60 Years Ago, 'Fidelmania' Took New York City By Storm On April 21, 1959, Fidel Castro arrived in New York to a crowd of 20,000 people. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with author Tony Perrottet about the Cuban leader's historic U.S. visit.

60 Years Ago, 'Fidelmania' Took New York City By Storm

60 Years Ago, 'Fidelmania' Took New York City By Storm

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On April 21, 1959, Fidel Castro arrived in New York to a crowd of 20,000 people. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with author Tony Perrottet about the Cuban leader's historic U.S. visit.


Sixty years ago, a bearded, young revolutionary marched into Havana with his band of rebels. Fidel Castro was celebrated as a liberator by many in America then as the man who'd overthrown a brutal dictator. U.S. journalists flocked to Cuba to interview him. Even Ed Sullivan got into the act. As America's foremost variety show host stood among bearded men in fatigues who were toting machine guns, Ed Sullivan practically fawned.


ED SULLIVAN: We want you to like us, and we like you - you and Cuba.

FIDEL CASTRO: Very glad and very happy for the honor of your interview.

SIMON: And a few months later, April 21, 1959, Fidel Castro took New York City by storm.

Here to tell us about what was called Fidelmania is Tony Perrottet. He's the author of "Cuba Libre!: Che, Fidel, And The Improbable Revolution That Changed World History." He joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

TONY PERROTTET: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: We're going to get to the New York visit in a moment, but first, Ed Sullivan. I mean, we think of Elvis. We think of The Beatles. How did interviewing Fidel Castro come about - and in Cuba, no less?

PERROTTET: Well, he may have been the most powerful man in showbiz in '59, but he was somewhat insecure. He - what he really wanted was to be taken seriously as a foreign correspondent or a political commentator. So he decided that all the - every journalist in the United States wanted to interview - get the first TV interview with Fidel, so he decided to hop on a plane and go down there and meet the young rebel.

So they interview him in the town hall. It was a very improvised thing. All the guerrillas are standing around. One of them knocks over the - you know, one of - the lighting. They can't find a plug to put in the - that's powerful enough to put in the camera. But they do this interview. And it's the first - it is the first TV interview. And Ed Sullivan really falls over himself. He's really starstruck.


SULLIVAN: They said your army was communist and that you were communist. I've seen your army. They carry Bibles. Cuba, I know, is mostly Catholic. And you, too - aren't you Catholic?


SIMON: At the time of the interview, there were concerns that Fidel Castro and a lot of the rebels were secretly communist, as opposed to the avowed communist that they became, right?

PERROTTET: There was a lot of concern. The - Batista, the dictator, actually hired a PR company in Washington to promote this idea that these guys were communists. But the CIA would send people down regularly to interview, you know, the revolutionaries and find their secret contacts. And they come - always come back saying that they're very - they're sort of left of center. They're nationalist, but they're not communist. And so weirdly, you have the situation where the CIA members are actually starting to support Fidel.

SIMON: Let's get to the New York visit. And to set the scene a bit, some audio from a contemporary newsreel.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: New York Pennsylvania Station rarely has seen anything like it. Only the magnetism of a Castro could produce it. For this is the spontaneous, oh-for-sure unrehearsed enthusiasm greeting the Cuban premier, bearded Fidel Castro. Visiting this town...

SIMON: And we'll explain. There's a little boy held aloft, and he has (laughter) a fake beard, little army hat, little army fatigues. What was included in this New York visit?

PERROTTET: Oh, it was very touristic in a sense. He's - he went to City Hall and, you know, met the mayor. He went up the Empire State Building and the observation deck. He went to Bronx Zoo, and he leapt over the fence and patted a tiger at one stage, much to the, you know, delight of the journalists. And then he ate a hot dog and declared the Bronx Zoo the best thing that New York has.

SIMON: And a big speech in Central Park, right?

PERROTTET: Yes, that was the climax on the last night. And some 30,000 people turned up.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This is his hour in New York town.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some other stops that he made, including, by the way, from Washington, D.C., where we often forget he met Richard Nixon.

PERROTTET: Yes, that was the start of the trip. And so he went to D.C., and Eisenhower - President Eisenhower made sure that he was off on a golf trip. So Nixon was there, and they had this meeting. And it didn't go terribly well. (Laughter) Fidel disliked Nixon, and Nixon sort of snubbed him a little bit and was sort of very aloof. He said that Fidel was either lying about being a communist, or he's just extremely naive. And so he's just playing into the hands.

SIMON: So when Fidel Castro visited the United States 60 years ago, what was the effect on the relationship that the U.S. hoped to strike with Cuba?

PERROTTET: Well, on the popular level, it was extremely successful. He was mobbed at every stop. But on this other level - the official level - he sort of wasn't making any headway at all. He thought that he could actually be a populist, as he was in Cuba, that he could speak directly to the American people and that the government would sort of go, oh, wow. But they - Eisenhower and Nixon had other ideas.

What happened, unfortunately, was that the romantic idea of Fidel sort of started to slide. And it was a very sort of superficial obsession that the Americans had with Fidel - you know, this idea that he was this heroic figure. They expected him to sort of get out of his khakis, put on a three-piece suit and become the young lawyer that he was raised to be.

There was a communist guy who was with him at one stage, and he tried to convince Fidel to, you know, to the Red camp. And Fidel said, I would be a communist if I could be Stalin. You know, in other words, you know, if he could run the whole show, he'd be a communist. If not, not that interested. So it was kind of - he was more interested in power than the ideology.

SIMON: Tony Perrottet, author of "Cuba Libre!," thanks so much for being with us.

PERROTTET: Well, thank you for having me.


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