Ali in Havana
It was a warm, breezy, palm-flapping winter evening in Havana, and the leading restaurants are crowded with tourists from Europe, Asia, and South America being serenaded by guitarists relentlessly singing “Guan-tan-a-mera...guajira...Guan-tan-a-mera”; and at the Café Cantante there are clamorous salsa dancers, mambo kings, grunting, bare-chested male performers lifting tables with their teeth, and turbaned women swathed in hip-hugging skirts, blowing whistles while gyrating their glistening bodies into an erotic frenzy. In the café’s audience as well as in the restaurants, hotels, and other public places throughout the island, cigarettes and cigars are smoked without restraint or restriction. Two prostitutes are smoking and talking privately on the corner of a dimly lit street bordering the manicured lawns of Havana’s five-star Hotel Nacional. They are copper-colored women in their early twenties wearing faded miniskirts and halters, and as they chat, they are watching attentively while two men—one white, the other black—huddle over the raised trunk of a parked red Toyota, arguing about the prices of the boxes of black-market Havana cigars that are stacked within.
The white man is a square-jawed Hungarian in his mid-thirties, wearing a beige tropical suit and a wide yellow tie, and he is one of Havana’s leading entrepreneurs in the thriving illegal business of selling top-quality hand-rolled Cuban cigars below the local and international market price. The black man behind the car is a well-built, baldish, gray-bearded individual in his mid-fifties from Los Angeles named Howard Bingham; and no matter what price the Hungarian quotes, Bingham shakes his head and says, “No, no—that’s too much!”
“You’re crazy!” cries the Hungarian in slightly accented English, taking one of the boxes from the trunk and waving it in Howard Bingham’s face. “These are Cohiba Esplendidos! The best in the world! You will pay $1,000 for a box like this in the States.”
“Not me,” says Bingham, who wears a Hawaiian shirt with a camera strapped around his neck. He is a professional photographer, and he is staying at the Hotel Nacional with his friend Muhammad Ali. “I wouldn’t give you more than fifty dollars.”
“You really are crazy,” says the Hungarian, slicing through the box’s paper seal with his fingernail, opening the lid to reveal a gleaming row of labeled Esplendidos.
“Fifty dollars,” says Bingham.
“A hundred dollars,” insists the Hungarian. “And hurry! The police could be driving around.” The Hungarian straightens up and stares over the car toward the palm-lined lawn and stanchioned lights that glow in the distance along the road leading to the hotel’s ornate portico, which is now jammed with people and vehicles; then he turns and flings a glance back toward the nearby public street, where he notices that the prostitutes are now blowing smoke in his direction. He frowns.
“Quick, quick,” he says to Bingham, handing him the box. “One hundred dollars.”
Howard Bingham does not smoke. He and Muhammad Ali and their traveling companions are leaving Havana tomorrow, after participating in a five-day American humanitarian-aid mission that brought a planeload of medical supplies to hospitals and clinics depleted by the United States’ embargo, and Bingham would like to return home with some fine contraband cigars for his friends. But, on the other hand, one hundred is still too much.
“Fifty dollars,” says Bingham determinedly, looking at his watch. He begins to walk away.
“Okay, okay,” the Hungarian says petulantly. “Fifty.”
Bingham reaches into his pocket for the money, and the Hungarian grabs it and gives him the Esplendidos before driving off in the Toyota. One of the prostitutes takes a few steps toward Bingham, but the photographer hurries on to the hotel. Fidel Castro is having a reception tonight for Muhammad Ali, and Bingham has only a half hour to change and be at the portico to catch the chartered bus that will take them to the government’s headquarters. He will be bringing one of his photographs to the Cuban leader—an enlarged, framed portrait showing Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X walking together along a Harlem sidewalk in 1963. Malcolm X was thirty-seven at the time, two years away from an assassin’s bullet; the twenty-one-year-old Ali was about to win the heavyweight title in a remarkable upset over Sonny Liston in Miami. Bingham’s photograph is inscribed, TO PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO, FROM MUHAMMAD ALI. Under his signature, the former champion has sketched a little heart.
Although Muhammad Ali is now fifty-four and has been retired from boxing for more than fifteen years, he is still one of the most famous men in the world, being identifiable throughout five continents; and as he walks through the lobby of the Hotel Nacional toward the bus, wearing a gray sharkskin suit and a white cotton shirt buttoned at the neck without a tie, several guests approach him and request his autograph. It takes him about thirty seconds to write “Muhammad Ali,” so shaky are his hands from the effects of Parkinson’s syndrome; and though he walks without support, his movements are quite slow, and Howard Bingham and Ali’s fourth wife, Yolanda, are following nearby.
Bingham met Ali thirty-five years ago in Los Angeles, shortly after the fighter had turned professional and before he discarded his “slave name” (Cassius Marcellus Clay) and joined the Black Muslims. Bingham subsequently became his closest male friend and has photographed every aspect of Ali’s life: his rise and fall three times as the heavyweight champion; his three-year expulsion from boxing, beginning in 1967, for refusing to serve in the American military during the Vietnam War (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”); his four marriages; his fatherhood of nine children (one adopted, two out of wedlock); his endless public appearances in all parts of the world—Germany, England, Egypt (sailing on the Nile with a son of Elijah Muhammad’s), Sweden, Libya, Pakistan (hugging refugees from Afghanistan), Japan, Indonesia, Ghana (wearing a dashiki and posing with President Kwame Nkrumah), Zaire (beating George Foreman), Manila (beating Joe Frazier)…and now, on the final night of his 1996 visit to Cuba, he is en route to a social encounter with an aging contender he has long admired—one who has survived at the top for nearly forty years despite the ill will of nine American presidents, the CIA, the Mafia, and various militant Cuban Americans.
