Legends of Old Havana
Even though time has blurred her existence in the mist of legend, the story of the Lady of the Cafe Paris still sparks the interest of those who have been lucky enough to hear stories about her special and short-lived time spent at a cafe in Old Havana. This chronicle in inspired by these memories, half legend and half fiction, which, nonetheless, resonates with Cuban reality today.
By Richard Potts
HAVANA TIMES – Nearly every capital in the world has a Cafe Paris, maybe in memory of or imitating these kinds of establishments in the French capital, where most of Europe’s history has been written, witnessing the birth of great artistic works and movements.
Word has it that if you haven’t sat in a “Cafe Paris”, to talk, read or try and fix the world, sitting at one of these marble tables with thick glass cups, or just watching people pass by from the cafe’s terrace in the city, then you haven’t really lived like one of the locals.
Well, there was (and still is) a Cafe Paris in Havana too, on the corner of O’Reilly and Compostela Streets, which an exclusive group of young dandies, musicians and intellectuals would regularly go to, including some of the writers and poets who have left their mark on Cuban literature.
It was an almost exclusively male environment, back in the early 20th century, in the Havana which had just gained its independence, where women didn’t normally go to cafes, unless they were accompanied by their male partner. And, their male partners weren’t very inclined to take their better half to Cafe Paris because that’s where they discussed a range of subjects, from politics to their romantic encounters.
Maybe that’s why, when a beautiful, 30-something year old woman who was elegantly dressed, appeared one afternoon at the Cafe Paris and sat down alone at a table, she sparked the interest of the male public there. Predictions and hypotheses about her presence immediately came pouring in.
Some said that she had arranged to meet a man there, who was probably married; others said that she was trying to trap her husband to see if he came with another woman… but time passed by and neither her date, or the adulterous husband appeared. And, the air continued to be stirred up with excitement, while those present caressed the strange woman’s beautiful figure with their avaricious gaze.
In the end, a bolder or daring man went up to her table and addressed the woman. She answered him with a beautiful but ice-cold smile and the ladies’ man withdrew, dazed. When night fell, the woman paid for her drinks and left, followed by the men’s avaricious gaze.
Well, just imagine their surprise when the same scene played out again the following day, and again every two or three days, without anyone being able to figure out the identity or the intentions of this mysterious lady, who resisted all of their gallantry with a cold smile.
Finally, one of them who was a fan of gambling, thought of asking the barman for an empty jar and put a gold coin in (this was quite a common practice back in this era) for whoever could “pick up” the woman.
Then, other regular customers decided to contribute to the jar, and that’s how it began to fill in just a few days, until there was a quite a respectable sum for back then. Yet, nobody was able to win the prize… and the woman kept going to the cafe, sometimes just once a week, and she never spoke a word to anyone.
About a month later, the “Englishman” came onto the scene. Nobody knew his name, but they called him this because he was a gentleman dressed like a real “London” dandy, who looked like an athlete but had the mannerisms of an English lord, who would often pass by the cafe every time he came back from one of his many trips.
As soon as he arrived and saw the woman, he was filled in on the story and the wager. The Englishman smiled enigmatically, but he didn’t approach her that afternoon. However, he returned days later with a book under his arm. He sat at a table next to the lady, asked for a “bull” (a strong beer with sugar that people did use to drink back then) and opened the book, without even looking at the woman.
Not too long after, one of the dandies couldn’t resist his curiosity any longer and approached the Englishman to ask him what he was reading with so much interest. The “Englishman” tersely answered: “Love Letters.” “Love Letters? But, that is women’s reading,” the dandy said.
“Don’t be fooled. Some of these letters can teach any man how to really love a woman. Listen to this:
“I will shower you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy. I want to gorge you with all the joys of the flesh, until you faint. I want you to be amazed by me, and to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports… When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours, I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them.”
Then, to the surprise of everyone present, the mysterious lady spoke out loud, addressing the “Englishman”: “It’s by Gustave Flaubert.” The gentleman gave the other person a triumphant smile, and then turned back to the lady with a chivalrous gesture and in his best British accent said: “Right you are, my beautiful lady. Have you read his work?” “He’s my favorite poet,” was her response.
And, then the miracle happened: The “Englishman” got up from his table, and with a short “May I?” took a seat next to the lady, passing her the book. “I think you’ll enjoy flicking through it.” She accepted, with a smile that was far from cold this time, and the conversation carried on in hushed tones and more than one complicit smile, to the rest of the regular customers’ astonishment.
As night was falling, the gentleman took out his pocketwatch and announced his intention to leave. The lady said that she also had to go, and the “Englishman”, gallantly took care of both their bills, before they stepped out onto Obispo street, talking like friends.
The following day, the cafe owner was pleased because customers came piling in earlier than ever, and more and more of them came, with the idea of seeing the Englishman, of course, who had to come and take his winnings. But, he didn’t come back; not that day, or the following day. The lady didn’t come back neither. In fact, they never saw her again, at the cafe or anywhere else.
The cafe’s regular customers spent a month praying, when the “Englishman” reappeared out of nowhere. He was immediately ambushed with questions, which he refused to answer, saying that a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell. He took his jar full of money, and with a arrogant gesture of his walking stick, skipped right out of there.
Weeks passed by, but the customers’ curiosity didn’t wane. The next time the “Englishman” appeared, they colluded to have a drinks competition, and when he was all good for, they started to interrogate him again: what happened to the lady? had things got any further? Questions, and more questions… Until the Englishman couldn’t take it any longer and burst out:
“Gentlemen, we never got anywhere, because the lady… was really a man!”
And, he picked up his hat and walking stick and wobbled out of the cafe. He was never seen at Cafe Paris again. And, the “lady”? She went off the map. My late uncle, journalist and reveler who knew almost all of 20th century Havana’s bars and clubs, used to speculate that she was an anonymous transvestite (maybe one of the first in the capital), who used to go to Cafe Paris just to enjoy dressing up like a woman in public, but not daring to speak to anyone, until the “Englishman” wormed his way in.
Today, the crowd at Cafe Paris is very different, sexual preconceptions have taken a step back somewhat… but, they continue to huddle in the deepest social strata. Urban legend or not, if she were alive today, the Lady would be one of those unfortunate people who feel trapped inside a man’s body, with a woman’s mindset. She would be a “closet transvestite”, or maybe she would be fighting for her right to live like any other human being, under the sun’s bright light and not at a dark, anonymous table in Cafe Paris.