Whether by day or night the action was non-stop.
We love vintage nightclub photos, and vintage pix of people partying in general. Since Havana photos are unusually interesting, we're always drawn to them. There's a large number of Havana photos out there, but not primarily because of Cuba's political history. The photos really exist because Cuba was a pioneer of Caribbean tourism, attracting travelers beginning in the 1920s through a heyday of the mid-1950s. The island was promoted as a place of sophistication, mixed with permissiveness, unpredictability, and a touch of the primitive. This prompted various movers and shakers—from New York City businessmen to top musicians to Hollywood stars—to flock to Havana. And where important people went, cameras followed.
Was the Havana image true? Probably, based on what we've read. But it was not unique. During the same period Tangier had a similar reputation, as it attracted writers like Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and numerous gay expatriates. During the 1960s Acapulco was knownas a great place to go for thrills. During the 1980s, Ibiza or Mykonos. The 90s, Thailand or Goa. The 00s, Tulum. Havana wasn't unusual in terms of what it offered. Bigger, yes. More convenient for Americans, for sure. But numerous far flung locales have served as paradises for foreign visitors to lose themselves and get crazy.
Most or all of the aforementioned places are considered to have changed for the worse, whether through ecological damage, destruction of historic architecture, unchecked overbuilding, overtourism, or all four scourges at once. But it was revolution that changed Havana, a fact that gives vintage photos from there a particular poignancy. A typical narrative is that while elites and tourists partied, exclusion, inequality, and poverty helped fertilize the seeds of upheaval. But we don't judge anyone in these shots. We've lived in similar circumstances in Central America. We were even partners in a beach bar in the Caribbean. We were always well aware of the prevailing socio-political problems, and we sympathized greatly with the local populations. But it didn't stop us from partying the nights away.
There's an immense feeling of freedom being in a simpler place—and for all its opulent nightclubs and restaurants, Havana is said to have exuded a primeval sensuality that intoxicated tourists and expatriates. If you live in the U.S. or some other modern nation, that feeling isn't something you can achieve by merely paring down your current lifestyle. The things you give up continue to exist all around you. By rejecting those, you become a weirdo. But by living in a less modern nation your life truly changes top to bottom, and you gain this while still existing above the local mean. That's the paradox, or the injustice, depending on your point of view: your satisfaction derives partly from the ability to take or leave anything you wish, because you are economically able to do so. You live more simply than you did, yet live better than most people around you. It isn't noble, but it's very much an attraction.
Bowles and Burroughs lived well in Tangier because it was immensely cheaper than Europe or the U.S. With the savings gained they hosted parties and had time to hone their literary crafts. They were a part of the local society, but existed in a middle-upper stratum, high above the impoverished, well below the Moroccan elites, benefitting from the general perception that foreigners from rich nations are themselves rich. That's how it was for us too. So there's inequality built into thattype of expatriate experience. It's unavoidable. A friend of ours lived in a stick shack on Cayos Cochinos for an entire year and he was still considered a rich foreigner. Everyone knows you have a choice. The Americans who partied in Cuba could never have been anything but wealthy invaders, no matter the reality of their finances, or the inclusiveness their sensibilities.
Living comfortably means the novelties one experiences seem thrilling or romantic. When we were knocking around Guatemala, El Salvador, and the Bay Islands, we turned washing our clothes by hand into an enjoyable ritual, yet understood quite well that many families' daily water intake literally depended on walking a mile to a river. Buying food from the local fruit and veggie stand was far more convenient than queuing at the supermarket for meat, and we ended up dropping to our college weight, but we were nevertheless aware that many people couldn't afford any food, and would have been disgusted at how pleased we were that our reduced fat intake meant we could show six pack abs at the beach. We helped some local families, both financially and logistically, but when your downsized existence is a choice you can never truly fit in.
