Havana, 1960

By: Robert Plunket

I moved recently, and in doing so I found, way back in the corner of the dusty storeroom, my mother’s silver. Ah, the famous silver. Then the real shock hit me—50 years! It had been 50 years ago that the silver and I had our rendezvous with destiny . . . My mother, I should […]


I moved recently, and in doing so I found, way back in the corner of the dusty storeroom, my mother’s silver. Ah, the famous silver. Then the real shock hit me—50 years! It had been 50 years ago that the silver and I had our rendezvous with destiny . . .

My mother, I should explain, was a socially ambitious woman. Not in a grasping or aggressive way—it was like the longing of a child. She was a butcher’s daughter from the South Side of Chicago, but you would never know it. Over the years she had risen through the ranks, gotten rid of her Midwestern accent, and now fit seamlessly into the upper middle class. But she always retained the poor girl’s drive for status, glamour, recognition. By the time she was in her early 40s, things were going great.

We lived in Mexico City, where my father was vice president of the Mexican division of a big American power company. We were happily settled members of the large, diverse foreign colony in Mexico City. My mother had four kids, a nice house, servants, bridge, charity work.

But socially she seemed to have reached a glass ceiling. Mexico City back in 1958 was a tough nut to crack. It was enormous and full of very rich people. Her dreams of being a player were stalled. She was doing all the right things, but there was just too much competition.

Then something amazing happened. My father was offered a job—president of the Cuban Electric Company. The electric company was the largest company in Cuba; it had more employees than the Cuban government. Whoever was president had a semi-official position. He was one of the head honchos in the scheme of things. Which meant his wife was a social force to be reckoned with. She could literally invite anybody in Cuba to dinner.

There was just one problem. The country had recently been taken over by Communist revolutionaries who were expropriating private property and executing people.

Still, for my parents the decision was an easy one. Of course they were going. And they were taking the kids. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. My mother couldn’t believe her luck. All she had to do was put up with Fidel Castro for a while. Undoubtedly he would be gone in six months or so; obviously the United States wasn’t going to allow a Communist country 90 miles from its shore. And then, when all the dust settled, if she played her cards right, she would be—Queen of Havana.

She quickly put together a to-do list. First she’d have to get the furniture refinished. Cuba was tropical and her furniture was dark. A team of Mexican workers came in to pickle and lighten and paint. The sofa was reupholstered in white linen. And then there was the silver. Her flatware had always been a problem. It was ordinary, nothing special. She had always meant to get some really good silver, and now was the time. She went down to Tane, the fancy jewelry store in the Zona Rosa that functioned as the Mexican equivalent of Tiffany, and ordered the best silver they had. It was gorgeous and weighed a ton. You could barely pick up the knives. Each piece was monogrammed with a baroque “P.”

I loved Havana from the start. What 14-year-old wouldn’t? It had everything—gambling, nightclubs, gangsters, voodoo. The very air was heavy and tropical. Music flowed out of every window, there were open-air bars, and in the old part of town each little street and alley seemed to promise something carnal and mysterious.

For 400 years it had been the capital of the Caribbean. By the time we moved there in 1959, it was a little overripe, but still the epitome of glamour. It was a schizophrenic kind of place—rich and poor, wicked yet religious, almost like the United States—but completely different. Life was going on just as always, but everything was changing. The tourists who fed the country’s economy had slowed to a trickle, then stopped completely. The legendary hotels—the Nacional, the Riviera, the Capri—were all but empty. The resort atmosphere where everything revolved around pleasure was being replaced by a crash course in Communism. Americans were the enemy, and slogans were everywhere: “Cuba Si, Yanqui No,” “Patria o Muerte” and “Paredon!”—which meant “take him to the wall and shoot him.”

The Nacional, where we stayed while waiting for our newly refinished furniture to arrive, had 40 guests—including the man who murdered Trotsky. He had just been released from prison in Mexico and was on his way back to Russia.

