Authors: Oscar Hijuelos
Like his music, the Mambo King was very direct in those days. He and Vanna had just been out to dinner at the Club Babalú and Cesar said to her, as she chewed on a piece of plantain fritter, “Vanna, I’m in love with you, and I want the chance to show you what it’s like to be loved by a man like me.” And because they’d been throwing down pitchers of the Club Babalú’s special sangria, and because he had taken her to a nice movie—Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner in
The Barefoot Contessa
—and because he had gotten her a fifty-dollar modeling fee and an expensive ballroom dress with pleated skirt so she could appear between himself and his younger brother on the cover of “Manhattan Mambos ’54”; and perhaps because he was a reasonably handsome man who seemed earnest and knew, as wolves know, exactly what he wanted from her—she could see it in his eyes—she was flattered enough that when he said, “Why don’t we go uptown?” she said, “Yes.”
Maybe it was on that chair that she had first set down her fine ass while going about the delicate business of hoisting up her skirt and unsnapping her garters. Coyly smiling as she rolled down her nylons, which she afterwards draped across the chair. He lay down across the bed. He’d taken off his jacket, his silk shirt, his flamingo-pink tie, stripped off his sleeveless T-shirt, so that his top was bare—save for a tarnished crucifix, a First Communion gift from his mother in Cuba, hanging from a thin gold chain around his neck. Off with the lights, off with her wire-reinforced Maidenform 36C brassiere, off with her Lady of Paris underwear with the flowery embroidered crotch. He told her exactly what to do. She undid his trousers and gripped his big thing with her long slender hand, and soon she was unrolling a heavy rubber prophylactic over it. She liked him, liked it, liked his manliness and his arrogance and the way he threw her around on the bed, turning her on her stomach and onto her back, hung her off the side of the bed, pumping her so wildly she felt as if she was being attacked by a beast of the forest. He licked the mole on her breast that she thought ugly with the tip of his tongue and called it beautiful. Then he pumped her so much he tore up the rubber and kept going even when he knew the rubber was torn; he kept going because it felt so good and she screamed, and felt as if she was breaking into pieces, and, boom, he had his orgasm and went floating through a wall-less room filled with flitting black nightingales.
“Tell me that phrase again in Spanish. I like to hear it.”
“Oh, it’s so beautiful, say it again.”
“And I ‘
Smugly, he showed her his
as it was indelicately called in his youth. He was sitting on the bed in the Hotel Splendour, hidden by the shadows, while she was standing near the bathroom door. And just looking at her fine naked body, damp with sweat and happiness, made his big thing all hard again. That thing burning in the light of the window was thick and dark as a tree branch. In those days, it sprouted like a vine from between his legs, carried aloft by a powerful vein that precisely divided his body, and flourished upwards like the spreading top branches of a tree, or, he once thought while looking at a map of the United States, like the course of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
“Come over here,” he told her.
On that night, as on many other nights, he pulled up the tangled sheets so that she could join him on the bed again. And soon Vanna Vane was grinding her damp bottom against his chest, belly, and mouth and strands of her dyed blond hair came slipping down between their lips as they kissed. Then she mounted him and rocked back and forth until things got all twisted and hot inside and both their hearts burst (pounding like conga drums) and they fell back exhausted, resting until they were ready for more, their lovemaking going around and around in the Mambo King’s head, like the melody of a song of love.
Thinking about Vanna threw open the door to that time. The Mambo King found himself walking arm in arm with her—or a woman like her—into the Park Palace Ballroom, a huge dance joint on 110th Street and Fifth Avenue. That was his favorite place to hang out on his nights off, when he wanted to have fun. It would feel good to make an entrance with a pretty woman on his arm, a tall blonde with a big heart-shaped ass: Vanna Vane, splendid in a bursting black sequin-disk-covered number that blinked and wobbled clamorously when she’d walk across a room. He’d strut in beside her, wearing a light blue pinstriped suit, white silk shirt, light sky-blue tie, his hair slick and his body scented with Old Spice, the mariner’s cologne.
