It’s not often that lipstick saves a life, but in the case of the New York Times Havana correspondent Ruby Hart Phillips, a pause to freshen her make-up meant she arrived at the presidential palace moments after a volley of machine-gun fire killed four people. Such was the life of a foreign correspondent in Havana in 1952, when Fulgencio Batista seized power. Journalist Sarah Rainsford did not face quite the same perils in her time as a BBC correspondent in Cuba from 2011 to 2014, though she had plenty of challenges of her own.
Rainsford’s lively account of her time on the island moves between present-day Cuba and the final years of the Batista regime. Over the course of the book, she traces the lives of two other foreigners in Havana: Phillips, the original ‘Woman in Havana’, and the novelist Graham Greene.
Phillips’s reports, published under the gender-neutral by-line of R Hart Phillips, appeared in the New York Times for more than two decades. She fell into journalism by accident. After a childhood on an Oklahoma cattle ranch, she moved to Havana in the 1920s to work as a stenographer. There she