Bingham waits for Ali near the open door of the charter bus that is blocking the hotel’s entrance; but Ali lingers within the crowd in the lobby, and Yolanda steps aside to let some people get closer to her husband.
She is a large and pretty woman of thirty-eight, with a radiant smile and a freckled, fair complexion that reflects her interracial ancestry. A scarf is loosely draped over her head and shoulders, her arms are covered by long sleeves, and her well-designed dress in vivid hues hangs below her knees. She converted to Islam from Catholicism when she married Ali, a man sixteen years her senior but one with whom she shared a familial bond dating back to her girlhood in their native Louisville, where her mother and Ali’s mother were sisterly soul mates who traveled together to attend his fights. Yolanda had occasionally joined Ali’s entourage, becoming acquainted with not only the boxing element but with Ali’s female contemporaries who were his lovers, his wives, the mothers of his children; and she remained in touch with Ali throughout the 1970s, while she majored in psychology at Vanderbilt and later earned her master’s degree in business at UCLA. Then—with the end of Ali’s boxing career, his third marriage, and his vibrant health—Yolanda intimately entered his life as casually and naturally as she now stands waiting to reclaim her place at his side.
She knows that he is enjoying himself. There is a slight twinkle in his eyes, not much expression on his face, and no words forthcoming from this once most talkative of champions. But the mind behind his Parkinson’s mask is functioning normally, and he is characteristically committed to what he is doing: He is spelling out his full name on whatever cards or scraps of paper his admirers are handing him. “Muhammad Ali.” He does not settle for a time-saving “Ali” or his mere initials. He has never shortchanged his audience.
And in this audience tonight are people from Latin America, Canada, Africa, Russia, China, Germany, France. There are two hundred French travel agents staying at the hotel in conjunction with the Cuban government’s campaign to increase its growing tourist trade (which last year saw about 745,000 visitors spending an estimated $1 billion on the island). There is also on hand an Italian movie producer and his lady friend from Rome and a onetime Japanese wrestler, Antonio Inoki, who injured Ali’s legs during a 1976 exhibition in Tokyo (but who warmly embraced him two nights ago in the hotel’s lounge as they sat listening to Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes playing jazz on a Russian-made Moskva baby grand); and there is also in the crowd, standing taller than the rest, the forty-three-year-old, six-foot five-inch Cuban heavyweight hero Teófilo Stevenson, who was a three-time Olympic gold medalist, in 1972, 1976, and 1980, and who, on this island at least, is every bit as renowned as Ali or Castro.
Though part of Stevenson’s reputation derives from his erstwhile power and skill in the ring (although he never fought Ali), it is also attributable to his not having succumbed to the offers of professional boxing promoters, stubbornly resisting the Yankee dollar—although Stevenson hardly seems deprived. He dwells among his countrymen like a towering Cuban peacock, occupying high positions within the government’s athletic programs and gaining sufficient attention from the island’s women to have garnered four wives so far, who are testimony to his eclectic taste.
His first wife was a dance instructor. His second was an industrial engineer. His third was a medical doctor. His fourth and present wife is a criminal attorney. Her name is Fraymari, and she is a girlishly petite olive-skinned woman of twenty-three who, standing next to her husband in the lobby, rises barely higher than the midsection of his embroidered guayabera—a tightly tailored, short-sleeved shirt that accentuates his tapered torso, his broad shoulders, and the length of his dark, muscular arms, which once prevented his opponents from doing any injustice to his winning Latin looks.
Stevenson always fought from an upright position, and he maintains that posture today. When people talk to him, his eyes look downward, but his head remains high. The firm jaw of his oval-shaped head seems to be locked at a right angle to his straight-spined back. He is a proud man who exhibits all of his height. But he does listen, especially when the words being directed up at him are coming from the perky little attorney who is his wife. Fraymari is now reminding him that it is getting late—everyone should be on the bus; Fidel may be waiting.
Stevenson lowers his eyes toward her and winks. He has gotten the message. He has been Ali’s principal escort throughout this visit. He was also Ali’s guest in the United States during the fall of 1995; and though he knows only a few words of English, and Ali no Spanish, they are brotherly in their body language.
Stevenson edges himself into the crowd and gently places his right arm around the shoulders of his fellow champion. And then, slowly but firmly, he guides Ali toward the bus.
The road to Fidel Castro’s Palace of the Revolution leads through a memory lane of old American automobiles chugging along at about twenty-five miles an hour—springless, pre-embargo Ford coupes and Plymouth sedans, DeSotos and LaSalles, Nashes and Studebakers, and various vehicular collages created out of Cadillac grilles and Oldsmobile axles and Buick fenders patched with pieces of oil-drum metal and powered by engines interlinked with kitchen utensils and pre-Batista lawn mowers and other gadgets that have elevated the craft of tinkering in Cuba to the status of high art.
