Cuban Portraits I: Paparazzi Heaven

Some Cuban Hotels from the pre-Revolutionary days have a sense of history that conflates Notable and Notorious, the Great and the Grating, the Comer and the Goner. As long as their faces do not affront this year’s ideology, the Room of History will honor them. At the Hotel Nacional, just above the Malecon and thus mere yards from the beautiful blue sea, floor-to-ceiling photographic murals adorn a comfy lounge where a complimentary Mojito greets the guest waiting for a room key. The murals are arranged by decade and serve as historical, ideological, cultural, celebrity, and criminal icons. Perhaps I am just forgetting, but the only Russian on these walls is Yuri Gagarin. The Soviets and the bad old Russian days are too passe to engage our memory. These days portraits of Chinese and Vietnamese Premiers and Vice-Premiers announce an era’s alliances and the current models for Revolutionary Socialism. But there’s also a Sultan with the byline: ‘The Highest Man in the World.’ And the American actors, directors, singers, and sportsmen are at least as prominent as the outlaws who once turned the grand hotels into private stashes of gambling cash. Let’s start there:

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Such an earnest fellow, Mr. Lansky! Perhaps he was protected by the steel fists of Mr. Dempsey who stands behind him, or perhaps by the financial muscle Mr. Amadeo Barletta, an Italian immigrant who wrangled the exclusive General Motors franchise outside the United States. We must thank him, therefore, for all those heavenly 1950s GM cars who whisk you about town–just as we must thank Fidel for expropriating all Barletta’s Cuban holdings, preventing us from riding in any GM car manufactured after 1960.

Part of the delight is how a decade’s celebrities find themselves paired. Was there a mysterious bond between Errol Flynn and Buster Keaton? And isn’t the wrong one smiling?

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  Or could Betty Grable pitch to Stan the Man’s mighty left handed swing?     DSC_8955 How about three giants, at least one of whom was probably in residence when Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir came to bask in the Caribbean sun?

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Anyone remember if Ava Gardner married Old Blue Eyes? Or did she prefer the velvet touch of Nat King Cole? The Hotel Nacional seems to think so. Surely this is what murals are for, as Diego Rivera might say. Who are we to disagree?

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