And of course there was that other new family from Mexico, the Plunkets, who were busy settling into the school year and getting activities lined up for the kids. Our house was in the western hills above Havana, in a new and fancy section called Alturas del Country Club. It had curving streets that meandered past big houses set on perfectly manicured lawns. Most didn’t have walls around them, in sharp contrast to other cities in Latin America.

For the first time in our lives we were rich—or at least we lived that way. What particularly impressed me was the car situation. Back in Mexico City we had a Buick. Now we had three cars: a Cadillac, a Lincoln and an Imperial. I couldn’t believe the glamour of it all. My favorite was the Imperial. Every morning, as I was chauffeured to school, I sat a little forward on the seat, so people could get a good look at me.

I was going to a wonderful school called Ruston Academy. Half the students were from wealthy Cuban families; the other half were Americans or other foreigners. Ruston had an excellent academic reputation, and it took me a while to adjust to the workload; we had to write essays on the battle of Thermopylae and memorize the poetry of Jose Martí—in Spanish, of course. But the other kids were quick to accept me, and soon I developed an active social life, hanging out at the country club after school and going to Friday night parties where the music was half rock ’n’ roll, half Cuban salsa.

You discover a lot of things when you’re 14, and Havana was a dramatic place to discover them. I had my first drink in a bar, I learned how to play roulette, and I learned how to drive. My knowledge of sex increased exponentially. And I discovered that I had a taste for life at the top. For once, I felt completely at home.

My mother was a little scattered those first few months. She hated the house my father had chosen.

It was big and expensive, but it lacked style—too much terrazzo and too many jalousie windows. The refinished furniture helped, but it was hardly a drop-dead showplace for her assault on Cuban society.

At least she finally had a staff worthy of her ambitions. There was Zayas, the butler from Spain; his sister Maria, the maid; a Jamaican cook named Wilhelmina; a woman who did the laundry; a gardener and two chauffeurs, Cesar for my father and Leonardo for my mother and us kids.

Still, it was hard to gain social traction when the country was coming apart at the seams. People were losing their businesses, going into exile, sending their families out of the country, desperately trying to get their money out.

It wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to a smart social life. Zayas had the silver polished and people would be invited for dinner and then they’d flee the country and not even call to cancel. And you couldn’t find a decent ham anywhere.

But if my mother had it bad, my father had it much worse. His new dream job was turning into a nightmare. There was only one thing worse than being a rich Cuban, and that was being the resident American imperialist. His predecessor had quit because at rallies they kept burning him in effigy.

My attitude to all this was complicated. My first reaction was, How dare they? How dare they take what is rightfully ours? If it weren’t for the United States there wouldn’t be any Cuba. We had to stand up to these Communists. My patriotic fervor was aroused.

On the other hand, it was wildly exciting, and the worse it got the more exciting it got. As a 14-year-old, I was hoping for some sort of war.

My father’s bête noir was Fidel’s best friend and economic advisor, a young bearded guy named Ernesto Guevara, who went by the name “Che.” One night my father brought home a letter he’d gotten. It was from Che, and it was hectoring in tone. It announced that the government was hereby cutting the electricity rates by yet another 15 percent and then went on to make several gratuitous insults to capitalism, the United States, and the quality of Father’s electric service. We marveled at the self-assured eccentricity of it. It was signed VIVA LA REVOLUCION, with “Che” scrawled across the bottom.

OK, so Che wasn’t coming over for dinner. And neither was the Cuban aristocracy or what was left of the American business community. But a good hostess adapts. If people were leaving in droves, people were also arriving. State Department people, CIA people, reporters from The New York Times and Newsweek, famous journalists who were writing books. They all had to eat. And so, for three or four weeks during the early summer of 1960, my mother attained her dream. All Havana—or what was left of it—showed up in her dining room, eating her excellent food (swordfish almandine was her new signature dish) as invasions were discussed, counter-revolution was proposed, and all the latest rumors were dissected and analyzed, with her gorgeous new silver from Tane gleaming in the tropical candlelight. 

