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Maggie Prior: Julio Cortázar’s forgotten muse
Maggie Prior in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Zenaida González
Maggie Prior in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Zenaida González

One day in 2006, Aurora Bernárdez, editor and executor of the Argentine author and poet Julio Cortázar, returned to the apartment they had shared in Paris. Rummaging through the drawers of an old dresser, she found several manuscripts, including the poem “Blues for Maggie.” These texts and verses became part of a copious unpublished legacy which, after arduous editing together with Carles Álvarez —a student of Cortázar’s work— would see the light of day as the volume Papeles inesperados.1 The posthumous publication includes the aforementioned poem, among thirteen unpublished poems by the author of Rayuela (Hopscotch).

“Blues for Maggie” evokes Havana, a black Cuban woman, a jazz singer. Those who were part of certain intellectual circles in Havana in the sixties, recall and share those experiences. It wouldn’t be difficult for them to agree with such a statement, and they’d be able to identify contexts and motivations: the presence of Maggie Prior in the life of Julio Cortázar crystallized in the first half of that decade, in what was an intense and important relationship for both, according to mutual friends who were witnesses or enthusiastic accomplices to their relationship in Havana. They knew what could happen when —according to another poet, the late Roberto Fernández Retamar— “in those Havana nights, making his way among journalists, Julio Cortázar managed to drag his phosphorescent self to El Gato Tuerto.”2

From left to right: Rolo Martínez, Maggie Prior and Bobby Carcassés in Cienfuegos. Photo courtesy of Bobby Carcassés
From left to right: Rolo Martínez, Maggie Prior and Bobby Carcassés in Cienfuegos. Photo courtesy of Bobby Carcassés

When Cortázar arrived in Havana for the first time, in 1961, Maggie Prior (b. 1942, Santiago de Cuba; d. 1992, Havana) was a slender black woman with a halo of sensual refinement that distinguished her as an habituée at the best intellectual and diplomatic circles in the city. Maggie was educated, informed; with a proverbial elegance, her style was of European inspiration. But this was not the most important thing about her: against all odds and all the obstacles in Cuba that demonized the genre that was so closely associated with the United States, Maggie continued to sing jazz music and was, in fact, the only woman who did so. Her voice devoured those immortal standards that have been vital in reconstructing the soundtrack of her nights: “But Not for Me,” “Stormy Weather,” “Tenderly,” “Night and Day.” She also played Cuban son and guaracha classics in the freer jazz style, and her scat covers of “Cachita” and “Mama Inés” were memorable.

When Cortázar arrived in Havana, Maggie was already singing in clubs where jazz musicians jammed —La Gruta, Habana 1900, Descarga Club— but his favorite place was El Gato Tuerto, opened less than a year earlier by Felito Ayón in the splendid mansion overlooking the sea from P Street, in El Vedado. And although he toured the entire country and the most unexpected corners of the capital, the memorable stops in Cortázar’s Cuban repertoire would be the Casa de las Américas, the Hotel Nacional and El Gato Tuerto—anyone looking for him in Havana would find him there in the evenings.

During the convulsive sixties, Maggie Prior was always at the vanguard of her times: she sang in the first concerts of what would become Nueva Trova music, while bringing the best socially-minded songs to Havana’s bohemian spaces: she sang her version of Silvio Rodríguez’s haunting “Terezin”; Italian Luigi Nono’s “Creare due, tre, multi Vietnam”; and Marta Valdés’ “Hagamos la canción,” all with the same anti-war message. Texts by Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon were heard through her voice; she joined the struggle to free Angela Davis, singing “Por Ángela,” by Tania Castellanos. Prior sang the monumental “Ya ves” by Pablo Milanés, who was already under the influence of feeling and moving toward a new song movement. As her friend the poet Nancy Morejón states, this also “… legitimately inserts Maggie in the field of the so-called Protest Song.”1

Maggie Prior singing at the Red Room at the Hotel Capri. Photo: Cinema magazine
Maggie Prior singing at the Red Room at the Hotel Capri. Photo: Cinema magazine

Cortázar and Maggie coincided in the same spaces. The circumstances, ubiquity and dedicated inspiration for “Blues for Maggie” are evident from the title itself; the song-poem by Pablo Milanés as leitmotiv —”Ya ves, / y yo sigo pensando en ti” (You see, / I’m still thinking of you) — and references to a context that is too obvious to be ignored4. The poet also gives indications of the nature of that relationship, which feels fierce and controversial, even addictive (“nos hicimos jugando todo el mal necesario”). And he also shows us how he viewed Maggie: her defenselessness, a totally free spirit, which they both knew was not well seen at that time. She would pay the price for such boldness.

