June 21, 2009
Decadence and Decay - Mary Gomez Cueto
A Canadian-born women who witnessed the Cuban revolution died just days away from her 109th birthday in the crumbling Havana mansion where she watched history unfold.
Mary Conception McCarthy Gomez Cueto was born on April 27, 1900, to a prosperous Irish-Catholic family not far from the bustling harbour of St. John’s, Newfoundland. The McCarthys were at the centre of St. John’s cultural circles. Mary’s uncle was the accompanist for silent films and Mary herself was often cast as the ingénue in local theatre productions.
Sufficiently talented for her well-to-do family to send her to study at the Boston Conservatory of Music, the tall, blonde and sultry Mary attracted the attention of the wealthy Spaniard Pedro Gomez Cueto. They married and after a seven-month European honeymoon they set up house in Havana where Pedro had business interests. Behind the filigreed gate of Villa Mary Mary could be found in a sumptuous white mansion of marble floors, neo-classic sculpture and Napoleon III furniture. A coterie of peacocks roamed about in a garden of palm and mangoes in the pre-revolutionary millionaire’s paradise of Cuba.
While Pedro made his fortune with properties and a lucrative boot-making enterprise (he made boots for the American military during WWII), Mary helped found the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra and, perhaps because she was childless, an orphanage.
Mary knew the cultural elite in Havana’s headiest days of Batista. Frank Sinatra was a neighbour.
After Pedro died in 1950 Mary remained in Havana running his business. She did not remarry and wished to be buried at his side. Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution nationalized their boot factory and Pedro’s other properties. Mary and other wealthy foreigners lost everything but their homes and she continued to live on in her eponymous villa despite the exodus of wealth and friends from Havana. She was deeply unimpressed when the grounds of her orphanage became part of a Soviet nuclear installation.
Mary described Castro's rise to power as the toughest time of her life and the subsequent U.S. embargo froze a small fortune Pedro had left her in a Boston bank.
Eking out a living teaching English, piano and voice, she gradually became as dilapidated as her villa with its peeling façade, boarded-up windows, overgrown garden and its decrepit Steinway. Mary herself was always wildly made-up and wore her vintage dresses whenever she came out in the evening. She never refused a party invitation. And while enjoying the round of parties she was sometimes disappointed to see younger guests leaving around midnight.
Hints of her past glory were embodied in her chauffeur who doubled as a gardener, in her peacocks who still paraded her grounds and in her antique Cadillac, with tires shipped in from Canada. However, the pearls she wore around her neck were fake. She eventually received a very modest stipend from the Cuban government, as well as the odd sum liberated from Boston.
A fall just after her 100th birthday left Mary an invalid. Her former student and godson, Elio Garcia, fussed over her, soaking her fingers in perfumed water, fixing her hair, tiara and makeup, sheathing her in satin.*
Mary was still lucid and spoke fondly of encounters with Castro and Che Guevara admitting to conflicting views about Castro and his revolution. She conceded that the illiteracy and the poverty had ended, and was glad her money had been put to good use. But she disliked communism, and was adamant that it was wrong to confiscate what belonged to her.Mary died of respiratory illness on April 3, just twenty-four days shy of her 109th birthday.
*Nicholas Köhler, McLeans.ca