The relatively newer forms of transportation seen on the road are, of course, non-American products—Polish Fiats, Russian Ladas, German motor scooters, Chinese bicycles, and the glistening, newly imported, air-conditioned Japanese bus from which Muhammad Ali is now gazing through a closed window out toward the street. At times, he raises a hand in response to one of the waving pedestrians or cyclists or motorists who recognize the bus, which has been shown repeatedly on the local TV news conveying Ali and his companions to the medical centers and tourist sites that have been part of the busy itinerary.
On the bus, as always, Ali is sitting alone, spread out across the two front seats in the left aisle directly behind the Cuban driver. Yolanda sits a few feet ahead of him to the right; she is adjacent to the driver and within inches of the windshield. The seats behind her are occupied by Teófilo Stevenson, Fraymari, and the photographer Bingham. Seated behind Ali, and also occupying two seats, is an American screenwriter named Greg Howard who weighs more than three hundred pounds. Although he has traveled with Ali for only a few months while researching a film on the fighter’s life, Greg Howard has firmly established himself as an intimate sidekick and as such is among the very few on this trip who have heard Ali’s voice. Ali speaks so softly that it is impossible to hear him in a crowd, and as a result whatever public comments or sentiments he is expected to, or chooses to, express are verbalized by Yolanda, or Bingham, or Teófilo Stevenson, or even at times by this stout young screenwriter.
“Ali is in his Zen period,” Greg Howard has said more than once in reference to Ali’s quiescence. Like Ali, he admires what he has seen so far in Cuba—“There’s no racism here”—and as a black man he has long identified with many of Ali’s frustrations and confrontations. His student thesis at Princeton analyzed the Newark race riots of 1967, and the Hollywood script he most recently completed focuses on the Negro baseball leagues of the pre-World War II years. He envisions his new work on Ali in the genre of Gandhi.
The two dozen bus seats behind those tacitly reserved for Ali’s inner circle are occupied by the secretary-general of the Cuban Red Cross and the American humanitarian personnel who have entrusted him with $500,000 worth of donated medical supplies; and there are also the two Cuban interpreters and a dozen members of the American media, including the CBS-TV commentator Ed Bradley and his producers and camera crew from 60 Minutes.
Ed Bradley is a gracious but reserved individualist who has appeared on television for a decade with his left earlobe pierced by a small circular ring—which, after some unfavorable comment initially expressed by his colleagues Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney, prompted Bradley’s explanation: “It’s my ear.” Bradley also indulges in his identity as a cigar smoker; and as he sits in the midsection of the bus next to his Haitian lady friend, he is taking full advantage of the Communist regime’s laissez-faire attitude toward tobacco, puffing away on a Cohiba Robusto, for which he paid full price at the Nacional’s tobacco shop—and which now exudes a costly cloud of fragrance that appeals to his friend (who occasionally also smokes cigars) but is not appreciated by the two California women who are seated two rows back and are affiliated with a humanitarian-aid agency.
Indeed, the women have been commenting about the smoking habits of countless people they have encountered in Havana, being especially disappointed to discover earlier this very day that the pediatric hospital they visited (and to which they committed donations) is under the supervision of three tobacco-loving family physicians. When one of the American women, a blond from Santa Barbara, reproached one of the cigarette-smoking doctors indirectly for setting such a poor example, she was told in effect that the island’s health statistics regarding longevity, infant mortality, and general fitness compared favorably with those in the United States and were probably better than those of Americans residing in the capital city of Washington. On the other hand, the doctor made it clear that he did not believe that smoking was good for one’s health—after all, Fidel himself had given it up; but unfortunately, the doctor added, in a classic understatement, “some people have not followed him.”
Nothing the doctor said appeased the woman from Santa Barbara. She did not, however, wish to appear confrontational at the hospital’s news conference, which was covered by the press; nor during her many bus rides with Ed Bradley did she ever request that he discard his cigar. “Mr. Bradley intimidates me,” she confided to her California coworker. But he was of course living within the law on this island that the doctor had called “the cradle of the best tobacco in the world.” In Cuba, the most available American periodical on the newsstands is Cigar Aficionado.
The bus passes through the Plaza de la Revolución and comes to a halt at a security checkpoint near the large glass doors that open onto the marble-floored foyer of a 1950s modem building that is the center of communism’s only stronghold in the Western Hemisphere.
As the bus door swings open, Greg Howard moves forward in his seat and grabs the 235-pound Muhammad Ali by the arms and shoulders and helps him to his feet; and after Ali has made his way down to the metal step, he turns and stretches back into the bus to take hold of the extended hands and forearms of the 300-pound screenwriter and pulls him to a standing position. This routine, repeated at each and every bus stop throughout the week, is never accompanied by either man’s acknowledging that he has received any assistance, although Ali is aware that some passengers find the pas de deux quite amusing, and he is not reluctant to use his friend to further comic effect. After the bus had made an earlier stop in front of the sixteenth-century Morro Castle—where Ali had followed Teófilo Stevenson up a 117-step spiral staircase for a rooftop view of Havana Harbor—he spotted the solitary figure of Greg Howard standing below in the courtyard. Knowing that there was no way the narrow staircase could accommodate Howard’s wide body, Ali suddenly began to wave his arms, summoning Howard to come up and join him.
