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

18 comments:

artslice said...

What a story! Great post about a staunch lady.

Brian Miller said...

wow. did you know her? her life seemed much like a roller coaster...to have it and lose it all, and still feel that sense of significance. i want peacocks roaming my yard...nice story, thanks for sharing.

The Clever Pup said...

No, I didn't know here. I came across her obit in the back of a Canadian magazine. What a character. Widowed for 59 years.

ds said...

"She was deeply unimpressed when the grounds of her orphanage became
part of a Soviet nuclear installation." Masterful understatement that. What an incredible woman & what a terrific story, makeup, peacocks and all. Thanks for sharing!

giulia said...

This was quite familiar but couldn't quite place. Just went to WPost site & indeed here's a story from Sept. 2007 you might find interesting. Let me know if you don't rec'v/can't open. I was going to send to your gmail account but it's taking forever. The server must be going crazy: huge political story breaking. Sen. Arlen Specter of my former home state (PA) switching to Democratic Party! That's the rumor. I wouldn't be surprised. I think I hear my right-wing father shrieking from here. Sorry about this insert but...you know what I say: worlds collide.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/07/AR2007090702055.html

ciao

Susan

Rouchswalwe said...

Seven months of honeymooning?! No wonder she lived so long!

Poetikat said...

Imagine being that age and getting up every morning and reaching for your pearls. Wow!

Kat

Ima Wizer said...

Truly a grand dame and we have lost a treasure with her passing. There are not enough "characters" in this world. We need them to enlighten us!
Thanks for this wonderful story!

Rinkly Rimes said...

There's certainly a full-length book there!

J ..de Santa Fe said...

Thanks for sharing the story of this wondrous Lady .... . she certainly knew how to LiveLIFE!!

JJJj

Anna said...

What a unique lady. I like how she made the best of what she had when she was gorgeous and living a widly romantic life, and in the hard times. Some people are beautiful in all of their facets.

Penney said...

I really, really enjoyed this so...much. What an awesome, strong, and yet life-loving woman. She really ended up living life with the good, the bad, maybe the ugly too...She did it HER way....
It's not always the way you plan it, but sometimes, you can make great things out of nothing. I xo'd it...
xo, Penney

A Thousand Clapping Hands said...

She was quite a gal! I certainly hope there will come a time when I can travel to Cuba. The stories that are waiting to be told!!!
Catherine

Mervat said...

What a wonderful recount about a tough woman. Thank you for introducing her to me.

sallymandy said...

Good heavens! What a fascinating woman. I love how you wrote up her story and described her life in Havana. Interesting and educational as usual, Pup!

Janette Kearns Wilson said...

Great story, what self discipline and strength she must have had to endure the way she did

California Girl said...

Well written synopsis of her life and the photos really emphasize what a character she must have been. The story is familiar to me as well. I'm wondering if it was on 60 Minutes or Sunday Morning at some point.

Well done.

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