It’s only when I re-read Our Man in Havana that I realized I shared a street with the hapless spy hero of Graham Greene’s novel. My own office was in a grand trading exchange in the old city that dated back to the early 20th century. At Calle Lamparilla 1, the building was just a short distance from the fictional vacuum cleaner store run by Jim Wormold. The novelist gives the address of Phastkleaners as Lamparilla 37, but I’ve walked up and down the dusty street before without locating any building with that number. There are no houses at all between 2 and 61, just a small park. This time, though, I’m returning to the search with fresh information.
Calle Lamparilla cuts through the historic heart of the city down to my old office near the dock. Sidestepping a couple of elderly men playing the fool for tips at a restaurant window, I turn into the top of the street. Reggaeton music, catchy but crude, thumps from a window and there’s the usual chorus of oye! as Cubans greet each other enthusiastically, starting conversations at a hundred paces. A small crowd has gathered to admire puppies for sale in a cage. Arctic huskies are in fashion in humid Havana but this vendor is offering a Chihuahua and a poodle with sculpted leg fur. A few steps further down a man perched on a tall chair is having his head close-shaved surrounded by stalls laid out with bric-a-brac and fake designer T-shirts.
There’s a reason for my newfound confidence about finding number 37. On an earlier trip I’d visited a branch of the City Historian’s office in a grand stone mansion just back from the waterfront. Inside an icily air-conditioned room piled high with papers I met a researcher named Arturo. He had the film of Our Man in Havana somewhere at home and was intrigued by my request to locate Wormold’s shop. Eager to help, he started scrolling through spreadsheets and scans of old city plans on his computer. After a while Arturo looked up. “It seems Lamparilla 37 was originally a house of tolerance,” he ventured, lowering his voice slightly. “You mean a brothel?” I asked, amused that Greene, who kept a list of favorite prostitutes, should have chosen such an address. But that first map dated from 1881 so Arturo went on with his search.
I described the little park I’d seen where I thought number 37 ought to have been. Such spaces were common when houses collapsed so it was possible the building Greene picked had simply gone. But after much scrolling Arturo unearthed a plan of Lamparilla from the 1930s and peering over his shoulder I realized that the numbering in those days was very different. 37 was higher up Lamparilla, much further from my office. There were tailors and cafes marked on the street and a New York bank. The map didn’t note any business at what was then number 37 but there was an electrician on the same block and two midwives called Maria. Arturo’s map also tallied with a scene in Greene’s book where Wormold’s daughter Milly walks home from school along Calle Compostela, right beside that spot.
Lamparilla becomes a little smarter as I get closer to the block Arturo has identified. “Hola! Where are you from?” someone tries half-heartedly as I pass. “You want cigars?” In Greene’s day this whole area was crowded with different kinds of small businesses. Calle Muralla nearby was famous for its fine fabric shops, and grand department stores on the edges of Old Havana stocked fashions from New York and beyond. The idea of a vacuum cleaner shop like Phastkleaners was less far-fetched than it seems. Even in the carpet-free tropics the latest household appliances were in great demand. There are more houses than businesses here now, though a few signs on balconies offer private flats to rent. A horse and cart are parked outside one, the driver hoping for custom from tourists.
Further down Lamparilla I see a man propping up the doorway of a house covered in crazy-tiling. Dressed in fluorescent green tracksuit cut-offs and flip-flops, he’s calling out to everyone who walks past. “Como anda, papi?” he asks one man, who raises a hand back in greeting; to women he throws kisses and compliments. This is where Greene describes Milly walking to a hail of catcalls in his novel. Even the writer himself used to get whistled at in Havana and piropos are still part of Cuban life. Si cocinas como caminas me como hasta la raspa! If you cook like you walk, I’ll even eat the scrapings! When Germaine Greer visited in 1985 for a feminist congress she complained that men beckoned her with a psst! psst! “as if I had been a dog.” I used to feel the same way until the audacity of admirers from high-school boys to pensioners began to make me laugh. Eventually I’d feel affronted if I passed a Cuban man in the street and he stayed silent. There’s no danger of silence with the big man greeting all and sundry from his doorway. Eduardo has lived on Lamparilla for 50 years and tells me he was a supreme court judge before retiring. He breaks off to blow more kisses to a passing girl. “How are you? Did you have lunch yet?” he asks, and turns to inform me that she’s German. I ask about the house opposite, testing the idea that it’s the one Greene picked for Wormold’s shop. “It used to be a bodega until the 60s,” the former judge says, racking his brain for the name of the old grocery store. “There was a bar too, and flats upstairs.” I explain why I’m asking and Eduardo displays mild to zero curiosity. He tells me that one of his six children is in London married to a Nigerian and promises to find me his daughter’s address if I come back. “You can contact her and say we met.”