Castro’s security guards, who know in advance the names of all the bus passengers, guide Ali and the others through the glass doors and then into a pair of waiting elevators for a brief ride that is followed by a short walk through a corridor and finally into a large white-walled reception room, where it is announced that Fidel Castro will soon join them. The room has high ceilings and potted palms in every corner and is sparsely furnished with modem tan leather furniture. Next to a sofa is a table with two telephones, one gray and the other red. Overlooking the sofa is an oil painting of the Viñales valley, which lies west of Havana; and among the primitive art displayed on a circular table in front of the sofa is a grotesque tribal figure similar to the one Ali had examined earlier in the week at a trinket stand while touring with the group in Havana’s Old Square. Ali had then whispered into the ear of Howard Bingham, and Bingham had repeated aloud what Ali had said: “Joe Frazier.”
Ali now stands in the middle of the room, next to Bingham, who carries under his arm the framed photograph he plans to give Castro. Teófilo Stevenson and Fraymari stand facing them. The diminutive and delicate-boned Fraymari has painted her lips scarlet and has pulled back her black hair in a matronly manner, hoping no doubt to appear more mature than her twenty-three years suggest, but standing next to the three much older and heavier and taller men transforms her image closer to that of an anorexic teenager. Ali’s wife and Greg Howard are wandering about within the group that is exchanging comments in muted tones, either in English or Spanish, sometimes assisted by the interpreters. Ali’s hands are shaking uncontrollably at his sides; but since his companions have witnessed this all week, the only people who are now paying attention are the security guards posted near the door.
Also waiting near the door for Castro is the four-man CBS camera team, and chatting with them and his two producers is Ed Bradley, without his cigar. There are no ashtrays in this room! This is a most uncommon sight in Cuba. Its implications might be political. Perhaps the sensibilities of the blond woman from Santa Barbara were taken into account by the doctors at the hospital and communicated to Castro’s underlings, who are now making a conciliatory gesture toward their American benefactress.
Since the security guards have not invited the guests to be seated, everybody remains standing—for ten minutes, for twenty minutes, and then for a full half hour. Teófilo Stevenson shifts his weight from foot to foot and gazes over the heads of the crowd toward the upper level of the portal through which Castro is expected to enter—if he shows up. Stevenson knows from experience that Castro’s schedule is unpredictable. There is always a crisis of some sort in Cuba, and it has long been rumored on the island that Castro constantly changes the location of where he sleeps. The identity of his bed partners is, of course, a state secret. Two nights ago, Stevenson and Ali and the rest were kept waiting until midnight for an expected meeting with Castro at the Hotel Biocaribe (to which Bingham had brought his gift photograph). But Castro never appeared. And no explanation was offered.
Now in this reception room, it is already 9:00 P.M. Ali continues to shake. No one has had dinner. The small talk is getting smaller. A few people would like to smoke. The regime is not assuaging anyone in this crowd with a bartender. It is a cocktail party without cocktails. There are not even canapés or soft drinks. Everyone is becoming increasingly restless—and then suddenly there is a collective sigh. The very familiar man with the beard strides into the room, dressed for guerrilla combat; and in a cheerful, high-pitched voice that soars beyond his whiskers, he announces, “Buenas noches!”
In an even higher tone, he repeats, “Buenas noches,” this time with a few waves to the group while hastening toward the guest of honor; and then, with his arms extended, the seventy-year-old Fidel Castro immediately obscures the lower half of Ali’s expressionless face with a gentle embrace and his flowing gray beard.
“I am glad to see you,” Castro says to Ali, via the interpreter who followed him into the room, a comely, fair-skinned woman with a refined English accent. “I am very, very glad to see you,” Castro continues, backing up to look into Ali’s eyes while holding on to his trembling arms, “and I am thankful for your visit.” Castro then releases his grip and awaits a possible reply. Ali says nothing. His expression remains characteristically fixed and benign, and his eyes do not blink despite the flashbulbs of several surrounding photographers. As the silence persists, Castro turns toward his old friend Teófilo Stevenson, feigning a jab. The Cuban boxing champion lowers his eyes and, with widened lips and cheeks, registers a smile. Castro then notices the tiny brunette standing beside Stevenson.
“Stevenson, who is this young woman?” Castro asks aloud in a tone of obvious approval. But before Stevenson can reply, Fraymari steps forward with a hint of lawyerly indignation: “You mean you don’t remember me?”
Castro seems stunned. He smiles feebly, trying to conceal his confusion. He turns inquiringly toward his boxing hero, but Stevenson’s eyes only roll upward. Stevenson knows that Castro has met Fraymari socially on earlier occasions, but unfortunately the Cuban leader has forgotten, and it is equally unfortunate that Fraymari is now behaving like a prosecutor.
“You held my son in your arms before he was one year old!” she reminds him while Castro continues to ponder. The crowd is attentive; the television cameras are rolling.
“At a volleyball game?” Castro asks tentatively.
