Oscar J. Montero: Manny Levine: Cold Case in Havana

Autores | 4 de febrero de 2024
©Reproducción gráfica del asesinato de Manuel Levine hecha por Bidopia para la revista Bohemia.

Manuel Levine went to Havana to do what thousands of people from el Nortedid back then: go to the beach, see a big show, party with some new friends. It was “back to your office on Monday, but you won’t be the same any more,” as Carmen Miranda sang in one of her classic films: Weekend in Havana. Manuel, aka Manny, planned to stay two or three weeks, a break from his job as manager of Grossman’s plumbing department in Quincy, Massachusetts A few days before he had planned to return home, he was beaten to death, his body dumped on the Vía Blanca, the new highway between Havana and Varadero.  Despite their efforts, the Levine family never found out why Manny was murdered. I have put together whatever I could find to come up with possible answers about a case all but forgotten from living memory, but haunting to me, a horrible crime and also a window into the final years of a world whose living memory is also vanishing.

Manny’s vacation started on January 26, 1957. From Cohasset, Massachusetts, where he lived with his family, he went to Boston, then flew to Miami to visit his brother Borah, aka Bo, who planned to spend just a weekend in Havana. A week later, Saturday, February 2, the brothers travelled to Key West and boarded Aerovías Q´s morning flight to Havana, forty minutes south, ten dollars one way. They checked into the Nueva Isla, a budget hotel on calle Monte in central Havana. That night, Sarah Vaughn was at the cabaret Sans Souci; Edith Piaf and Lena Horne, at the Montmartre. Nat King Cole was at the Tropicana. The young men opted for the Tropicana and hit the roulettes before the show. Manny lost a hundred and twenty dollars, “a lot for him as he was no heavy or steady gambler,” his brother later told a reporter from Quincy’s Patriot Ledger: “We saw the sights together, went to nightclubs and to the beach and really enjoyed ourselves.”   

Bo Levine’s comments about his visit to Cuba with his brother might have been said by any of the over 300,000 visitors that year, about 80% of them from the United States. The murder of one of them turned a statistic into a family’s nightmare. On Tuesday, February 5, Bo returned to Miami for his final semester at the university. The following Sunday, February 10, Manny left the Nueva Isla and was never heard from again. It took the Cuban authorities over two weeks to exhume an unidentified body found on the side of the road to Varadero. On February 28, they identified him as Manuel Levine. What remains of those two weeks is a trail of scattered clues, newspaper articles, tabloid photographs, attempts to defuse an international crisis, but no answers. In the background, of little interest to most visitors to Cuba, a revolution was entering its final phase. 1957 was a turning point. Somehow Manny Levine got caught in the crossfire.

For the Cuban press, “la muerte del turista” became a publishing bonanza. Havana’s journalists, photographers and graphic artists filled out the facts provided by local investigators with images and testimonies of hotel clerks, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and the folks who frequented the waterfront bars.  They added details left out of Borah’s discreet comments to the press back in Massachusetts. In weekly magazines Bohemia and Carteles, in Diario de la Marina, Prensa Libre, Información, The Havana Post and other newspapers, journalists put together a portrait of Manny Levine, reconstructed his broken face and spun narratives to go with it.

A long article about the case in Bohemia (3-10-1957) included a sidebar titled “Así era Manuel Levine” [This was Manuel Levine], based on a telephone interview with his older brother Irving, an auditor at the US Department of Defense, who lived in Silver Spring, Maryland. His voice “halting with emotion,” Irving answered the reporter’s questions about his brother. Manny was 28 years old, a graduate of Bowdoin College (1951), like Irving, who graduated in 1945. Manny was the second of four siblings: Irving, 31, Borah, 22, and Bryna Levine Elkind, 27, who lived in Framingham, Massachusetts with her husband, Herbert Elkind. He earned $125 a week at L. Grossman and Sons. He had just bought a brand new convertible, parked in the family’s driveway, waiting for his return home. Manny loved fishing, boating, and the beautiful beaches surrounding Cohasset. He did not smoke or drink, was not that interested in gambling.  He went out with his “girlfriends,” Irving said, but nothing serious yet. Manny was trusting of others and made friends easily. “We never knew of anyone who might hate him,” Irving went on, “or anybody who might be out for revenge.” Motives for his death? No idea, perhaps robbery. “Cuba is so far away,” Irving concluded, “Mother and Father are desperate to know what happened to Manuel.” The interview with Irving offered a portrait of a “modest, hard-working family,” mourning  the death of a good, industrious son, “ambushed in a lonely corner of the island that had so captivated him, led to a trap by easy pleasures, carelessness, the ambition of men,” according to Bohemia’s dramatic conclusion.

The rough edges of Manny´s adventures in Havana did not appear in the US press, which focused on the family’s grief and their attempts to find out what had happened during the two weeks that he was reported missing. To his employers at Grossman’s, Manny Levine was the promising young man in the plumbing department. Mike Grossman, vice president and grandson of its founder, an immigrant from Russia like Manny’s parents, told The Patriot Ledger (2-28-57) that Manny was one of the “brightest young men in our organization. We had great plans for him.” When news of the murder reached the family, Manny’s mother, Sarah Lunchick Levine collapsed: “Please no, Oh God, don´t tell me that he is dead.”  She recalled that before he left, she had told her son to be careful with whom he made friends. His reply: “Don´t worry; I can take care of myself.” “I have no tears left to cry,” Sarah told a reporter from The Boston Globe (2-28-57).

Manny spoke some Spanish. He had been to Mexico and to Cuba on a previous visit. He knew where to find an affordable hotel in the older part of the city, on a street lined with shops under the famous portales, the covered sidewalks that sheltered the boisterous conviviality of what some would argue was the real Havana, the other side of the sleek modernism taking over just a few blocks away, where the new hotel Hilton was going up. The day they arrived in Havana, Manny and Bo went by the shop of a leather merchant whom Manny had met on his previous trip:  Emilio Pérez, owner of “La Casa Emilio,” on O’Reilly 369, at the corner of Compostela, a fifteen minute walk from their hotel, the Nueva Isla at Monte and Factoría. Manny bought an alligator purse for his mother and was measured for a pair of shoes, to be picked up in a few days.  Since his first visit to Havana two years earlier, he had kept in touch with Emilio Pérez, who sent him various shipments of leather goods. There were two other men in the store, also foreigners. They would reappear later.