But the freedom you feel is real. Offloading the burdens of modern life brings legitimate satisfaction. The pursuit of pleasure takes on a special joy. We hit bars, parties, and gallery mixers continually. As foreigners there's no social stigma to drinking every night. Unless you have a job—and we didn't—it's how you form a social circle. Locals generally disapprove, but their judgements carry little weight. So when welook at Havana partying shots we don't quite see oblivious, entitled people, because we know it isn't that simple. Most of them knew what was percolating. Stability was diminishing fast. There was a dissolved parliament, large protests, a 1953 battle in Santiago de Cuba, and other signposts on the way to change. It was clear the fun could never last.
The assortment of people you see here are caught on film like insects caught in amber, long dead but preserved. They're having a few laughs, enjoying some drinks, executing deft turns on dance floors, making their small, temporary marks on the world, leaving behind images showing them for one sliver of a moment in timeless eternity. Things changed in Havana, and now things have changed for all of us. If circumstances where we can dance and laugh and shout together in hot crowded places without fear of sickness ever return, be sure to embrace them fully. We don't just mean in some far flung tropical enclave. We mean anywhere. Because if it isn't a virus that takes those pleasures away, it'll be the march of years. You'll want to have done your best with this gift called life.
An ice cream vendor patiently waits for potential customers to emerge from the Capri Hotel and Casino, 1958. Fashion model Jean Patchett and author Ernest Hemingway, who habitually went shirtless, lounge at Finca Vigia, his house in Cuba, 1950. Above, Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, the "Cocktail King of Havana," inventor of the Papa Doble daiquiri, and owner of the famed bar El Floridita. Liberace performs on stage at the Tropicana with headline dancer Ana Gloria Varona, 1954. A Coke and a smile from two soft drink vendors. Patrons enjoy drinks at El Floridita, 1955. Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante stands by while Marlon Brando tries his hand—or both of them—at the conga drum at Hotel Packard, 1956. Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky, on the right in this shot, attends the opening of the Hotel Riviera in December 1957. Famed entertainer Zulema dances the rhumba at the Zombie Club, 1946. Three women liven up the room from their perch on the bar at Cabaret Kursal. Cesar Romero and Tyrone Power enjoy a drink and a chat at Sloppy Joe's Bar. Revelers including Errol Flynn and Desi Arnaz, Jr. form a conga line during the Yoruba festival known as Dia de Babalú-Ayé. José Abeal Otero, founder of Sloppy Joe's Bar, mixes up a giant batch of liquid magic. No, this isn't the same person as above, Ribalaigua. They were both small, dapper guys. A firebreather thrills onlookers in front of the Saratoga Hotel, 1949. This photo shows Nat King Cole and his wife Maria Cole, along with Martin Fox, who was the owner of the Tropicana, accompanied by his wife Ofelia and an unknown fifth party. U.S. born vedette and movie star Tongolele, aka Yolanda Montes, poses outside the Capri Hotel and Casino, 1958. Meme Solis and Elena Burke pose at the entrance to the 21 Club, located in the Capri Hotel. These photos show Silvano Chueg Echevarría, a master of percussion and an iconic musical personage. Let's go back to that Marlon Brando photo for a sec. Brando was an aficionado of percussive instruments. During that 1956 jaunt to Cuba he made it known that he wanted to buy drums from real percussionists. One of the musicians he met was Echevarría. All the Havana percussionists knew of Brando, of course, but thought he was a musical dilettante. At some point he finagled his way onto a nightclub stage, sat in with a band, and truly amazed onlookers with his ability on the conga. He wasn't a master, but he was pretty good. He won respect, and bought his drums. Raquel Revuelta, Manuel Corrales, and Mariano Rodriguez leave the famed bar Bodeguita del Medio and walk through the Havana night to other locales, other adventures, 1958.
Maybe I should have listened to my parents and stayed in community college.
Above, a nice James Avati cover for Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, copyright 1949. The hardback of this came out in 1946, and it was adapted to the big screen in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the lead role, so this art reflects the movie, which is why the cover femme looks like and is dressed like co-star Colleen Gray. This is one of many mid-century novels set in and around carnivals, and it's one of the better ones, we think. The film version adheres reasonably close to Gresham's original vision. We talked about it several years ago, so check here if you're interested. We've also talked about several other carnival books over the years and now we have an idea to put together a cover collection along those lines. We'll have to see if there are any examples left to find. But in the meantime you can see what we've already collected here, here, here, and here.
