Twelve Holocaust survivors tell their moving stories in the excellent documentary “Destination Unknown.”
Written by: Cyriaque Griffon
Photographs: Solange Podell
Illustrator: Hilal Ashour
We are taken on a journey to a land where time has stood still, evoking the era of Frank Sinatra or Ava Gardner’s time there. Trapped in a time-warp, Cuba and all its mesmerizing scintillating cars remind us of emblematic figures of the 1950swhen the islandwasAmerica’s tropical playground.In a world of movie stars, mafia-runglamorous hotels, casinos and night clubs of pre-revolution Havana, the incredible true story of a Cuban counterrevolutionary named Fernando Pruna sounds like a classic golden era Hollywood movie.
Fernando was a good-looking young man and, before the Revolution, he led the life of a playboy in the trendiest places frequented by the jet society in both Havana and New York. He met socialites, models and actresses, among them Hollywood golden erascreensirens. Fernando was seen going out with Jayne Mansfield, eating out with Joan Collins, dancing with Jackie Kennedy at the fashionable club El Morocco in Manhattan.He would go to the Embassy Club at the Ambassador Hotel and would regularly run into Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, who would come over to his table to exchange hellos.One balmy night, as he was enjoying a drink at the terrace of a fashionable Havana restaurant, he was mesmerized by a drop-dead-gorgeous young woman. She was the French then actress Solange Podell. Fernando and Solange began a relationship that she wished to keep platonic, since she was married.
If Fernando’s storyindeedstartedlike a musical, ityetturnedintothrillingcounter-revolutionaryconspiracies and noirishtwists and turnsafterFidel Castro hadsweptinto power with the Revolution. Spiesstartedhatching plots and outmanoeuvring the enemy in the tenseatmosphere of the Cold Warwith theBay of Pigs invasion, the Soviet missiles crisis, anti Castro movements, secret messages intented for the FBI, darkjails and terrible fortresses, tortures… In the wake of JFK or Che Guevara, the biggesticonic figures of a fascinatingera intertwinedwiththe life of a successfulyoung entrepreneur wholed a playboy’s life beforebecominga Cubancounter-revolutionary…Some of themwould change hisdestinyforever.
Fernando grew up in Cuba. Hisfatherwas a prominentHavanalawyerwhohadamonghis clients the former CubandictatorFulgencio Batista, at a time when the mostpowerful American mobsterslike Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficantewouldrun the most profitable businesses of all times in Cuba thanks to theirfriendshipwith Batista and hiscorruptedgovernment. As a child, Fernando oftenwent to the Floridita barwithhisfather. The latter would have a chat with Ernest Heminwgay. Fernandostudied in Columbia University in New York. Hehad a flair for entrepreneurship and return to Cuba in the late50s to start a business relationshipwiththe U.SmovietheatertycoonEMLoew. At the same time, hegot involved in politics and ran for Congress. In the history of the Republic of Cuba,hewasthe youngestperson tobeelectedat the House of Representatives,atage 23,whileBatista’sregimewas on the verge of collapsing.
Following the revolutionled by Fidel Castro in 1959, Fernando founded an anti-Castro resistancemovement. He wasarrested for conspiracy and plottingagainst the new regime. He wassentenced to death by a firingsquadafterbeingaccused by hisenemies of being a CIA agent. He wasmiraculouslysavedtwo hours before the scheduled execution.The death sentence was overturned and he was condemned to thirty years ofhard labor. For seventeenyears, humiliations and interrogations wouldbethen part of Fernando’s everyday life in the terrifyingfortress of la Cabana or on the Isle of Pines, untilhemanaged to flee to Miami.
The French actress and bombshell Denise Darcelleft France justafter the Second World War and headed to Hollywood. Sheacted in a dozen US moviesamongthemhermostfamous film, Vera Cruz, starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Shethenstarted a career as a singer in the clubs circuit, including the opening of the mob boss Meyer Lansky’sSans Soucinightclub and gambling casino in Havana in 1955. Whileperforming in Havana, Denise met Fernando Pruna and, afterhaving a briefaffair,theybecamevery close friends.
He also met her sister Hélène Darcel. Hélène was a talented chanteuse and hadlaunched a brilliantsingingcareer in the USA. She sang mainly in the mostelite and prestigioushotel establishments and nightclubs of New York, Washington DC, Miami Beach and other major US cities. Fernando started a seriousromance with the singer whichlasted a few years. “Hélène was also the most honest person that I have ever met and indeed the most fantastic singer that you could possibly hear. She had the voice of an angel and was very professional as a chanteuse; incredibly sophisticated. To hear her with a string orchestra of violins and piano was an amazing experience” Fernando recalls.
In mid December 1957, Fernandoreceived a call from Denise Darcelwho said to him :“Mon chéri, I have a dear friend at the Riviera Hotel in Havana and I want you to do me a favor. She is the hotel’sopening night headliner and she will be there for a few weeks. Poor dear, she is terribly alone and I want you to call her and take her out to dinner and be nice to her. I have already talked to her on the phone and told her that you would be calling her.” He replied, “No problem Denise, I will take care of her.” And that he did.That night, whenMeyer Lansky’s Riviera was inaugurated,Fernando danced with Denise’sfriend.“She was like a feather in my arms. She could dance anything and do it fantastically. I went out with her multiple times, I showed her Havana at night and by day. I was overwhelmed by her fame and status; I could not get over it. I was invited to see the show just about every night of the week and she never allowed me to pay the bill. We only drank champagne. As the days passed I realized that she was beginning to get too attached to me and at that time I was still in a relationship with Hélène who wanted to come to Havana to spend a few days with me. I must shamefully confess, I made love to her on my father and mother’s big, delightful bed. The shame is for using the bed not for making love to her who was charmed with the performance. My relationship with her ended with the arrival of Helene to Havana.”He was 23 and she was 46. She was the actress and dancer Ginger Rogers.Hélène and Fernando had started thinking of getting married but the Cuban revolution would change the lovers’ plans forever ;Fernando’s politicalinvolvementswouldland him in a prison as a politicalprisoner for close to twentyyears. He was able to locate and contact the Darcel sisters only almost fifty years after but they would never be able to see each other again.
Solange Podell was in Havana on 1 January 1959. Shewitnessed the very first moments of the RevolutionwhenBatista fled in the middle of the night. After Fidel Castro’s coup, Solangewanted to help her friend Fernando. She tried several times to contact and write to Castro through different connections such as the famous Cuban model Natalia Menendez aka Norka. But all her efforts through well-placed friends in Cubaas well as the French Embassy and Norka’sex-husband, the photographer Korda – who was one of Castro’s official photographers – would ultimately fail. Fernando lives today in Cuba and Solange lives in Monaco. More than 60 years after they met, they are still in touch,this time via another revolution : the digital one and Facebook !
Cyriaque Griffon (anecdotes from the book Havana 505)