Leather merchant Pérez liked the Levine brothers and invited them to visit his home in Guanabo the following day, Sunday, February 3. It was good for business to develop contacts with customers from the United States, Pérez later told the press. Guanabo, about 16 miles east of the capital, was a popular resort people used to call “Havana’s beach.” It was a festive place, with a cinema, small hotels, restaurants and a sleek club right on the beach. Families brought their picnics for a day in the sun.  In the early evening, young people ambled on the wide sidewalks, eyeing each other. After their Sunday afternoon in Guanabo, swimming, walking along the beach, lunch at the Hotel Cuba across the street from Emilio Pérez’s home, the Levine brothers returned to Havana. 

After Nat King Cole’s show at the Tropicana, they went to a bar on Ánimas street in Old Havana, where they met three young men who invited them to see the burlesque show on calle Zanja. The young Cubans took Manny and Bo to the Teatro Shanghai, once the setting for Cantonese Opera. The Shanghai later became famous, or infamous according to your religion, for its live sex shows and pornographic films.  When the show ended, the brothers said good-bye to their new friends and went back to their hotel. 

The following evening was Bo´s last before his return to Miami. Manny wanted to make it special and looked for help to make the arrangements. He stroke up a conversation with José Sasinski, who had a shop next to their hotel and spoke fluent English. Manuel asked Sasinski if he knew of a driver who wouldn’t charge too much to take them around town. Of course he did:  veteran driver José Martínez Sierra, who always parked just around the corner, at the taxi stand on Monte and Suárez. The young men hopped in and asked Martínez to take them to a place where they might “meet some women and have some fun.” No problem, míster. They drove past the Capitol, down Paseo all the way to the waterfront, made a left and there was the New Chico Bar at 106 Desamparados, street of the Forsaken, so called because at one time there was a hospital nearby for homeless women and a shelter for “women of ill repute.” The last time I was in Havana, I walked along Desamparados, looking for the New Chico Bar.  Some faded letters on a crumbling wall were all that remained.

At the New Chico, Manny met Nora Rodríguez, a 22-year-old “rubia platinada,” as a journalist later described her. Nora agreed to spend the evening with Manny. Bo made similar arrangements with another young woman, but after receiving advanced payment for her “favors,” she disappeared. Bo complained to the bar´s owner, who then asked Ramona Hernández, 23 years old, to substitute “without charging him a cent.” Later interviewed by investigators and reporters, Nora Rodríguez provided details about the time she spent with Manny. He was “un joven educado,” she said, a well-mannered young man.  She was with him until six the next morning, when she went back to her room in the same building. 

According to Nora, around noon that same day, Manny returned to the “New Chico,” alone this time. Brother Bo was already on his way back to Florida. Nora was busy with another client, but Ramona, the young woman who had spent time with Bo, was sitting alone at the bar. In English and Spanish, “chapurreado” on both sides, Manny and Ramona agreed to go to La Concha beach in Marianao: 15 minutes west along the Malecón, then under the Almendares River through the new tunnel. Driver Martínez Sierra dropped them off at the beach. A few hours later, Manny and Ramona returned to the bar, where he rented a room so they could spend some time together. 

The rather detailed, fairly coherent narrative of Manny´s first few days in Havana, based on accounts by his brother, shopkeepers, the women at the bar and others, ends on this day, February 5, 1957. What happened after that is far from clear. A young man´s typical vacation turned into a crime drama, a network of places defining an odd geometry, a tangle of details and characters with shifting identities,  ideal material for Havana´s popular “crónica roja.”

According to José Suárez, front desk clerk at the Nueva Isla, on Sunday, February 10, Manny asked for $20 from the $120 he kept in the hotel safe. He left the Nueva Isla with two men.  He told Suárez that he was going with his friends to Varadero, but did not take any luggage; he left his prized camera and uncashed checks sent by his mother at the hotel. That was the last time anyone, except his killers, saw Manuel Levine alive.  When Manny failed to return to Massachusetts, his older brother Irving contacted the US Embassy and the Cuban authorities, who initially did nothing to investigate the disappearance of an American tourist. With no news from Havana about Manny´s whereabouts, the Levine family eventually concluded that there was a “cover-up,” a deliberate attempt to make Manny disappear without a trace.


“No Word from Havana”

Just after dawn, Monday, February 11, a school teacher on route 70 of Ómnibus Aliados, from Guanabo to Boca de Jaruco, was the first to see the body on the side of the road. Driver Rodolfo Lauzardo Masip hit the breaks and pulled over. The few passengers witnessed a gruesome scene: a young man lying on his back in a pool of blood.  Driver Lauzardo got everyone back on the bus and drove to Boca de Jaruco to notify the authorities. At San Antonio de Río Blanco, about six miles south of Santa Cruz del Norte, Sergeant Hildemaro Jiménez filed a report about the crime. The report stated that the victim had two cents in his pocket and no identification papers, but because of his appearance, they assumed he was a foreigner: “Tenía aspecto de extranjero.” He was “of the white race,” of a robust constitution, dark haired and approximately thirty years old, wearing an “American” sports jacket, beige with dark spots, blue Dacron trousers with white spots, a zippered fly and buttons for suspenders, yellow loafers with orthopedic insoles, pink nylon socks with black dots, flannel underpants over a jockstrap, matching undershirt, and a tie clip in the shape of a key. The victim was on his back, a trail of blood from his head suggesting he may have dragged himself there. There were cuts and bruises on his arms, indicating he put up a fierce struggle. Cause of death: five star-shaped wounds on the back of his head, probably from blows with a blackjack. Death had occurred a few hours earlier. Tire marks from a large car were visible on the sandy soil. Two weeks later, on February 27, Manny Levine was still considered missing. The Boston Globe ran this headline: “No Word from Havana of Missing Cohasset Man.” The unidentified body on the side of the road was buried in a potter´s field and put on a fast track to oblivion.