Have you ever had a terrible dream and couldn’t wake up?
This West German poster for Der Scharlatan, aka Nightmare Alley shows Twentieth Century Fox pretty boy Tyrone Power in his role as The Great Stanton, a conniving psychic. Power felt constricted by the romance and adventure parts he’d played up to that point, so he bought the rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s novel and dirtied himself up. He plays a lowly carnival barker who realizes that an ingenious verbal code is the key to reaching the heights of fame.
This code allows a seer to work in tandem with an assistant to correctly answer the questions of spectators. “I’m sensing that there’s a Mr. Abernathy here and he’s... wait… it’s coming… Sir, you’re concerned about your wife’s health. Isn’t that right? Well let me tell you, you’ll get good news from the doctor tomorrow!” Though the code’s owners aren’t using it, they plan to sell it to fund their retirement, and that looks to be some years off. This forces Power to either to steal it or sweet talk his way into it. As it turns out, he doesn’t have to do either, but once he has the code and has built an act around it, the fame and riches it brings fail to quench his greed.
Nightmare Alley was not warmly reviewed upon release, but many of those reviews simply found the movie too gritty. Such criticisms tend to make their authors look out of touch. For example, Bosley Crowther was demoted from his position as the New York Times’ main critic in large part for slamming Bonnie and Clyde in three separate articles, despite the film’s obvious quality. Nightmare Alley had similar detractors—it was just too downbeat for some, even for a film noir. But within its fictional milieu it's highly successful. Our world has every kind of depravityand cruelty, and movies that depict them must be judged on their own terms. So ignore the haters—Nightmare Alley is excellent. Power puts on an award-worthy performance, and Joan Blondell and Colleen Gray are great in support. There’s a pivotal moment in the film when it seems possible Power’s character has some actual psychic ability. Too bad he can’t see his own future. Nightmare Alley premiered in 1947, and finally made its way to West Germany today in 1954.
Where did he come from and where did he go?
This Whisper from October 1955 examines Ava Gardner’s love life, Ernest Hemingway’s courage, and Marilyn Monroe’s mole, all of which, while worthwhile subjects, are less interesting to us than the piece on Father Divine. Who was Father Divine? Well, he was a preacher who claimed to be God and had as many as two million followers during his heyday in the 1930s. Of course, that number depends on where you do your research. Some sources try to distinguish between “true followers” and sympathizers who attended his rallies, but that’s like saying seventy percent of the people at a rock concert aren’t true fans. Attendance at events is an accepted method for determining popularity, and consideringthe fact that Father Divine had verifiable rallies in places as far away as Switzerland and Australia, we think the two million figure is accurate.
Why was he so popular? Hard to say. Charisma and an imaginative doctrine are givens. But it was national exposure that really helped swell the ranks of his followers. From the point of view of a typical magazine editor, you eventually can’t resist writing at least a blurb about a person who claims to be God. When that person proves to be polished and intelligent, and his belief system more nuanced than suspected, the article becomes its own public relations. Thanks to steady press coverage, what started as a local congregation in Brooklyn, New York eventually spread to become a multi-ethnic and pan-national movement. But with popularity came scandals. The most notorious of these was when a Divine follower named John Hunt, a California millionaire who had dubbed himself John the Revelator, kidnapped a 17-year-old girl named Delight Jewett and repeatedly had sex with her, either before or after brainwashing her into thinking she was to be the “mother of the new redeemer of the world,” i.e., a new Virgin Mary.
Father Divine’s ministry survived the Hunt scandal and others, and in fact only began to shrink as Divine himself aged and became less active. The cover of Whisper asks if he is dead. Fair question—he was pushing eighty by then and hadn’t been seen in public for months. But he would resurface weeks later in a flurry of press coverage, pronouncing himself“healthy in every organ, muscle, sinew, joint, limb, vein and bone, and even in every atom, fiber and cell of my bodily form.” But Divine was in fact in declining health and had been for some time. Ten years later he died of natural causes at the age of (because his exact birth date is unknown) eighty-nine or ninety. Or he left behind his corporeal form and permanently inhabited his spiritual one. Depending on whom you ask.
