Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Superman of Havana

The mayor’s son drew on his cigarette, thought back sixty years, paused, and made a chopping motion on his lower thigh—fifteen inches, give or take, from his groin to just above his knee. “The women said, ‘He has a machete.’”

The mayor’s son is in his seventies now, but he was a teenager back then, during the years of Havana’s original sin. He thought back to his father as a young man, a lotto numbers runner who rose to the mayoralty of the gritty Barrio de Los Sitios, in Centro Habana. His dad loved mingling with the stars that flocked to the capital, and he sometimes took his boy to meet them: Brando, Nat King Cole, and that old borrachón Hemingway. The mayor’s son once got blind drunk with Benny Moré, the famous Cuban crooner who had a regular gig at the Guadalajara.

But more revered than all the rest was the man of many names. El Toro. La Reina. The Man With the Sleepy Eyes. Outside Cuba, from Miami to New York to Hollywood, he was known simply as Superman. The mayor’s son never met the legendary performer, but everybody knew about him. The local boys talked about his gift. They gossiped about the women, the sex. “Like when you’re coming of age, reading your dad’s Playboys. That’s what the kids talked about,” he said. “The idea that this man was around in the neighborhood, it was mind-boggling in a way.”

Superman was the main attraction at the notorious Teatro Shanghai, in Barrio Chino—Chinatown. According to local lore, the Shanghai featured live sex shows. “If you’re a decent guy from Omaha, showing his best girl the sights of Havana, and you make the mistake of entering the Shanghai, you’ll curse Garcia and will want to wring his neck for corrupting the morals of your sweet baby,” Suppressed, a tabloid magazine, wrote in its 1957 review of the club.

After the revolution, the Shanghai shuttered. Many of the performers fled the country. Superman disappeared, like a ghost. No one knew his real name. There were no known photos of him. A man who was once famous well beyond Cuba’s shores—who was later fictionalized in The Godfather Part II and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana—was largely forgotten, a footnote in a sordid history.

In the difficult years that followed, people didn’t talk about those times, as if they never happened at all. “You didn’t want to make problems with the government,” the mayor’s son said. “People were afraid. People didn’t want to look back. Afterward, it was an entirely new story. It was like everything didn’t exist before. It was like Year Zero.”

And into that void, the story of Superman disappeared.

by Mitch Moxley, Roads and Kingdoms |  Read more:
Image: Michael Magers