Cuba on my mind
President Obama’s recent trip to Cuba may have opened a contemporary debate about restoring international relations and legitimizing corrupt dictators. But those topics were not on the table in 1924 when U-M benefactor Avery Hopwood, BA ’05, visited Havana and recorded his observations in the diary excerpt below. The account is rich with detail and offers a window into a long-lost culture.
Hopwood is the benefactor who endowed the Avery and Jule Hopwood Awards Program in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. He gained acclaim in the early 20th century as the most successful playwright of the Jazz Age, with four plays running simultaneously on Broadway.
Despite his commercial success on the stage however, Hopwood was a frustrated novelist, known to tote around his unpublished manuscript, completed just before his untimely death in 1928.
Hopwood scholar Jack F. Sharrar, MA ’77, discovered Hopwood’s roman à clef while pursuing his PhD in theater history at the University of Utah. He edited the novel, The Great Bordello, A Story of the Theatre (Mondial), and got it published in 2011, fulfilling Hopwood’s dream.
“I felt very good about getting it published for him,” Sharrar says of the book, which portrays the life of aspiring playwright Edwin Endsleigh, Hopwood’s fictional counterpart. “There is so little written about him and the book sheds much more light on Hopwood himself.”
Sharrar is director of academic affairs at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. He is the author of Avery Hopwood, His Life and Plays (UMI Press), and has adapted two of Hopwood’s plays, “Fair and Warmer” and “Just for Tonight.”
He hopes MT readers will enjoy this excerpt from Hopwood’s papers, housed in U-M’s Special Collections Library.
“It’s a very colorful, insightful, and vivid picture of what Havana must have been like during its heyday,” he says.
We [Avery and his mother, Jule] flew from Key West in a hydro-plane. The trip took about an hour and a half — perhaps three quarters. It was a beautiful day, and steady flying. We flew near the sea all the way across, but when we came to Havana had to rise and fly above the city, in order to circle down and land in the harbor.
Hibiscus. Bougainvillea. Large pink roses. White and putty colored houses and blue sky. Deeply blue sea. The Prado running from the Parque Centrale. The bandstand. The drive along the Malećon and the Marina.
The drive out to Mariano, through the Vedado, the principal residential section — hard white and cream colored houses, square, box-like, with deep double-decked porches — very high windows, all barred on the first floor — a rather dry-looking, wildly growing garden, and a profusion of shrubs and trees, almost masking the houses. One looks in and sees hard white walls, and furniture and pictures of doubtful taste.
The Shark’s Nest
The older residences, like those along the Malećon, are nicer — with arcaded fronts. Probably, in other days, horses were kept in stables on the first floors of some of these houses. They all have balconies on the second floor. The drive along the Malećon is lovely — the air usually so fresh, and the sea dashing over the wall. When the wall is dry, loungers lined upon it.
One goes to the Morro and the Cabañas by way of a ferry-boat — and then up a dusty hill.
Morro is very solid, very old, with lovely views of the harbor and the city. Cabañas is vast — one goes through low, narrow underground passages, and sees the place where prisoners were supposed to be thrown into a water torrent and carried down to the waiting sharks, in the “sharks’ nest,” in the sea. The Cabañas is now used as a training place for officers — the Cuban West Point.
I went up to the lighthouse, over a hundred steps, and then crawled up inside of the great lamp itself, which the keeper made to revolve slowly. He told how, in the great storm of 1918, the waves swept over the top of the lighthouse tower. This seemed difficult to believe. Still, the same storm destroyed part of the seawall, and swept a ship a couple of blocks up into the town, not to mention carrying away an automobile and its three unfortunate occupants.
At the Cabañas were many fat lizards, sunning themselves in the walls — and some of the “rich ones,” as our driver called them, had their “houses” high up — ten or fifteen feet above the ground.
We saw, of course, the Laurel Ditch, where the Spaniards used to compel their prisoners to kneel, facing the wall, and be shot down by a firing squad.
The man who drove the taxi which took us to El Morro and Cabañas had spent eleven months in Trenton, New Jersey, and spoke English fairly well, although with considerable of an accent. He tried to get us to climb up to a final tower, when we were leaving, but we declined. Only then did he reveal the fact that we had but five minutes in which to catch the ferry-boat. He thought that perhaps we could do it, but he drove in leisurely fashion along the dusty, bumpy road (which was no worse than many of the streets in the fashionable Vedado section). When we got to the ferry, the gates were closed, but the man in charge opened them, and permitted our car (a Buick) — to get aboard.