“No, no,” Stevenson interrupts, before Fraymari can say anything more, “that was my former wife. The doctor.”
Castro slowly shakes his head in mock disapproval. Then he abruptly turns away from the couple, but not before reminding Stevenson, “You should get name tags.”
Castro redirects his attention to Muhammad Ali. He studies Ali’s face.
“Where is your wife?” he asks softly. Ali says nothing. There is more silence and turning of heads in the group until Howard Bingham spots Yolanda standing near the back and waves her to Castro’s side.
Before she arrives, Bingham steps forward and presents Castro with the photograph of Ali and Malcolm X in Harlem in 1963. Castro holds it up level with his eyes and studies it silently for several seconds. When this picture was taken, Castro had been in control of Cuba for nearly four years. He was then thirty-seven. In 1959, he defeated the U.S.A.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, overcoming odds greater than Ali’s subsequent victory over the supposedly unbeatable Sonny Liston. Batista had actually announced Castro’s death back in 1956. Castro, then hiding in a secret outpost, thirty years old and beardless, was a disgruntled Jesuit-trained lawyer who was born into a land-owning family and who craved Batista’s job. At thirty-two, he had it. Batista was forced to flee to the Dominican Republic.
During this period, Muhammad Ali was only an amateur. His greatest achievement would come in 1960, when he received a gold medal in Rome as a member of the United States Olympic boxing team. But later in the sixties, he and Castro would share the world stage as figures moving against the American establishment—and now, in the twilight of their lives, on this winter’s night in Havana, they meet for the first time: Ali silent and Castro isolated on his island.
“Que bien!” Castro says to Howard Bingham before showing the photograph to his interpreter. Then Castro is introduced by Bingham to Ali’s wife. After they exchange greetings through the interpreter, he asks her, as if surprised, “You don’t speak Spanish?”
“No,” she says softly. She begins to caress her husband’s left wrist, on which he wears a $250 silver Swiss Army watch she bought him. It is the only jewelry Ali wears.
“But I thought I saw you speaking Spanish on the TV news this week,” Castro continues wonderingly before acknowledging that her voice had obviously been dubbed.
“Do you live in New York?”
“No, we live in Michigan.”
“Cold,” says Castro.
“Very cold,” she repeats.
“In Michigan, don’t you find many people that speak Spanish?”
“No, not many,” she says. “Mostly in California, New York...” and, after a pause, “Florida.”
Castro nods. It takes him a few seconds to think up another question. Small talk has never been the forte of this man who specializes in nonstop haranguing monologues that can last for hours; and yet here he is, in a room crowded with camera crews and news photographers—a talk-show host with a guest of honor who is speechless. But Fidel Castro plods on, asking Ali’s wife if she has a favorite sport.
“I play a little tennis,” Yolanda says, and then asks him, “Do you play tennis?”
“Ping-Pong,” he replies, quickly adding that during his youth he had been active in the ring. “I spent hours boxing....” he begins to reminisce, but before he finishes his sentence, he sees the slowly rising right fist of Muhammad Ali moving toward his chin! Exuberant cheering and handclapping resound through the room, and Castro jumps sideways toward Stevenson, shouting,“Asesorame!”—“Help me!”
Stevenson’s long arms land upon Ali’s shoulders from behind, squeezing him gently; and then, after he releases him, the two ex-champions face each other and begin to act out in slow motion the postures of competing prizefighters—bobbing, weaving, swinging, ducking—all of it done without touching and all of it accompanied by three minutes of ongoing applause and the clicking of cameras, and also some feelings of relief from Ali’s friends because, in his own way, he has decided to join them. Ali still says nothing, his face still inscrutable, but he is less remote, less alone, and he does not pull away from Stevenson’s embrace as the latter eagerly tells Castro about a boxing exhibition that he and Ali had staged earlier in the week at the Balado gym, in front of hundreds of fans and some of the island’s up-and-coming contenders.
Stevenson did not actually explain that it had been merely another photo opportunity, one in which they sparred openhanded in the ring, wearing their street clothes and barely touching each other’s bodies and faces; but then Stevenson had climbed out of the ring, leaving Ali to the more taxing test of withstanding two abbreviated rounds against one and then another young bully of grade-school age who clearly had not come to participate in a kiddie show. They had come to floor the champ. Their bellicose little bodies and hot-gloved hands and helmeted hell-bent heads were consumed with fury and ambition; and as they charged ahead, swinging wildly and swaggering to the roars of their teenage friends and relatives at ringside, one could imagine their future boastings to their grandchildren: On one fine day back in the winter of ’96, I whacked Muhammad Ali! Except, in truth, on this particular day, Ali was still too fast for them. He backpedaled and shifted and swayed, stood on the toes of his black woven-leather pointed shoes, and showed that his body was made for motion—his Parkinson’s problems were lost in his shuffle, in the thrusts of his butterfly sting that whistled two feet above the heads of his aspiring assailants, in the dazzling dips of his rope-a-dope that had confounded George Foreman in Zaire, in his ever-memorable style, which in this Cuban gym moistened the eyes of his ever-observant photographer friend and provoked the overweight screenwriter to cry out in a voice that few in this noisy Spanish crowd could understand, “Ali’s on a high! Ali’s on a high!”
