Friday, September 3, 2010

The end of summer for New Yorkers

Peeking through the gates of The Frick. 1:15 PM. Photo: JH.
September 3, 2010. Very hot and sunny, yesterday in New York. The night before about 2:30 a.m., I noticed that there was a strong breeze blowing through the trees on the avenue. I went out onto the terrace to see if it were getting cooler. The breeze was pleasant but warm. And the air was fetid, as if something were burning, something chemical. I was reminded of the night of 9/11 when this whole area enveloped by a dirty, heavy, crummy air.

Yesterday morning it was gone. Along with the breeze. Living up here only a half city block from the river, there is often a breeze – thankfully – that comes and goes with the tides. Two hundred years ago, this area was out of town for New York, a two or three hour carriage ride from the center of the city where the Village and SoHo are now. It was still countryside, hilly and rocky. It was where the wealthy built themselves houses to escape the city’s heat and smells.
Central Park. 1:10 PM.
Hudson River sky. 7:40 PM.
Gracie Mansion, the official mayor’s house (although Mayor Bloomberg chose to remain in his own house on East 79th Street), was built in 1799 by a businessman named Archibald Gracie. The land to the south of it is now Carl Schurz Park, and the cul de sac at the foot of it is called Gracie Square.

The old house has been modernized but remains essentially the same house Mr. Gracie built, save the addition put on during the Lindsay Administration and used for public receptions.

Gracie Mansion, circa 1930.
The house sits substantially on a knoll overlooking the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, and Queens and the Triboro Bridge. The John Finlay Walk (the Promenade on which I walk my dogs) passes by the Gracie property, and right at the spot that it does, there is a rocky promontory that catches the river’s breezes as they round the bend two and from the Harlem River to the northwest. The big house is elegantly placed on a north/south angle to catch it. The air quality, of course two centuries ago was incomparable with its natural sweetness much of the time.

This weekend coming up marks the end of summer for New Yorkers. And I’m glad. I don’t recall ever feeling quite this way about summertime, but the heat has been relentlessly pervasive, and even at times – like this past Wednesday night – foul.

It has not been the mood pacifier we think of as summer. This is underscored by the political atmosphere in the country which is cloudy and deeply hindered by the financial complications that beset us.
Gracie Mansion today.
Alexandra Lebenthal’s The Recessionistas has pegged the atmosphere in her portrait of the well-heeled now finishing out their summer at their seaside villas, because although the story takes place in 2008, the air today is full of gnawing uncertainty. Me, I’m enthralled reading THE SUGAR KING OF HAVANA; The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon.

Julio Lobo is an unknown name at the beginning of the 21st century, except in Cuba where fifty years after his departure, their term for “rich as Croesus” is ser rico como un Julio Lobo (“to be as rich as Julio Lobo”). This is after fifty years of communism and Fidel.

Julio Lobo
He was known as The King of Sugar, the magnate who handled half of Cuba’s annual sugar production. He possessed a fortune of $200 million, or $5 billion in today’s dollars. He was also one of the great supporters of the revolution of Fidel Castro.

In the 1950s, he responded to the need to get rid of the corrupt Batista government by backing Castro. After Castro succeeded, Che Guevara offered him the position of running the Ministry of Sugar for the new regime.

They needed him although they had taken all but one mill from him. He refused their offer to run the mills for them, and knowing his time was up, he fled Cuba leaving all of his possessions behind including his estates, his collections (he possessed the largest collection of Napoleonic memorabilia after France) and his fortune.

There are almost two generations of Americans who have no idea what Cuba was to America in that pre-Castro 20th century. Havana is the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere.

It was a mecca for American tourists, for gamblers, for international society. Many Americans kept a part time residence there and visited often. One of the results of Castro’s taking command was the Las Vegas we know today. Cuba had all that and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, plus a mineral rich earth. And only 90 miles from Florida. Julio Lobo was at its center of power and influence and economic prosperity.

Click to order.
The books author John Paul Rathbone describes the personality and the man: “Lobo swam the Mississippi as a young man, fenced in duels, survived a gangland hit, was put against the wall to be shot but was pardoned at the last moment."

He courted movie stars, raised a family, made an lost two fortunes and once told Marshal Petain about his Vichy government “je veux dire un mot: merde” (which translated loosely means: “this seems like one thing: shit.”)

The fate of Julio Lobo despite his “patriotism” was a betrayal by Castro. Having left everything behind, he made a new fortune in the sugar business in New York, although as his ill-fate would have it, he lost that too.

Lobo never really recovered losing his homeland. Neither did the Cuban sugar industry, or the 10% of Lobo’s countrymen who immigrated to the US to avoid the communist regime. Ironically, the man he set to rid Cuba of, Fulgenio Batista, was self-exiled to Spain with a $300 million dollar fortune. Although today, Batista's communist successor is believed to be much much richer.
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