on the seventh, he died.
The official cause of death was a heart attack but many suspect that he had been poisoned. Others pointed to the Pardo de Taveras while others speculated that it was the revolutionary government, who ordered his younger brother’s death just months before.
Whatever the reason was, the Pardo de Taveras burned all their Luna paintings and blackened his face in family photos, erasing him as much as they could from their history.