In 1957 Cuba, there were frequent reports of bodies dumped on the side of the road, in sugarcane fields, in empty warehouses. Even when the often censored press would not give details of these crimes, word of mouth travelled fast. Urban warfare against Batista was in full gear. Sabotage frequently knocked off the power. A heavy chain thrown over the lines would do the trick. Bombs went off in shops and cinemas. I was a boy then but remember it well, a sense of zozobra: “anxiety” doesn’t capture its meaning. It needs the smell of burning sugarcane, streets as dark “as the mouth of a wolf,” tales of horror passed from one front porch to another. Batista pushed back hard against the “insurgentes” threatening his hold on Cuba. In Cruces, my hometown, the father of a schoolmate was found in a warehouse, his head split open with a hatchet, fingers on his right hand missing: his futile attempt to stop the blows. I had nightmares about being buried alive. However, if mangled bodies sometimes ended up on the side of a deserted road, the murder of a foreigner, obviously a tourist from the United States, dumped on the side of the busy highway between Havana and Varadero, was hardly common. That the unidentified body of a tourist, “un extranjero” as the police report said, was buried with no immediate reaction from the US Embassy was an outrageous anomaly.

Irving Levine, employed at the Department of Defense, used his contacts in Washington to demand an investigation of his brother’s disappearance. Over two weeks after the school teacher spotted the body on the side of the road, the Boston Globe, February 27, still reported that “A US Consulate spokesman in Havana said there was no reason to believe Levine had met with foul play. He said tourists often disappeared for long periods without leaving word where they are going.” The very next day, Cuban investigators finally confirmed that the body found on the side of the Vía Blanca two weeks earlier was that of Manuel Levine. Quincy’s Patriot Ledger ran a banner headline: “Levine Murdered in Cuba.”  

Once the belated investigation about the murder of the unidentified tourist  began, Cuban authorities were eager to prove their expertise by conducting a proper inquest, with agents from various “gabinetes,” offices or departments with impressive names, all mentioned in articles in Bohemia and Carteles, along with photographs of the investigators hard at work and praises for their excellent work:  Gabinete de Identificación de Cuba, Gabinete de Dactiloscopía, in charge of fingerprint identification, the Negociado de Extranjería [Bureau of Foreign Services], Departamento de Investigación de la Policía Nacional,  Negociado de Homicidios, all eager to conduct what the press called “investigaciones científicas.” The names of experts on forensics and dactyloscopy, along with those of officers from the Guardia Rural, the police, local judges, journalists and various witnesses appeared in the press. The body in the potter’s field in Santa Cruz del Norte was exhumed.

The unidentified man´s underpants provided a first clue in the investigation. On February 11, Rodolfo Mesa, a forensic expert from the Gabinete Nacional de Identificación, had taken the unidentified victim’s fingerprints and noted a number written in ink on the label of his underwear: 502. On February 28 this same agent Mesa, along with chief investigator Marco Arcaño, his assistant agent González Revolta and agent Guillermo García searched Manny´s room at the Hotel Nueva Isla. They found documents, rolls of film and other items that might help in locating the missing tourist. The film was considered a possible source of clues, but I have found no further mention of it, or information about where it ended up. The investigators took fingerprints from a razor blade and a tube of toothpaste, but agent Mesa knew they had their man when he saw in Manny´s suitcase a pair of Spruce flannel underpants with the number of the room written on it: 502. With dramatic flair, Bohemia reported agent Mesa´s belated eureka moment: “There was the link that connected the disappearance of Manuel Levine with the unidentified corpse in front of kilometer 38 of the Vía Blanca, between Guanabo and Boca de Jaruco.” The Spruce brand underwear in Levine´s room was the same as the one worn by the dead man, 502 written on it by the laundry service at the hotel. Moreover, a pair of thick-lensed glasses on the victim was similar to glasses found with Manny´s belongings at the hotel. Fingerprints verified the identification. Now all they needed was for someone to make an official identification. The family considered sending Bo to Havana accompanied by his aunt Mildred Lunchick, but he ended up going by himself.

On February 28, Bo arrived in Havana to identify his brother´s body. The next day, as part of the ongoing investigation, Lieutenant Heriberto Hernández took the young man around the places he had visited with his brother. The Cuban press wasted no time in focusing on the “lurid haunts” the young men had frequented.  March 2, Bo flew back to Boston and was met at Logan airport by brother Irving, their father Maurice and brother-in-law Herbert Elkind.  Bo told the press that the Cubans had not given him details of the investigation, but they did ask him if Manny was interested in fishing. He was “an avid enthusiast of the sport”, Bo told them, and they just nodded. “They must have something on the case, but they haven’t told me what it is,” he said: “Things like this are so senseless”. “If it was wartime, you could take the death of a brother,” Bo told The Boston Globe (3-2-57). 

The detective’s odd question about Manny’s interest in fishing suggests a possible link to New York Times journalist Herbert Matthews, who was in Cuba planning his famous interview with Fidel Castro, leader of “los rebeldes” fighting against Batista in the Sierra Maestra. Matthews boasted that he outwitted the Cuban authorities and made his journey to interview Castro disguised as a tourist on a fishing trip. Perhaps Manny’s unexplained murder was a way to warn Matthews about what might happen to him for his efforts to put Fidel Castro on the front page of his prestigious newspaper. More on Matthews and his fisherman´s disguise later.