Then three things happened in quick succession. We were out by the pool one Sunday afternoon when there was a very loud explosion. We looked up to see a mushroom cloud rising over the city. It seemed that an ammunitions ship had exploded in Havana harbor. Fidel said the Americans did it. It seems more likely that an accident occurred. But there was something about a mushroom cloud that—back in those Cold War days, at least— made you stop and rethink things.

Then people started throwing rocks at the Lincoln. Not very often, but every once in a while there’d be a ping. In spite of all the anti-American rhetoric, we had never felt threatened or hated before. Now we didn’t know what to think. Leonardo the chauffeur was seen reading a book on Marx.

We were still debating what to do when the news spread through town that a family whose kids went to our school, the Prices, had been stopped at a red light in their fancy car and a mob had descended on them, rocked their car, ripped off the hood ornament and then dragged their two teenage sons out into the street and beaten them. Maybe it was time to develop a contingency plan.

We didn’t get very far with that before something far worse happened. The father of my classmate Gary Anderson was caught smuggling arms into the country on his yacht. Within hours he had been executed by a firing squad.

Now there was no time to waste. My parents had to face the awful fact that they had stayed too long already. There was no time for contingency plans. We had to get out and get out now, even if it meant leaving everything behind, including Shadow, the cat, and Percy, the white mouse.

My father pulled every string he had to get the family plane tickets to Miami. But everybody who had a string to pull had already pulled it. There were no seats for at least a week. Then a miracle—Mr. Stockdale, who ran Pan Am, managed to get him one seat on the 9 a.m. flight to Miami on Monday morning. Did we want it?

My father grabbed it, and a strategy started to form. That evening he and my mother sat me down for a little talk. They had come up with a plan. What if I used the ticket and took the silver with me? We could pack it in suitcases and I could take it to Miami. Once there, I would check into the hotel at the airport and just sit tight. The rest of the family would get out as soon as they could.

Of course we knew the laws about taking things out of Cuba. Everybody in Havana did. You were allowed one suitcase and $50 in U.S. money. No other currency, no valuables, nothing that plugged in. Just clothes and personal effects.

“But do they really check?” my mother argued. We all agreed they probably didn’t. Besides, they’d never suspect a boy. Particularly a boy like me.

I leapt at the chance. It sounded like fun—traveling by myself, staying in a hotel. And it would be the first time I would be doing something important, playing an adult role in the family.

The first thing we needed was suitcases. We went to the big department stores—El Encanto, Fin de Siglo, Sanchez Mola—but there wasn’t a suitcase to be had in all of Havana. Finally, in a store downtown we discovered three big cardboard suitcases, up on a shelf and covered with dust. We bought all three and rushed home.

The next day, Sunday, we spent packing. All the silver had to be wrapped in old clothes and towels. One by one my mother’s beautiful setting for 12 disappeared into its cardboard container. Next we packed my father’s family silver—Victorian-era candelabra that had to be taken apart piece by piece. Family legend said it had been buried during the Civil War to keep the Yankees from getting it. Now we didn’t doubt that story for a second. Also heading to Miami: my father’s antique map collection. He smashed the glass to get them out of the frames.

Early Monday morning I dressed in my tweed sports jacket, and we drove out to Rancho Boyeros, the airport that served Havana. We’d been there many times in the past several weeks, meeting people and seeing them off. The life of Havana seemed to be taking place at the airport these days. The place was always thronged, and the atmosphere was highly charged. Painful good-byes were being said. Groups of soldiers, in the trademark beards of the Revolution, stood around with guns.

I checked in. The Pan Am agent treated the three heavy suitcases as a perfectly normal occurrence, even though she nearly threw her shoulder out as she tried to get the first one off the scale. She had to get somebody to help her. Then she wrote us out a receipt for the excess baggage fee. Every passenger was allowed 30 kilos; my bags weighed 121 kilos—91 kilos of excess baggage. It looked like more.

