|Dec 23 2015
Today in 1952 protestors comprising members of the 17th District American Legion Un-American Activities Committee demonstrate outside the Fox Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles against director John Huston and actor José Ferrer, whose new film Moulin Rouge was premiering that night. Why was the American Legion pissed? Basically because in 1947 Huston helped form the Committee for the First Amendment to protest the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings (HUAC), and because Ferrer was a liberal. The anti-communist hysteria was in full swing at this point, and more than five-hundred names had been added to anti-communist blacklists.
Today there are numerous HUAC apologists, and their arguments boil down to nothing more than: “But there were communists in Hollywood!” Certainly that was true, but U.S. government incompetence and opportunism destroyed many more innocent people than communist spies were ever caught. A moral effort in crime fighting never hurts more innocent people than criminals. When it does, history laterlabels such periods tyranny. HUAC has been labeled exactly thus, an assessment that is extremely unlikely to change. And of course, it’s worth pointing out that being a communist was not equivalent to being a spy, nor was it a criminal offense. At least not yet—two years later President Dwight D. Eisenhower made communism illegal in the U.S. with the Communist Control Act.
|Sep 19 2011
On September 18, 1960 Fidel Castro and his delegation arrived in New York City and, after sleeping at the Shelburne Hotel for one night, were asked for a $10,000 deposit for their twenty rooms after allegedly causing extensive damage. The Cubans either didn’t have it or were insulted by the demand (reports vary), and Castro pointedly expressed his annoyance at a press conference, which is where the above photo was shot fifty-one years ago today.
Castro said that if the situation wasn't resolved he and his delegation would sleep in Central Park. They were poor mountain people, he reminded everyone, and spending a few days outdoors wouldn't be a big deal. But Harlem’s stately Hotel Theresa intervened with an offer of lodging and Castro moved uptown, where he was greeted by cheering crowds of Harlem residents. Some cheered because they supported Castro, or because they saw the move as a rebuke against Manhattan’s white establishment, or both.
During his stay at the Theresa, Castro received visits from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and activist Malcolm X. The event prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to call the Cubans “troublemakers.” The photo caption, you’ll notice, opts for a simpler narrative, and says only that Castro was dissatisfied with his room at the Shelburne.
|Oct 5 2010
Yes, neo-Nazis can have a laugh too, as George Lincoln Rockwell seems to prove on the cover of this October 1961 National Police Gazette. Rockwell was the founder of the World Union of Free Enterprise National Socialists, which became the American Nazi Party, which then became the National Socialist White People’s Party. Rockwell admired Adolf Hitler to the point of worship, thought the Holocaust was a lie, believed the U.S. was heading toward a race war, and agitated for the hangings of ex-presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Espousing these beliefs, he raised hell on the U.S. political circuit for about fifteen years, until he was assassinated by fellow neo-Nazi John Patler in August 1967. Patler, née Yanacki Christos Patsalos, was feuding with his colleagues because, instead of just using Hitler’s old trick of falsely calling himself socialist, he had actually begun reading Karl Marx and had developed actual socialist leanings that were of course abhorrent to the neo-Nazi leadership. This friction eventually led to Patler’s expulsion from the party. So in retaliation, he put two bullets through Rockwell from the rooftop of a beauty salon. But that came later—on this Gazette cover, Rockwell was on his way up, using a veneer of charm to soften his message. But as Smoky Robinson once memorably sang: “If there’s a smile on my face, it’s only there trying to fool the public…”
|Jan 1 2009
Fifty years ago on this day, U.S.-installed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba, acknowledging defeat by socialist forces aligned with Fidel Castro. At the time Cuba was controlled by U.S. business interests and organized crime figures, with 75% of its land in foreign hands, and the capital of Havana serving as an international vice playground. It was known as the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean, and establishments like the Tropicana, San Souci, and Shanghai Theatre were famous for casinos, prostitutes, and totally nude cabaret shows. The El Dorado had an all female orchestra. Mobster Meyer Lansky was royalty. Luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Edith Piaf were regular headliners. Havana was simply the place to be.
Less than an hour from Florida by air, New York businessmen who’d told their wives they were at a Miami conference could be enjoying a Cuban whore by lunchtime, and be back in Dade County in time for bed and a phone call from the missus. Alternatively, they could stay all night, or for days at a time, and lose themselves in daiquiris, dancing girls, and the lure of forbidden Barrio Colón. It was paradise—at least if you were a foreigner or one of the wealthy Cubans in partnership with them. For thepoor Havana was pure hell. The billions in revenue earned by casinos and hotels trickled not down, but out—into foreign bank accounts. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and crime were rampant. When Castro ran Batista off the island the party cautiously continued, because his political intentions were not immediately clear. Everyone knew the old system would change; nobody knew exactly how much. But for a brief, post-revolutionary moment Cuba remained open to foreigners, and so the expatriate carnival went on—albeit under a cloud.
But the lines had already been drawn in the greatest ideological battle of modern times. U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower was using the CIA to train Cuban exiles for an invasion to oust the socialists, and Castro was planning to nationalize a corrupt capitalist economy that had excluded those who were too poor, too black, or too lacking in influence to get a seat at the big table. When Castro made nationalization official, the U.S. struck with an embargo, and followed up five months later with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Since then the ideological battle lines have occasionally shifted, but Cuba remains the prize jewel of the war.
As historical events go, the Cuban Revolution, as well as its prelude and aftermath, have been invaluable to genre fiction, providing rich material for authors such as Graham Greene, James Ellroy and a literary who’s-who of others. It has been the subject of countless revisionist potboilers. Stephen Hunter’s Havana is perhaps the best of these novels, at least by an American writer. In that one Fidel’s fate is in the hands of a goodhearted redneck from Arkansas. Sent by the CIA, the heroic marksman is more than a match for the hapless Cubans, but does he really want to kill Castro?
Daniel Chevarría went Hunter one better and wrote several novels set in Cuba, including Tango for a Torturer and the award winner Adios Muchachos. Movies ranging from Errol Flynn’s piece-of-fluff Cuban Rebel Girls, to Wim Wenders’ inspiring Buena Vista Social Club, to Benicio del Toro’s heavyweight Ché have also used the island as a backdrop. Doubtless Cuba will provide material for as long as authors write and directors yell action, as its history continues to inspire, and its future continues to be in flux.