Teófilo Stevenson raises Ali’s right arm above the head of Castro, and the news photographers spend several minutes posing the three of them together in flashing light. Castro then sees Fraymari watching alone at some distance. She is not smiling. Castro nods toward her. He summons a photographer to take a picture of Fraymari and himself. But she relaxes only after her husband comes over to join her in the conversation, which Castro immediately directs to the health and growth of their son, who is not yet two years old.
“Will he be as tall as his father?” Castro asks.
“I assume so,” Fraymari says, glancing up toward her husband. She also has to look up when talking to Fidel Castro, for the Cuban leader is taller than six feet and his posture is nearly as erect as her husband’s. Only the six-foot three-inch Muhammad Ali, who is standing with Bingham on the far side of her husband—and whose skin coloring, oval-shaped head, and burr-style haircut are very similar to her husband’s—betrays his height with the slope-shouldered forward slouch he has developed since his illness.
“How much does your son weigh?” Castro continues.
“When he was one year old, he was already twenty-six pounds,” Fraymari says. “This is three above normal. He was walking at nine months.”
“She still breast-feeds him,” Teófilo Stevenson says, seeming pleased.
“Oh, that’s very nourishing,” agrees Castro.
“Sometimes the kid becomes confused and thinks my chest is his mother’s breast,” Stevenson says, and he could have added that his son is also confused by Ali’s sunglasses. The little boy engraved teeth marks all over the plastic frames while chewing on them during the days he accompanied his parents on Ali’s bus tour.
As a CBS boom pole swoops down closer to catch the conversation, Castro reaches out to touch Stevenson’s belly and asks, “How much do you weigh?”
“Two hundred thirty-eight pounds, more or less.”
“That’s thirty-eight more than me,” Castro says, but he complains, “I eat very little. Very little. The diet advice I get is never accurate. I eat around fifteen hundred calories—less than thirty grams of protein, less than that.”
Castro slaps a hand against his own midsection, which is relatively flat. If he does have a potbelly, it is concealed within his well-tailored uniform. Indeed, for a man of seventy, he seems in fine health. His facial skin is florid and unsagging, his dark eyes dart around the room with ever-alert intensity, and he has a full head of lustrous gray hair not thinning at the crown. The attention he pays to himself might be measured from his manicured fingernails down to his square-toed boots, which are unscuffed and smoothly buffed without the burnish of a lackey’s spit shine. But his beard seems to belong to another man and another time. It is excessively long and scraggly. Wispy white hairs mix with the faded black and dangle down the front of his uniform like an old shroud, weatherworn and drying out. It is the beard from the hills. Castro strokes it constantly, as if trying to revive the vitality of its fiber.
Castro now looks at Ali.
“How’s your appetite?” he asks, forgetting that Ali is not speaking.
“Where’s your wife?” he then asks aloud, and Howard Bingham calls out to her. Yolanda has once more drifted back into the group.
When she arrives, Castro hesitates before speaking to her. It is as if he is not absolutely sure who she is. He has met so many people since arriving, and with the group rotating constantly due to the jostling of the photographers, Castro cannot be certain whether the woman at his side is Muhammad Ali’s wife or Ed Bradley’s friend or some other woman he has met moments ago who has left him with an unlasting impression. Having already committed a faux pas regarding one of the wives of the two multimarried ex-champions standing nearby, Castro waits for some hint from his interpreter. None is offered. Fortunately, he does not have to worry in this country about the women’s vote—or any vote, for that matter—but he does sigh in mild relief when Yolanda reintroduces herself as Ali’s wife and does so by name.
“Ah, Yolanda,” Castro repeats, “what a beautiful name. That’s the name of a queen somewhere.”
“In our household,” she says.
“And how is your husband’s appetite?”
“Good, but he likes sweets.”
“We can send you some of our ice cream to Michigan,” Castro says. Without waiting for her to comment, he asks, “Michigan is very cold?”
“Oh, yes,” she replies, not indicating that they had already discussed Michigan’s winter weather.
“How much snow?”
“We didn’t get hit with the blizzard,” Yolanda says, referring to a storm in January, “but it can get three, four feet—”
Teófilo Stevenson interrupts to say that he had been in Michigan during the previous October.
“Oh,” Castro says, raising an eyebrow. He mentions that during the same month he had also been in the United States (attending the United Nations’ fiftieth-anniversary tribute). He asks Stevenson the length of his American visit.
“I was there for nineteen days,” says Stevenson.
“Nineteen days!” Castro repeats. “Longer than I was.”
Castro complains that he was limited to five days and prohibited from traveling beyond New York.
“Well, comandante,” Stevenson responds offhandedly, in a slightly superior tone, “if you like, I will sometime show you my video.”
Stevenson appears to be very comfortable in the presence of the Cuban leader, and perhaps the latter has habitually encouraged this; but at this moment, Castro may well be finding his boxing hero a bit condescending and worthy of a retaliatory jab. He knows how to deliver it.
“When you visited the United States,” Castro asks pointedly, “did you bring your wife, the lawyer?”
Stevenson stiffens. He directs his eyes toward his wife. She turns away.
“No,” Stevenson answers quietly. “I went alone.”
