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'Cuba Then' exciting poignant new photo book shows pre-Castro spirit and glam

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'Cuba Then: Rare and Classic Images from the Ramiro A. Fernández Collection'

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"Cuba Then", an exciting, poignant photography book that makes pre-revolutionary Cuba spring back to life, will be launched and discussed tomorrow at New York's Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

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"Cuba Then: Rare and Classic Images from the Ramiro A. Fernández Collection" (The Monacelli Press) has 250 stunning images, most never before published, collected by Havana-born Fernández.

The fascinating book is further enriched with poetry and foreword by Cuban American Richard Blanco, who spoke and read so movingly at President Obama's second inauguration.

Blanco says it perfectly in "Poem Between Havana and Varadero" (Cuba's best-known beach), "...the last thing I need is to love this crocodile-shaped island that was my beginning with no end..."

Fernández will discuss and sign the stirring book, whose overall message is "'What matters is not that we triumph, but that our country be happy,'" says Fernández, quoting Cuba's late patriot-poet, José Martí. "Cuba Then" offers Martí's quote and image in a vintage c.1938 postcard of a woodcut by Oscar Salas.

Fernández says in the book, "Cuba has always seduced indiscriminately -- from revolutionaries to mambo queens, failed spies to socialites, savvy gangsters to honeymooning Americanos."

The photographs capture all that, and more:

  • Teenagers dancing at Havana's Marianao Beach in 1956. "The image and period evenly match its optimism and spontaneity. Her body and bathing suit glistening along with the rhythm on a wet sandy floor. So Cuba!!" Fernández told me it's his favorite image in the book, and it's where he spent a good part of his early years.
  • Revolutionaries in their early glory: young Fidel seems posed at a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun in one photo. But a candid snap of a shirtless Che Guevara fully exposes his sensual attraction.
  • "Queen" Celia Cruz in her trademark gold vinyl heel-less platform shoes 1962-1963. That image follows ones of prima ballerina Alicia Alonso en pointe (on toe) only from her tutu'd torso on down, and then as the black swan in "Swan Lake". Many circus people are also pictured, like a portly lady swathed in snakes.
  • An associate of Santo Trafficante Jr., believed to have been the biggest mafioso in Havana in 1946, is on a page across from a fat aide of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, surreptitiously collecting a huge wad of money.
  • Famous aficionados of Cuba include:

-- A wizened Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor, about to tee off at the Havana Country Club in 1954.

-- Winston Churchill in 1947 smoking one of his fave Montecristo cigars, while admiring a box of them, made by the renowned H. Upmann factory that dates back to 1844.

-- Ernest Hemingway, who had a home on the island, and Spencer Tracy, during filming of "The Old Man and the Sea". The film was adapted from Papa Hemingway's novel that won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and also was cited in his 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.

-- Alec Guinness during filming of "Our Man in Havana". An ad for the film in a West German magazine is across from a photo of failed, farcical spy Heinz August Lüning amid his secret equipment on the day of his 1942 arrest in Havana. He was the only German spy executed in Latin America during World War Two. Lüning's case was the inspiration for Graham Greene's book "Our Man in Havana".

  • Photos of showgirls abound, of course. Aptly placed among them are two of Richard Blanco's writings.

-- "Havana 50s": "...the rhinestone cabarets featuring feathered girls in a third world dancing away from the moon, shifting their hips to conga beats and rifles hidden and polished high in the red mountains -- Life's cover -- 25 cents for the triumph of Castro while Connecticut housewives do the mambo."

-- "Havanasis": "Then God said, 'Let there be a moon and stars to light the nights over the Club Tropicana, and a sun for the 365 days of the year.' God saw that this was good, he called the night nightlife, the day he called paradise."

One shot of be-feathered, be-sparkled showgirls was taken at the Tropicana under new state ownership post-revolution in 1964. That photo is across from an image of missiles on parade in Revolution Square -- one of the types involved in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

"The country was quickly morphing from a hedonistic international playground to a full-blown socialist state -- a change that would drive our family into exile before year's end," wrote Fernández, who lived in Havana through his eighth year in 1960.

Flash forward two decades to New York City, where he began acquiring the collection in 1980 when he was a temporary receptionist at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

A dealer offered a 19th century Cuban albumen photo album to MoMA's then-curator of photography, John Szarkowski, who did not buy it. So the temp did -- "At that time, I made the minimum wage...I bought it for $250.00 in installments," Fernández told me.

He wrote, "with every print and landscape I acquired, sensations long dormant in my subconscious came roaring back."

Whether or not you had the privilege of viewing Cuba back then, in "Cuba Then", you can find paradise lost.

For more info: "Cuba Then: Rare and Classic Images from the Ramiro A. Fernández Collection" (The Monacelli Press, April 15). Fernández discusses and signs the book at its formal launch, April 16, 6:30 P.M., at Americas Society/Council of the Americas, 680 Park Avenue at 68th Street, New York, N.Y., 212-277-8380. Free event with reception -- registration is required. In partnership with the Cuban Artists Fund.

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