Champion, Jean
Letters written by Jean Champion, to her parents Dr. and Mrs. A. N. Champion, of San Antonio, Texas, describing life in Havana, Cuba, July-August 1939

four letters, 18 pages, accompanied by original mailing envelopes, neatly inscribed in ink, very clean and legible condition.

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Jean Champion was a young woman who was visiting friends in Havana. One of her friends Col. R. E. [“Rusty”] Rowell was the U.S. Naval Attaché in Havana. Jean describes her interactions with consular and diplomatic officials, her impressions of Fulgencio Battista, and Laredo Buc, and Cuban society. She describes night clubs, travel to beach resorts and clubs, and the mountains of the interior. 

      Havana July 12, 1939

      “Dearest Mom n Pop,

           … Coming into Havana harbor was so thrilling – the ruins of Morro Castle on one side and the white bldgs. of Havana on the other. I saw Franc & Cheech as the boat pulled in - & instead of having to hang around waiting for the customs Rusty came on board with the Cuban Secretary for National Defense (Baptista’s right hand man) who got me off in 5 minutes –

           Havana is a beautiful city The bldgs. are so entirely different from any you see in the states -  Big high cielings, tile floors & patios Rusty has a big cop standing guard outside his offices. The Prada- main street of town is a big promenade down the middle of the street with gorgeous huge trees lining it. The streets are terribly narrow – all one way – you have to walk single file on the sidewalks. There is hardly any color line between black Cuban niggers & the lighter Cubans – and we all have to be nice to them. You never see rich niggers or niggers around any place but the high class Cubans are accepted everyplace.

           We went and made our call on the Ambassador the other afternoon Really they are so formal & stiff here – everything has to be done according to the most correct rules … The chauffeur, Rupert – a Jamaican - used to be a taxi driver & is an official guide so he’s going to take us all around. The homes are magnificent & the grounds – The swimming is perfect – we went over to the beach club the other day – and of course we have the pool in the back yard.

           In the house behind us there is a gorilla loose!!!! These people found her in Africa when she was a baby and have brot her up and trained her. She is allowed out every afternoon & she sits up on the roof of this shed. She is enormous but acts just like a big baby – throws you kisses, claps her hands & even smiles…

          We had a small dinner party in the patio the other evening for the Ambassador’s 2 daughters who are going away – they are terribly attractive & sophistication plus – been & lived all over the world & act like they’re 40 – The men we go around with, the bachelors in the embassy – consuls, secretary’s & Chargé d’ Affaires are all in their 30s and awfully attractive !! … This really is one marvelous place – Ernest Hemingway is down here writing a new book. Rusty is going to try & arrange for me to meet Col. Baptista! The city is entirely foreign in Atmosphere – much more so than Paris or London – population is 8,000 – with only about 2,000 whites. Everything is in Spanish & no one can understand you …”

      Havana August 8, 1939

      “Dearest Mum’s & Pups,

               … To begin with – Friday was terribly exciting. Friday was a Cuban holiday – anniversary of the ‘Message to Garcia’ – and so we received invitations from President Bru of Cuba to attend the big patriotic program down at the National Theatre (Teatro Nacional) Cheech & Franc had seen the Pres. & Baptista & would have gotten bored so I went with Rusty in their place. We were all dolled – fro Rusty’s … 4 ropes of gold braid & white uniform to my hair up on top of my head (everybody likes it that way down here & Cheech thinks it looks darling!) Rusty & I went over to the Barber’s 1st for cocktails … Mrs. Barber is darling – she wasn’t going to go but then I arrived & so she decided to. The Beaulac’s (he’s 1st Secretary) went with us. Carol B. is awfully cute & Willard her husband is more fun at parties. We arrived at the theatre at 9:00 p.m. & were greeted by a blaze of lights and dozens of uniforms. I met the Secretary of State, the British minister, French Chargé d’Affaires, the Haitian minister with his 3 big black daughters, the Assis. Sec. of State – in fact all the no. one men of Cuba - … I was smothered with big shots & head men !!!! All in full regalia – Rusty & Hal Barber & Willard Beaulac introduced me to every body - … We finally got to our box on the side with all the other diplomatic boxes. The Mexican military attaché sat with us – he was a cute little man but couldn’t speak a word of English so Rusty & Willard & Hal jabbered Spanish the whole time. Baptista’s wife & Laredo Bru’s wife sat in the box opposite from us together. Baptista’s wife was a wash woman & he, himself a top sergeant 6 yrs ago before the revolution. And its simply remarkable how they’ve risen to the occasion, she has had a woman companion who never leaves her side & who is the last word in the finished individual. She has all the rules of etiquette & polish down pat & has coached Mrs. Baptista in everything a ‘lady’ should know – she even speaks French fluently now and has educated herself beautifully. Baptista’s personality alone would take him anywhere – he is the most attractive looking man and you know instantly when he enters a room because he compels everybody’s attention with his manner. Laredo Bru is much more the aristocrat & a perfect puppet. He was a lawyer before the revolution. They sat down on the stage with 50 or 60 other men all members of the cabinet and high govt. officials. A Cuban coloratura sang a couple of numbers à la Lily Pons and then some big shot got up to make a speech. The Cubans are great for declamations & the art of oratory. They put their heart & soul into every last word. Of course when the Pres.& Baptista came on the stand while the band played the anthem. It was all very thrilling especially when the photographers came to our box to take our pictures… The speaker ranted on & on & on even Baptista wasn’t listening to him. Rusty & Hal & Willard & the little Mexican attaché started making bets on how long the speech would last – 20 pesetas each & Rusty won. … The tirade went on for one hour & 40 minutes … then we all stood up for the anthem and you could hear the mighty sigh of relief thru the whole theatre.