I take some photographs of the building and Eduardo encourages me to go over. The place has clearly been used as apartments for many years. The ground floor walls are painted turquoise and though the building has seen better days it looks solid with columns sculpted onto the facade. No one answers my knock at first. Glancing back at Eduardo, I see him urge me to try again and this time a young man’s face appears at a window. His mother’s out he tells me, hair tousled and eyes full of sleep, before disappearing back behind the shutters. A piece of paper strapped to the swirling, rusted window bars announces that the lower floor flat is for sale. I wonder if the owner’s selling up to leave Lamparilla and the “ruins of Havana,” like Wormold.
Our Man in Havana opens at the Wonder Bar as the British salesman sips frozen daiquiris with a German friend and they watch an old man selling pornographic postcards limp by. Greene has Wormold head up Lamparilla to the bar every morning, face “anxious and crisscrossed.” His vacuum cleaner business is almost dead amid all the power cuts and his demanding daughter is adding to his money worries. The morning daiquiri with Dr Hasselbacher is a brief escape from the drudgery: seven minutes to get there, six for drink and “companionship, then seven minutes back to the shop.
Greene never mentions the bar in his diaries but Wormold’s favorite haunt, unlike his business, really did exist. I found it listed in the 1958 phone book just below the Women’s Club of Havana: Wonder—Bar P de Marti 351. The Paseo de Marti is better known as the Prado and the street numbers have changed, but Greene placed his opening scene at the intersection of Prado and Virtudes.
Once the glamorous heart of Cuba’s capital, the Prado stretches for a mile from the former seat of parliament in the domed Capitolio building down to the sea. Some of the shattered mansions that line the avenue are little more than shells now with trees growing inside, though the washing strung up in their windows shows they’re still inhabited. Decorated with wrought-iron lions and lamp posts, and with laurel trees packed with noisy birds, the Prado’s raised central walkway is inlaid with marble from the days when famously stylish Habaneros would promenade along it. The stone benches are a popular spot to gather and gossip as the heat drops out of the day. Teenage schoolgirls spill onto the street after class and I watch a policeman in dark glasses ogle one as she passes, then swing his head back to follow another in the opposite direction. They grow up quickly in the tropics, as Dr Hasselbacher noted to his friend.
On the west side of the avenue there’s a tall, slim building with intricate Moorish-style engraving but the name on the paving outside tells me it was formerly the Splendid Store, not a bar. Looking up I see that two stone balconies have slid from its elaborate facade. The building opposite has a similar paving stone that marks it out as a pharmacy in a former life. The space has been divided to create a small police station and a one-roomed home for a wiry old man who’s plastered his side of the flimsy partition with magazine cut-outs. His paper gallery includes everyone from Barbie to Pope Benedict. The man has lived in the area for many years but can’t recall any Wonder Bar. Leaning at his open window he explains that the government moved him here when his old house opposite collapsed. By the look of it the new one is not far behind.
In Greene’s day the bars on this side of the Prado were pick-up joints with garish electric signs and police on the doors. The brothels were deeper into the warren of streets of the Barrio Colon. According to one article in 1950 “chattering, cajoling women” would lean out of their windows there and “pluck at your clothes” 24 hours a day. Down Virtudes now, I see two students walking home and an old American car with a cardboard For Sale sign strung to the back bumper. A man trying to herd half a dozen chicks back to safety from the road tells me the rusty bright-red wreck is from 1952 and belongs to his brother. Now that Fidel’s long ban on buying and selling cars has been lifted the man’s asking $9,000 for it.
As I cross the Prado to the opposite side a woman passes in loose navy trousers with a fake logo of interlocking Cs and I remember that, just days before I arrived back, Chanel had turned the avenue into an urban catwalk. Celebrities like Rihanna and Madonna had already begun discovering Cuba, flooding social media with images of themselves posing in classic cars on broken-down streets. Picturesque poverty had become chic but the French fashion house took that to another level. Chanel models were swept into the Prado in a fleet of gleaming, restored limousines to strut against a canvas of crumbling homes draped in clothes that would cost years of a Cuban worker’s salary. Surrounding streets were closed off and the police were reportedly paid extra to keep locals away from the VIP crowd. For the after-party Chanel took over an entire central square for almost a week. The government needed the money but one friend thought it a “monumental” symbolic mistake for a country whose leader had railed against consumerism.