Maggie Prior seems to appear in other writings by Julio Cortázar, dated during the years of his frequent visits to the island: the recurring presence of a woman who eroticizes the writer’s experiences is intuited in the text “Tu más profunda piel,” included among the poems in Naufragios en la Isla(1967).5 The same is true in the poem To the Dark Lady, also written in Havana in 1967, the year and place in which Cortázar met and fell in love with his second wife, the Lithuanian Ugne Karvelis.6

That other Havana that had a hold on Julio Cortázar sounds like jazz and also like feeling, with all the erotic charge that can be conveyed by a saxophone, a guitar, a voice or a place. The Argentine had the rare privilege, for better and worse, of visiting Cuba a few short months after the triumph of the Revolution and returning during the sixties and seventies, times of explosive creativity in music and in the rest of the arts, in an inclusive and stimulating environment that the new socio-political changes promised and created. The revolutionary transformations and the unique atmosphere of that Havana that was still the same as it had been, and was also already another city, immediately seduced Cortázar, who knew how to leave in his work traces of a personal process of seduction, sedimentation, demarcation and disenchantment.

Maggie at the Canción Protesta concert at the Casa de las Américas in 1967, accompanied by Sergio Vitier on the guitar. Photo: Casa de las Américas archives
Maggie at the Canción Protesta concert at the Casa de las Américas in 1967, accompanied by Sergio Vitier on the guitar. Photo: Casa de las Américas archives

Like none of the many other intellectuals who helped make the Cuban capital a crossroads in the pilgrimage of progressive and revolutionary ideas, Cortázar found some of his greatest spiritual joys in the soundtrack of the Havana that he heard through the voice of Maggie Prior, and in the enjoyment of the gregarious intimacy of El Gato Tuerto. So much so that, as his friend Roberto Fernández Retamar would write: “Now there’s an empty chair there.”7

Author’s note: Special thanks to Cuban writer and singer Jamila Castillo Carballea.

Blues for Maggie
Ya ves
nada es serio ni digno de que se tome en cuenta
nos hicimos jugando todo el mal necesario
ya ves, no es una carta esto,
nos dimos esa miel de la noche, los bares,
el placer boca abajo, los cigarrillos turbios
cuando en el cielo raso tiembla la luz del alba
ya ves,
y yo sigo pensando en ti,
no te escribo, de pronto miro el cielo, esa nube que pasa
y tú quizás allá en tu malecón mirarás una nube
y eso es mi carta, algo que corre indescifrable y lluvia.
Nos hicimos jugando todo el mal necesario,
el tiempo pone el resto, los oseznos
duermen junto a una ardilla deshojada.
Blues for Maggie8
You see
nothing is serious or worthy of consideration
we played at all the necessary evil
you see, this is not a letter,
we gave each other that night-honey, the bars,
upside-down pleasure, turbid cigarettes
when the light of dawn trembles on the ceiling
you see,
and I’m still thinking of you
I don’t write to you, suddenly I look at the sky, that passing cloud
and maybe there on your seawall you’ll look at a cloud
and that’s my letter, something indecipherable that runs, and rain.
We played all the necessary evil,
time takes care of the rest, the bear cubs
sleep next to a leafless squirrel.
From left to right: Martín Rojas, Eduardo Ramos, Omara Portuondo, Sergio Vitier and Maggie Prior at the Canción Protesta concert at the Casa de las Américas, 1967. Photo: Casa de las Américas archives
From left to right: Martín Rojas, Eduardo Ramos, Omara Portuondo, Sergio Vitier and Maggie Prior at the Canción Protesta concert at the Casa de las Américas, 1967. Photo: Casa de las Américas archives
  1. Julio Cortázar: Papeles inesperados, Alfaguara, Spain, 2009
  2. Roberto Fernández Retamar: “Julio Cortázar en Cuba,” from Punto Final, Santiago de Chile, June 1967. Fragment translated by Erin Goodman.
  3. Nancy Morejón. Interview with the author, May 12, 2014.
  4. “Ya ves, / y yo sigo pensando en ti, / no te escribo, de pronto miro el cielo, esa nube que pasa / y tú quizás allá en tu malecón mirarás una nube / y eso es mi carta, algo que corre indescifrable y lluvia” (“You see, / I’m still thinking about you, / I don’t write to you, suddenly I look at the sky, that passing cloud / and maybe there on your seawall you’ll look at a cloud / and that’s my letter, something indecipherable that runs, and rain”) Trans. Erin Goodman
  5. “Yo aprendía contigo lenguajes paralelos: el de esa geometría de tu cuerpo que me llenaba la boca y las manos de teoremas temblorosos, el de tu hablar diferente, tu lengua insular que tantas veces me confundía” (“With you I learned parallel languages: that of your body’s geometry filling my mouth and hands with trembling theorems, that of your different way of speaking, your island cadence that so often confused me”) Trans. Erin Goodman
  6. “Una antigua vez más se alza el reclamo / desde el canto trivial y la guitarra/ la doble soledad que nos amarra/ noche a noche en un bar, y no te amo/ no es el amor, no es nada más que el Amo/ con tu piel, tu saliva, con la garra / que delicadamente nos desgarra / cada vez que en tus muslos me derramo” (“Once again the claim is raised / by the trivial song and the guitar / the double solitude that binds us / night by night in a bar, and I don’t love you / it’s not love, it’s nothing more than Masterful / with your skin, your saliva, with the claw / that delicately tears us up / every time I spill out on your thighs”) Trans. Erin Goodman
  7. Roberto Fernández Retamar, ibídem.
  8. Trans. Erin Goodman
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