Questioned by Lieutenant Hernández, Bo recalled that while he and Manny were shopping at “La Casa Emilio,” there were two men there who tried to pay with Canadian money. The men at the store were first identified as “Americans,” then “North Americans,” and finally as Canadians. Shopkeeper Emilio Pérez told Bohemia (3-10-57) that on February 8, after Bo had returned to Miami, Manny came by with two “shabbily dressed” men: “dos sujetos mal trajeados.” They looked like foreigners and spoke in English. While Manny talked to Pérez, one of the men told an employee at the store that they wanted to buy some belts, again to be payed with Canadian money. Pérez asked them to go to a currency exchange nearby because he only accepted US dollars. The men argued with the employer about the money and left without buying anything.

The next day, Saturday February 9, Manny returned to Emilio Pérez´s leather shop.  According to the shopkeeper’s testimony, Manny asked the woman who worked at the shop to call the Nueva Isla hotel and ask “if his friends had come by to pick him up.” The clerk, not identified,  later told the police that when she called the Nueva Isla, they told her that Manny´s two friends had indeed been there. Subsequent interviews with employees of the hotel confirmed that two men whose appearance matched that of the Canadians had been to the Nueva Isla looking for Manny on more than one occasion. Once or twice they had seen him leave the hotel with them. The Canadians were first identified as merchant marines, but the police checked out foreign freight ships currently in the harbor with no results. Later the men were identified as the two “shady” characters who wanted to pay with Canadian money at “La Casa Emilio.” The two Canadians became the prime suspects in the investigation. The local press was eager to convict them.

On the morning of March 5, Lieutenant Heriberto Hernández and agent Armando Sánchez Bretón made the rounds of hotels looking for the Canadian suspects.  At the Hotel Bruzón, they found what they were looking for. Yvon Fred Mimeault, 35, and Pierre Robinson, 23, both residing at 5443 Avenue 16 in Montréal´s Rosemont neighborhood had checked in the afternoon of February 5.  Yvon Mimeault was six feet, 230 pounds, moustache.  According to the press, he was a dead ringer for bandleader Paul Whiteman, whose photo was included in an article about the case. The other Canadian was Pierre Robinson, slight, dark hair, employed for some time at an amusement park in Montréal. The two men had arrived in Havana on January 22 on the TMT ferry from Key West, driving a 1953 red Buick convertible with a black top, Canadian plate 60-6240, a small US flag on the antenna. Another Canadian, Aimé Bellanger, had checked in with them at the hotel but left the next day.

The front desk clerk at the Bruzón, a budget hotel close to the bus station, told Bohemia journalist Vicente Cubillas that the Canadians seemed to be short of money. They had bargained for the price of the room.  Parking attendant Severino Muñoz remembered the men and their car “perfectamente.” The Canadians were not well dressed, Muñoz recalled, and their dirtiness [desaseo] extended to their car. It was not washed the whole time they were at the hotel. The woman at the front desk, no name given, told the investigators that these men had asked her how to get to the Hotel Nueva Isla to pick up a friend. She drew them a map, and they left. She recalled that on two or three occasions, Manny Levine had come by the Bruzón with the Canadians. They were overheard planning a trip to Varadero.  

A waiter at the Hotel Bruzón, Guido Tomás Flores Rivas, told the police he had seen a blackjack, about eight or ten inches long in the Canadians´ room, number 37. The murder weapon was believed to be a blackjack or a club, although it was never found. The Cuban press presented its readers with enough evidence to convict the Canadians of Manny´s murder. On March 10, 1957, Bohemia published a long article by Vicente Cubillas (1921-1972), a well-know journalist who had been Bohemia´s correspondent in New York.  The article was co-authored by Pedro González de la Fe. Its headline, in bold, all caps said: “Manuel Levine Got Burned in the Flame of his Desire for Easy Adventures” [Manuel Levine se quemó en la llama de su afán de aventuras fáciles]. The article reads like the summary of a script for a “true crime” series, a mix of facts with dramatic reenactments. There is a detailed portrait of Manny, based in part on the telephone interview with his brother Irving, and a gallery of photographs: a smiling, dapper Manny; his anguished mother in Cohasset; the young women he met at the bar on Desamparados street: Nora Rodríguez in dark glasses, her head tilted away from the camera; Ramona Hernández, a frightened look in her eyes; eager police investigators hovering over the evidence; Manny’s body sprawled on the side of the road; disturbing close-ups of his battered face, one wearing his glasses, “to aid in the identification.” There is a reenactment of the murder in a drawing by an artist named “Bidopia.” Journalist Cubillas wrote that “Bidopia has graphically reproduced the act of Levine’s murder.” In the sketch, Manny rests one knee on the ground while rolling up his pant leg. The two killers, silhouettes against a grey sky, loom over him, one of them raising a club over the victim’s head. To the side is the sinister car where “el confiado judío-americano” [the trusting American Jew] travelled to his death. 

According to the article, Manuel Levine was a young man who came to Havana “in search of cheap, easy pleasures: bars, brothels, beaches, haunts of his final days.” The article and others in the Cuban press were explicit in their judgment of the victim.  Considering the places Manny visited and the company he kept, they insisted, no wonder he ran into trouble. Of course, back then plenty of people went to Cuba in search of “easy adventures”; some no doubt “got burned in the flame of desire,” but only one was beaten to death, dumped on the side of the highway to Varadero, and buried for two weeks without being identified. 


“Did He Have a Date with Death?”

The Cuban press praised the local authorities for finding the Canadian suspects, thanks to their “meticulous” investigation. When it turned out that suspects Mimeault and Robinson had left Cuba before the time of the murder, journalist Cubillas offered a possible explanation, or at any rate “conjectures” as he called them.  In a convoluted version of events, Cubillas suggested that the Canadians attacked Manny on the road to Varadero, left him mortally wounded, then drove back to Havana to take the ferry to Key West. According to this improbable tale, it took Manny over a day to die, from Sunday February 10 until sometime the following day, his body spotted by the passenger on the bus on the morning of Tuesday, February 12, according to Cubillas (Bohemia 3-10-57). 

