Like most of the grand houses in Country Club Park the residence had (almost) no air conditioning in the early fifties when we lived there. Its thick walls of Jaimanita stone and deep porches kept it well protected from the tropical sun, and its great tall windows and doors allowed the breezes through when opened. At some time air conditioning had been added to some of the larger upstairs rooms. My mother turned hers on from time to time and put on a sweater but it looked a little silly.
My sister, Noël, and I would catch little drifts of music at night through our open bedroom windows from an area with lively nightlife a mile or two away that would have been fun to visit. But young daughters of diplomats didn’t. Some nights I’d curl up on a couch in the first floor library (my favorite room with shelves and shelves of books) and nudge the needle back and forth across the dial of our Grundig radio catching bits of news or music from Miami. We’d not been able to tune in to US stations from Paraguay or Colombia where we’d lived before, and now in Havana, it was a happy treat when a station came through for long enough to play an entire song. I fell in love with the voice of Nat King Cole.
A wide hallway with cork flooring ran the length of the upstairs. It muffled the sound of our footsteps when we wore shoes and felt lovely — almost cozy–under our bare feet. At one end of the hallway, near my mother’s room, was an elevator and at the other end was a suite that we called “the presidential suite.” The story told was that the elevator was included when the residence was constructed in 1941 with the expectation that President Roosevelt would be visiting from time to time. And the presidential suite had been tailored to accommodate his wheelchair. President Roosevelt died four years after the residence was completed and never did visit there, but our house guests enjoyed hearing that they were staying in his suite. Unhappily for my mother, my sister and I used to tease her by forcing open the outer doors of the president’s elevator trapping her between floors. She bore it well.
Havana is in the tropics and there were a good number of bugs inside the house and outside. I visited the principal kitchen only twice. By day it was a lovely, busy space with Chef Sylvester reigning over his space in a marvelous hat that had to be a foot tall, while his second in command, Luís, in a less imposing hat, attended to beautiful vegetables laid out on large tables. A couple others who might have been staff or grocers looked quite pleased to be doing whatever it was they were doing, and curious to know why we were there. The second time I visited the kitchen was at night. Dark shiny creatures scurried across the floor when we turned on the lights, and disappeared into cracks and small spaces. The huge refrigerators were secured with padlocks so that enjoying a bit of ice cream or leftover soufflé at bedtime was an impossible dream.
Across the hallway from our bedroom (I shared a bedroom with Noël) was a wide open room, and broad balcony overlooking the simplest and prettiest part of the garden. This room was where we ate our breakfast. Our orange juice most often arrived from the kitchen with a barely visible number of minuscule ants trailing up the side of the glass and a few floating inside. It was nearly impossible to scoop them out. They were so, so very small that we simply drank our juice, tiny floating beings and all. Sometimes at night, my sister and I would turn on the lights in the pool and go swimming. We’d run on tiptoes down the path from the house trying to avoid the creatures that gathered on the warm surface after sundown. Occasionally a scorpion, but always tarantulas would fall into the pool at night, and they’d end up trapped in the gutter that ran around the edge of the pool. We’d grab onto the gutter after swimming across the pool or swimming underwater, but never were bitten.
At the rear of the property, behind a wall of tall hedge, was a good-sized kitchen garden where there was always something one could pick from a tree or bush or pull from the ground to nibble on, even if it was just a green onion. Our avocado trees were too beautiful to conceal behind a hedge and were planted in the landscaped portion of the garden. At Christmas the household servants would dig a pit in a corner of the kitchen garden and take most of a day to roast an entire pig there. Our family didn’t join in the pig roast but my parents engaged in gift-giving for the household and their children each year, at a gathering inside, around our Christmas tree.
Country Club Park was at a higher elevation than its surrounding neighborhoods. On Sunday mornings the family attended mass in a small church at the bottom of the hill, and we’d ride down in our family-owned non-limousine with my father at the wheel. He was a terrible driver and my mother would come close to hysterics as he hurtled toward a tiny, single-lane bridge near the bottom of the hill. He’d still be chuckling as he parked our ‘52 Buick Dynaflow and got out. Inside, on summery mornings, the church felt quite pleasant as everyone settled into their pews. Then the air would get warmer while the church got fuller, the men’s guayaberas would wilt damply, and the señoras would fan themselves vigorously. The sound of the fans striking their bosoms was quite wonderful.
