With the just announced death of Fidel Castro, and the confused and confusing responses of world leaders, let’s ignore the politics and the law, and take a moment to consider the humanity. Oh, the humanity! (Where did I hear that before?). This is a true story, worth the telling, crying out for a screenplay and a star like Meryl Streep. I wrote it up on Wikipedia. Who needs fiction?
Mary McCarthy was the daughter of a St. John’s, Newfoundland, supplier of fishing supplies. Showing some musical talent, he sent his daughter Mary to Boston for lessons, and it is there she met a wealthy Spaniard named Pedro Gomez Cueto, who met her father and asked for her hand in marriage. Her father said come back in a year. He did, and so they were married, and he took her to live with him in Havana, Cuba, where he manufactured boots for the army.
He built his wife a white mansion in 1936 called Villa Mary, which became their home. It was filled with Napoleon III furniture and chandeliers, and a Steinway grand piano, becoming a gathering place for visiting artists and singers, such as Frank Sinatra (who had a house behind hers) and Nat King Cole. In those days, under the rule of President Fulgencio Batista, the island was known as “a millionaires’ paradise”. They became part of local society, and helped to found the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra and an orphanage for boys. Then in 1951 her husband died, and her life changed drastically under Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959.
The US imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in 1962, causing her U.S. bank account of about 4 million dollars to be frozen. Unable to touch her money, things became worse when Castro confiscated her island holdings, and granted her a monthly pension of 200 pesos (about $15). While free to return to her native Canada, or the United States, she vowed never to leave the island, for Cuba was her home. And so this native Canadian continued to live there in poverty, a relic from days gone by. This is a documentary made a few years ago.
Her neighbors had left the island long before, and their mansions were converted into embassy residences. Peacocks continued to strut under the palm trees in her large garden. The abandoned mansion still retains the elegance and graceful atmosphere that Mary so carefully maintained for more than seven decades.
In 2002 she broke her hip and used a wheelchair, but continued to wear a satin dress, silk blouse, chiffon scarf and lipstick to greet her visitors.
With the need for more money due to her medical problems, some measure of relief came in 2007 through a Canadian diplomat. Washington allowed her to draw from her inheritance $96 a month. “I don’t even want to buy candy,” she declared in her distinctive Newfoundland Irish accent.
Reminders of her long life were on the walls where framed telegrams hung from Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II, congratulating her on her 100th birthday, and photographs on the table showed her with the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and the guitarist Andrés Segovia.
Asked whether she approved of Fidel Castro and his revolution, she did concede that poverty and illiteracy ended with his rule.
She died on Friday, April 3, 2009, just 24 days short of her 109th birthday, and was buried next to her husband in a white marble crypt in The Necropolis Cristóbal Colón, in Havana.