That was the thing in those days: to be seen with a woman like Vanna was prestigious as a passport, a high-school diploma, a full-time job, a record contract, a 1951 DeSoto. Dark-skinned men like Nat King Cole and Miguelito Valdez would turn up at the dance halls with blond girlfriends. And Cesar liked to do the same, even though he was a white Cuban like Desi Arnaz. (Why, he knew of this fellow, hung around in the clubs, who made his brunette girlfriend dye her pubic hair blond. He knew it because he’d taken her to bed once, when she was still a brunette, and then later, on the sly, he’d talked her into going somewhere with him, maybe the Hotel Splendour, where he planted a kiss on her navel and slid her panties off, slipping his tongue into the sweetness of her new, improved golden Clairol hair.) Moving through the ballroom crowd, he liked to watch the heads turning in admiration as he and his girl would make their way to the jammed bar. There he’d play the sport and buy his friends drinks—in the 1950s, rum and Cokes were the rage—joking and telling stories until the orchestra broke into something like the “Hong Kong Mambo” or the “Mambo de Paree” and he would take his girl back out onto the floor and dance.
Later he might go into the cavernous Park Palace rest rooms to get his fancy two-toned shoes shined, or to place a bet with one of the bookies who worked out of a long stall where magazines and newspapers, condoms, flowers, and reefers were sold. A dollar tip for the shoeshine boys, a piss in the urinal, a comb through his wavy hair, and then out again, his metal-heeled shoes tap, tap, tapping down the tiled halls, like shoes in the arcades of Cuba, toward the beautiful music. Then he’d dance or rejoin his quiet brother at their table, sipping drinks and gratefully observing the juicy babes around him. (Yeah, and even if he’s in the Hotel Splendour, it’s as if he’s back in that dance hall again, checking things out and noticing that there’s a nice brunette looking over at him. And who should come by when his date gets up to use the ladies’ room but that brunette, and even if she’s not a blonde, she looks seriously fly in a tight pink dress and bops toward him with a drink in her hand, and
but she looks hot from dancing, with beads of sweat rolling off her chin and onto her breasts, her stomach damp and transparent through the clingy material of her dress. And what does she say but, “Aren’t you Cesar Castillo, the singer?” And he nods and takes hold of her wrist and says, “My, but you smell nice,” and he gets her name, cracks her up with a joke, and then, before his date returns, he says, “Why don’t you come back here tomorrow night and we can talk some more and have a little fun,” and he jumps ahead, feeling her nipple stiffen in his mouth, and then he’s back in the Park Palace, watching her walking off—he can just barely make out the outline of her panties through her dress, and she’s in bed tormenting him with the ball of her thumb, a rolling motion over his opening that makes the head of his penis the size of a Cortland apple, and then his girl’s sitting beside him and they have some more drinks, he remembered that.)
The Mambo King flourished in that ballroom with its friendly crowds, good food, booze, companionship, and music. And when he wasn’t out to dance or to play jobs with his orchestra, he was visiting the friends he had made in the Park Palace and other dance halls, fellow Cubans or Puerto Ricans who would invite him over to their apartments to eat dinner, play cards, listen to records, and become a swaying ring of arms in the kitchen, singing and always having fun.
It was at the Park Palace that the Mambo King and his brother found many of their musicians. When he and his brother had first turned up in New York in early 1949, the beginning of the mambo boom, they had gotten jobs through their fat cousin Pablo, with whom they had at first lived, working in a meatpacking plant on 125th Street by day so that they could have enough money to party and set things up at night. They met a lot of people then, a lot of musicians like themselves, good players. There was Pito Pérez, who played the timbales; Benny Domingo on the congas; Ray Alcázar on the piano; Manny Domínguez, who played the guitar and the
Xavier from Puerto Rico, the trombone; Willie Carmen, the flute; Ramón
” Ortiz, the bass saxophone; José Otero, violin; Rafael Guillón, the rattle gourd; Benny Chacón, accordion; Johnny Bing, saxophone; Johnny Cruz, horn; Francisco Martínez, vibraphone; Johnny Reyes, the
and the eight-stringed
And, among them, the brothers themselves: Cesar, who sang, played the trumpet, guitar, accordion, and piano; and Nestor, flute, trumpet, guitar, and vocals.