The trip on the ferry is hot and smelly, if one stays in one’s car, and is not at either end of the ferry-boat.
A wilderness of marble monuments
We went one Sunday to the Colón Cemetery, a wilderness of marble monuments. Many of the family tombs have space for only one grave. When Pedro dies, he is interred in this grave. Then, when Francesca follows him on the road of mortality, the bones of Pedro are taken from his grave, to make room for Francesca, and these bones are placed in a smaller, square repository, which, also, is part of the tomb. Pedro’s body, I believe, has been placed in lime, when it was first interred, so that it would shortly, be reduced to a few bones.
When the very poor are buried, the body is placed in a piece of ground where it is allowed to remain for only three years. Then, unless further “rent” is paid, the body is dug up, and the bones are thrown in the “bone-yard,” a charnel house consisting of a patch of ground surrounded by a high board fence, and quite open to the sky, so that the rain falls upon the poor scattered bones and skulls, and the sun shines bleachingly upon them. I peered through a crack in the fence in order to see the “bone-yard” and noted that one skull was copper colored, among the prevailing bony whiteness of the others.
Funerals take place twice a day — at eleven in the morning and at four in the afternoon. The dead are buried within twenty-four hours of their decease, because of the warmth of the climate. The hearses are unimaginably elaborate — huge, carved ebony affairs, or else, for the children, great white, car-bed hearses, with tinted angels upon them, so that they look like a combination of a circus wagon and a birthday cake.
When the body is taken out of the hearse, a pan of steaming water is placed in the hearse, which is locked up for a few minutes. This is for fumigating purposes, and if one is near at hand, one is sickened by a strong reek of bi-chloride of lime.
These hearses are drawn by four or six horses, with a driver and postilion in costume. When the hearse enters the cemetery, the postilion who is leading the hearse mounts a step at the back of the hearse, and stands there until the grave is reached.
Women mourners do not attend the funerals. The priest, of course, marches along with the regalia of his religion.
The day that we were at the Colón Cemetery there was an especially large funeral, of a young aviator, who had died of injuries received while he was giving an exhibition flight [on 10 February] in honor of the French flying “ace,” [Charles] Nungesser. The young aviator had a military funeral, his body resting on a gun carriage drawn by six horses. There was a military band, and several hearses piled high with flowers, and many soldiers.
Jesus del Monte
We went from there, by way of contrast, to a cockfight. I saw only the end of one fight — which concluded the afternoon’s entertainment.
This was at a suburb called, I believe, Jesus del Monte. The fight was in a building where had been constructed a miniature circus, with wooden benches. Two small game roosters, their feathers clipped, and with steel spurs fastened on their feet, were fighting viciously. Finally, one became groggy, and although he tried gamely to keep going, he presently succumbed, and flopped to the ground. His opponent was then allowed to finish him off at his leisure — picking his eyes out, in the process.
There was considerable excitement among the spectators, as of course, as money is wagered on the outcome of all these fights.
We next went to the tropical gardens, a large amusement park, run as an advertisement by the brewery that manufactures tropical beer. Free beer, very cold and a very good, is dispensed here every day, in as substantial quantities as you wish to consume. It is beer with a “kick” — the alcoholic content being, I believe, something like fifteen percent. Many of the Cubans bring their lunches and spend the day here. There is a dance hall, where the danzón is danced by the Cubans. It is a slow, gliding dance, a little like the tango. The music is peculiar — a Spanish melody, floating on top, and underneath the portentous African tom-tom beating of a drum — the overtone melodic gaiety — the undertone, lustful, growling, menacing — at times thunderous. The music goes on and on, with hypnotizing monotony.
To my regret, I was not to see the “Danzón,” which occurs every Sunday night, during Lent, at the Nacional Theatre. There is a very good description of it in Hergesheimer’s San Cristobal de la Habana — a delightful book, but one which, I feel, takes Havana a bit too flamingly — a book in which the imagination of the writer embroiders considerably upon the facts of the city aspect. I was intrigued by Hergesheimer’s calling the town a “mid-Victorian Pompeii,” but I’m not quite sure that I know what that means, and I suspect that perhaps he does not, either.
I went three times to the Jai Alai games, at “El Nuevo Fronton.” Jai Alai is of course an incomparably swift and interesting game, and the excitement of the spectators, aided and abetted by the red-capped commissionaires, is really tumultuous, so far as volume of sound is concerned. (These red caps look as if they were of velvet, and they, like the game, are Basque in origin.)
The men play two against two — Blancos against Azuelas — and also they play what they call a quiniela — six players, contesting two at a time, one against the other, until one player has won six games.