We watched the giant suitcases, brand-new and unscuffed, disappear on the conveyor belt and heaved a sigh of relief.

Not taking any more chances, we said our hurried good-byes. My mother told me not to talk to strangers and to keep the hotel room locked at all times. Then I showed my passport to the immigration clerk and passed through several doors into a waiting room. One side looked out on the runway. On the other side, through a pane of glass, I could see my parents, standing with a cluster of people behind a barrier. We waved.

I can’t remember exactly when things started to go wrong, but by 9 o’clock, we were still sitting there. No announcements had been made. We just sat. My fellow passengers, mostly Cubans, seemed very somberly dressed and very quiet. Then one of the bearded, gun-toting soldiers came to the door. Everyone looked up, hoping that in the crazy new Cuba this was the way they announced flights. 

But the soldier didn’t announce the flight. He called out a name. A man shakily stood up, the blood draining from his face. He followed the soldier down the hall. They turned a corner and were gone.

The same thought went through everybody’s mind. They were examining the luggage.

The room became deathly silent as the passengers followed the same train of thought. Maybe they were just spot checking. Maybe they wouldn’t get to everybody’s. Maybe they’d just choose the most obvious ones…

I was furious at my parents. How dare they put me in a position like this? I looked at them. Their faces were impassive, but I could tell they were terrified. They had made a serious miscalculation, and now all bets were off. Anything could happen.

The soldier reappeared at the door. He called out another name; this time a middle-aged woman stood up. She followed him out, with dread in each step. Ten minutes passed. That’s when our worst fears were confirmed. These people were being taken away, but they weren’t being brought back

This went on for another hour. Two more people were summoned. There were long intervals in between. I had never thought my heart could pound so hard. I felt very sorry for myself. I couldn’t bear to look at my parents,
so I studied the ceiling tiles, and, like a wall-eyed pike, kept my attention riveted on the hallway that I knew would lead to prison.

Suddenly an announcement came over the loudspeaker. It said Pan Am Flight 903 to Miami was boarding at Gate One.

I’ve never seen a roomful of people move so fast. We jumped to our feet and ran for the gate. Outside on the runway there was a nasty surprise—no plane. As another wave of panic hit our little group, the agent pointed down the tarmac. There, rather far away, was a DC-7. We all broke into a trot, even the old ladies. It was after 11 a.m. before we finally took off, but nobody dared to exhale until the island of Cuba had disappeared behind us.

 

The rest of the family all managed to get out, even Percy, the white mouse, who died minutes after arriving in the United States in my brother’s pocket. He went into convulsions, bit Jack’s finger, and was unceremoniously buried in a wastebasket at the New Orleans airport. Shadow, the cat, was left behind with Wilhelmina, the cook. Neither was happy about the situation.

The revolution that we thought would fall any minute surprised everybody. It’s still there, 50 years later. When I went back to Havana in 1985 with my parents for a visit, the first place we wanted to see was our old house. It was still there, too, but had been turned into some sort of military installation. Giant communication towers dotted the lawn and what used to be the mango orchard. Armed guards stood at the gate, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to ask if we could go inside and take a peek.

As we drove around, I kept my eyes peeled for the Imperial. I’m sure it was still there— I’m sure it’s still there today—but somehow I missed it.

We ended up back in Mexico City, which became the family home. The silver was put to good use as my mother’s social career gained momentum. She made quite a success of herself and became, as Excelsior, the big Mexico City paper said, “una de las mujeres mas ‘chic’ de la ciudad.”

I have no idea what to do with the silver now. My parents have passed away, and my nieces don’t want it. They think it’s too big and heavy. I suppose I could sell it. It would be a great buy for someone whose last name begins with “P.”

But I know I never will. It’s the ultimate souvenir—of my mother, of the most exciting year of my life. And of the city where I grew up fast.

Senior editor Robert Plunket wrote My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie.