•December 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment

As the United States prepares to inaugurate a new chief executive, relations with Russia made news this week as outgoing U.S. President Barrack Obama imposed new sanctions and expelled thirty-five Russian intelligence operatives after C.I.A. and other U.S. intelligence agencies accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating cyberattacks aimed at deliberately interfering in U.S. presidential elections this past November. Even as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov recommended a retaliatory expulsion of U.S. diplomats, President Putin surprised almost everyone this morning when he decided not to pursue what he called “irresponsible diplomacy.” Instead, a statement from the Kremlin called for patience and restraint in responding to the new U.S. sanctions, placing their hopes for a “restoration of Russian-American relation” on the “policies carried out by the administration of President Trump.”


Courtesy of Her Telden Paylasimlar

It is in this context of revived tensions in U.S.-Russian foreign relations that I thought I would reflect on past strained relations this day in history, 1922, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was officially established in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Civil war.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with funds donated by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.

Ironically, problems in U.S.-Russian relations first arose with the advent to power of another Vladimir. The abdication of the autocratic Czar in March 1917 and the establishment of the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky was originally viewed by most American officials as a welcomed regime change. Relations between Russian and the Western powers became strained rather quickly once Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) and his Bolshevik revolutionaries engineered a new revolution.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Steven Heller


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with funds donated by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.

Having joined the Allies in the war against Germany in 1917, American officials were distressed to learn that Lenin had been deliberately sent back to his homeland by the Germans in order to destabilize Kerensky’s Provisional Government and to bring an end to the conflict on the Eastern Front.


Cartoon by Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The fact that Lenin accepted financial support from, and was sent back to Russia aboard a sealed railroad car provided by the Germans, led credence to Allied fears that Lenin was a puppet of the German High Command. On his first day in office, Lenin’s regime began truce negotiations with the Germans in which the Bolsheviks agreed to surrender large swaths of territory in the Ukraine, Finland, and three Baltic states—though they subsequently annulled the deal after Germany’s capitulation to the Allies in November, 1918.


Cartoon by Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

If German interference in Russia’s post-revolutionary succession prompted the first strain in U.S.-Russian relations in the 20th century, further tensions developed after the U.S. militarily intervened on behalf of the anti-Bolshevik forces fighting in the Russian Civil War that followed.

Posters and propaganda art created after the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922 reflects some of the East-West animosity that had developed.



Poster artwork by Vlacheslav Polonskii (1886-1932)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Much as Vladimir Putin has played to fears in his country against a Western conspiracy to meddle in Russian domestic affairs as a means of building support for his own belligerent policies, the early Soviet state stressed in these patriotic appeals the need for domestic solidarity in the fight against foreign enemies and domestic saboteurs supposedly eager to bring down the Red regime.



Poster artwork by Vlacheslav Polonskii (1886-1932)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Given the poor literacy rates in Russia in 1922, these propaganda appeals used cartoonish or Constructivist imagery on poster art to get the message out to the people.



Poster artwork by Vlacheslav Polonskii (1886-1932)




Placards by Vladimir Ivanovich Lebedev (1894-1966) for the show windows of ROSTA

(Russian Telegraph Agency) in St. Petersburg for agitation purposes, 1917-1922

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Today’s equivalent of these early “interference” and propaganda campaigns still occur, but now the players increasingly resort to stealth cyber hacking attacks and public cartoon commentary delivered over the internet rather than on paper posters.


Courtesy of Dana Summers, Tribune Content Agency

Reflections on the Passing of Fidel Castro and the U.S.-Cuba Relationship by Wolfsonian–FIU Chief Librarian Francis Luca

•December 1, 2016 • 1 Comment

This past Friday evening, President Raul Castro announced on Cuban television the death of his older brother, Fidel. The date was not without historical significance, being the sixtieth anniversary of their setting out aboard Granma, the leaky yacht that carried the two brothers and 80 other revolutionaries from Mexican exile back to Cuba to continue the fight against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. After years of fighting a guerrilla campaign in the Sierra Madre mountains, Fidel’s forces were able to push back Batista’s army, forcing him to resign and take flight in the middle of the night of January 1, 1959. Within days, Fidel Castro triumphantly rode into Havana, inaugurating his own monopolistic half-century long rule over Cuba. Ultimately Fidel managed to survive more than 600 assassination attempts and remain in power through ten U.S. presidencies before ill-health forced him to step down in 2008 and hand power over to his brother, Raul.


Author’s photograph, Santiago de Cuba, July, 2016

Although greeted by many in the Cuban exile community here in South Florida with street celebrations, Fidel’s death at age ninety—years after relinquishing power and battling health issues in relative seclusion, felt anti-climactic to me. Born one year after the Cuban missile crisis, and having lived here in Miami Beach for more than twenty-five years, I had heard so many prognostications of Castro’s death and/or the fall of his despotic regime. After teaching a film and history undergraduate course on the U.S-Cuba relationship last spring semester at Florida International University and organizing an exhibition on the U.S.-Cuba encounter in the pre-Castro era at The WolfsonianFIU museum, I flew to Cuba this past July and spent two and a half weeks in the country. While there, I had even heard open speculation by some younger Cubans who believed that the older of the “two dinosaurs” had already passed, and that Raul had suppressed the news. If Fidel was rarely seen in person as he wrestled with health problems in his final months, in the lead up to the anniversary of the holiday commemorating the 26th of July Movement, one could hardly avoid seeing his image on signs and billboards from one end of the island to the other.




Author’s photographs, Havana and Santiago, Cuba, July, 2016

Not unlike José Martí—(the “Apostle of Cuban Independence” who spent some time as an exile raising support for his revolutionary movement in New York, Ybor City, Tampa, and Key West, Florida)—Fidel also found temporary refuge in the United States.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Fidel’s first U.S. engagement, ironically enough, was in 1948 when he and his new bride honeymooned in Miami Beach, and afterwards visited relatives in New York City. When the U.S. honeymoon was over, Fidel drove a newly purchased Lincoln Continental down to Florida, and took it home via the Key West ferry.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

In November, 1949, Castro received death threats after publicly denouncing President Carlos Prio Socarrás’ coddling of violent gang members at the University of Havana, and went into hiding in Miami for a few weeks. After returning home to Cuba, Castro began campaigning to represent Havana’s poorest districts in the 1952 congressional elections to see Fulgencio Batista seize power in a coup d’etat in March and declare himself president. Joining an underground resistance movement, Fidel planned and took part in a disastrous attack on the Moncada barracks and armory on July 25th, was arrested, tried, and given a 15-year sentence.


Author’s photograph, Santiago de Cuba, July, 2016

Released after serving just two years because of an amnesty deal, in 1955 Fidel again fled to the U.S. There he organized rallies and demonstrations, made radio and newspaper interviews and speeches, and tried to drum up financial support from among the 26,000 Cuban exiles then living in Miami, Tampa, and Key West. Moving to Mexico City, he recruited an invasion force that returned to Cuba aboard the Granma. The fiery young revolutionary won over much of the Cuban population and Americans reading about his struggle in the Sierra Madre mountains and his determination to force the corrupt Batista “cleptocracy” from power. Batista’s New Year’s flight and Castro’s subsequent assent to power in the political vacuum was widely heralded to be a positive development in early 1959.


Courtesy of Vicki Gold Levi, Private Collection

Famed graphic artist and caricaturist, Conrado Walter Massaguer captured the hopeful mood of many of his fellow Cubans.



Courtesy of Leonard Finger, Private Collection

Many Americans first welcomed the change from Batista’s cronies to Castro’s bearded revolutionaries, as is evident from a couple of Hollywood “B” movies released in 1959. As a fervent supporter of Fidel and the insurrection, American actor Errol Flynn funded and starred in a campy docudrama homage to the revolutionaries titled, Cuban Rebel Girls.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

A better low-budget Hollywood film noir, Pier Five, Havana was filmed in Cuba in the immediate aftermath of the rebel victory, with the villains pictured as mobsters and Batista-sympathizers plotting to take back power.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Although the movie attests to popular American support for the revolution that overthrew Batista, the film would be consigned to historical obscurity for years to come as relations quickly deteriorated between the Castro regime and the United States government. The vast majority of films about Cuba produced for an American audience from the 1960s forward presented Castro and the revolutionaries in a far more ambivalent, if not wholly unsympathetic, light.





Francis Xavier Luca, Private Collection

As Castro revealed himself to be less interested in holding democratic elections and more interested in retaining the reins of power, establishing a Communist state, and courting a Soviet alliance, U.S.-Cuba relations quickly soured, leading to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, Missile Crisis, and an economic embargo that has persisted to this day.

Now, more than a half-century later, only the older generation of Americans and Cuban exiles remember how relatively cordial relations were before the 1959 revolution. At that time, the island nation had been an American playground for honeymooners and pleasure-seekers, and Cuban musicians and performers had revolutionized and transformed the American music scene from the 1920s through the 1950s.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Following the passage of U.S. Prohibition in 1919, thirsty American socialites and “snow birds” began making annual winter migrations to the island in ever increasing flocks to the tropical “paradise” where rum and rumba held sway.





(“Let’s Go to Cuba” subtitle: “Before They Drink the Darn’d Town Dry”!)

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts

Hollywood films such as Havana Widows (1933) and Rumba (1935) helped to popularize Havana as a tourist destination and to create an American craze for the scandalously sensual Afro-Cuban music and dance.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gift

Advertisements, photographs, and magazine cover art from The Wolfsonian library also document and caricature the encounters between Cubans and Americans, both real and imagined, comical and commercial.







The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts

After a travel hiatus during the Great Depression and Second World War, American tourists returned to the casinos, nightclubs, and cabarets of Havana by the droves in the 1950s.



In its mid-century heyday, Havana had the repute of being the “Monte Carlo of the Americas,” and the “Las Vegas of the tropics,” offering visitors a rich nightlife and incredible array of talented Cuban musicians and dancers, showgirls and striptease performers.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts

Much like today, the American tourists flying down to Cuba simply were following the lead of glamorous celebrities photographed in the Cuban capital, or featured in numerous Hollywood movies and musicals hyping up Havana.


Rita Hayworth at La Bodeguita del Medio, Havana


Liberace photographed in Havana, 1954


Ed Sullivan photographed at the Gran Casino Nacional in Havana

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

With Fidel’s passing, I believe that we have an opportunity to continue President Obama’s diplomatic overtures to the Cuban government and to more fully reestablish political, social, and economic relations between our countries. As close neighbors, Cuba and the United States have much to offer one another. Cuba needn’t regress into an American playground for tipplers, gamblers, and hedonists, nor become a virtual economic colony or appendage of the United States. If both our countries can learn from the mistakes and missteps of the past, we might now have the chance to forge new “ties of singular intimacy” and to invest in a future promising mutually-beneficial exchanges such as those that had formerly enriched the cultural heritage of both nations.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised Gifts

In Praise of Folies: A Wolfsonian Homage to the Folies Bergère

•November 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Although the Folies Bergère first opened to the Parisian public as a theatrical venue for light opera and music, pantomime and vaudeville acts in 1869, it was on this date in history that the music hall experimented with a new kind of revue that established it as the city’s most popular nightclub. Having undergone a change in management, in 1886 the Folies Bergère opened a spectacular musical revue, the “Place aux Jeunes.” The new revue featured sensational sets and a troupe of chorus girls sporting shockingly revealing costumes, and helped establish the Folies as the premier Parisian nightspot.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In the 1890s, the Folies Bergère followed up on its reputation for showcasing the carnal pleasures by adding burlesque, striptease, and nude revues, and was immortalized in the artwork of such famous French painters as Édouard Manet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In the “roaring twenties,” when American jazz was all the rage and the sensual aspects of African culture were celebrated in performance and film, Josephine Baker made her spectacular Folies debut. In 1926, the famous African-American singer and dancer emerged from a flower-strewn sphere lowered onto the stage wearing only a G-string decorated with bananas!


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Folies Bergère remained so popular and successful well into the twentieth century, that the revue was exported to other cities around the world. Havana, Cuba, another city synonymous with sensuality in the pre-Castro era, staged a Folies Bergère revue.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


A Wolfsonian Thanksgiving Illustration by Will Bradley

•November 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Today’s Wolfsonian–FIU library post comes to you courtesy of associate librarian Nicolae Harsanyi. Dr. Harsanyi is currently working on a library installation featuring graphic art and book bindings designed by William (“Bill”) Bradley and discovered an image appropriate for the current holiday. Here is his report.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

 Will Bradley (1868-1962) designed the cover of the November issue of the popular magazine Harper’s Bazar [sic!]. In its composition this image combines the two main features that defined Bradley’s artistic language in 1890’s America. The Arts and Crafts legacy of William Morris is perpetuated in the wide margin of dense intertwining floral motifs, while the central rectangle is occupied by the outline a woman and the title statement which are treated in Art Nouveau manner (undulating lines, two dimensional profile, interspersed with globular ornamental flowering trees).  Two of the traditional elements of the imagery associated with Thanksgiving (cornucopia, turkey) are suggestively hinted at: the cornucopia is replaced with a voluminous sheaf which seems to slide out from the arms of the female figure, while the barely discernible bird in the background of the upper half resembles a turkey with its outstretched plumage.

A more detailed presentation of the contribution of Will Bradley to familiarize the American public with Art Nouveau graphics will be the theme of the next installation in the library foyer. It will open in January 2017.  Until then,

Happy Thanksgiving!


A Wolfsonian Commemoration of the opening of the Suez Canal on this date, 1869

•November 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

On November 17th, 1869, the Suez Canal was inaugurated in a showy ceremony presided over by the French Empress Eugénie, consort of Napoleon III. The idea of connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas with a canal was the brainchild of a former French consul to Cairo, Ferdinand de Lesseps. In 1854, de Lesseps brokered an agreement with the Ottoman governor of Egypt to construct a 100-mile-long canal across the Isthmus of Suez. Two years later, the Suez Canal Company was formed to undertake the construction project in return for the right to operate the canal for ninety-nine years after its completion. Construction began in 1859 with laborers using picks, shovels, and other hand tools; steam shovels and other technological tools were utilized later on. Although scheduled to open in 1865, it was not until November 17, 1869 that the canal was completed and opened to navigation. Eventually, the Suez Canal became one of the most heavily traveled shipping lanes in the world.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

Great Britain quickly recognized the militarily significance of the strategic passage to their seaborne empire, and bought up a controlling stake in the stock of the Suez Canal Company in 1875. The protection of the canal became an important justification for the British invasion of Egypt in 1882 and their subsequent occupation of the country through the mid-1930s.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Michel Potop and Helena M. Gause

During the First World War, Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) troops were shipped to and stationed in Egypt to defend the canal against the Ottoman Turks. Thanks to the generosity of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, The Wolfsonian–FIU library holds a number of photograph albums documenting the history of the canal during and after the Great War.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

The first album contains original black and white photographs that had been taken by soldiers stationed in and around Ismailia after the evacuation of ANZAC forces from Gallipoli. The images show the soldiers on maneuvers, manning the forts, and establishing defensive positions; others taken by soldiers while on leave also depict life in the desert, and their visits to various ancient monuments and sculptures.