             Sunday a.m. we went down to 11 o’clock mass at the lovely old cathedral 200 years old … Sunday nite Rusty & Cheech, Franc & I went to this low down little Rumba Palace after our dinner in town. It was my 1st real rumba & they put the whole show on just for us, thinking we were touristas. It was very very colorful – done by typical Cuban niggers – the real low down stuff you see only in dives.  They grow wild and the Cuban music was really red hot. Benny Goodman had nothing over their drums.

           Then on Monday came the Navy !! The submarine ‘saury’ – sister ship to the ill-fated Squalus came in in the morning. Rusty made the boarding call & invited the captain & 2 of the j.g.’s out for dinner. We had informal supper in the patio… After dinner last nite about 11:30 we decided to go down to Los Fritas, another little Rumba Palace. It was nearly as good as the one the nite before, so we left and went down town to this little patio nite club. It was the coolest place and very artistically done – a la tropical – we had lots of fun dancing there – they had 2 orchestras – a Cuban & an American which alternated. We stayed till 2:00 for the floor show. It was really excellent. The costumes were very colorful & gay and the dancers were attractive. There was even a real honest to goodness bubble dance …”

      Havana August 15, 1939

      “… We had a couple of parties last week & one this Thursday. Unfortunately though there has been a big blowout in the kitchen – yesterday a.m. Cheech fired the cook & the maid so here we are high & dry again!! We got a little French nigger from Martinique yesterday aft as maid but still no cook. “Minna” is so cute & its piles of fun trying to talk French to her!

            We finally got aboard the sub last week. Its 330 ft. long and of course terribly narrow. It is painted all black & is air cooled inside. It’s the last word in modern outfittings  & unbelievably compact. I’ve never seen such machinery, nobs, dials, wheels… There are 5 officers including the capt. And they each have their separate cabins – a bunk & a desk – that’s all – which is a lot better than the old ones where all the officers had one room… We even saw the enormous torpedoes. The captain showed us what happened in the Squalus & the Thetus & tried to explain everything to us. She’s the sister ship to the Squalus but was made in a different yard & has newer gadgets to prevent what happened to the Squalus.

           Last Friday started our big weekend to Veradero beach. It is s’posed to be the most beautiful beach in the world & I certainly believe it. The Kawana Beach Club where we stayed was very swank and terribly attractive with darling little cottages & this separate bar made like a ship standing out on the beach. The water was that heavenly clear light blue & the swimming perfect! … We lived in the Cortijo – 2 story Spanish style bldg.. built around an open courtyard. It was so attractive … The beach was started by the Du Ponts and all these millionaire Cubans have their beach houses (palatial mansions) all along the beach which stretches for miles… We met other Cubans in this darling blue Packard roadster while we were out riding (horseback) before – but they invited us to a swell party at the DuPont estate. One of the fellows was the nephew of Emilo Sanchez, the big sugar king… Perry Ellis, & Niles Bond – 3 vice consuls, Marie McGovern (another gal) Cheech & Rust & Franc & I – we all had loads of fun. Franc & I were having piles of fun flirting with all the Cubans – they are so good looking & stare so hard at you anyway – you might as well have fun with them. We made all the Cuban girls so jealous they were giving us dirty looks right & left …”

      Havana, August 21, 1939

      “Dearest Mamms n Papps,

… last Thursday aft we went over to the embassy for tea to meet the new vice consul who is from Waco, Texas. He’s quite nice & has really a lot of poise. That nite we had Cy Thiel & his old maid sister for dinner. The sister is visiting him & is a super drip – when Cy is so very attractive! He is one of the consuls & has been stationed in all of the most fascinating places – Arabia, Palestine-Jerusalem, Ceylon, Calcutta, Finland, London, Sumatra, Egypt & now Havana… He took us up into the Ortego Mountains way in the interior (Piuar del Rio) for the weekend. Cheech, Franc, the sister, Cy & myself. Went way up into the Viňales valley for the scenery & riding. We stayed at this primitive hotel (?) & truly roughed it a la Cuba! Franc & I didn’t sleep a wink on the pads over the springs of the bed – with a tarantula, a bat, mosquitoes – bed bugs keeping us company We were off at 8 a.m. on these walking skeletons of horses for the town of Viňales to go to mass. The town is very quaint & very old. On the way back Franc & the old maid left Cy & myself as we wanted to explore this intriguing pass back in the mountains after hours maneuvering thru tobacco & sugar cane & around fenced fields we reached it then we had to leave our horses & climb over boulders to get into a tiny valley on the other side of the pass… To top it off we got lost going home & we were in the saddle 5 hours…”