by Ray Allen
Part 1 - Mama and Papa
Chapter 8: Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
For his entire life, Papa felt almost as much at home in Cuba as he did in Key West or Miami. First, aboard his father's ships, and then aboard his own, Papa visited Havana and other ports in Cuba numerous times. For decades, he had close friends there, and loved going there. His youngest daughter, Ruth, also developed a deep love of the island and the Cuban people, but that was later.
In Papa's day, Havana was much larger than Miami, and always a beautiful, bustling Caribbean port. Many books have called it “The Paris of the Caribbean” since in its glory days, before Castro took over in the late fifties, Havana was one of the best-supplied crossroads ports in the world, with a long and glamorous history. Exotic and precious things from all over the world were there, regularly imported from all the major cities in Europe and South America. The island's ancient Spanish Colonial history and its association with Christopher Columbus and the Spanish Main had all graced Havana with magnificent, important architecture that included a beautiful baroque cathedral, wide boulevards like the famous Prado that ran from the waterfront inland past the ornate Presidential Palace and the golden-domed capitol building. There had always been impressive old Spanish fortresses in and around the city. World-famous Morro Castle guarded the harbor, and another topped a hill overlooking the city. (In later years, Fidel Castro would use these looming old stone fortresses and their dungeons to imprison his opponents.) It was an exciting international capital that offered, literally, everything, and it was a far cry from little Key West and tiny Miami.
Papa knew Havana well, and was constantly planning hunting trips there, often on the big wooded island called The Isle of Pines, part of Cuba, but just off the southwest coast of the main island. Today, Fidel Castro has changed many of the names in Cuba, and the Isle of Pines is known as the Isle of Youth.
In Papa's day, he would arrive in Havana, often as part of some ship-captaining job, and then extend his stay for awhile for pleasure, often for an elaborate hunting trip. He would sometimes bring friends from Miami with him, and join in with a group of Cuban friends for a large hunting party. The group was usually off to hunt game birds, always with a pack of yelping hunting dogs. Papa had his favorite hunting hounds, and often brought them with him from Miami. My aunt Elizabeth had married a hunter, so Papa often included his son-in-law Bill Theobald in his Cuban hunting trips, too. The focus of most of these hunting parties was shooting wild guinea hens, common in Cuba, and considered a special delicacy by everyone. We have some old 16-mm movies Papa took of some of these sojourns, and we always heard about the various men who went along.
His Cuban hunting buddies often included politicians. Like his friendship with Alfredo Zayas in the early days, during the thirties, forties, and into the nineteen fifties, Papa was close friends with several men who rose in Cuba's government before Castro. I remember him talking about President Grau, whom he knew, and President Carlos Prío Socarrás, who was a lawyer in the Cuban Senate but eventually became President. Prio was the President who was succeeded by a coup engineered by Fulgencio Battista which led to the dictatorial (second) Battista regime which was in turn, overthrown by Castro on January 1, 1959.
One of Papa's favorites was Rafael Guas Inclan, who was a passionate political figure in Cuba for his entire life. In 1925, a lawyer, he was elected to the Cuban Chamber of Representatives, the youngest member ever. He later served as Senator, Governor of Havana Province, Mayor of Havana, and finally as Vice President. Papa knew Guas Inclan well from his frequent visits to Miami, as regimes on the island rose and fell, and also often hunted with him in Cuba. Just a few years after Papa died in 1953, Guas Inclan challenged Fidel Castro, then a guerrilla fighter in the Cuban mountains, to come to Havana and oppose him in a legitimate election. But Castro, then as now, had no interest in free elections.
Once Castro took power, Guas Inclan was quickly expelled and arrived penniless in Miami with his wife and children. He then volunteered to join the famous Brigade 2506 to attack Castro at the Bay of Pigs, but was refused because of his age. His son, Carlos Guas Decal, did join the brigade, and died in combat there, after US President John F. Kennedy cancelled the American combat invasion forces.
Over the years, Papa and Mama always enjoyed welcoming their Cuban friends in Miami, and several times, Mama accompanied Papa to Havana. The Itturiagas were always their close friends, and Mama counted Senora Itturiaga among the finest friends she had anywhere. Mrs. Itturiaga was named Angelica, and she taught Mama some rudimentary Spanish, which Mama worked at diligently. Most of all, the two women had their growing children in common. The youngest Dillon daughter, Ruth, was exactly the same age of the Itturiaga's beautiful daughter, Conchita, so they were great friends. The Itturiagas also had several sons older than Conchita-Evarardo, Umberto-I remember the names and how highly the Dillons spoke of the entire family.
This friendship led to one of Papa's most famous disciplinary tactics. In her teenage years, during the 1930's, Ruth was their most “modern” teen, anxious to drive Papa's cars, and go out a lot with her friends. Of course, today, I think of Ruth as my fantastic aunt, always the Dillon with the best personality of them all, always loved by everyone she knew. So I can imagine her as an “active” teenager. Obviously, she had inherited Papa's personality and his great talent for enjoying life.
