An eye ever browsing, visions of Jesse Fernandez

Guillermo Cabrera Infante
Guillermo Cabrera Infante in Wifredo Lam's garden, wrapped in one of his canvas, Habana, 1958

I first met Jesse Fernandez when he was full of life and browsed with just one eye: his camera lens. We were both in the silly circus ring celebrating the first round of Around the World in Eighty Days in Manhattan, that other island. It was a miracle that I was able to hear his name among the racket
of rattles and maracas. Yet I heard it. Since then the native Jesús Fernández became just Jesse in the Big Apple to shut open-mouthed gapes whenever he said Hey-Sues and everybody heard the shocking blasphemy that in his native Cuba was just a plain ‘bless-you’ in response to a sudden sneeze. He was the second Jesse. The first of course was Jesse James.
This particular Jesse used to dress almost like a cowboy, with the lean body of an urban cowboy and there’s even a photo of him mounting a tripod while in the background I’m looking on at him riding. Jesse used to come and go shooting his Leica from the hip at all the faces of those stars from out West who had a collector’s WANTED! poster out on them in the East. They were wanted, I wanted them and Jesse found them in his sights, almost at point blank: Elizabeth Taylor, beautiful and vulgar, Michael Todd vulgar through and through and ugly to boot, Victor McLaglen, big and jolly to celebrate the none too adverse anniversary of a film that couldn’t have been more famous.

He was like a triumphant matador cutting his prize of tails and a varied assortment of ears, although Vincent van Gogh’s still wasn’t one of them. Now, in the confines of some kind of wonderland bullring, toreros sitting on the fence, Jesse began to plan how to storm the stands photographically and capture in two dimensions and in black and white (Jesse had an aesthetic superstition against color, from which I was later able to save him in Cuba con Amor) all the invited celebrity guests. Those taking part in this show in the arena were there because of a one-sided contract with Todd, who forced the venerable Cedric Hardwicke to mount an unstable camel which was to make an attempt not on his life but, even worse for this quintessential English man, on his dignity.
I found myself greeting McLaglen, a professional Irishman, who said “Hullo, me lad”. I pretended to greet Tony Curtis (“Hi”, he replied) to rejoice with my two eyes Janet Leigh before her premeditated death. (When she still had a lot to show in the shower.) I said hello to a whole crew of celebrities and these public bashes were frozen in the memory of his camera and meanwhile Jesse lay bridges for my intrepid shyness.

The following day, still celebrating the same celebration party, we took a boat, loaded with a strange load of journalists and photographers and of Mike Todd and Fernandel with his horse face lined up to be Quixote for Todd when he had more aptitudes to be Rocinante. Todd took us on board to whisk us round Manhattan… in eight hours. (…)
The third outing was a further incursion into the terrain of myth. Josef von Sternberg was being celebrated with a belated retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (…) and that night the creation of the bona fide Svengali Sternberg turned up for the tribute: his total doll, the only walking, talking, laughing, singing and charming robot – Marlene Dietrich. (…)

Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg at the MoMA, New York, 1957

The next day Jesse and I had a strange encounter with death. (…) I had interviewed and Jesse had photographed the now forgotten Helmut Kautner at that time enjoying his thirty minutes of fame and while we were strolling through Central Park I had an irrepressible attack of retained urine: in short, I was pissing myself. I was just going in search of a public urinary in the park when Jesse suggested that it would be easier to go into a hotel and ask for the toilets, sorry, the washroom.
I was asking a dyspeptic receptionist when we heard shots. There were two. Straight away there were people running through the lobby and down one of the corridors. We ran after them until we got to the barbershop. There, lying on the ground, was a man stone dead.
The barbershop was barely touched, the hitmen were obviously pros. Around the body were several barbers, still alive but scared to death. For a moment we had free scope, the scene was uncluttered, the onlookers from the hotel backing off in the face of sudden death. Jesse took photos of the latter-day eye-witnesses and some of the barbers: they obviously knew who the dead man was. The stiff sure was one big corpse, Albert Anastasia, and we had just missed witnessing the homicide by seconds: the washrooms were opposite the barbershop. Jesse only took portraits. (That’s not exactly true but it sounds better at this point of the story.)

Jesse was other things besides. He was a New York dandy, readily borne out by the attire that drew so much attention in Havana. He was a gourmet and a guide. (…) Jesse was a also a jazz connoisseur. I was just a simple aficionado who had started to take an interest in cool jazz barely two years previously. (…) Jesse took me to the other end of New York, to the Bowery.
Elbowing our ways through drunks, dipsos and the inebriated (that about covers the names in the catalogue of dipsomania) we made it into a bar (…) which seemed to have been built centuries before, such was the air of pending collapse that fitted in so well with the shored looks of the locals. With his usual discretion, Jesse had a smart way of shooting photos incognito and he took out his only camera – the perennial Leica with which he seems to have been born – and snapped portraits of those faces which were not exactly dissolute: it is more a case of being dissolved in alcohol, drink was their measure, the bar their habitat, eternal drunkenness their life.
No one of those derelicts seemed to notice they were being observed, let alone being photographed, in gory detail. Finally, after this temporary descent to the netherworld, we arrived at the place we had been heading, the Five Spot Café, to hear the strange sounds of deliberately imperfect inverted chords being banged out by a pianist who looked as extraordinary as his music sounded. It was Thelonious Monk and Jesse, like when he captured Von Sternberg despite the domineering presence of Marlene Dietrich, knew that he was portraying a genius. Many of these visions no longer exist, and that’s why it’s important to jot down these graphic occasions that time has forgotten. (…)