An old man I find on the opposite corner resting in the shade rolls his eyes when I mention the fashion show. Dressed in battered boots and loose, home-stitched trousers that look uncomfortably hot, Ricardo Reyes is selling copies of the Communist Party newspaper Granma, which studiously ignored the whole extravaganza. Now in his eighties, one wonky tooth protruding, Ricardo can’t remember any Wonder Bar either even though he’s lived locally most of his life. His family moved to Havana before the revolution when his mother began cooking for a rich family. Ricardo had painted buses for a living using a toxic lacquer that would take your nails off. I bring him an ice-cold Bucanero beer and as we sit sipping from our cans in the shade I watch the crowds and fancy that the old man beside me might once have crossed paths with Graham Greene. He would have been around twenty when the author first strolled these streets and described being pursued by bootblacks, their insistent claims that he’d booked their services turning to abuse as he passed. The former American Club that Greene visited is right opposite us, though its last American members left in the 1960s. As the tourists have begun coming back I wonder whether the businessmen will return too. But for now the US still has its trade embargo and the revolution has its deep suspicion of American cash.“An old man I find on the opposite corner resting in the shade rolls his eyes when I mention the fashion show.”
The wall behind us belongs to a smart hotel. The concierge has told me it grew to take over the whole block in the 1990s, when Cuba allowed mass tourism again. As it covers the only corner of Prado and Virtudes where Wormold’s favorite bar could possibly have been I guess whatever replaced it was swallowed up when the hotel expanded. By deduction, I decide that Ricardo and I must be drinking on the steps of the old Wonder Bar.
Greene began writing his Havana novel at the Sevilla-Biltmore hotel. “I’ve got out some clear foolscap and done the first sentence of Our Man in Havana—no, a whole paragraph as though you were in the room,” the author wrote neatly on the back of an envelope dated 8th November 1957 and addressed to Catherine Walston, his former lover. The book was meant to be one of his lighter works, turned out in a matter of months as an “entertainment,” but Greene was reeling from his recent break-up with the American, lonely and depressed. His diary reveals that he was drinking heavily, taking sleeping pills and pestering a taxi driver to find him drugs. He poured his fears for the novel into the letter: he was scared the idea had slipped away; what he’d produced so far was hopeless. But by the time he sealed the envelope his mood had lightened. “A good opening paragraph,” he wrote on the flap. His spirits lifted further when he strolled out into the humid Havana streets, noting later in his journal “more tarts than ever and lovely ones too.”
Greene admitted to a “predilection for shady places” and Batista’s Havana offered plenty. The first trip he recorded in 1954, the year he turned 50, lasted two days and included a visit to the seedy Shanghai Theater for a show “with three girls.” The venue was notorious for a well-endowed performer named Superman who performed sex acts live on stage. Greene would return to Havana several times: for a manic-depressive seeking escape, it was the ideal sin city where everything was available whether “drugs, women or goats.” The diary of his 1954 visit, kept in a book marked with Catholic holy days, recorded being proposed “various varieties of two girls and a boy, two boys and girl” as soon as he stepped through the hotel door.
As he drafted the opening pages of his novel, there was something of the Wormold about Greene himself. Melancholic and worn down, his hero has been jilted by a wife who’s left for the US. Seeped in gloom after his own breakup, Greene would head to the Floridita for a lift, not the Wonder Bar, where his favorite drink was a dry Martini. “Couldn’t one write a book on Confessions of a Martini drinker?” he scrawled on a long yellow page of his journal one despondent day. “The tiny rest from reality which no other cocktail will give. The nearest approach perhaps to opium.” He’d hit the opium pipe hard in Vietnam a few years earlier and would remember the early 1950s as the most manic-depressive, hedonistic time of his life.
I’d always steered clear of the puce-pink Floridita when I lived in Havana. The self-styled “Cradle of the Daiquiri” is now a state-run tourist joint serving some of the most expensive drinks in town. Standing outside, I look for any lingering hints of what Greene might have seen in the place. A conspicuously smart group of young Americans are snapping photographs on their phones and I see from their nametags that they’re MBA students from Miami. One tells me they’ve come to explore the workings of the communist economy then scurries off before I can ask more, as if there’s still something of the forbidden about Havana. On the opposite pavement a girl is selling lurid cakes from a cart and the stall outside the art deco building of a near-empty bookshop displays a comic called Wankarani: The Robot Assassin.“As he drafted the opening pages of his novel, there was something of the Wormold about Greene himself. Melancholic and worn down, his hero has been jilted by a wife who’s left for the US. Seeped in gloom after his own breakup, Greene would head to the Floridita for a lift, not the Wonder Bar, where his favorite drink was a dry Martini.”