My siblings and I attended Ruston Academy, a school that offered a choice of programs in English or Spanish, geared to those students who would be attending college in the US and those who would attend university in Cuba. The English classes were housed in a wonderful, slightly worn colonial building with two somewhat weathered courtyards and a long, open porch along one side of the building where we sat at long tables for lunch and study hall periods. School dances took place in the larger courtyard, and chairs were set up along the perimeter for the Cuban chaperones who sat fanning themselves all evening while watching us dance with an eagle eye. The smaller courtyard had a fountain and a coin-operated coke machine. My sister and I had seen our first coin-operated coke machine on a dock in New York city when we’d arrived there by ship three years earlier, when a very ugly revolution had broken out in Colombia, and I was delighted that we had a machine just like it at school. I loved those ice-cold cokes in their thick glass bottles. (Yes, I’m that old.)
One morning during out first year in Havana, we learned at breakfast that Radio Reloj (a radio station that seemed always to be broadcasting the latest news and time of day somewhere in the back rooms of the residence) had reported that a revolution had occurred just before dawn. Cuba’s new president, Fulgencio Batista, had seized power without anyone firing a shot. Batista was already a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, but he was expected to lose. He chose not to wait for the people’s vote. Rumour had it that Batista woke the highest fellow in the military holding a gun to his head and demanded “Who is your generalísimo?” and the frightened fellow, still in pajamas, replied, “You are, my general.” And so the matter was settled. The newly ex-president, Carlos Prío Socarrás, was escorted to Miami a few days later. I don’t know if that’s exactly the way Batista pulled it off, but as revolutions go, it was a pretty boring coup. Rubén “Papo” Batista, son of the new president, didn’t learn that his father was president (second or third time around, depending on how you count Batista’s terms in power) until he heard it at Ruston later that morning.
In 1960, a year after Castro’s revolution, Dr. James Baker, headmaster of Ruston Academy in Havana, joined with Monsignor Bryan Walsh in Miami in hatching “Operation Peter Pan,” a secret plan that assisted over 14,000 unaccompanied children to flee Cuba. Castro’s revolutionary government had announced that the state would take legal control of children over the age of three for purposes of education and indoctrination and many parents who couldn’t leave Cuba, themselves, were frantic to get their children off the island. Dr. Baker delivered special visas and sometimes forged documents to families and helped them ship their children to Miami. Most of the Pedro Pan children were eventually reunited with their parents in the United States, but some parents never were able to leave Cuba. The Operation Pedro Pan Group maintains a database and network where Peter Pan adults are able to stay in touch and leave messages to others in their group or with family members. There is a description of Operation Peter Pan at Pedro_Pan_1960
I was happy to have a brief correspondence with Jim Baker in his later years. Although the Castro government had closed his beloved school in 1961, he wrote to me in 1999, that he was still planning for “a new Ruston Academy in the post-Castro era that will build a new, more democratic Cuba.” Jim was 92 years old at the time. His son, Chris, created a website for our Ruston Academy family, many of whom have kept in touch with each other, and a Ruston reunion, here in the US, is still held every few years.
Although Batista’s revolution of 1952 was less than exciting in my 13-year-old opinion, and although my sister and I were forbidden to attend Havana’s famous casinos and night clubs, a few experiences stand out in my memory, not as being extraordinary, but as interesting to me at the time: The first was the opening of a Five and Dime store downtown. It had the first escalator in the country, and crowds of enthusiastic people lined up on the first few days to ride on that marvelous moving stairway. People laughed and chatted their way up and down the stairway and I don’t think anyone rode it only once. We also attended a performance of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus when it traveled to Cuba, and I was thrilled to be offered a morsel of bread by Emmett Kelly, a sad-faced clown that my mother had told me was the very best and most original clown in the world with his tragic face and gloomy behavior. I was so taken with his lovely gloominess that I don’t remember any of the acts. And we rode the roller coaster on opening day of an amusement park that was reportedly financed by Lucky Luciano (it was no secret that US gangsters financed most of the hotels, clubs, and other entertainment in Havana, including the just opened amusement park). I hadn’t ever ridden a roller coaster before, and I was terrified when it began its ascent a second time without allowing its passengers to get off. I was terrified that Mr. Luciano had been careless about the safety of the rides, that the contraption was defective, and that I was going to be killed by a gangster who didn’t care who lived or died.
