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-run glamorous hotels, casinos and nightclubs 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 era screen sirens. 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 story indeed started like a musical, it yet turned into thrilling counter-revolutionary conspiracies and noirish twists and turnsafterFidel Castro had swept into power with the Revolution. Spiesstartedhatching plots and outmanoeuvring the enemy in the tense atmosphere of the Cold War with the bay of Pigs invasion, the Soviet missiles crisis, anti-Castro movements, secret messages intended for the FBI, dark jails and terrible fortresses, tortures… In the wake of JFK or Che Guevara, the biggest iconic figures of a fascinating era intertwined with the life of a successful young entrepreneur who led a playboy’s life before becoming a Cuban counter-revolutionary…Some of them would change his destiny forever.
Fernando grew up in Cuba. His father was a prominentHavanalawyer who had among his clients the former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, at a time when the most powerful American mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficantewouldrun the most profitable businesses of all times in Cuba thanks to their friendship with Batista and his corrupted government. As a child, Fernando often went to the Floridita bar with his father. The latter would have a chat with Ernest Hemingway. Fernando studied in Columbia University in New York. He had a flair for entrepreneurship and return to Cuba in the late50s to start a business relationship with the U.SmovietheatertycoonEMLoew. At the same time, he got involved in politics and ran for Congress. In the history of the Republic of Cuba, he was the youngest person to be elected to the House of Representatives, at age 23,whileBatista’sregimewas on the verge of collapsing.
Following the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959, Fernando founded an anti-Castro resistance movement. He was arrested for conspiracy and plotting against the new regime. He was sentenced to death by a firing squad after being accused by his enemies of being a CIA agent. He was miraculously saved two hours before the scheduled execution.The death sentence was overturned and he was condemned to thirty years of hard labour. For seventeen years, humiliations and interrogations would be then part of Fernando’s everyday life in the terrifying fortress of la Cabana or on the Isle of Pines, until he managed to flee to Miami.
The French actress and bombshell Denise Darcelleft France just after the Second World War and headed to Hollywood. She acted in a dozen US movies among them her most famous film, Vera Cruz, starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. She then started a career as a singer in the clubs circuit, including the opening of the mob boss Meyer Lansky’sSans Souci nightclub and gambling casino in Havana in 1955. While performing in Havana, Denise met Fernando Pruna and, after having a brief affair, they became very close friends.
He also met her sister Hélène Darcel. Hélène was a talented chanteuse and had launched a brilliant singing career in the USA. She sang mainly in the most elite and prestigious hotel establishments and nightclubs of New York, Washington DC, Miami Beach and other major US cities. Fernando started a serious romance with the singer which lasted 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, Fernando received a call from Denise Darcel who said to him:“Mon chéri, I have a dear friend at the Riviera Hotel in Havana and I want you to do me a favour. She is the hotels opening 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, when Meyer 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 charged 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 political involvements would land him in a prison as a political prisoner for close to twenty years. 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. She witnessed the very first moments of the Revolution when Batista fled in the middle of the night. After Fidel Castro’s coup, Solange wanted 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 Cuba as 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)