The sub-headline for the 1958 Saturday Evening Post story “To Cuba With Cal” sets things up a little differently than the way ABC News has been promoting its exclusive David Muir–President Obama interviews in Havana. It reads: ‘Let us hearken to those carefree days when our correspondent went on a gay, bacchanalian expedition to Havana, with a solemn President of the U.S.’
The article looked back at a 1928 trip to Cuba by Calvin Coolidge, the last time a sitting Commander-in-Chief has visited the island nation. Amazingly, this was article author Beverly Smith Jr.’s first traveling assignment. His look back three decades later blew the whistle on how reporters acted during those days of Prohibition. The press corps partied mightily in Key West after Coolidge retired for the evening, and when they left Havana the following Tuesday, it was with suitcases full of contraband rum. All because the journalists had been told that their personal belongings would not be checked upon their return to South Florida.
Here’s just one great passage from Smith’s 1958 Evening Post piece. If you really want to have fun while reading, count the bygone references:
On the evening of January 10, 1928, I was sitting by my typewriter in the city room of the New York Herald Tribune. I had just finished my story for the day, probably one about my friend Shipwreck Kelly, the champion flagpole sitter. I was wondering whether to lay out eight nickels for an adequate dinner at the Automat or blow in a dollar for a hearty meal at Bleeck’s. Stanley Walker strolled over from the City Desk…
“There’s one trick in it,” added Stanley. “This Pan Am Conference is dignified diplomacy, hocus-pocus at its highest level. Correct morning dress is de rigueur, even for reporters. You can’t get in unless you are all dressed up like Mrs. Astor’s horse – top hat, frocked coat, striped pants and the rest. Can you raise the regalia?”
Smith did indeed raise the regalia, borrowing some of it – like the ebony cane and silk hat – from friends. He hopped on one train from New York to D.C., and then on another from there, joined by Herald Washington correspondent Carter Field.
During the Presidential train ride, one of the articles Smith and his colleagues read to pass the time was about some newfangled “televisor” projection mechanism tested by G.E. Executives in Schenectady. When Smith got back to New York, he and his wife immediately threw a “Calvin Coolidge Rum” party at their apartment in Brooklyn. It was a raging success.