Desert Isle Keeper
Find Me in Havana
Find Me in Havana is a difficult book to grade. Startling, original, frank and powerful, it spellbinds and breaks a reader’s heart.
The book tells the tale of Estelita Rodriguez, a Cuban actress whose time in the spotlight led to a supporting role in Rio Bravo and a series of Roy Rogers films. Estelita had a troubled and storied life in the spotlight during Hollywood’s golden years; she had four husbands and faced racism and misogyny in her short life. Her last role – in the infamous B movie Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter – arrived in theaters only a month and four days after Estelita’s sudden death at thirty-seven, still unsolved and still mysterious, when her daughter and only child was only twenty.
Her daughter and only child Nina was twenty at the time, and is is she who splits the narrative here. Mourning her mother and suspecting foul play may have played a hand in her sudden death – from what cause the authorities cannot (or refuse to) determine – Nina sets about trying to figure out the hows and whys of Estelita’s unexplained and unexpected death.
All the while – and in first person present – a ghostly Estelita narrates the story of her life in letter format to her daughter, detailing her early career as a child nightclub singer watched over by her own mother, and her emergence from the shadow of her sister Danita, whose relationship with Estelita never recovers when Estelita’s fame eclipses their double act. Estelita begins singing on the radio, and the post-Cuban Revolution political unrest of the time together with a meeting in a smoky Cuban nightclub at the age of nine with Desi Arnaz soon has her dreaming of America. She emigrates at fifteen, to a gig at the Copacabana, but a deal with MGM falls apart, and Estelita ends up spending four years singing in nightclubs in New York. Here, she meets Chu Chu Martinez, Nina’s father. Because Chu Chu forbids Estelita to continue her career, she takes their daughter and flees for Hollywood. She’s noticed by western serial maker Republic Pictures, and through Republic she becomes a frequent co-star of Roy Rogers, and friendly with John Wayne, with whom she has a father/daughter relationship. But Rio Bravo with the Duke proves to be the peak of Estalita’s career, and by the time of her death, she’s fallen down the rungs of Hollywood’s golden ladder to poverty row and monster flicks.
Find Me in Havana is a highly unusual book. Based on interviews with Nina, Burdick fictionalizes a world where the poignant and almost painfully intimate double portrait the reader receives of both Nina and her mother is entirely unique to the scope of the realm of a novel.
Nina does not spare the audience both the best and the worst of what she experienced. While she loved her grandmother and mother and worshiped Estelita’s beauty, the book details that one of her stepfathers (Ismael Alfonso Halfss) tried to sexually molest her when she was a preteen, and though Estelita divorces him, her attempt at securing Nina’s safety by placing her in a religious school, the decision to rend her from her family reads to Nina as blame. Another stepfather (actor Grant Withers) committed suicide with Nina and her abuela in the house in the wake of his divorce from Estelita. Her biological father, meanwhile, is calculating and cool, and steals her away to Mexico City and tries to hold her hostage, leaving her all day in the company of a drunken stranger and new young wife. There is a blistering sense of purpose here, as Nina and Estelita try to make it back over the border after Estelita has rescued her daughter – one is reminded of other border crossings, of other desperate parents, of other families separated. Worst of all is the physically abusive Ricardo A. Pego, the doctor-husband Estelita marries last. Nina, after a bad acid trip, has to a stay in a mental hospital, and after a suicide attempt is led to eventual wholeness – something Estelita, trapped in a cycle of domestic violence, cannot attain. It’s impossible to know how much of this happened to the real Nina and how much of it is fictionalization – Burdick is that talented.
There are other books that do a decent job of portraying Estelita’s family’s political activism and the pain and joy of life in a Cuba that’s aching and straining under its revolutionary ideas. It does well in portraying the Hollywood of the time, too – the land where Rita Hayworth’s meteoric rise to stardom during Estelita’s time involved painful electrolysis procedures and an Anglicanized name.
Find me in Havana is a fascinating, lacerating story. For some, it will be one too difficult to read. Others – who might know about Estelita or the difficulties of being a Cuban woman in America trying to make a success of her life – will be spellbound. I found it to be wonderfully engrossing, heartbreaking, and ultimately life-affirming. I hope others feel the same way.
NOTE: This book includes underage sexual activity, spousal abuse, domestic violence, drug use, murder, attempted suicide, rape and attempted rape of a minor.