The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

 The photographic images also show Allied cruisers anchored at Port Said and positioned elsewhere to secure the canal.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

Another photograph album donated by Jean S. and Federic A. Sharf also contains views of the Suez Canal in the mid-1930s.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

This album was most likely put together in Egypt at the RAF base Abu-Sueir (Suwayr) by a member of 27th flight training squadron. Between 1934 and 1935, Great Britain’s Royal Air Force established a flight school in the Egyptian desert where they trained airmen on new planes and bombers.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

The Wolfsonian library also holds another photograph album donated by the Sharfs with images of the canal. Assembled by an identified British soldier in the British Royal Army, the album primarily focuses on Balochistan (formerly British India, now Pakistan), shortly before, during, and after the massive 1935 Quetta earthquake. Some of the early b&w photographs capture scenes of Port Said and the Suez Canal.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

Building International Bridges: The Opening of the U.S.-Canadian Ambassador Bridge, November 15, 1929

•November 15, 2016 • 1 Comment

Although the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates were at odds over the idea of building a wall on the international border with Mexico, both championed grand infrastructure projects designed to put Americans back to work modernizing and rebuilding crumbling highway, tunnel, road, and bridge infrastructure. As today marks the anniversary of the opening of the Ambassador Bridge between Canada and the United States, I thought that I would present to our readers a brief description of and look at that venture.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

In the wake of the American Civil War, U.S. and Canadian merchant and farming interests began clamoring for a more efficient means of accommodating the growing international commerce between the cities of Detroit and Windsor than the existing ferries were capable of providing.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

While railroad interests began construction on a tunnel in 1871, noxious gases forced the abandonment of that venture, even as proposals for a bridge were opposed by shipping interests and shelved by U.S. Army Corps engineers over concerns about potential navigational hazards to tall masted ships. While the Michigan Central Railway successfully completed construction on the Detroit River Tunnel in 1910, the growing popularity of vehicular travel in post-WWI America again spurred the idea of building a bridge across the river and the international border to honor the “youth of Canada and the United States who served in the Great War.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

Designed by the McClintic-Marshall Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the 7,500-foot long suspension bridge required 19,000 tons of steel rising as high as 152 feet above the Detroit River.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

Construction on the project began in 1927, and was completed at a total cost of $23.5 million dollars (1% under budget). At the time of its construction, the Ambassador Bridge had the longest suspended central span in the world—1,850 feet—a record broken in 1931 by the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

While the main span over the river is supported by suspension cables, the main pillars of the bridge are supported by steel in a cantilever truss structure.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Promised Gift

The Ambassador Bridge officially opened to the public on November 15, 1929. The 5,160-foot-long Detroit-Windsor Tunnel opened up another avenue of international traffic on November 3rd, 1930. A new crossing, the Gordie Howe International Bridge, has been approved by the U.S. Federal government in April 2013, and work has begun on this public-private partnership.

Miguelito Valdés and the Cuban Music Craze in the United States: A Wolfsonian Tribute

•November 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment


In the wake of the rather late and surprising presidential election results of Tuesday, I must admit that sleep deprivation caught up with me and I lost track of an important anniversary I had intended to mark with a blog post: the death on November 9, 1978 of the Cuban singer Miguelito Valdés.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Although not himself of Afro-Cuban heritage, Valdés (red) was a close friend and associate of Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo (green), and regarding his singing style, the sonero was described “as black a white guy as you would meet in Havana.”



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Given that as a candidate, Donald Trump had promised to roll back the Obama warming of relations with Cuba, it seems worth marking the anniversary of Valdés’ passing in the context of U.S.-Cuban cultural collaboration—even if the post goes out a day late.


