He thought back to his father as a young man, a lotto numbers runner who rose to the mayoralty of the gritty Barrio de Los Sitios, in Centro Habana. His dad loved mingling with the stars that flocked to the capital, and he sometimes took his boy to meet them: But more revered than all the rest was the man of many names. The Man With the Sleepy Eyes. The local boys talked about his gift.
They gossiped about the women, the sex. According to local lore, the Shanghai featured live sex shows. After the revolution, the Shanghai shuttered. Many of the performers fled the country. Superman disappeared, like a ghost. No one knew his real name. There were no known photos of him.
Afterward, it was an entirely new story. It was like Year Zero. The Riviera hotel, built in by mobster Meyer Lansky, overlooks the Malecon. Havana was unusually cool. It was late January, weeks after President Obama announced normalized relations with Cuba. The chilly sea breeze fluttered the flimsy curtains covering the windows. I had come with photographer Mike Magers to trace the story of Superman, or whatever we could find of it. It had begun as a curiosity for us but eventually evolved into a strange obsession.
Here was a man with a supposedly inch unit who starred in live sex shows, celebrated in Cuba and beyond, and yet virtually nothing was known about him. Cuba, with profound changes afoot a year after Washington reopened relations with Havana, is having to think about what kind of country it wants to be. What better place to start looking than with the legend of Superman? Unfortunately, clues about who Superman was and what happened to him were virtually nonexistent.
In New York, we met a few Cubans from the diaspora looking for leads, but we had nothing concrete by the time we boarded the plane from Havana, via Cancun, other than a short list of names of people who might know someone who knows something.
A contact had referred us to a man named Alfredo Prieto, an editor at a publishing house who was working on a book about s Havana, and we paid him a visit on our first day in the city.
Prieto was 60 years old, a heavy smoker with black hair and a laid-back demeanor. When we met in his office in Vedado, he seemed bemused by our quest. Not only did Superman perform at the Shanghai and other clubs, but he also did private sex shows for wealthy Americans. They had a saying: Most of it was rumor, hearsay, maybe true, maybe not. His name might have been Enrique. He lived in Barrio de Los Sitios, across from a church.
Sitios was a working class neighborhood located next to Chinatown, where the Teatro Shanghai was based. Judas Tadeo church in Barrio de Los Sitios.
Male, forties, handsome, tall, with a penis from here to the corner. But no one knew for sure if this—or anything else—was true. He said he would try to set up a meeting, but that it would be unlikely that these people would talk to foreign reporters. They were still ashamed, still afraid of the consequences of talking about that period. I also asked Prieto how a man who had once been so famous could completely vanish—not just from the island, but from history itself.
Why were there no photos of him? How could no one know his true name, or what became of him? Did he even really exist, or was he just an urban legend, a myth? He told me that after the revolution the regime tried to erase the past. The Fifties in Cuba was an era of graft and corruption, mobsters, and American money. It was an embarrassment, a stain, and Superman was the human embodiment of that stain. But in , as relations between Cuba and the U. The eve of the revolution.
Fidel Castro waits in the Sierra Maestra while in the city the clubs and cabarets overflow with tourists, gangsters, and movie stars. Ernest Hemingway, at the peak of his fame, lives by the water outside town; Tennessee Williams, a regular visitor from his home in the Florida Keys, is a fixture at El Floridita. Showgirls draw crowds by the hundreds to the dazzling Tropicana Club. The hotels are booked: The mobsters, in bed with dictator Fulgencio Batista, are taking over the city; they envision casinos and resorts stretching from Havana to Varadero, 95 miles down the coast.
Adolphe Roberts in his book, Havana: The Portrait of a City. Nothing apparently can halt its growth. People came to Havana for many reasons, but one loomed larger—quite literally—than the rest.
According to lore, Superman first had sex with female performers, who were bound to a pole and acting with exaggerated terror, and then invited women from the audience to participate. His ship, the U. Chilton, docked in Havana, where he embarked on a bender fit only for a sailor. Roberto Gacio, a Havana theater historian, doubts that there were actual live sex acts at the Shanghai.
Gacio suspects the live sex shows occurred in private shows for wealthy viewers. Feats of strength at the Tropicana Club. In the book, Superman performs at the San Francisco brothel, but Greene had seen him at the Shanghai. In , shortly after Castro took power and during the filming of the screen adaption of the book, Greene tried in vain to find Superman, who had by then disappeared. During the scene, Superman appears on stage wearing a large red cape.
Just as he pulls the cape open to reveal himself, the camera cuts to the gasping audience. Ciro Bianchi Ross, a Cuban journalist who accompanied Duvall during his stay, writes in the Cuban journal Juventud Rebelde that Duvall asked to visit the Teatro Shanghai during his trip. Among the many nicknames for Superman, we kept hearing a less expected moniker: After the performance, Brando, who was bisexual, took off with Superman, ditching the dancers.
Roberto Gacio also believes that Superman was gay and that the rumor about the affair with Brando is true. There could have been no pleasure derived from the performance. It was all an act, all for the entertainment of the audience. He had a great treasure. Willy was a year-old gourmand and Lothario, a man-about-town in Havana who seemed to know everyone. He had an astonishing appetite for women; during our ten-day trip, he frequently slipped away for salty rendezvous back at his apartment.
A thin man with a well-groomed peppery goatee and an earring, Willy agreed to act as our fixer—all we had to do was buy his meals and drinks.
It was heaving with tourists drinking daiquiris when we arrived after dinner. They posed for photos with a bronze statue of Hemingway, who had been a regular here during its heyday.
He knew a guy who knew a guy who knew Superman. The contact was a journalist named Rolando who had written several books on Havana neighborhoods. Rolando also worked as a podiatrist to supplement his income; Willy had arranged a meeting the next morning at this podiatry office.
Rolando had also told Willy he knew where Superman had once lived—a neighborhood called Bario de los Sitios, next to a church. It was the same neighborhood Prieto had mentioned. Willy said he thought he knew the block, and he also knew an old lady who lived there. He had one of those old-man smiles that completely concealed his front teeth, and a bushel of white nose hairs. His podiatry office was next door to his home. It was 10 a. Rolando told us to wait a little longer; Eduardo would arrive soon.
The air inside the waiting room was stuffy and smelled of mothballs. Outside, the street was alive with morning activity. After an hour of waiting, Rolando emerged from the bunion treatment to break the bad news: We walked down bustling commercial streets and through crowded parks, until we reached an alley where a group of drunks played checkers with bottle caps on a piece of cardboard. Soon we arrived on St. Nicolas Street, across from Judas Tadeo church.
There was a small market selling meat, flowers, and liquor. Children played outside the church. Willy rang a buzzer and hollered up to an old apartment with an overhanging balcony. A few minutes later an elderly black woman wearing a purple scarf over white hair emerged from the second-floor window.