Skating on thin ice.
Rave, for which you see a cover above, was a low budget U.S.-based magazine that launched in 1953 as a celeb publication, quickly moved into scandal and gossip, but didn’t survive beyond 1956, as far as we can tell. The graphic design was revamped twice, and so we suspect it just never found its niche in a crowded tabloid market. But it wasn’t for lack of providing celebrity rumormongers what they craved. This August 1955 issue discusses Serge Rubinstein’s murder, Anita Ekberg’s bombshell status, Jackie Gleason and more, but of special note are two stories: one about Sonja Henie, and another about Sheree North.
Sheree North, not well known today, was a dancer-turned-actress who in the mid-1950s was groomed (like so many other women) as the next Marilyn Monroe. She even made the cover of Life with the caption: “Sheree North Takes Over from Marilyn Monroe.” But it didn’t happen. Though North had a couple of hit films, her on-deck status was quickly usurped by another bottled blonde named Jayne Mansfield. North had done some burlesque early in her career, and Rave claims she had a few stag reels floating around. We don’t know about that, but there was a 1951 clip called the “Tiger Dance” that certainly pushed the bounds of contemporary sexiness. We found an upload of it, and you can see it here.
The story on Sonja Henie is a bit more interesting. A Norwegian-born world and Olympic champion figure skater, Henie shot to international fame at age fourteen and turned that recognition into a Hollywood career. She became extremely popular as a screen star, and the same drive that sparked that success fueled her personal life. She married three times and had numerous affairs, including with Tyrone Power and allegedlywith champion boxer Joe Louis. But the mystery man Rave hints at on its cover is none other than piano player Liberace, just above. If you know anything about Liberace then you know his dates with Henie were just for show. But as a gay or bi celebrity—and both were designations he denied until his dying day—dating women would have been a completely understandable strategy to avoid being outed by the time's vicious tabloids and losing his musical career.
Henie, on the other hand, rarely let controversy get in the way of her decisions if she thought the result would ultimately be a net gain. This is possibly why she publicly greeted Adolf Hitler with a Nazi salute at a Berlin exposition in 1936, and why she sought Joseph Goebbels’ help in distributing one of her films in Germany. Yet you have to assume that anyone who would hang out with and possibly sleep with Joe Louis didn’t have rock solid racist views. But as millions died, her behavior can only be seen as shameful. However she returned to Norway with Holiday on Ice in 1953 and again the year Rave published the above cover and was warmly greeted, if not quite totally forgiven. Henie died of cancer in 1969, but as another fascinating product of a complex time, we suspect her name will come up on this website again.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1973—Kidnappers Cut Off Getty's Ear
After holding Jean Paul Getty III for more than three months, kidnappers cut off his ear and mail it to a newspaper in Rome. Because of a postal strike it doesn't arrive until November 8. Along with the ear is a lock of hair and ransom note that says: "This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits." Getty's grandfather, billionaire oilman Jean Paul Getty, at first refused to pay the 3.2 million dollar ransom, then negotiated it down to 2.8 million, and finally agreed to pay as long as his grandson repaid the sum at 4% interest.
1947—HUAC Hearings Begin
The House Un-American Activities Committee begins its investigation into Communist infiltration of Hollywood, resulting in a witch hunt that destroys lives, ruins careers, and makes Senator Joseph McCarthy the most feared politician of the era.
1968—Jackie Kennedy Marries
Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy marries Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The marriage comes as a total surprise to the American public, and results in a terrible backlash against her and also makes her the number one target of paparazzi for years.
1989—Guildford Four Exonerated
The men known as the Guildford Four, who were imprisoned for a series of bombs attacks on British pubs that left five dead and 100 injured, are decreed not guilty after an investigation reveals that police colluded in doctoring statements that appeared to incriminate the defendants.
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