Another article, written by José Quilez Vicente for Carteles, gave the correct date: the body was found on Monday, February 11. Contradicting Bohemia´s theory of Manny’s “prolonged agony,” journalist Quilez insisted that “there was no question that the victim had died instantly.” According to Quilez, the suggestion that the night before the murder, the Canadians had picked Manny up at the hotel was “rigorously inexact.” On March 10, The Boston Globe reported that the two suspects, Yvon Fred Mimeault and Pierre Robinson, residents of Montréal, were cleared of “any complicity in the death of Manuel Levine.” They had left on the ferry the morning of February 10. Witnesses confirmed seeing Manny later that day. That evening he left the Nueva Isla never to return, in the company of two other men, never identified. According to The Boston Globe, the search for the killers was “stalemated.” 

Another headline in Carteles about “the mysterious drama” was yet another question: “¿Qué motivos provocaron el asesinato del norteamericano Manuel Levine?” [What were the motives for the murder?].  Journalist Quilez offered no answers, only a series of questions propping up his dramatic reconstruction of what may have happened. At first sight, the crime appeared to be a “vulgar theft,” he wrote. The twenty dollars Manny took from his hotel were never found.  The forensic experts noted the mark left by a missing ring on his left hand. Twenty dollars and a ring of “unknown value” were weak motives for a crime that evidently required some planning. Manny agreed to get in a car with two strangers who then killed him on the side of the road to Varadero or possibly somewhere else, but those who committed the crime were not “common delinquents.” They were not part of Havana´s “underworld,” journalist Quilez insisted, but may have come from other places, without saying what those places might be.  It may have been an act of revenge, Quilez said, or a crime committed out of “the desire to hide shameful aberrations or blur the details of some illicit business.” Quilez then piled on the questions. What “adventures” caused Manuel Levine to lose his life so brutally? Was his death the result of “an alcoholic binge” or of a “passionate adventure” gone wrong? Perhaps it was none of the above, but the unanswered questions created their own story, satisfying curious readers with their “conjectures.”

Cleared of any role in the crime, the Canadians went from prime suspects to star witnesses.  One of the officers in charge of the investigation, Coronel Orlando Piedra Negueruela, asked the Montréal police to question Yvon Mimeault and Pierre Robinson. Under oath, Mimeault testified that on Saturday, February 9, after a trip to the beach in Marianao, he, Robinson and Manny stopped at a gas station located on 12th street, between 17th and 19th streets in the Vedado neighborhood. According to Mimeault, Manny stroke up a conversation with a man who was filling up his ‘57 Nash. The gas station attendant told the police that the owner of the Nash was a regular customer; in fact, he lived around the corner.

The detectives had no trouble locating the driver of the Nash.  He was Jacobo George Perlmutter (aka Jakub Gerszon Perlmutter), 37 years old, a physician graduated from the University of Warsaw in 1947, employed  in Cuba as a salesman of pharmaceutical products. He lived at 963, 17th street, apartment 917.  Besides his native language, Perlmutter spoke English, Spanish and French. He was brought in for an “extensive interrogation,” conducted by colonel Orlando Piedra and other officers. There were two interrogations, April 15 and 26, both reported to the US Embassy and covered in El Mundo, Información, and The Havana Post. The articles about the case in Bohemia and Carteles spun their stories around the same cliché: that Manny was “playing with fire.” However, Perlmutter´s testimony offered a different version of Manny´s last days in Havana.

According to Perlmutter, when they met at the gas station, Manny told him that he had only been to clubs of rather “low quality.” Apparently Manny chose not to mention that a week earlier he and his brother had gone to see Nat King Cole at the Tropicana, Havana’s premier cabaret.   Perhaps as a way to impress his new friend, Manny told him that he was a wealthy manufacturer of pharmaceutical products.  Perlmutter then offered to take Manny to some classy places. That evening, he drove to the Nueva Isla to pick up his new friend. They spent the evening at the elegant Club Comodoro in Miramar and the cabaret Sans Souci, where they saw Johnnie Ray, all but forgotten today but a popular singer in the 1950s.  In the early hours of Sunday, February 10, Perlmutter dropped Manny off at his hotel. They planned to see each other again at 4 p.m.

Just before their scheduled meeting, Manny called Perlmutter to cancel, saying that he was with “a beautiful Venezuelan woman” whom he had met at a restaurant where he had lunch. In spite of the cancellation, Perlmutter returned to the Nueva Isla at 8 p.m. to see if Manny might still want to go back with him to the bar at the Hotel Comodoro. He spotted him at the corner of Monte and Suárez, wearing a sport shirt and eating an orange. Perlmutter pulled over, and they spoke briefly. Manny told him that he couldn´t go out that evening because he had a date with the Venezuelan woman and was expecting some money from his mother, which he planned to spend on a trip to Varadero before returning to Boston the following Friday, February 15. Perlmutter then drove to the Comodoro by himself.  He testified that he never saw his American friend again. Manny was killed that evening or in the early hours of Monday, February 11. He never picked up the seventy-five dollar check sent by his mother.  A return to the Comodoro with the Polish doctor might have saved his life.

Dr. Perlmutter had no trouble providing alibis. José Elías Medina Cruz, bartender at the Comodoro and a resident of Calzada 1003 in Vedado, confirmed that Perlmutter, one of his regulars, had spent the evening of February 10 at the hotel´s bar. Gladys Vidaurreta Fons, also a regular, a resident of Calzada de Vento 851, told the police that on the night in question, Dr. Perlmutter had given her a ride home, along with a friend identified only as Conchita. With all suspects cleared, the police now had “a new clue,” the young woman who spent time with Manny the day before he was killed. The Havana Post published their update on the crime under this headline: “Venezuelan Woman Linked to Unsolved Levine Murder.” The subheading aimed to convict her: “Did He Have a Date with Death?”  


