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  • 'Missing Myself' was an engaging read and served as a prompt for this anecdote. Blast those infernal, inconsiderate carpenters! Philistines! Thanks, KW!
    In 1937 the Cuban painter Antonio Gattorno was commissioned by the Bacardi Company to paint a mural for “The Bacardi Room” a showcase club located at their new headquarters on the 35th floor of the Empire State Building. Franklin Hughes was the architect heading up the project. Hughes was a high profile New York designer well known to the VIP cocktail crowd that would be frequenting the Bacardi Room once it was open for business. Most of the work was done in the autumn and winter of ‘37/’38. The opening was planned for February.

    Gattorno was already an internationally acclaimed artist when Ernest Hemingway sponsored his debut exhibit at the Passedoit Gallery in New York City in January 1936. A series of successful solo and group exhibits over the next two years as well as his friendships with Hemingway and John Dos Passos kept Gattorno’s name in the art news and society pages of the city’s major newspapers.

    Hughes was in charge of the design and construction of the Bacardi Room. Gattorno was in charge of himself. His job was to install and paint the mural. He answered only to the Bacardi family members, friends and longtime patrons, who had commissioned him. The two egotistical high-strung artists clashed from the first time they met.

    Hughes was an archetypal New Yorker, loud and brash and in your face. Gattorno was fluent and well spoken in Spanish, French and Italian. He was reluctant to speak in English because he felt his thick accent made him sound like a guajiro fresh off the boat. Hughes only spoke American and evidently had trouble understanding anyone for whom it was a second language. Their exchanges involved much shouting and gesturing in their respective tongues.

    Gattorno painted the mural on an 18’ by 20’ sheet of canvas laid down over the lath and plaster wall of the room in a technique he had perfected in Cuba. Traditional fresco painting of murals with wet plaster had never caught on with Gattorno and his Cuban peers. This turned out to be beneficial 23 years later in 1961 when the mural was removed and reinstalled at the newly constructed Bacardi Building in Miami Florida.

    Gattorno was in the habit of getting to work early in the morning before anyone else arrived on the 35th floor. He’d crank the radiators, to bring the temperature in the room up to something approximating the steamy tropical heat of his native island, while he prepared to paint. He’d make himself a pot of Cuban coffee, put a record on his beloved portable phonograph and turn the volume up loud. In shirtsleeves Gattorno would mount the scaffold with his pallet and paints and begin to lose himself in the work.

    Hours later when Franklin Hughes stepped off the elevator he emerged into a humid tropical atmosphere to the blaring sounds of the orchestra of the Casino de la Playa con Miguelito Valdés playing their rendition of Babalü or the Trio Matamoros with their hit Mariposita de Primavera. Gattorno would be up on the scaffolding, high on creativity and café Cubano, oblivious to everything but the colors and the music.

    He’d let Hughes shout and carry on for a while before acknowledging his presence. Gattorno responded to the neurotic remonstrations in Spanish. His initial replies were calm and polite but could rapidly escalate in intensity to match Hughes tirade.

    Hughes would turn off the radiators and open every window in the room to the frigid high altitude winds. (Yes. The original windows on the 35th floor of the Empire State building could simply be opened if one so desired to let in a bit of fresh air. I reckon that is not the case today.) Hughes would demand that Gattorno come down off the scaffold and turn off the record player. He would carry on about how no one could work in such a hot sticky environment. It was unnatural. It was after all the dead of winter in New York City. Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow. Gattorno would tell Hughes in Spanish that he was a "fantastic idiot!" with no common sense, no talent and no consideration for those who did possess them. They ranted at each other at the top of their lungs in a dramatic and entertaining display of petulance, temper and ego. Eventually Gattorno would dismount the scaffold, clean up and put away his brushes and abandon the project until the next day when the performance would be repeated.

    These shouting matches between Gattorno and Hughes occurred daily and became infamous enough to cop ink in the society pages and were mentioned in articles profiling the Bacardi Room in Holiday magazine and in Town & Country.

    Gattorno restoring "Waiting For The Coffee" the Bacardi Mural @ the Bacardi Building in Miami, Florida, December, 1962. Photo from the Antonio Gattorno Foundation
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