Like the brothers, many of the musicians were workers by day, and when they played jobs and were on a stage, or went out dancing, they were Stars for a Night. Stars of buying drinks, stars of friendly introductions, stars of female conquest. Some of them were already famous like the Mambo King wanted to be. They met the drummer Mongo Santamaría, who had an act back then called the Black Cuban Diamonds; Pérez Prado,
the emperor of the Mambo; the singer Graciela; Chico O’Farrill; and that black fellow who liked Cubans so much, Dizzy Gillespie. And they met the great Macedonio Rivera, a dignified and dapper-looking mulatto, who would hang out at the bar of the Park Palace, his wife by his side, receiving his fans and their occasional gifts of jewelry, which he would calmly tuck into his jacket pocket. Later the jewelry would end up in a teakwood Chinese box that Rivera kept in his living room. Visiting at his apartment in the West Eighties, the brothers would see this box, thick with engraved watches, bracelets, and rings, its lid decorated with Chinese swirls and inlaid with the image of a mother-of-pearl dragon devouring a flower. And Cesar would say, “Don’t you worry, brother, that’s going to be happening to us one day.”
Cesar had a picture from one of those nights, tucked in the soft cloth pocket of his suitcase in the Hotel Splendour: the two brothers decked out in white suits and seated at a round table, the mirrored walls and columns behind them reflecting the distant lights, dancers, and the brass of an orchestra. Cesar, a little drunk and pleased to death with himself, a champagne glass in one hand and, in the other, the soft, curvaceous shoulder of an unidentified girl—Paulita? Roxanne? Xiomara?—looking a lot like Rita Hayworth, with her nice breasts pushed up into the top of her dress and a funny smile because Cesar had just leaned over and kissed her, licking her ear with his tongue, and Nestor beside them, a little detached and to the side, staring off, his brows raised slightly in bewilderment.
Those were the days when they’d formed the Mambo Kings. It started with jam sessions that used to drive their landlady, Mrs. Shannon, and their other neighbors, mostly Irish and German people, crazy. Musicians they knew from the dance halls would come over to the apartment with their instruments and set up in the living room, which was often noisy with wacky saxophones, violins, drums, and basses that screeched, floated, banged, and bounced out into the courtyard and street, so that the neighbors slammed down their windows and threatened the Cubans with hammers. The casual jam sessions became regular sessions, certain musicians always showed up, and so one day Cesar simply said, “Let’s make a little orchestra, huh?”
His best find, though, was a certain Miguel Montoya, a pianist and good professional who knew the secrets of arranging. He was also Cuban and had been kicking around in different orchestras in New York City since the early 1930s and he was well connected, having played with Antonio Arcana and with Noro Morales. They’d see Montoya over at the Park Palace. Dressed in white from head to toe, he wore large, glittering sapphire rings, and sported an ivory crystal-tipped cane. Rumor had it that although he’d show up in the dance halls with a woman he was effeminate in character. One night they went to Montoya’s apartment on Riverside Drive and 155th Street for dinner. Everything in his home was white and fleecy—from the goatskins and plumes that hung on the walls to the statues of Santa Barbara and the Holy Mother that he’d draped in silk, to the furry love seats, sofas, and chairs. In the corner his white baby grand piano, a Steinway, on which he’d placed a thin-necked vase filled with tulips. They dined on delicate slices of veal which Miguel had cooked with lemon, butter, garlic, salt, and olive oil; scalloped potatoes; and a grand salad, which they washed down with one bottle of wine after the other. Later, as the Hudson gleamed silver in the moonlight and New Jersey blinked in the distance, they laughed, turned on the record player, and passed half the night dancing rumbas, mambos, and tangos. Cultivating Miguel through flirtation, Cesar treated him with real affection like a beloved uncle, constantly patting and hugging him. Later in the evening he asked Montoya if he could spare the time to sit in with their orchestra, and that night Montoya gave in and said he would.
They formed a mambo band; that is, a traditional Latin dance band given balls by saxophones and horns. This orchestra consisted of a flute, violin, piano, sax, two trumpets, two drummers, one playing an American kit and the other a battery of congas. Cesar had thought up the Mambo Kings while looking through the advertising pages of the Brooklyn
where half the orchestras had names like the Mambo Devils, Romero and the Hot Rumba Orchestra, Mambo Pete and His Caribbean Crooners. There was a certain Eddie Reyes King of the Bronx Mambo, Juan Valentino and His Mad Mambo Rompers, Vic Caruso and His Little Italy Mambonairs, and groups like the Havana Casino Orchestra, the Havana Melody Band, the Havana Dance Orchestra. Those same pages advertising
DANCING LESSONS NOW! LEARN THE MAMBO, THE FOX-TROT, THE RUMBA. DANCE YOUR WAY INTO A GIRL’S HEART!
Why not Cesar Castillo and the Mambo Kings?