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Swellboy on… the Cuban missile crisis

As the world inched towards nuclear Armageddon, there was one place that remained oblivious

Swellboy on… the Cuban missile crisis

Image: Brijesh Patel

April 23 2011
Nick Foulkes

As a frequent visitor to Cuba, I was naturally interested to watch coverage of the military parades celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs. I suppose that having managed to topple the government of Guatemala with ease in 1954, the Americans were confident that they could effect regime change at will. As it happened, Dr Castro and compañeros proved to be made of sterner stuff and the debacle on Cuba’s beaches served as a sort of amuse bouche for the tragic main course of international humiliation and national self-loathing that was the Vietnam War.

Of course relations between Cuba and its north-western neighbour went downhill pretty quickly, reaching their nadir in the autumn of the following year when Mr Khrushchev and Dr Castro agreed that it might be handy to have a few WMDs knocking about, especially as another CIA operation codenamed Mongoose was under way. And yet, as the world inched towards Armageddon, there was one corner of the planet that remained supremely untroubled by the impending nuclear storm; one of the few places that I love more than Cuba: the Marbella Club.

My friends know that I am the arch Marbella apologist; I regard this unfairly maligned sliver of coastal Spain as a glimpse of paradise, a haven from the cares of the world, a Shangri-La, an oasis of contentment in a desert of troubles and all manner of other hackneyed paradisiacal similes and metaphors.

If Castro proved too much for the CIA, then the reality-defeating powers of the Marbella Club made short work of the Cuban missile crisis, as demonstrated by an anecdote vouchsafed me by Count Rudi Schönburg, who had started work at the Marbella Club long before Fidel took over the running of Cuba.

Back in the old days, when both Rudi and Fidel were still learning to run their respective realms, the outside world entered this Spanish Eden only when it was invited. Communication with the rest of the world was hardly worth the bother; the Marbella Club did have a telephone, but it was largely symbolic. It took a day to arrange a telephone call to Malaga. “At the time there were no newspapers in Marbella, they did not arrive until days later,” says Count Rudi of those far-off days, when Russian missiles steamed in the direction of the Florida Keys. “We had mostly foreigners here and the few Spanish who were here didn’t speak English or couldn’t make themselves understood. Everybody had the most gorgeous parties when the rest of the world was trembling that World War III was starting.

“Alfonso Hohenlohe [Prince Alfonso had founded the club in 1955] finally managed to call me from Mexico. ‘What’s happened? What’s happened?’ he asked. ‘Have all the guests left?’

“‘All I can tell you is don’t panic yourself, nothing has happened. Nobody knows it,’” came Rudi’s unruffled response.

“The guests had not seen a paper, we had no radio and certainly no television and besides there was not a night without a dinner party, without cocktails and this sort of thing. By the time the papers came and the panic started, Alfonso called to say that it had been resolved that morning.”

And just as Cuba celebrates an important 50th anniversary this year, so does the Marbella Club, which marks the first half-century of the fabled Grill restaurant, which served its first flame-cooked steaks in the year that Cuban émigrés tried and failed to overthrow the Castro government. It will be interesting to see what the coming 50 years hold for Cuba and the Marbella Club Grill: I hope that whatever else may happen, Havana cigars and the Marbella Club chocolate mousse continue to be made in 2061 (and that I will be around to enjoy them).