“US Embassy: No Foul Play”

The article about Manny’s murder by Vicente Cubillas (Bohemia 3-10-57), cited above, included a box under the title “Los insurgentes en acción” [Insurgents in Action], which suggests a connection between “el crimen del turista” and the political situation in Cuba in 1957, a link that did not figure in the investigation. The “insurgentes” in the headline referred to the opposition to Batista. Besides knocking out power lines, their tactics included setting off bombs in Havana and other cities, and killing high-ranking members of Batista’s army. A frequently censored press nevertheless published reports about these incidents, or managed to mention them while by-passing the censors. In his article about the Levine case, Cubillas not only mentioned the activities of the insurgents but also Herbert L. Matthews’ interview with Fidel Castro, published in The New York Times on February 24, 1957, under the headline: “Cuban Rebel is Visited in Hideout. Castro is Still Alive and Still Fighting in Mountains.” 

The Cuban government insisted that Fidel Castro was dead: he had been killed by Batista’s army along with most of the rebels who had landed in Cuba´s eastern province aboard the Granma, December 2, 1956.  Contradicting the claim that Castro was dead, Matthews wrote that “The rebel leader of Cuba’s youth, is alive and fighting hard and successfully,” adding that Batista’s “army men are fighting a thus-far losing battle.” By mentioning the articles by Matthews, Cubillas put into print what Cuban people already knew, that despite the official insistence on the death of Castro and most of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra, they were very much alive. The photographs of Matthews with the rebel leader proved it.  Thanks to Matthews’ front page articles in The New York Times, the story of the rebels’ fight against Batista became international news. A resurrected Fidel turned Batista into a frightened liar. His Defense Minister, Santiago Verdeja, told Carteles that Matthews’ interview with Castro was “a fanciful tale” [‘una novela fantástica´] (3/10/1957). A month later, Colonel Pedro R. Barrera, commanding officer in “the Castro manhunt,” told Edward Scott of The Havana Post (4-13-57) that “the pictures purporting to show Castro with a telescopic-sight rifle and Castro being interviewed by Matthews were ‘fakes’.” 

Journalist Cubillas also wrote that “a Boston paper,” no doubt The Globe, reported that the US Embassy in Havana had informed them that communication between Havana and Varadero, where Manny was headed when he was killed, had been interrupted for two weeks “’due to the actions of the insurgents.’”  The “imaginative writers” at the Globe, he said, were no doubt impressed by Matthews’ articles and believed that the rebels were operating all over Cuba not just in its eastern mountains. Despite what the Embassy allegedly told the Boston paper, communications between Havana and Varadero were not interrupted, certainly not for two weeks. Cubillas implied that the US Embassy falsely blamed the delay in the Levine investigation on “the insurgents.” The US press seemed to second the explanations given by the Embassy in Havana. They reported on the case but showed no outrage over the fact that an unidentified tourist from the US was buried in a potter’s field, that it took two weeks to dig him out and identify him, and a month to send his body back to Massachusetts. 

The Levine family endured two weeks without answers about Manny’s disappearance in Havana, along with the evasive response from the Cuban police, the leering innuendos of the press, and the ham-fisted spin of the US Embassy, then headed by ambassador John Gardner, an unwavering supporter of Batista.  In the end, the Levines received Manny’s battered body, and a grotesque offer from President Batista “to cover all expenses.” The anger of the Levine family is evident in their comments to The Patriot Ledger:

We will not accept explanations given by the Cuban police. Havana is full of American tourists at this season. From the account given by Cuban police you might think that they are accustomed to finding murdered people strewn around beaches all the time […] There is some deeper motive for this attempt to cover up Manuel´s death. If an American jumps a hotel bill down there, they are quick enough to notify the American consulate. But, if an American gets murdered they want you to believe that they just bury him quietly and forget them (3/1/57). 

On June 14, 1957, Timothy J. Murphy, a lawyer representing the Levines, wrote Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asking for support in presenting a claim to the Cuban government.  Mr. Murphy argued that because “Cuba is bound under the provisions of the United Nations Charter and the Statute of the International Court of Justice,” the Levines were justified in presenting their case “through that tribunal.”   The mishandling of their son’s murder, Mr. Murphy said, has caused the family “serious nervous and physical disabilities.” Moreover, it was clear to them that there had been a cover-up.

Two weeks later, June 29, 1957, Mr. Murphy, the Levines’ lawyer, received a reply from Benedict M. English, Assistant Legal Adviser to Secretary of State Dulles. After “careful review” of details about “the death of the decedent,” Mr. English told the Levines, the Department of State “has been unable to find that there was any act of commission or omission of Cuban authorities in connection with the unfortunate incident.” Mr. English concluded his curt reply adding that “if the claimants and the decedent were citizens of the United States, the Department will be glad to consider any additional evidence and information which the claimants may desire to submit.” Manny’s mother, Sarah arrived in the United States in 1908 at the age of ten. His father, Maurice Levine, arrived in 1915, also ten years old. They were married in the early 1920s. They had lived at 32 Deering Road in Boston, where according to the 1930 census, Yiddish was spoken in every household; however, their children, the “decedent” and his brothers and sister, were born in Massachusetts.  

The political situation in Cuba in those years was of little concern to the thousands of visitors from the United States disembarking daily in Havana, Manny Levine among them. But from today’s perspective, the murder of a young man from Cohasset may be framed by Cuba’s political violence in those years. There was a link between the murder of a tourist and the killings in Cuba by Batista’s regime and by those who opposed it, a link but no evident motives. Yet even if no answers are possible, the parallel between apparently unrelated acts of violence raises questions that others down the road might pursue. The Levine family was certain that there had been “some deeper motive for this attempt to cover up Manuel´s death.” 


The Man Who Invented Fidel

Saturday, February 9, 1957, the day before Manny was murdered, Herbert Matthews and his wife Edith (Nancie) Crosse arrived in Havana. They stayed at the swank Sevilla-Biltmore, their first stop on their journey to Cuba’s Oriente province. On February 24 The New York Times published the first of three articles by Matthews about his meeting with Fidel Castro. “No one in Havana,” Matthews boasted, “not even at the United States Embassy with all its resources for getting information, will know until this report is published that Fidel Castro is really in the Sierra Maestra.”

