I had long admired Carlos Fuentes, one of Latin America’s best writers. He was the winner of several important literary awards, and was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In addition to being a writer, he was also a diplomat, as Mexico’s Ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977.
Fuentes, one of the leading figures of the Latin American literary “Boom”, had a profound sense of justice. In 1983, he gave a commencement address at Harvard, which was interrupted 44 times with applause, probably a record for this kind of address. During this lecture, he made a well-reasoned appeal for the U.S. not to intervene in Central America.
When he lived in Europe, Fuentes had an active social life and had several high-profile affairs, such as the widely publicized ones with actresses Jeanne Moreau and Jean Seberg. This last one was an inspiration for his novel Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone.
Fuentes’ best-known novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz, is considered one of the most important of modern Latin American literature. Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ movie, was the inspiration for Fuentes’ magnificent novel, in which he uses literary parallels to Welles’ cinematic technical approaches.
When Fuentes came to New York, he used to stay with his wife Silvia Lemos at the Hotel St. Regis New York, located in midtown Manhattan. The St. Regis, as many people call it, is one of Manhattan’s most traditional hotels. It was the favorite hotel for Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala, and for Marlene Dietrich. John Lennon recorded there a demo for one of his songs, and Alfred Hitchcock had a “favorite” 5th floor suite.
My younger sister Lilia, who was a manager at the hotel, became friendly with both Fuentes and his wife, so I asked her to give him a few of my political articles. After he read them, he told my sister that he was inviting me to lunch at the hotel. When I arrived there, my sister introduced us and then left. As we started talking, we found out that we had the same editor – a difficult man- at The New York Times opinion page. And we shared our frustration at the amount of time it takes to write a good opinion piece, as well as about the difficulties of dealing with that editor.
Fuentes told me that he usually followed the Mexican tradition of a heavy, late lunch and a light dinner. I usually have a good appetite, so I had no problem with that. Because a bartender at the hotel named Fernand Petiot had invented a drink that he called “Red Snapper”, which later became famous as Bloody Mary, we decided to start with that. We had a lunch fit for a king, with oysters and champagne followed by wonderful paella with excellent Rioja wine. As dessert, we had a couple of excellent profiteroles each. All in all, we had a great lunch meeting.
I shared with Fuentes most of his political views, particularly those related to U.S. intervention in Latin American political affairs. He was very critical of President Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the Sandinistas and his support to the Contras in Nicaragua. Late in his life, he commented, “The United States is very good at understanding itself, and very bad at understanding others.”
After a sumptuous two-hour lunch Fuentes asked for the bill. When the waiter handed it to him, I said, “Don’t pay Carlos, it is my treat”. He agreed and the waiter then gave me the bill. I put my hand inside my pocket and with horror realized that I hadn’t brought my wallet.
With an extreme sense of embarrassment, I was ready to tell Fuentes about the situation when a light opened in my head and I told the waiter, “I am Lilia’s brother, is it OK if I just sign the bill?” “Of course,” Sir, “there is no problem at all” replied the waiter. Late that evening, when my sister returned home, I called her, told her about the incident and apologized for sending the bill to her. “Oh,” she replied, “don’t worry. One of the few perks of my job is that many times they don’t charge me for personal expenses…”
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and New York writer.