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The Havana Habit

The Havana Habit

Gustavo Pérez Firmat
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    The Havana Habit
    Book Description:

    Cuba, an island 750 miles long, with a population of about 11 million, lies less than 100 miles off the U.S. coast. Yet the island's influences on America's cultural imagination are extensive and deeply ingrained.

    In the engaging and wide-rangingHavana Habit,writer and scholar Gustavo Pérez Firmat probes the importance of Havana, and of greater Cuba, in the cultural history of the United States. Through books, advertisements, travel guides, films, and music, he demonstrates the influence of the island on almost two centuries of American life. From John Quincy Adams's comparison of Cuba to an apple ready to drop into America's lap, to the latest episodes in the lives of the "comiccomandantesand exotic exiles," and to such notable Cuban exports as the rumba and the mambo, cigars and mojitos, the Cuba that emerges from these pages is a locale that Cubans and Americans have jointly imagined and inhabited.The Havana Habitdeftly illustrates what makes Cuba, as Pérez Firmat writes, "so near and yet so foreign."

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16876-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction SO NEAR AND YET SO FOREIGN
    (pp. 1-22)

    InYou’ll Never Get Rich(1941), the first of two musicals in which Fred Astaire teamed up with Rita Hayworth, Fred plays a Broadway dance director who agrees to put on a show at the army base where he is stationed. During the rehearsal, he instructs the stagehands: “I want a tree right here”—and a fake palm tree appears; “Bring me a house”—and a Spanish-style facade slides onto the stage; “Boys, now I want an ocean”—and the boys bring in the backdrop: a large image of the entrance to Havana harbor as viewed from the seaside avenue...

  5. ONE America’s Smartest City
    (pp. 23-52)

    Although it may not be so any longer, for most of the last two centuries the Morro Castle was the most recognizable item of Latinamericana in the United States. Never mind that it was sometimes mistakenly called the Morrow Castle, perhaps because of the island’s reputation fordolce far niente, or the Moro Castle, probably because of the Moorish influence on Havana’s architecture. Cuba was Havana and Havana was El Morro. Its visage on countless postcards, the castle’s beacon, towering above the narrow entrance to the harbor, instantly identified the location as Havana, the gayest city in the world. That...

  6. TWO A Little Rumba Numba
    (pp. 53-72)

    In the 1940s, a song like Arnaz’s “Ah-bah-nah, Coo-bah” was sometimes called a “latune,” that is, a tune with a Latin beat but an English-language lyric. Although latunes drew on a variety of Latin American genres, Cuban rhythms prevailed, particularly the rumba (or rhumba), an elastic term that included up-temposonesas well as languid boleros, and bore only a distant relation to the Afro-Cubanrumba. Cole Porter, who regarded himself as a “self-adopted Latin,” wrote many rumbas, among them some of his classics: “In the Still of the Night,” “Night and Day,” “I’ve Got You under My Skin,” and...

  7. THREE Music for the Eyes
    (pp. 73-101)

    The earliest images of Cuba in American film are grainy clips taken during the Spanish-American War. In the years that followed, during the silent era, the war continued to dominate in such films asA Message to García(1916),Shame(1917), andThe Rough Riders(1927). One of the most popular,The Bright Shawl(1923), based on a novel by Joseph Hergesheimer, uses the Cuban struggle for independence as background for a love story about a wealthy young American who falls for a Spanish dancer. It was not until the advent of talkies, and particularly of musicals, that the image...

  8. FOUR Mad for Mambo
    (pp. 102-119)

    Of all the Latin dances that, at one time or another, have migrated to the United States—the tango, the rumba, the conga, the samba, the cha-cha, the merengue—none did so more boisterously than the mambo. The rumba may have been a rage, but the mambo was madness—mambomania, the condition afflicting the thousands of Americans carried away by “that crazy out-of-this-world impossible-to-absorb mambo,” in the words of Jack Kerouac.¹

    Originating in Afro-Cuban religious rituals, where the word referred to the communication between the living and the dead, by the 1930s the mambo had become attached to the final,...

  9. FIVE Cuba in Apt. 3-B
    (pp. 120-138)

    A few months before his death in 1986, Desi Arnaz remarked that he wanted to be remembered as the “I” inI Love Lucy—a wish that was both self-affirming and self-effacing, for it is not so easy to determine who is the “I” inI Love Lucy. Since the show exploited the resemblances between the fictional lives of the characters (Lucy and Ricky Ricardo) and the real life of the actors (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), the “I” refers to Ricky as well as to Desi. In addition, from the beginning of the show’s phenomenal run, the “I” was...

  10. SIX Dirges in Bolero Time
    (pp. 139-157)

    “You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana”—so begins Ernest Hemingway’sTo Have and Have Not(1937), relying on that back-of-the-mind familiarity that Americans had with Cuba. Except that Hemingway’s Havana is not the city where, as the sun rises behind the Morro, the cries of peanut vendors fill the air and American tourists tumble from cruise ships. On that morning in Havana, three young men will be shot dead as they walk out of a café, gunned down by a rival political faction, or perhaps by the government’s own henchmen.

    Rather than the safe...

  11. SEVEN Comic Comandantes, Exotic Exiles
    (pp. 158-181)

    Americans went to Cuba first as travelers, then as soldiers, then as tourists. And then, fifty years ago, they stopped going. Fulgencio Batista had been a friendly dictator; Fidel Castro turned out to be a most unfriendly one. In April 1961, a year after the last broadcast of theLucy-Desi Comedy Hour; the failed Bay of Pigs invasion damaged beyond repair the shaky relations between the United States and the regime that had come to power two years earlier. A few months after the invasion, the Kennedy administration imposed an embargo on Cuban goods and restrictions on travel to the...

  12. EIGHT A Taste of Cuba
    (pp. 182-202)

    The brief British occupation of Cuba in 1762 had one lasting consequence: the introduction of Havanas—and not just Havana—to the British colonies that some years later would become the United States. The man responsible was Israel Putnam (“Old Put” to his friends), a Massachusetts-born officer in the British army, and subsequently an American general in the Revolutionary War, who returned from Cuba with three donkey-loads’ worth of cigars and a trunk filled with tobacco seeds. Putnam’s booty did not take long to find favor with fellow colonists. Within a few years cigars began to rival pipes as the...

  13. Epilogue ADAMS’S APPLE
    (pp. 203-214)

    On April 28, 1823, John Quincy Adams, the secretary of state in the administration of James Monroe, wrote to the American ambassador in Spain:

    There are laws of political as well as physical gravitation; and if an apple severed by the tempest from its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom.¹

    At the time, Spain was in the midst of a civil...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 215-226)
  15. Index
    (pp. 227-245)