Ruth's growing teenage rebelliousness was discussed with the Itturiagas as the girls grew up, and when he heard of their plans for Conchita, Papa decided they were also perfect for his headstrong daughter, Ruth. After consultations with Mama, it was decided that Ruth would go away to “the convent” with Conchita. There were discussions about the Convent of Mary Immaculate in Key West, and also the famous convent school in Havana, Teresiano (Capilla del Colegio Teresiano). As it turned out, both were chosen, and for some reason, the girls were sent first to Key West, and then in later years to Havana.
The Dillons were Methodist, and Ruth knew nothing of the Catholic nuns who would be her new teachers and supervisors. But she never fought the idea, since she loved Conchita and knew it would be a great adventure to travel out of Miami to school.
During their Key West years, Ruth knew the city well since the Dillons had lots of friends and relatives there. Of course, those friends and relatives were all assigned to keep an eye on her activities by Papa, which they did.
The old convent of Mary Immaculate is still one of the famous landmarks in today's Key West, a big Victorian-style building in the middle of town. It surely seemed very old and castle-like to a teenage Ruth when she arrived during the 1930's.
My favorite story from there is about Ruth's acquaintance with a very famous local celebrity, Ernest Hemingway. Of course, he figures famously in Key West history, since he lived there for almost the entire decade of the 1930's, and finished some of his most famous novels during those years. A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not, and For Whom the Bell Tolls were all written in Key West.
Any modern tourist who visits Key West troops obediently to “The Hemingway House”, the now-famous Spanish colonial home on Whitehead Street made famous by Ernest, and now open to the public.
Ruth always told us about a certain niece of the great man. This teenage girl was sent to Key West to live with the Hemingways (Ernest was married to Pauline Pfeiffer when Ruth knew him.) one winter while Ruth happened to be in residence at Mary Immaculate. The Hemingway niece was also enrolled in the school, which created the connection. The Hemingway girl was younger than Ruth by a couple of years. She was to live with the Hemingways at the big house across town, but attend daily classes at the convent.
The nuns decided the new student needed an older companion to walk to and from school, and since Ruth knew the town better than anybody else, they assigned her. This meant Ruth was required to show up early on Whitehead street, accompany the young teen to school, and then shepherd her back home in the afternoon.
Ruth always told us Ernest was most friendly, and for the most part, she liked him. He always called her “Ruthie”, and was usually on the big verandah in the afternoon when Ruth brought his neice home. There was just one problem. He smelled. She always ran on about how she worked out various ways to be friendly and talk to him without getting close enough to be inundated by his body odor. She'd laugh and laugh, and tell us that he loved to hug her, something she always dreaded. Obviously, greatness is great from a distance.
Ruth used to tell us wonderful stories about how she “drove the nuns crazy” in the convents in Key West and in Havana, since she never felt compelled to follow many of the rules laid down for the Catholic girls. One time, it seems she snitched a full nun's habit from the laundry in the school in Havana, put it on, and proceeded to play a loud record on the school's phonograph as part of a Charleston demonstration for all her giggling Cuban classmates. She did the Charleston in the habit while swinging the big gold cross that was part of the costume in a wide circle in front of her. The loud Charleston music, needless to say, was brand new to the quiet halls of Tereciano, and of course, she was in big trouble when the nuns came rushing in. We had big laughs as she always demonstrated all this for us in later years.
She also told us that one day walking with Conchita along the Malecon, the beautiful waterfront promenade in Havana, they passed the famous Floridita Bar. Suddenly, out of the bar came Ernest Hemingway, shouting, “Hello, Ruthie!”. He was on one of his frequent trips to Havana. She waved hello, but hurried along with Conchita to avoid the dreaded hug.
During her Havana days, which were in the late 1930's, Ruth learned what life was like for a pretty blond girl in a Latin American city. Unlike back home in Miami, all the men would whistle and call at her as she crossed the street, in the famous Latin style.. She told me that one man yelled to her once on the Prado, “Your head is more beautiful than the golden dome of the capitol!” She quickly learned that blondes were rare in Cuba, so it gave her a real advantage with the young men.
The social scene in Old Havana was world famous, and when the “season” would begin, great social events were planned all over the city. Cuba had a very strong class system, but Ruth enjoyed great privilege since her host family, the Itturiagas, were members of one of the best “casinos.” A casino in old Havana was more like a country club to Americans, not a gambling place, but an elegant club where members would go for big dances, parties and dinners.
Ruth always told us of one unforgettable evening when she and all the Itturiagas dressed in their best party garb, and were off to the casino for the big party that opened the “season.” President Battista (then a young man, and in power during his first regime) was also a member of the same casino, so he would surely be there. Once all were seated, the President raised his glass of champagne, and did what he always did at that party, and that was to pick a lady from the whole membership and their guests as his dancing partner for the first dance of the social season.
He ceremoniously rose at the head table, raised his glass, said a few words, and then walked straight over to the Itturiaga's table and extended his hand to Ruth. Of course, she was thrilled, stood up, and joined him for the first dance to great applause. After that, she was escorted to the head table and seated grandly beside the President.
She always told us she had never tasted champagne before, but in this exciting situation, who could refuse? The waiters filled her glass, she sipped it, and she always said simply, “I liked it!” All during dinner, the waiters filled her glass and she continued to sip away.
Soon, dessert was served, and the orchestra began to play for the after-dinner dancing. The whole room looked to the head table, and waited for the President to begin the dancing. He stood, pulled back Ruth's chair, and gestured for her to join him. As she told it, “I tried, but I simply could not stand up.” Battista realized what was happening, so reached down with one of his arms around her waist, and lifted her to the dance floor. Of course, then the whole crowd rose and joined them, but Ruth always told us how President Battista had to hold her off the floor through the entire dance. She never drank champagne again.
After that, Ruth was well-known around the casino and around town, and people began calling her “La Americana”. She played it to the hilt. As she used to say modestly in later years, “All I had to do was have blonde hair.”
Years later, after Castro came to power, Conchita and her family joined the flood of refugees fleeing Cuba for Miami, and Ruth and her wonderful husband, Wally Corson, sponsored their arrival. Then, for a time, they welcomed Conchita and her family into their home until they could find jobs and become settled. Conchita and her husband, Juan, raised their children here and like hundreds of thousands of others, with very hard work, made a fine new life for themselves.
All through the first mass exodus of Cubans from the island during the 1960s, Ruth remained furious about how the Castro government was treating her departing friends. She hated Fidel, and with her always-indomitable personality, offered to help in any way she could. At that time, the Cubans were arriving by the thousands aboard “Freedom Flights.” Castro had allowed and even arranged for the planes to depart Havana airport for Miami on a daily basis. But before you could go, you were forced to go through a draconian search and it had to be proven that you were taking very little other than the clothes you were wearing. Gold wedding rings were pulled from the fingers of crying women. Families were divided. Little diamond earrings were taken from little girls. All wallets were examined and emptied, and it was a profoundly sad scene for several years. Every Cuban in Miami today who arrived during those years has an individual story, all heartbreaking.
Ruth arranged to go down to Havana during all this to help a good friend who happened to have an American One Thousand Dollar bill. Everyone knew there was no way to get such a large amount of money out of Cuba, but Ruth flew all alone to the rescue. She always said, “I wasn't afraid of those bastards. They were stealing from my friends!” So once it was all prepared, she presented herself at Havana airport with her suitcase and in the roof of her mouth, a $1000 bill. She waited in the lines, and watched as the soldiers in charge stripped all the Cubans ahead of her of their jewelry and valuables. When she reached the front of the line, the guard gave her some order in Spanish. She had always been totally fluent in the language, but this time spoke English only, and literally screamed at the soldier through carefully clenched teeth, “I'm an American! Don't you touch me!” It worked. He was totally intimidated, stepped back, and motioned for her to board the plane.
Another family the Dillons knew well in Havana were the Blancos. They were among Havana's wealthiest, and lived in a palatial home, much more elaborate than the Itturiaga's apartment. Eduardo Blanco was a doctor, but never actually practiced--instead, spent much of his time caring for his expensive sports cars. His wife, Maria, was a beauty and from what I've heard, the house was full of servants, great food, and elegant parties. The Blancos owned extensive real estate both in Havana and in Miami. I remember one of the big old hotels in downtown Miami was one of their properties, along with various office buildings.
When Castro took power, of course, everyone in Cuba with any real assets lost everything. I remember that Sr. Blanco had divested himself of all his Miami real estate a short time before, thinking he should invest everything in his native country. Of course, that was a fatal mistake, since Fidel's communist government immediately seized everything in his nationalization program. The Blancos did exile themselves to Miami, but it was too late. They were almost penniless, and got out just enough money to buy a house. Ruth visited them and helped all she could, but she always said Maria was so depressed she felt that her life was at an end. Eduardo, with his knowledge of fast cars, started a foreign car repair shop, but his lack of hands-on business experience didn't help, and it failed.
So the old friends from old Havana adapted to exile in various ways, and in the early days of Miami's huge influx from Cuba, Ruth was our guide to everything Cuban-the wonderful new restaurants, the language, the customs. She was in her glory, because instead of having to visit them in Cuba, all her old friends had come to stay. Papa was gone by then, but Mama joined Ruth and her family welcoming the sons and daughters of so many old friends.
Of course, today's Miami is a monument to the incredibly successful adaptation of our hundreds of thousands of refugees from Cuba, who still arrive daily. Probably no group of immigrants have contributed so much so quickly, and Miami is the great international city it is today due mostly to the spirit, hard work and great talent of the Cubans.