Taking my first sip of banana liqueur in the courtyard of a centuries-old convent, buying coco glacé (coconut ice cream in a coconut shell) on the Malecón, ordering stuffed avocado upstairs at the American Club in Havana’s historic section, and eating more than my share of Moro crab claws at cocktail parties at home are my happiest food memories. My nose memories are the smell of leather and alligator hides at the leather shop, the smell of chocolate at the H. Upmann cigar factory where women sat wrapping the very best, supple tobacco leaves around rolls of filler tobacco, and the tiny bottles of French fragrances that my mother bought at the Perfume Factory where sales were transacted in the open under a heavy thatched roof held up, so it seemed, by the tallest, most beautiful Royal Palms I’d ever seen.
A comment on the US Embassy office building downtown. We visited the embassy a number of times when it was being constructed. Each time my father would shake his head and mutter “Dear, dear. Dear, dear.” At least half of the outside surface was glass, and when finished would be the most modern building in Havana. The building was nicely situated near the Malecón, Havana’s beautiful oceanfront walk. There was a single small balcony, protected by bullet-proof glass, jutting out from my father’s office on the fifth floor. Except for my father’s exit onto his balcony and the entrances on the first floor, the building was enclosed by windows that were sealed shut, and the sun shone through those windows all day. Once the offices were occupied, the air conditioning wasn’t able to keep up with all that tropical sunshine. The building had to be evacuated whenever indoor temperatures became unbearable. The situation would prompt my father to mutter, “Those damned New York architects. Did they even visit Cuba?”
You asked about my father’s work. I imagine my father’s efforts in Cuba were largely directed at working with whomever was president or dictator to maintain a political climate that was stable and favorable to the operation of US owned businesses, and to trade, and to travel between the two countries. US investments and profits in Cuba were important to both, involving sugar production, manufacturing, transportation, communications, hotels, and entertainment. The only conversation I ever had with my father about Cuba’s politics and his role there, was my naive complaint that our government recognized Batista’s government too quickly after his illegitimate ascent to power. Of course my father was simply following instructions to protect US interests, and the decision to recognize Batista’s coup would not have been his to make, anyway.
My father used to say that both parties should come away from a negotiation feeling that they have achieved some measure of success. I include a link to my father’s record of a conversation with President Prío Socarás a few months after we arrived in Havana. It might give you an idea of how he worked. Amb. Beaulac – Pres. Prío Socarás
I’ve enjoyed your accounts of working for the state department repairing and restoring sculptures and other artwork around the world. What an interesting time you’ve had! If you do return to Havana and stay at the residence, I hope you’ll take some photos to share, and give my eagle a hug from an old friend.
My name is Joan Beaulac Zachor, and my sister to whom I refer is Noël Beaulac Peters. I wrote this recollection for her as well as for you. (I have another sister and a brother who are much younger and have their own memories of countries where my father served later on).
April 1, 2019
Dear Ms. Zachor,
I finally updated my story of the Havana eagle with all your wonderful recollections. Just want to thank you again for so generously sharing these wonderful memories. I too was struck by the tarantulas and lucky for us both, only visually!
So should any more memories arise or if you come across any photos, please please once again consider sharing them with me!
All the best,
April 3, 2019
Dear Mr. Hannum,
I’ve enjoyed corresponding with you. I hope you get back to Havana and have a lovely stay at the embassy residence. If, when you step out of the elevator, on the second floor you turn left and walk midway down the hall, the room on the left was my bedroom. If you continue to the end of the formal section of the hallway and then left again into your rooms,
you’ll be in what we called the presidential suite. I hope you have a lovely time there. Before you leave, please give my eagle a loving pat on one of his broad wings, and whisper to him that I remember him well, and the happy hours that I spent reading in our leafy nook.
I hope you continue with your interesting work for many more years.