BY KATHY PERUTZ
1959. Spring in New York. Still early, not yet the blooming gardens of English squares and perfumes of French parks, but the bird was on the wing from Brooklyn to the Bronx and in upper Manhattan on April 22, the students were waiting. We from Barnard had crossed the mighty river of Broadway onto the campus proper of Columbia (of which we were the female part) and were standing on the steps outside Low Library waiting. We’d heard a lot, read a lot about the guerilla fighters with bushy beards who’d toppled the dragon Batista and were taking control of their own island in the name of the people. A rousing call to revolution for 19-year olds like me, hoping to be part of something that would sweep away inequality and bring liberty and justice for all.
A great cheer went up. He was here, entering the campus from the Broadway gate, walking east across 116th Street towards Amsterdam. In rugged gear, cap on head, booted and bearded he came striding past us, waving. Fidel! Stirring our hopes and libidos, swelling our chests. The man of the hour (with Ché Guevara, even more handsome according to the pictures, more rugged, and a quasi-intellectual besides, a wide and deep reader who was familiar with Faulkner and Kipling, Marx and Gide, Neruda and Sartre.) What more could a college girl dipped in ivy want? We were in love, we fell for them in every way.
So did the New York Times. So did most everyone I knew, though Ike was not impressed. But then again, we were the girls who as freshmen had canvassed for Stevenson against Ike in the 1956 election even though we were too young to vote (21 was then the legal voting age, and we were not yet 18), and in Nancy Sternheimer’s room she’d put up a banner saying: I’d lay for Adlai.
April, 1961 was warm and lush in southern Spain in the village of Torremolinos near Malaga where drunken second sons of England’s finest families stayed up all night gambling and making intermittent passes at the young women who came by, among them Iris Owens, an American writer who published under the name of Harriet Daimler with Olympia Press in Paris, an English-language publisher of non-traditional books (William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) and novels heavily invested in sex. Iris was the first female pornographer I’d ever met, and certainly the only one who made her living (or some part of it) by her pen. The pale Brits and their Yank companions, along with a few scattered self-exiles from other lands usually rose at dusk and headed for the bars, where the latest drink was a Fidelista, formerly known as a Cuba Libre, or rum coke.
I was there with my mother, who had picked me up in London, where I was then living, to take me off to a warmer and more congenial spot for conversation. Her mission was to convince me to return home to New York in light of the Bay of Pigs invasion (the CIA had attempted a military invasion of Cuba, which was put down in 3 days by Fidel Castro’s troops) and, since the Soviets had Cuba’s back, the threat of war, possibly nuclear war which hung across America like disused curtains, constantly rustling. She came as an emissary from my father, who wanted the family united at such a time. I could understand; he and my mother had fled Austria as Hitler’s troops entered the Alps during the Anschluss of 1938, annexing Austria into the German Reich. The unthinkable had happened then, and it could be happening now.
But I was adamant. I was firmly set on the path of my own life, I’d had a novel accepted for publication by one of Britain’s most prestigious publishers (and by an new American publishing house as well) and I needed the break from the person I’d been up to graduation. It was only a few months since I’d left home and fewer than that since my Christmas visit, and to return now would be to lead an interrupted life, possibly forever. Besides, I reasoned, if it was going to be a nuclear war, we’d all be incinerated within minutes and what would be the use of a family reunion then? My mother naturally didn’t think much of the argument, but I had a Welsh film director in London who was driving me crazy by refusing to go to bed with me. He wanted us to wait (he knew me well without knowing me) though when I returned from Spain, he’d promised, I could have my way with him.
So in the end I stayed in Europe, flying from Madrid back to London and into the arms of my brilliant strategist. We made love, not war, and the sixties unfolded, England swings and the Beatles ruled, and I flew back home for the March on Washington, 1963, where Martin Luther King spoke about his dream.
Fidel Castro, too, had a dream, and it caught fire all over the world. How could it not? It’s always the same dream: “. . .that all men are created equal;” “liberté, égalité, fraternité;” “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” or the Marxist dream of fairness, “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.” “Venceremos!”
What happened afterwards in Cuba is not one story but many, an accordion of stories, glorious and calamitous, leading to the major paradox of most revolutions: that they become established, and the leader becomes a cult. It happens on the right and on the left. Stalin, Lenin, Hitler. I had been in Franco’s Spain when I was 18 and at a gathering with my parents a young officer invited me to have dinner with him the following night. He was one of Franco’s men, a Falangist, (I didn’t know) and though I had not rejected his offer, my father did with great vigor. My closest brush with dictatorship, though when I was much younger we’d been in Buenos Aires, in Juan Perón’s Argentina, from which I remember very little: that they had a Pink House instead of the White House and he had a wife, Eva, called Evita by the people, who adored her. I also remember hearing that whenever the workers were dissatisfied, Perón declared another national holiday, on which they wouldn’t have to go to work. He remained quite popular.
November in New York, 2016. The darkest November I’ve known. The will of the people has been recognized and the leader chosen. A less committed one, a less informed one, a less admirable man could not be imagined. The other dictators rode in on dreams – often vicious, mad dreams – and plans. What we have now is Mr. Tabula Rasa, President-elect, a figure on whom anyone can project whatever they imagine him to be. He has no policies, no agenda, no logic, no heart and no convictions beyond his absolute confidence that he is the Sun God, anointed by himself to be forever the love-object of his people. He is us, our chosen one, the image of ourselves. Narcissus looked upon the surface of a lake and fell in love with the image he saw. Our Narcissist-in-Chief is our mirror and what we see is darkness, rage, a sense of entitlement and of injustice (the motivator of so many revolutions) but this time we’ve chosen a blind man who sees nothing beyond himself. A man who when he looks at a map of the world sees only his own face. The world is himself, as it was for Lucifer, flung down from heaven to reign far below as Satan: Whither I fly is Hell; Myself am Hell. (John Milton, Paradise Lost.) If only our president-elect had as much self-awareness!
The winter of our discontent is now fairly established. Personality has won out over issues, values, morals, honesty, history and people. I do not know how to deal with this, but intend to keep my head firmly ensconced in bubble wrap, avoid newspapers and TV and try to think of other things. Spring, for instance, when the earth will inexorably bring forth new blossoms, new births, and when young girls will again think of nothing but how handsome a man can be, or how to change the world. Farewell, Fidel, and hiya Donald.