The Date: December 1985
The Place: A very cool watering hole in Havana, Cuba called the Floridita.
The occasion: The seventh annual Latin American Film Festival.
Background: I am on assignment for two American publications covering the film fest. American screen star Jack Lemmon, and singer, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte are being honored.
The Floridita is an old-school saloon where artists, writers and other luminaries came before the Cuban Revolution to imbibe the establishment’s cocktail of the same name. That day “Gabo,” as everyone called him, is the definition of cool. He looks like a cross between Anthony Quinn and Jean Paul Belmondo, fit, strong, proudly middle aged. He speaks pretty good English in what appears to me as his unofficial role as minister of charisma for the festival—meeting, greeting, charming all kinds of folks. In the bar, accompanied by an interpreter, he is speaking intently with Lemmon (a super guy), who had vouched for me to join the group when Gabo’s cars and drivers came by our hotel to take us to the bar.
They talk about movies and literature. I had recently read a Chronicle of a Death Foretold and chirp in a couple times with questions about the book (an unusually constructed, almost- journalistic-but-not tale of a small town murder). He speaks as you would expect a master writer to speak: precise and decisive—and mostly cheery. His hands and fingers punctuate and guide you through his discourse, moving right and left, up and down (much like his friend Fidel Castro whom I observe from a distance the next night, also chatting energetically with the American honorees). Gabo and Lemmon get into the politics of the times (Reagan years). I am surprised and impressed that neither man directly trashes the USA (gallant restraint) but agree that the North American impact on Latin America had been harsh (Lemmon was being honored at the festival for his lead role in the film Missing about the US backed military coup in Chile in 1973).
At one point Gabo looks at me, in my perch in the peanut gallery a table away, and asks what else I am reading besides “lesser known Colombian writers.” Everyone laughs (he had won his Nobel just a few years earlier). I tell him Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City and Ransom. He nods seeming to know the still emerging New York City-based novelist.
Then, looking at our group, he says that here in Havana, as everywhere, they cherish Ernest Hemingway (who owned a home in Cuba in the '40s and '50s). Then he points to a barstool with a special velvet cordon around it. “No one sits there," he said. “No one will. Papa was the last one. It is still his stool.” (Now apparently there is a full-sized bronze statue of Hemingway in the spot; don’t know about the stool.)
The memory of that simple homage, one titan story teller to another, in that place, at that time, at that still tender period in my life as a journalist and fledgling devotee of the literary arts, still sends sensations up my spine. I’m not sure we will see another like Gabo, able to intertwine into a single tapestry, the same finely crafted narratives of family, friends, lovers and foes, glimpsed through his inimitable veil of fantasy, dream and hard reality.
He sleeps with Hemingway and the other greats now.
And I will remember my brush with him in Havana.