Ignoring the shouts from bici-taxi drivers, I make for the entrance and it’s immediately clear that Greene is not the writer celebrated here. The Floridita is a shrine to Ernest Hemingway who would head there for double daiquiris, T-shirt still stained with fish blood, after a day chasing marlin at sea. The American’s bushy-bearded face now stares up at me from the sign on the door, and his life-sized statue props up the bar at the spot where he once regaled fellow drinkers with his tales. Even when Hemingway was a regular here there was a bust of him on a ledge. Greene spotted it in the 1960s, declared it ugly and complained about a cult of the writer.
The Floridita is heaving and I have to squeeze through a queue waiting to snap a photo with “Papa” Hemingway cast in bronze. A band is crammed into a small gap beside the entrance and a singer in a leopard-print suit is performing son music. I eventually find a free stool between a couple of North American girls and some Colombians. Other tourists behind me sit nursing glasses of six CUC alcoholic slush and nibbling slices of fried plantain coated in oil and garlic. The sweet, moreish cocktails are produced on an industrial scale by barmen in smart red ties and matching aprons who barely pause in their crushing and blending. A man brings plastic bucket-loads of ice from a basement and the bar staff scoop lemon syrup from a huge vat. In a far corner, chin in hand, a woman stares out at the crowd from a stall stacked with souvenirs that no one seems interested in.“Even when Hemingway was a regular here there was a bust of him on a ledge. Greene spotted it in the 1960s, declared it ugly and complained about a cult of the writer.”
In Greene’s day the Floridita was not only the haunt of tourists. A 1940s travel book described it as a “focal point for Cuban men-about-town” and a clearing-house for all the news and gossip. For Greene, that made it the ideal spot for eavesdropping and inspiration. In November 1957 he may have picked up locals’ thoughts on the mounting political unrest in Cuba and heard expat chatter on their golf and tennis tournaments. He possibly caught the buzz over the latest Soviet triumph dominating the headlines: the USSR had just put Laika the dog into space leaving the US scrambling to play cosmic catch-up. Closer to home, Havana society life that week included a guajiro party at the British Rovers Club to which well-to-do guests had been encouraged to come dressed as local peasants. One couple duly arrived on foot “leading their chickens.” Sipping my drink, I check my notes from Greene’s 1957 journal. Unlike Hemingway who liked to hold court, the English writer preferred to observe: one friend described him as having the “eyes of a fencer.” On November 8th Greene noted that the lower salon was full of loud Americans. He also remarked on a “mature whore” at the bar with protruding buttocks. Over his rich food, Greene pondered the relationship between a wealthy American and his younger wife dining unhappily alongside him. Ignoring the elaborate menu, the man was insisting on ordering Welsh rarebit.
That first day Greene ordered stuffed crayfish followed by coconut ice cream served in the shell. Later that week he would enjoy the crayfish prepared au gratin with white truffles, asparagus and peas. He rated the restaurant as one of the best in the world, but it’s a struggle today to imagine the Floridita as a culinary mecca. A barman tells me the restaurant was always located on the raised dais at the back so I duck up there past some heavy maroon curtains to flick through the plastic-covered menu. The diners are all tourists, most of them bussed in on organised tours. The prices suggest the restaurant is at the top end of state-run fare with a platter of shrimp, lobster and fish in white sauce for 25 CUC. It is named, of course, after Hemingway.
Back at the bar an optimistic customer wonders if there’s any Wi-Fi. The barman smiles and rolls his eyes heavenwards as he crushes yet more daiquiri ice. An ageing hippy gestures that his cocktail is too weak and he and a delighted friend promptly get a free top up with big glugs of rum. The girls from the US slide off their stools leaving a hefty tip while a Spaniard who’d engaged the barman in a long chat about Havana life leaves nothing. No wonder many Cubans are keen for the Americans to return.
On the wall by the door I spot a framed 1953 article from Esquire magazine declaring the Floridita among the world’s top drinking spots, up there with the London Savoy. The article declared it a “truly honest bar” where “man’s spirit may be elevated by conversation and companionship, not enticed into betrayal by his baser instincts.” The author can’t have spotted the prostitutes. There are no sex workers in sight at the Floridita any more, big-buttocked like the one Greene noted, or otherwise. The revolution made it a mission to stamp out the ancient trade, though it has of course resurfaced. The whiff of white truffles on the other hand was fully eliminated.
From Our Woman in Havana: Reporting Castro’s Cuba. Courtesy of Oneworld Publications. Copyright 2018 by Sarah Rainsford.