The consequences of Matthews’ interview with Castro are well documented, notably in Anthony DePalma’s The Man Who Invented Fidel, published in 2006. Today Matthews’ account of his time in Cuba reads like a dated journalistic tour de force. Its cavalier mix of facts with dramatic details turned the story into an “adventure,” a tale with the aura of a fictional account. On March 1, 1957, Newsday wrote that the journalist´s meeting with Castro punctured Batista’s credibility and “provided a wonderful climax to one of the year’s truly amazing stories… a series of stranger-than-fiction adventures.” In The New York Times magazine, March 8, 1959, Matthews referred to the preparations for his journey from Havana to Cuba’s eastern province as “a week of cloak-and-dagger negotiations.” Aside from the details of a clickbait story, whatever negotiations must have taken place for an American couple to travel the length of Cuba to meet Castro in the mountains of Oriente, supposedly without the knowledge of the US Embassy and under the nose of Batista’s security thugs, never made it to the press. 

Dr. Faustino Pérez and Lilian Mesa, young Cubans who opposed Batista’s regime, went with Matthews and his wife Nancie Crosse on the trip to Oriente. Faustino posed as a driver; Lilian, as a translator.  After the Matthews were safely back in New York, Faustino Pérez was arrested and tortured to reveal details about the American journalist’s visit to Cuba. Lilian Mesa was also arrested, gagged and bound, driven through a deserted park in Havana, and “threatened if she did not confess her participation in your journey,” according to Dolores Montero, who signed a letter to Matthews, dated March 24, 1957, where she told him about the fate of the young people who helped him. The letter from Dolores Montero and other material I consulted are in the Matthews archive at Columbia University.

An article by Ray Erwin titled “Correspondent Risks Life to Find Rebel” appeared in Editor and Publisher, March 2, 1957.  In the article, Matthews mentioned that the couple who helped him had risked their lives, then added that his wife was taken as “camouflage” to make them look like typical tourists on a fishing trip.  He bought the appropriate clothing and fishing gear in Havana: “‘My wife got the kick of her life out of it,’ observed Mr. Matthews with a laugh.” He glossed over details that might clarify the role of New York Times correspondent in Havana R. [Ruby] Hart Phillips, who he claimed “was kept out of the story entirely.” In a letter to Turner Catledge, his colleague at The Times, Matthews insisted that Ambassador Arthur Gardner did not know of the plan to interview Castro and “was fit to be tied” when he learned of it, but “I happen to know, that the career staff of the Havana Embassy was delighted with my articles.” The contrast between what happened to the young people who risked their lives to help the New York Times journalist and his boastful tale about fishing disguises and “getting a kick” out of the whole affair is grotesque.

Before leaving Havana for the mountains of eastern Cuba, Matthews met with the top leaders of the urban opposition to Batista, members of the militant wing of the Federación Estudiantil Universitaria (FEU), who in February 1957 were planning to kill Batista during an attack on the Presidential Palace, which took place on March 13, 1957, less than two weeks after Manny’s body was identified. The attack failed; Batista was unharmed. Yet the “Attack on the Palace,” as the incident is known in Cuban history, exposed the weakness of Batista’s regime, which would collapse in less than two years. Many of those involved in the attack on Batista’s official residence were killed, including their leader, José Antonio Echeverría, who had met with Matthews. In the midst of the political turmoil of that year, it is unlikely, if not impossible, that the US ambassador would know nothing about the activities of a leftist American journalist, while members of his staff at the Embassy were “delighted” with Matthews’ interview of Castro.  Batista’s secret police, a ruthless spy network know as SIM [Servicio de Inteligencia Militar], had agents and informers all over Havana and the rest of the island. Their victims, tortured and maimed, were killed for what they had done or for what they might know about the opposition to Batista, and to send a clear message to those who might decide to join it. 

Manny Levine’s visit to Cuba had all the signs of youthful dalliance in racy Havana, a parallel universe to the political turmoil of that era. The day before he was killed, the young man from Cohasset presented the image of a typical tourist, standing at a corner on Monte Street, bright print shirt, eating an orange and chatting with his new friend, Jacobo Perlmutter. However, those parallels worlds, political mayhem vs. devil-may-care tourism, crossed at some point. A tropical holiday intersected with the violence unleashed by Batista’s unravelling dictatorship, perhaps because of a mistaken identity, as suggested by the local press, or to send a message to those who were helping an American journalist on his “secret” journey to meet Fidel Castro in the mountains of eastern Cuba. 

Manny Levine was the victim of a murder that had all the signs of a political execution, a crime with no motive other than the crime itself, source of sensational stories accompanied by a gallery of disturbing images eagerly curated by the Cuban press, a crime whose only motive perhaps was to send a message. Even in the absence of a motive, it is clear that whoever killed Manny wanted it to be known. His battered body was not left on a deserted road but on the busy highway between Havana and Varadero. If an American tourist could be murdered and buried without being identified, nobody was safe in Cuba, perhaps not even a well-connected journalist from The New York Times, and certainly not those helping him to meet Fidel Castro. A clipping from Prensa Libre with a note about “El caso de míster Levine,” written by Jorge Yaniz Pujol, is included in Matthews’ papers at Columbia University library. The New York Times journalist evidently knew about Manny´s murder, but I did not find any other mention of it in his files.

After the initial dismissal by the US Embassy about Manny’s disappearance, the Cuban police kept trying to determine “the motives” not for his murder but for his visit to Cuba.  A front page article in The Havana Post, March 1, 1957, explained that “Havana police contacted the FBI in Washington to see if they can learn anything about Levine’s background which might throw some light on the case.” As mentioned earlier, when Bo Levine returned from Havana after identifying his brother’s body, he said the Cuban investigators had asked him if Manny was interested in fishing, adding that the detectives “must have something on the case.” Cuban authorities never told Bo and his family what that “something on the case” might be. Manny went to nightclubs and to nearby beaches with a young woman he met at a bar; he spent time with two Canadians; he went to a show with a Polish doctor he met at a gas station.

