In the autumn of 1960, Harlem would have struck few people as an obvious place to stay. Long famous as the heartland of black New York, the northern tip of Manhattan had an unenviable reputation for poverty, robbery and murder. Asthma, venereal disease and tuberculosis rates were shockingly high; the streets were full of rubbish; drug addiction was rising fast. And many of the area’s brick tenements, writes the historian Simon Hall, were ‘little more than rat-infested slums’.
Yet there was no denying that Harlem had an energy, a life force, rivalled by few other parts of the city. At all hours, recorded the poet LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Bakara, the streets were full of ‘young girls, doctors, pimps, detectives, preachers, drummers, accountants, gamblers, labor organizers, postmen, wives, Muslims, junkies … an endless stream of Americans, whose singularity in America is that they are black and can never honestly enter into the lunatic asylum of white America’.
For some people, evidently, the supposed exoticism of Harlem was impossible to resist. So it was that on Monday 19 September a bearded foreign gentleman checked into the Hotel Theresa. Although the hotel had a reputation as the area’s best, its staff were not used to looking after world leaders, so the arrival of Cuba’s new strongman, Fidel Castro, came as something of a shock. Crowds gathered outside, chanting and singing day and night. Anti-Castro exiles turned up, too, provoking shouting matches and punch-ups.
To his credit, Castro himself seemed a model of good cheer, gleefully posing for pictures with the black employees. But another foreign friend who came to call was less impressed by the Theresa. The ‘air was heavy and stale,’ recalled the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. ‘The furniture and bedclothes had not been aired out sufficiently, and perhaps they were not, as we say, of the first degree of freshness – or even the second.’
Castro and Khrushchev were in New York to address the fifteenth session of the UN General Assembly, which proved to be one of the great diplomatic set pieces of the 20th century. Still not yet two decades old, the UN had a glamour and fascination then that it has now lost. Everybody who was anybody was there, from Harold Macmillan and Gamal Abdel Nasser to Kwame Nkrumah and Jawaharlal Nehru.
But with the Cold War at its height, Castro, who had seized power at the start of 1959, was the star of the show. In the words of the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Castro was ‘the hipster who in the era of the Organization Man had joyfully defied the system, summoned a dozen good friends and overturned a government of wicked old men’. Almost every gesture seemed calculated to infuriate his American hosts, culminating in his infamous four-and-a-half-hour tirade to the UN on the afternoon of 26 September.
All this is splendidly entertaining stuff, and Hall, who teaches at the University of Leeds, has great fun with it. His brisk, colourful, impeccably researched book covers Castro’s trip day by day, with occasional digressions or flashbacks to fill in some of the background. One moment Castro is earnestly shaking hands with Malcolm X and the next he is treating everybody to beers in the hotel cafe. Poets, intellectuals, spies and diplomats come and go, grinning self-consciously for the cameras.
Yet all the time, in the background, there is a growing sense of tension. After Khrushchev attacks the West at the UN, President Eisenhower even flirts with the unthinkable. To his secretary, he mutters that he wishes ‘there was no moral restriction that prevented him from one night pushing the proper button and sending all of our atomic bombs in the direction of the Communist bloc’.
Castro returned home after a turbulent ten-day stay, having cemented his reputation as the dashing young meteor of the communist world. Suffused with a sense of his own importance, he boasted that he had humiliated the Americans, ‘ignorant, illiterate, and cowards’, on their own soil. But wasn’t this just empty bombast? Did it matter?
Hall thinks it did. This was, he points out, a pivotal moment in the Cold War, with the two superpowers keenly eyeing up the postcolonial states of Africa and Asia. Perhaps above all, Castro’s visit thoroughly maddened the Eisenhower administration, which had already begun planning the Bay of Pigs invasion. And in Castro’s anti-American rhetoric and increasingly fervent enthusiasm for the Soviet Union, there were strong hints of the forces that would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war only two years later.
With its cool judgements and blackly comic sense of irony, Hall’s book is a rare pleasure to read. Time and again he punctures his characters’ pretensions, noting, for example, that during Castro’s celebrated rant at the UN, some of his listeners fell asleep and others slipped discreetly away. But perhaps the most memorable scene comes when Nasser, Castro’s only real rival as the champion of anti-colonialism, visits him at the Hotel Theresa.
Far from being impressed by his comrade’s decision to stay in Harlem, Nasser, like Khrushchev, was appalled by the general shabbiness and ‘terrible smells’ of the Cuban leader’s suite. Worse was to follow. As a gesture of goodwill, Nasser had brought a beautiful silver tea set for him, but Castro did not even bother to disguise his disappointment at it. He had been hoping, he said, that Nasser would bring him a crocodile.
At that, Nasser recoiled in horror. There were only four crocodiles in Egypt, he said, and they were all in zoos. For Castro, though, that was no excuse, and their conversation never recovered. The long-awaited meeting of minds proved a crushing letdown, and for days afterwards, Nasser’s men would hear him muttering sadly to himself: ‘A crocodile… a crocodile…’