I’m in Key West on the pier, off Higgs Beach. I came to that beach nearly every day in November 1977. I didn’t know anyone; for over a week I stayed alone in the Southern Cross Hotel on Duval, Key West’s main street. It was run by two men from the Midwest. On my birthday, a professor at a university in South Carolina, whom I met on this beach, took me out to dinner at La Concha Hotel. He told me I had a religious nature and that he continually heard voices from creatures from outerspace.
Today, two Hell’s Angels, or maybe just bikers, are swimming in their clothes off this pier. So much water everywhere is soothing. On South Street, a few streets away, is a big sign saying ‘Cuba – 90 miles’. ‘Hey, Sky gets her food stamps tomorrow,’ says one of the bikers.
I sit on the pier for some time, writing in my notebook and watching a spectacular sunset. Two men talk to me. The first is a jovial family man who’s retired and enjoying being on holiday with his wife; the second has white hair, a white beard and a slim tanned body. He invites me to a poetry evening at a restaurant called the Apple-Something, where he’s going to be reading tonight. He says he’s ‘a bohemian with a very conservative daughter’ who won’t let him see his own grandchildren. Castro’s a dictator, he adds, and it’s healthy to oppose one’s government, whatever it may be. Jews and Mormons, he goes on to say, have taken over America and a lot of people will have to be exterminated for the planet to survive. He’s planning to make a speech tonight praising Hitler for stopping the growth of Communism. He recites a short poem he’s written about Oscar Wilde. Just before sunset a small aeroplane flies over, dragging an advertising banner. It says: ‘Havana/Madrid. Lobster Dinner. $15.99’.
The conversation in Key West is still about the two US civilian aircraft shot down by Cuban MiGs, the dead Cuban-American pilots and the organisation – Brothers to the Rescue – to which they belonged. Until last year they were flying small planes as part of a rescue operation for Cuban boat people trying to reach the US and shipwrecked in the Florida Straits – a stretch of water which is full of sharks.
Shortly before the incident, Juan Pablo Roque, a member of Brothers to the Rescue, who was supposed to fly out from Miami with the other pilots, made a mysterious disappearance. Two nights later, an American TV news report showed him in Havana. Then his wife, Ana, was on the morning show trying to account for this curious turn of events. She said her husband had had dealings with the FBI but she didn’t think he was a double agent: maybe he had been forced to make pro-Cuba statements in Havana. She was standing by her man.
In the early morning I swim off the pier again. There’s one other person swimming, a woman in a bathing-cap. All around us are flocks of sea-birds of different sizes, including pelicans. The sun came up two hours ago; we are swimming in light, reflected on the sea.
Vol. 18 No. 11 · 6 June 1996
Aren’t there rules to protect private citizens from depressed diarists like Elisa Segrave? She reports (LRB, 18 April) meeting in Key West, at supper with ‘Judith and Irving’, an ‘old lady … called Helen Rosen’. Someone should tell Ms Segrave the next time she drifts out to the edge of her fishtank-like consciousness that that woman was indeed called Helen Rosen. But Helen Rosen does not have blonde hair; she did not travel with her children in Europe during World War Two (those travels took place in the Fifties); while abroad they were on a ‘tight budget’ but they did not eat at railway station buffets; and one wonders whether Ms Segrave can appreciate that the ‘Jewish physicist’ (mentioned by name that night) who helped tackle the problem of currents affecting the Normandy invasion was the eminent crystallographer Desmond Bernal.
Of course this much is just sloppy journalism. Much more disturbing is the tenor of her portrait of Helen: she sees Helen Rosen as an enfeebled and pathetic specimen of left-wing politics, a politics Ms Segrave seems to be at great pains to tell us that she has wised up to. She made a big mistake in picking on Helen Rosen and in particular by insinuating that she ‘has a very sentimental attitude towards Castro’. Helen’s ‘official visit’ to Cuba took place when she was already in her sixties, and beside talking face to face with Castro, she spent the bulk of her time there helping Cubans by testing their hearing. The sort of thing she had already done in China, the Soviet Union, the Sudanese outback, in fact all over the non-First World. Segrave also might have guessed from Helen’s mention of McCarthyism, that her ‘sentimental’ politics pre-date not only Castro but the Cold War as well. In fact, Helen and her husband Sam, an otolaryngologist, were the victims of blacklisting from 1946 until 1958, which meant the virtual loss of a very substantial medical practice (hence the ‘tight budget’ in Europe). The Rosens were not even Communists: they were simply tireless workers who put their time, their property, their social standing and personal safety on the line for the left causes of their time: the formation of trade unions and the attainment of civil rights for black Americans. The friendship and loyalty the Rosens showed to Paul Robeson, truly dangerous at the time, by itself would have earned them a spot on the honour role of those who offended the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Buffalo, New York
Vol. 18 No. 12 · 20 June 1996
Elisa Segrave’s Diary (LRB, 18 April) was a garble of private, unmalicious conversations which she was given no permission to use. It was even in places a crude little example of that English phenomenon known as drawing room anti-semitism. It purported to be an informed, witty, political/literary Key West Diary. It was the opposite. Particular distress has been given to my elderly, frail and loved friend Helen Rosen, a distinguished American liberal beside whose decades of experience and achievement Elisa Segrave’s comments were absurdly cheap. This is quite astonishing, because Elisa Segrave was over the course of two years given much practical help and hospitality in Key West by myself and my partner, as our friend, an affectionate, gallant woman – so we thought. We introduced her to some of the people she subsequently meanly misquoted, as she did myself. We had always assumed the LRB was against this kind of journalism. Cheap laughs at an elderly foreign lady’s expense?
Elisa Segrave writes: I’m not anti-semitic in the drawing-room, or anywhere else for that matter, and I do not make things up, though I was mistaken in saying that Mrs Rosen had travelled in Europe during the war rather than the Fifties. As for Victor Menza (Letters, 6 June), he wasn’t even at the supper which I describe. I already apologised to Judith over a month ago for having unaccountably offended her by my Diary. I am surprised and saddened that she has chosen not to accept my apologies. What more does she want – a public flogging?
Vol. 18 No. 14 · 18 July 1996
Victor Menza (Letters, 6 June) accused Elisa Segrave of ‘sloppy journalism’ for her account of an evening with Helen Rosen in Key West. Menza dissects her copy in the depressing and clinical manner of a biology student dissecting a frog. His list of complaints is endless. He objects to Rosen being called an ‘old’ lady (which she is), he claims she does not have blonde hair (though Segrave, who met her twice, insists that she does, and suggests that perhaps Rosen lightens her hair). He then gives a rather long-winded tribute to Mrs Rosen and her tireless work testing hearing in the ‘non-First World’. By the end of his three-paragraph tribute, Helen Rosen stands shoulder to shoulder with Mother Teresa. The point that Menza missed was that Segrave’s account of the evening was a complimentary one. Perhaps Menza is not a fan of her prose style. In fact, it was his letter rather than Segrave’s article which I found unsettling, unkind and unfair. His attempts to defend what he sees as an ‘attack’ on Rosen – which, in fact, I do not think Segrave intended at all – result in a rather vicious attack on Segrave.
Janine di Giovanni