Jai Alai takes great skill. Every detail of the private life of the players is known to the public, who watch a man’s condition in order to know whether or not to bet on him. A man with an exacting mistress is regarded as a bad bet, since his endurance is apt to be affected.
Most of the players in Havana seemed to be between twenty-five and thirty. The game is so strenuous that it is said to affect the heart, and to finish off the players at the age of forty. They do not train, in the sense that our athletes do, and I am told that they dissipate considerably, in the matter of alcohol — cognac in large quantities being a favorite stimulant.
The betting goes on, and the odds change, all during the progress of a game.
At the opening of the Fronton, the opening quiniela was played by a number of men from prominent Cuban families. One of them, a Mendoza, won fifteen games, and seemed certain of victory, but he failed to get the necessary sixth game, and in his disappointment cast himself upon the ground, before the multitude, and wept.
The professional players often give lively vent to their feelings, when they fail to score. Some go over and lean expressively against the wall, face resting against it — others gesticulate, or bite their nails. The crowd is very vociferous for a good play, or for a foul.
The heart of the city
The Parque Centrale is in the heart of the city. The Telegrafo restaurant has very large and potent daiquiri cocktails — good stuffed crabs. I often lunched there. This restaurant, like most of the Havanese restaurants and shops, is open to the street, with great shutter-doors, which are put up at night.
Obispo and O’Reilly streets — narrow thoroughfares, lined with shops — awnings overhead. The Paris Restaurant in Obispo Street is excellent, and usually crowded. My favorite eating place, however, was the Dos Hermanos (“Two Brothers”) — an old hotel, down on the waterfront. Below is an ordinary bar and eating place. Upstairs, on the large balcony, protected by weather beaten brown awnings strung above, is a restaurant of greater luxe. I liked especially the various bean soups — white bean soup, black bean soup — Spanish bean soup — and a delicious red snapper cooked in paper — or, as the menu described it — “fish cooken in paper baken.”
The menu is very amusing.
- crags hard sael
- filet minon wish mushroom
- Key West craw fis broilea
- has brown potatos
- potatoes frield
A very good dish is chicken with rice — arroz con pollo. Spanish wines — Castel Del Remy and Alta 30 Rioja, both white.
Two Negroes, one supposed to be Savannah, fat, typical, the other a Cuban, rather brown face, and delicate features, not speaking English, and singing it with difficulty. They both sing delightful Spanish songs, then some drunken American diner will insist upon “Dixie,” or “Old Folks at Home” — which will lead the two singers to inflict “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” The drunken Americans always want to sing, too.
The tram goes by noisily. A full moon on the bay — sights of ships passing and repassing. One night, below, a worn operatic tenor sings, and the two Negroes are put temporarily out of business.
My host was very affable, with a large black mustache.
Fun and gaming
Racing takes place every day except Monday, during the season, at Oriental Park. The Jockey Club is very comfortable. We had a table on the upper veranda, and from here we can watch the horses come in on the home stretch. I had bad luck with all my bets. Betting is conducted on a very large scale — the windows of the bookmakers are under the main grandstand, but other bookmakers circulate through the Jockey Club, to take bets.
One can dine inside, and there is a gaming room, with heavy play at roulette, etc.
The casino, about a mile from the Almendares, has a place to dine and dance, and many roulette, and baccarat and chuck-a-luck tables.
Piña fria — pineapple juice, with gin, is a favorite drink.
The Cubans are of all shades of brown and black, and quite good-looking. The women of good class do not go much on the streets. On Sunday afternoon, after the races, the patio of the Almendares is thronged with Cubans who have come for the tea dansant. Both here and at the casino the danzón is danced occasionally.
Some of the women of the working class, and their children, wear very bright colored gowns — crimson, orange, apple green.
The wealthy women go in for Parisian styles. They have a tendency to overdress.
Many of the girls are extremely pretty, in a warm and Southern fashion.
The men wear white sailor hats, and summery clothes.
There are many Royal Palm trees.
The Americans are rather awful — thousands of Babbitts and their wives. There is also a sprinkling of smart people, and demimondaines.
There is Chinese theater — with more scenery than in China.
There is an orphanage in Havana — with a green door, through which a mother may go, deposit her baby, and disappear. The child is taken care of by the nuns. If the mother wishes, she can place an identifying check up on it, and claim it again, later.
Some Cubans got a small, but prominent Cuban drunk, dressed him in baby clothes, and left him where the orphans are received. This caused a great scandal.
(Top image: Hopwood, circa 1924. U-M Special Collections.)