Defeated Armies

Scott Sherman

  • The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of the ‘New York Times’ by Anthony DePalma
    PublicAffairs, 308 pp, £15.99, September 2006, ISBN 1 58648 332 3

On the evening of 15 February 1957, the New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews stepped into a jeep with some anti-government activists and went to meet the young Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra. Castro was supposed to be dead: sailing from Mexico a few months earlier, he had arrived on the coast of Oriente province with 82 men, and was immediately bombarded by coastguard vessels and army aircraft. The Havana bureau of the United Press, relying on information from the Cuban military, reported that the insurgents had been wiped out; one Cuban general even claimed that the army had the bodies of Fidel and Raúl Castro.

Shortly after he had been reported dead, in late 1956, Castro sent word from the mountains to his supporters in Havana that he wanted an American journalist to visit him in the Sierra Maestra, as a way of letting the world know that the revolution continued. The New York Times bureau chief, Ruby Phillips, declined the invitation: had she written about Castro’s ongoing struggle, she would have been expelled from Cuba, and she enjoyed her lifestyle and connections there. Matthews was summoned from New York. At the end of a 16-hour journey from Havana, during which his party stopped for numerous cups of coffee and dodged army roadblocks, he was brought to a location deep in the mountains, where he waited for several hours in the dark. Castro finally emerged at dawn, dressed in fatigues, and they sat down for a breakfast of ham sandwiches and tomato juice. In three hours Matthews had his story. Two days later, when he boarded a plane to New York, his seven pages of handwritten notes were hidden inside his wife’s corset.

‘A story that’s sure to startle the world’ was the way the Times advertised Matthews’s three-part series from the Sierra Maestra, but his audacious reporting did more than startle readers: it made him one of the most reviled figures in American journalism. He had known controversy before. His dispatches for the Times during the Spanish Civil War were mutilated by his editors, pilloried by his critics and celebrated by such admirers as Ernest Hemingway: ‘When the fakers are all dead they will read Matthews in the schools to find out what really happened,’ Hemingway announced in 1938. But nothing compared with the rage and opprobrium that followed the publication of his Castro interview. Colleagues shunned him; the FBI investigated him; congressional subcommittees harassed him; and William F. Buckley taunted him with nicknames like ‘Sherbert Matthews’. He also received death threats from Cuban exiles in Miami, and once had to flee a platform at the University of New Mexico because the local police believed there might be a bomb in the auditorium.

Until 1957, Matthews had been a favourite son at the newspaper: the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, even authorised a loan of $16,000 so he could buy a house in London. In Gay Talese’s book about the Times, The Kingdom and the Power, we see Matthews in 1967 sitting ‘rather forlornly in Room 1048 along a corridor of editorial writers on the tenth floor . . . a man doing penance in an ivory tower because he had embarrassed the Times years ago in Cuba.’ When he died in 1977, he was a ghost in his own country, but an iconic figure in Cuba. In The Man Who Invented Fidel, Anthony DePalma notes that Castro, in the 1960s, had offered to grant him Cuban citizenship: ‘What a splendid Cuban Herbert Matthews would make,’ a Cuban publication proclaimed, ‘so upright and so just!’ On his last trip to Cuba, in 1972, Matthews, gaunt and frail (he was 57 when he visited Castro in the Sierra Maestra), went to see Castro in the presidential palace, and they sat together in rocking chairs. Cuba was ‘the friendliest spot on earth for me’, he told his wife in a letter from Havana.

Matthews was born in 1900 to assimilated Jewish parents and grew up in New York, eventually graduating from Columbia. He began as a secretary-stenographer on the Times in 1922, and in 1931 was sent to France, where he spent four doleful years as ‘second man’ in the Paris bureau. In 1935, he was asked to cover the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. He enjoyed the physical challenges posed by the conflict: much of the fighting took place at high altitudes, in temperatures that reached 140° F. Many foreign correspondents were confined to Addis Ababa, but Matthews travelled with the Italian army, and was on hand to witness the battle in Ende Gorge in November 1935, when the Abyssinians launched their assault on the Italian troops. He rushed to Asmara to file what he considered his best story of the war: it cost $1500 in cable fees, and took up 16 full columns in the Times, the longest single dispatch in the paper’s history.

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