Apparently he also went out with two men who murdered him on the way to Varadero. Even though back home he was “an avid enthusiast of the sport,” there is no mention of his fishing while he was in Cuba. 

A fishing trip did figure prominently in Matthews’ “cloak and dagger” tale about his “disguise” as a tourist, which despite his claims to the contrary, must have been known to Batista’s secret police. Manny’s love of fishing and Matthews’ much touted fishing disguise are the link between Herbert Matthews’ arrival in Cuba and Manny´s murder the very next day. In the chaos of those years, a false tip from a desperate informer or a mistaken identity could have dire consequences. If the FBI could not find anything in Manny’s background that might “throw some light on the case,” today lights are out for Manny’s immediate family and for most people with first-hand knowledge of his final journey to Havana. I had hoped to talk to Bo Levine, who lived in Florida, but he died June 25, 2021, three months before his 86th birthday. I requested documents related to the case that might be included in the archives of John W. McCormack, House Majority Leader; Roy R. Rubottom, assistant Secretary of State for Latin-American Affairs; Arthur Gardner, US ambassador; and Senator John F. Kennedy, all prominent figures mentioned among those the family contacted. Despite the efforts of the staff at the respective institutions, no pertinent documents were found.

The unsolved murder of Manuel Levine faded from the press.  By the time I read about it in microfilms of Cuban publications at The New York Public Library, it had all but vanished from living memory. A memorandum from the State Department, signed by E. Tomlin Bailey, April 25, 1957, states that the FBI and the CIA “had no pertinent identifiable information regarding Mr. Levine,”  concluding that “This Office contemplates no additional action at this time.” May 6, 1957, the US Embassy in Havana sent an “Operations Memorandum” to the Department of State, briefly summarizing the investigation.  The note, signed by H.M. Bailey, included four newspaper clippings related to the case.  As “an additional item of evidence,” Bailey mentioned the article printed in Información, April 27, 1957, whose subheading stated that Levine “was on a binge”: “Estuvo de juerga.” The article added that “a laboratory test of the deceased´s viscera has disclosed traces of alcohol and barbiturates.” The memorandum from the Embassy endorsed the stories that had made headlines in the Cuban press: Manuel Levine, a trusting young man, “was playing with fire.” The traces of alcohol and drugs in his body are offered as evidence to blame a dead man for his own murder.  

The memorandum to the Department of State also mentioned the final and only remaining lead in the case: “the 16-year-old Venezuelan girl who was in Mr. Levine´s company during the afternoon before his death.” To my knowledge, the young woman was never identified.  On January 11, 2022, the Federal Bureau of Investigation answered my requests for further information about the case, stating the following: “Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the places reasonably expected to have records. However, we were unable to identify records responsive to your request. Therefore, your request is being closed.”  

On January 8, 1959, the “insurgentes” who had been fighting Batista during Manny’s tropical vacation, entered Havana in what the press called “the epic victory of the Revolution.” Batista had fled Cuba a week earlier. Bohemia’s “Edición de la Libertad,” was published on January 11, one million copies, a portrait of Fidel Castro on its cover. The special edition of the popular weekly meant to honor “the national heroes” who led the insurgency and to pay tribute to the fallen.  It included scores of gruesome photographs, close-ups of the bodies of Batista´s victims, along with images of the ongoing public executions of captured members of his police force and the military accused of torture and murder. On page 191, in a chronological list of the victims of “los sicarios de Batista,” Batista´s henchmen, there is a brief note about Manuel Levine, “the American beaten to death, who was staying at the Hotel Nueva Isla.” A reference to the case (no. 9343) in Cuba Archive concurs that he was killed “by Batista’s police,” an “extrajudicial killing,” that is, “carried out by order of a government or with its complicity.” I don´t know if the Levine family ever found out that their suspicion of a cover-up of Manny´s murder was accurate and that there were indeed “deeper motives” for his killing.   

Over a year after Manny´s death, the Embassy sent his belongings to his mother, Sarah Levine. James E. Brown, Jr., Consul General in Havana, sent a copy of the inventory of “the personal estate of Manuel Levine” to the family and to the Department of State. Along with toiletries, clothing, eye glasses etc., there was the alligator handbag Manny had bought for his mother and two boxes of cigars for his father. There was also his “Revere 8 mm, movie camera and case, Model 44,” and two rolls of “movie film, Kodachrome.” The total value of the estate was $114.72. The inventory of Manny´s things is unsettling, as if a young life could be reduced to a list of items, cataloged and priced:  scraps of paper, a bottle of Canoe, his glasses, his camera, gifts for his parents, tokens of a final journey.  After so many years, it is still hard to consider what effect the return of those “items” must have had on his family. To counter the horror, I have my own final image of Manny, in a sport shirt, eating an orange while waiting for a friend in the whirlwind that was the corner of Monte and Suárez in 1957. In 2019 I stood at that same corner, subtracting one date from the other, lost in the memories of the result.  A man approached me as if he knew me. “You are from el Norte,” he said. “I´m from here,” I said, “I live in el Norte.” He tapped me on the chest, shrugged and sauntered off. He reminded me of the man in a poem by Virgilio Piñera, who told the poet:  “Este mundo está en el duro/ y ojalá se nos deshiele.”


“Our Beloved Son”

On our way to the cemetery with my partner John Loflin, I imagined that it would be a labyrinth of tombstones, some with rocks resting on them, swirling leaves, with a backdrop of solemn mausolea shaded by centenary trees. At Sharon Memorial, the trees were there, but no tombstones to obstruct the views of a lovely park where one might go for a picnic. The metal plaques are set in the grass, which sometimes almost covers the inscription. We had a hard time finding our way with the map they gave out at the office. Even the gentleman who came out to help us could not find the marker for Manuel Levine. He joked that it was like finding a haystack in a needle. It was there after all, in a section called Mount Horeb, close to his mother Sarah, who died in 1986, 88 years old. The thick grass frames the small plaque marking Manny’s grave: “Our Beloved Son.” 

New York City, enero, 2024