Alicia Alonso and her husband (on the left), Mariano Rodriguez and Wifredo Lam, Habana, 1958

At the beginning of 1958 Jesse visited Havana as he used to do every year, but this time his trip was out of the ordinary because he was commissioned by Life magazine to spend two weeks in Havana with Alicia Alonso, already a relic by that time, and to report back on the artistic life of the recently discovered island.
Jesse snapped writers, popular musicians, painters, sculptors and the ballerina on home turf. Two masterpieces survive from this trip: his portrait of Lezama Lima, the best ever made of the baroque poet (and the one now seen everywhere) seated at the table of a bar, with the glass of beer removed after Lezama said “take away the glass, I don’t want people to say that I’m given to libations of Bacchus”, and his portrait of Hemingway, an intense study of the master of concise prose as he crossed the threshold of old age.

It happened that on that trip to Havana Jesse coincided with the racing driver Fangio (and his kidnapping) and he also met several Cuban photographers. Perhaps I should say instead that he was met by this small graphic committee. There was one in particular who would later become famous for one single photo. But these “lens artists” were not worried about the visual quality of his photos nor an impeccable photographic technique nor in his talent for capturing faces and characters.
Years later (…) Jesse published in Spain his collection simply entitled Retratos, which contains several portraits of celebrities of the time, some not so famous now, making him the best portraitist that I’ve ever known. You’d only have to take a look at some of his masterpieces: his portrait of Borges and the domineering presence of his mother as the two share the same Freudian couch; a Hemingway at once swaggering and melancholic: the suicide already hovering about him; Lezama always more of an imminent gourmand than a gourmet; Alejo Carpentier with a shirt for the occasion rhyming with revolution; Luis Bunuel deaf to the beauty of the flowers that surround him; Carlos Fuentes as a dubious dandy of Mexican nightlife; (…). But there are many, many more photos making up this gallery of portraits that are more like nudes.

After the triumph of the revolution, back again in New York, I convinced Jesse to return to Cuba, to Habana (…). We worked together in Lunes, a supplement magazine to the Revolución newspaper which I edited at the time, but at the end of 1959, after stealthy adventures on which he accompanied Fidel Castro to discover a conspiracy (uncovered and revealed by Jesse) hatched in San Domingo by Trujillo which disembarked in the dark, although it was ultimately more comic than sinister (…) Jesse decided to return to New York. He had had enough experience of what an historic ambush was like when he left Cuba with his family fleeing from the dictator Machado and hunger only to be trapped in the Civil War in Asturias and starvation. They all returned to the island.

Fidel Castro addressing the crowd on the 26th of July, Habana, 1959

During this time in Cuba, I met several different Jesses: the tireless all-seeing eye, the machine capturing every instant in a photo to make it eternal, a timid and audacious man, a vulnerable individual who transformed into a fearless hero behind the camera, capable of becoming a martyr contemplating us, an American in dress who knew where to find the Cuban (its presence, its essence), a delicate dandy who had an impact on everybody with his everyday disguise: blue workers shirts, worn khaki trousers, suede shoes and a Player’s cigarette hanging from his lips.
There was another remarkable aspect from Jesse that struck me as extremely odd: on a trip we took together around the whole of Cuba to shoot photos for A Cuba con Amor (when we still believed in the mirage that turned out to be an optical illusion) he took a rare volume of the complete poetry of Rimbaud, in the original French!, everywhere with him and he read it every night on this trip to the end of the island, alone in his hotel room. Jesse was a covert cultured man.

Jesse escaped from Cuba using a subterfuge that turned out to be his refuge: he returned to New York almost incognito. We didn’t see each other again until I travelled from London to Hollywood in 1970. On my way back I stopped over in New York to meet a Jesse down on his luck: toothless, living in a room full of cats and old photos covering the peeling walls. He had lost everything except his eye and his Leica. He used it to take my portrait as if we were back in 1957: a memorable New York portrait where I appeared petulant and confident. Whether in triumph or in defeat Jesse was a consummate portraitist not a consumed artist. (…)

Jesse recovered miraculously from his personal impasse in New York; he went on to live in Puerto Rico and in Madrid and even better in Paris: in Neuilly as he used to say. There he married France and with France. Jesse was a vocational painter life turned into an occasional photographer (it happened in Colombia when he was working for an advertising agency: he couldn’t find the right photographer and decided to do the photos himself). Later life turned him into an amateur photographer while painting took over his interest again. He painted, another odd thing, countless skulls surrounded by strange and perfect calligraphy that were flowers of ink.
Then he suffered a double accident, pathological and domestic. He suffered a brain hemorrhage but when he fell in the bath he split his head against the washbasin and split his head. The fall saved his life, for a while. Like so many times before, Jesse survived, published a strange book with his obsessions called Les momies de Palerme: all the portraits were doubly mummified.
He was planning to make a book on painters, from Francis Bacon to David Hockney, in which each painter would add his signature as if an intimate calligraphy. However death, in the form of a heart attack, came upon him in the dark room. This time there was no way back. The eye never stopped browsing but Jesse stopped. And so his restless gaze no longer rests on us.

Guillermo Cabrera Infante
In the catalogue Jesse A. Fernandez, Aldeasa / Museo nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2003