                                           The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Joseph K. Albertson Collection,                                            gift of the Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida

The destinies of the United States and Cuba have always been bound together by what U.S. President McKinley referred to as “the ties of singular intimacy.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

If one discards the political and economic paternalism implicit in his quote, and focuses instead on the cultural dimensions, it is absolutely true that Americans and Cubans have been—barring the last fifty years of Cold War isolation—intimately and inextricably interconnected. While on the one hand American jazz exerted a profound influence on Cuban musicians, on the other hand the music and dance scene in the United States were utterly transformed by the Cuban music craze from the 1920s through the 1950s.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

In the 1920s, wealthy North American tourists first began to flock to Havana to experience an “exotic” tropical adventure.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

According to Basil Woon, the author of Cocktail Time in Cuba, these visitors could expect to see on the Plaza roof of the Hotel Sevilla-Biltmore “the Cuban danzón danced as it should be danced, and even a wee suggestion of the forbidden rumba, that most suggestive of dances, reminiscent of the jungle, when instead of the woman trying to charm the man it’s the other way about, and the man by his gestures and his grace endeavors to seduce the woman.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Although travel to the island trailed off precipitously following the onset of the Great Depression and the political instability engendered by the Machado dictatorship, American tourists had already caught the Cuban “fever” and brought it back with them to the United States. The 1935 Hollywood film, Rumba,  starring George Raft and Carole Lombard, capitalized on and helped to further the popularity of Cuban music and dance in the U.S.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Americans became enthralled by the Cuban rumba, even if their own ballroom dance “fox trot” version of the same was far tamer than the sensual Afro-Cuban dance that inspired it.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The conga, another Cuban dance tradition with Afro-Cuban roots, was originally looked upon with hostility even on the island, as when the mayor of Santiago, Desiderio Arnaz—(the father of Cuban-American celebrity, Desi Arnaz)—penned an editorial in 1925 deploring its influence:

“But here, in our city, in one of those scientifically inexplicable regressions towards a dark past, certain elements of our commonwealth seem committed – under the pretext of carnaval – to the repugnant task of checking human progress and causing harm to Civilization with their excesses. I refer to the ‘conga,’ that strident group of drums, frying pans and shrieks, to whose sounds epileptic, ragged, semi-nude crowds run about the streets of our metropolis, and who, between lubricous contortions and abrupt movements, show a lack of respect to society, offend morality, discredit our customs, lower us in the eyes of people from other countries and, what is worse, by their example, contaminate schoolchildren, who I have seen carried away by the heat of the lesson, panting and sweaty, engaging in frenetic competitions in corporal flexibility in those shameful tourneys of licentiousness.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Even as some municipal officials railed against and tried (largely unsuccessfully) to ban Afro-Cuban drumming, music, and dance, the rumba and conga ultimately won over mainstream Cuban society. Not only did Cuban President Gerardo Machado invite son musicians to play at state affairs, but Americanized versions of Cuban musical traditions also spread to and became popular with their neighbors to the North.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gifts

In the decades that followed, Cuban-themed nightclubs, dance halls, and music became all the rage in the United States.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gifts of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The Hollywood movie industry also continued to whet and feed the American appetite for Cuban-inspired music and dance with a variety of musical films.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Many Cuban performers traveled to, toured, or took up semi-permanent residency in major American cities.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Miguelito Valdés was no exception. In the early 1940s, he moved to New York City, where he performed with Alberto Iznaga’s Orquestra Siboney, Xavier Cugat’s orchestra, Noro Morales, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito, before becoming a band leader in his own right.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Leonard Finger Collection, gifted by Edwin Schloss

Miguelito reached a national American audience in 1942 when he sang a duet with Lina Romay, backed up by the Xavier Cugat band in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical film, You Were Never Lovelier.

Miguelito also provided a dramatic vocal performance of Margarita Lecuona’s hit song, Babalú in the Hollywood film Pan-Americana (1945).


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

Babalú was Valdés’ signature song and earned him renown as “Mr. Babalu” after he recorded renditions with such internationally popular groups as the Casino de la Playa orchestra in Havana, with Xavier Cugat, and with Machito in New York, long before Desi Arnaz popularized the song again on the 1950s sitcom, I Love Lucy.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift

At the age of 66, Miguelito Valdés was still singing, and, in fact, suffered and died of a heart-attack during a performance he was giving in Bogotá, Colombia.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Leonard Finger Collection, gifted by Edwin Schloss