Castro abruptly shifts his attention to the other side of the room, where the CBS camera crew is positioned, and he asks Ed Bradley, “What do you do?”
“We’re making a documentary on Ali,” Bradley explains, “and we followed him to Cuba to see what he was doing in Cuba and...”
Bradley’s voice is suddenly overwhelmed by the sounds of laughter and handclapping. Bradley and Castro turn to discover that Muhammad Ali is now reclaiming everyone’s attention. He is holding his shaky left fist in the air; but instead of assuming a boxer’s pose, as he had done earlier, he is beginning to pull out from the top of his upraised fist, slowly and with dramatic delicacy, the tip of a red silk handkerchief that is pinched between his right index finger and thumb.
After he has pulled out the entire handkerchief, he dangles it in the air for a few seconds, waving it closer and closer to the forehead of the wide-eyed Fidel Castro. Ali seems bewitched. He continues to stare stagnantly at Castro and the others, surrounded by applause that he gives no indication he hears. Then he proceeds to place the handkerchief back into the top of his cupped left hand—pecking with the pinched fingers of his right—and then quickly opens his palms toward his audience and reveals that the handkerchief has disappeared.
“Where is it?” cries Castro, who seems to be genuinely surprised and delighted. He approaches Ali and examines his hands, repeating, “Where is it? Where have you put it?”
Everyone who has traveled on Ali’s bus during the week knows where he has hidden it. They have seen him perform the trick repeatedly in front of some of the patients and doctors at the hospitals and clinics as well as before countless tourists who have recognized him in his hotel lobby or during his strolls through the town square. They have also seen him follow up each performance with a demonstration that exposes his method. He keeps hidden in his fist a flesh-colored rubber thumb that contains the handkerchief that he will eventually pull out with the fingers of his other hand; and when he is reinserting the handkerchief, he is actually shoving the material back into the concealed rubber thumb, into which he then inserts his own right thumb. When he opens his hands, the uninformed among his onlookers are seeing his empty palms and missing the fact that the handkerchief is tucked within the rubber thumb that is covering his outstretched right thumb. Sharing with his audience the mystery of his magic always earns him additional applause.
After Ali has performed and explained the trick to Castro, he gives Castro the rubber thumb to examine—and, with more zest than he has shown all evening, Castro says, “Oh, let me try it, I want to try—it’s the first time I have seen such a wonderful thing!” And after a few minutes of coaching from Howard Bingham, who long ago learned how to do it from Ali, the Cuban leader performs with sufficient dexterity and panache to satisfy his magical ambitions and to arouse another round of applause from the guests.
Meanwhile, more than ten minutes have passed since Ali began his comic routine. It is already after 9:30 P.M., and the commentator Ed Bradley, whose conversation with Castro had been interrupted, is concerned that the Cuban leader might leave the room without responding to the questions Bradley has prepared for his show. Bradley edges close to Castro’s interpreter, saying in a voice that is sure to be heard, “Would you ask him if he followed … was able to follow Ali when he was boxing professionally?”
The question is relayed and repeated until Castro, facing the CBS cameras, replies, “Yes, I recall the days when they were discussing the possibilities of a match between the two of them”—he nods toward Stevenson and Ali—“and I remember when he went to Africa.”
“In Zaire,” Bradley clarifies, referring to Ali’s victory in 1974 over George Foreman. And he follows up: “What kind of impact did he have in this country, because he was a revolutionary as well as…?”
“It was great,” Castro says. “He was very much admired as a sportsman, as a boxer, as a person. There was always a high opinion of him. But I never guessed one day we would meet here, with this kind gesture of bringing medicine, seeing our children, visiting our polyclinics. I am very glad, I am thrilled, to have the opportunity to meet him personally, to appreciate his kindness. I see he is strong. I see he has a very kind face.”
Castro is speaking as if Ali were not in the room, standing a few feet away. Ali maintains his fixed facade even as Stevenson whispers into his ear, asking in English, “Muhammad, Muhammad, why you no speak?” Stevenson then turns to tell the journalist who stands behind him, “Muhammad does speak. He speaks to me.” Stevenson says nothing more because Castro is now looking at him while continuing to tell Bradley, “I am very glad that he and Stevenson have met.” After a pause, Castro adds, “And I am glad that they never fought.”
“He’s not so sure,” Bradley interjects, smiling in the direction of Stevenson.
“I find in that friendship something beautiful,” Castro insists softly.
“There is a tie between the two of them,” Bradley says.
“Yes,” says Castro. “It is true.” He again looks at Ali, then at Stevenson, as if searching for something more profound to say.
“And how’s the documentary?” he finally asks Bradley.
“It’ll be on 60 Minutes.”
“Maybe one month,” Bradley says, reminding Castro’s interpreter, “This is the program on which the comandante has been interviewed by Dan Rather a number of times in the past, when Dan Rather was on 60 Minutes.”
“And who’s there now?” Castro wants to know.
“I am,” Bradley answers.
“You,” Castro repeats, with a quick glance at Bradley’s earring. “So you are there—the boss now?”
Bradley responds as a media star without illusions: “I’m a worker.”
Trays containing coffee, tea, and orange juice finally arrive, but only in amounts sufficient for Ali and Yolanda, Howard Bingham, Greg Howard, the Stevensons, and Castro—although Castro tells the waiters he wants nothing.
Castro motions for Ali and the others to join him across the room, around the circular table. The camera crews and the rest of the guests follow, standing as near to the principals as they can. But throughout the group, there is a discernible restlessness. They have been standing for more than an hour and a half. It is now approaching 10:00 P.M. There has been no food. And for the vast majority, it is clear that there will also be nothing to drink. Even among the special guests, seated and sipping from chilled glasses or hot cups, there is a waning level of fascination with the evening. Indeed, Muhammad Ali’s eyes are closed. He is sleeping.
Yolanda sits next to him on the sofa, pretending not to notice. Castro also ignores it, although he sits directly across the table, with the interpreter and the Stevensons.
“How large is Michigan?” Castro begins a new round of questioning with Yolanda, returning for the third time to a subject they had explored beyond the interest of anyone in the room except Castro himself.
“I don’t know how big the state is as far as demographics,” Yolanda says. “We live in a very small village [Barrien Springs] with about two thousand people.”
“Are you going back to Michigan tomorrow?”
“Via Miami?” Castro asks.
“From Miami, where do you fly?”
“We’re flying to Michigan.”
“How many hours’ flight?”
“We have to change at Cincinnati—about two and a half hours.”
“Flying time?” asks Castro.
Muhammad Ali opens his eyes, then closes them.
“Flying time,” Yolanda repeats.
“From Miami to Michigan?” Castro continues.
“No,” she again explains, but still with patience, “we have to go to Cincinnati. There are no direct flights.”
“So you have to take two planes?” Castro asks.
“Yes,” she says, adding for clarification, “Miami to Cincinnati—and then Cincinnati to South Bend, Indiana.”
“To South Bend,” she says. “That’s the closest airport.”
“So,” Fidel goes on, “it is on the outskirts of the city?”
“You have a farm?”
“No,” Yolanda says, “just land. We let someone else do the growing.”
She mentions that Teófilo Stevenson has traveled through this part of the Midwest. The mention of his name gains Stevenson’s attention.
“I was in Chicago,” Stevenson tells Castro.
“You were at their home?” Castro asks.
“No,” Yolanda corrects Stevenson, “you were in Michigan.”
“I was in the countryside,” Stevenson says. Unable to resist, he adds, “I have a video of that visit. I’ll show it to you sometime.”
Castro seems not to hear him. He directs his attention back to Yolanda, asking her where she was born, where she was educated, when she became married, and how many years separate her age from that of her husband, Muhammad Ali.
After Yolanda acknowledges being sixteen years younger than Ali, Castro turns toward Fraymari and with affected sympathy says that she married a man who is twenty years her senior.
“Comandante!” Stevenson intercedes, “I am in shape. Sports keep you healthy. Sports add years to your life and life to your years!”
“Oh, what conflict she has,” Castro goes on, ignoring Stevenson and catering to Fraymari—and to the CBS cameraman who steps forward for a closer view of Castro’s face. “She is a lawyer, and she does not put this husband in jail.” Castro is enjoying much more than Fraymari the attention this topic is now getting from the group. Castro had lost his audience and now has it back and seemingly wants to retain it, no matter at what cost to Stevenson’s harmony with Fraymari. Yes, Castro continues, Fraymari had the misfortune to select a husband “who can never settle down.... Jail would be an appropriate place for him.”
“Comandante,” Stevenson interrupts in a jocular manner that seems intended to placate both the lawyer who is his spouse and the lawyer who rules the country, “I might as well be locked up!” He implies that should he deviate from marital fidelity, his lawyer wife “will surely put me in a place where she is the only woman who can visit me!”
Everyone around the table and within the circling group laughs. Ali is now awake. The banter between Castro and Stevenson resumes until Yolanda, all but rising in her chair, tells Castro, “We have to pack.”
“You’re going to have dinner now?” he asks.’
“Yes, sir,” she says. Ali stands, along with Howard Bingham. Yolanda thanks Castro’s interpreter directly, saying, “Be sure to tell him, ‘You’re always welcome in our home.’” The interpreter quotes Castro as again complaining that when he visits America, he is usually restricted to New York, but he adds, “Things change.”
The group watches as Yolanda and Ali pass through, and Castro follows them into the hallway. The elevator arrives, and its door is held open by a security guard. Castro extends his final farewell with handshakes—and only then does he discover that he holds Ali’s rubber thumb in his hand. Apologizing, he tries to hand it back to Ali, but Bingham politely protests. “No, no,” Bingham says, “Ali wants you to have it.” Castro’s interpreter at first fails to understand what Bingham is saying.
“He wants you to keep it,” Bingham repeats.
Bingham enters the elevator with Ali and Yolanda. Before the door closes, Castro smiles, waves goodbye, and stares with curiosity at the rubber thumb. Then he puts it in his pocket.
Gay Talese is a bestselling author who has written eleven books. He was a reporter for The New York Times from 1956 to 1965, and since then he has written for the Times, Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and others. “Ali in Havana,” reprinted here by permission of the author, first appeared in Esquire and was later included in The Gay Talese Reader, Best American Essays 1997, and The Silent Season of a Hero.