Sonntag, 11. Februar 2024

Gardel in New York - Chapter 1: The last week of the year


The last week of the year
by Terig Tucci with annotations by Camilo Gatica and José Manuel Araque

We were in the last days of 1933. It was unbearably cold. In general the month of December is not extremely cold in New York. Although the chilly breezes from northern Canada begin to make themselves felt in these latitudes, the cold temperatures do not appear until January, and then continue almost without respite until well into the Spring.

The last week of the year - from Christmas to New Year's - is everywhere a week of shopping, gifts, party preparations... and that festive spirit that dominates the atmosphere, excites... but at the same time depresses.

Perhaps in no other corner of the world are the characteristics of these days of traditional celebration as accentuated as in this city of New York. The immense metropolis, with its hurried pace of life, takes on a surprising, exceptional animation; its multiple subterranean maw spews forth an uninterrupted stream of humanity, which invades the stores in clamorous uproar, from the early hours of the morning until well into the night.

With the same generosity that the trains throw the crowds into its streets, the voracity of its entrails engulfs them again to disperse them back to all corners of the city, with which the pulse of the great city once again acquires its normal rhythm and readjusts to the miraculous balance of the multitude of life that circulates through its avenues.

For us that week was particularly arduous. We participated, like everyone else, in the feverish preparations for the holidays; besides, in those days, Carlos Gardel arrived, the zorzal criollo who had taken flight to the northern skies to seduce the people of the United States with the spell of his art and the throbbing beauty of his songbook.

The ship on which he came with his small entourage -the writer Alfredo Le Pera and the pianist Alberto Castellano (they had gone from Buenos Aires to France and from there they were coming to New York)- had been delayed and his arrival was not expected until nightfall. The shipping company had announced the delay and offered us their spacious and well-heated waiting room to take us away from the intense cold of the winter afternoon.

The atmosphere of this hall, with its comfortable armchairs and pleasant heating, was appropriate to recall the events that preceded Carlos Gardel's arrival in North American lands. And there begins the parade of memories...

Hugo Mariani, a young and talented Uruguayan orchestra conductor and violinist of the artistic cast of the National Broadcasting Company, enjoyed a well-deserved reputation in the field of Latin American music. One of his most renowned programs was entitled "El tango romántico". This program was composed, for the most part, of music from the Rio de la Plata -both banks of the River Plate- and some compositions from other Latin American countries. This was one of the first Latin programs -if not the first- of the then young American broadcasting industry.

Mariani also directed other symphonic and concert programs. One of them was entitled "Symphonic Rhythm Makers". The indispensable requirement for the selection and arrangement of the material destined for this program was to explore new rhythms, with the desire to penetrate into the field of sound combinations, novel orchestral colors, chiaroscuro contrasts; to achieve bright and luminous effects, or murky and somber, which made this work of the orchestral palette the most fascinating task in the world.

The great violinist Remo Bolognini was then in New York, performing as first violin of the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra conducted by maestro Arturo Toscanini. Mariani thought it was too daring to ask the Argentine violinist to come and be part of "El tango romántico", a radio program of purely típica criolla music. I was sure, however, that Bolognini would gladly accept the proposition if the offer was made with due tact. It was decided that I should take care of the delicate invitation.

When I went to visit him at his apartment at 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, only two or three weeks had elapsed since his triumphant debut at Carnegie Hall, where Bolognini had performed Mendelssohn's Concerto in E minor with the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the distinguished Toscanini. I had not even crossed the threshold of his house, when I was plunged into doubt, because of the preposterous mission that had been entrusted to me; to offer him a part in the small orquesta típica of the NBC after his great triumph at Carnegie Hall.

However, given the old friendship I had with the artist, I managed to overcome my fears and resolutely went up to his apartment. That same night Remo Bolognini was part of "The Romantic Tango".

A few months later, around June 1933, these two incorrigible bohemians - Bolognini and Mariani - decided to tour South America performing new Latin and American material. Among these compositions were a concerto for violin and orchestra in jazz form, by Roberto Braine, a distinguished American composer and pianist, of the NBC cast; an orchestral arrangement of mine, based on Ravel's "Bolero" and two popular Cuban pieces, "El Manisero" and "Mamá Inés", which were enjoying immense popularity at the time. The arrangement, baptized by Mariani with the name "Bolerumba", was well received at its premiere by the NBC airwaves, and later by the public in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Carlos Gardel was an old and dear friend of Bolognini, since the times when both, in the prime of their youth, rehearsed their wings and were often seen performing together in the theaters of Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata. It was therefore natural that when Bolognini's concert was announced in the Argentine capital, Gardel was present to embrace his old friend and recall pleasant moments of the time when they both began their artistic careers. On that occasion, Mariani suggested to Gardel a trip to New York to introduce him to the American public.

The group of capitalists that financed his movies in Joinville, France, had already considered the possibility that Gardel would come to the United States to film. But those conversations had not materialized, being limited to vague plans for the near future, with glimpses of possibility but quite indefinite.

Mariani's invitation overcame Gardel's indeterminacy. Suddenly, the plan seemed not only feasible, but desirable. Add to this the fascination that the great city of the North exerts on Latin Americans, and you will have an idea of the enthusiasm that the prospect of a trip to the United States aroused in Gardel.

And now, three months later, we were waiting for his arrival from Buenos Aires to the port of New York.

The gray afternoon was dissolving before the advance of the night cloak, erasing from our retina the huge shapes of the great port. The lights, on throughout that brief, overcast day, were now conspicuous, infusing the atmosphere with a melancholy mood.

Over the loudspeakers in the hall a voice announces the arrival of the ship. People crowd around the windows to watch the maneuvers of the tugboat, which helps the gigantic ship to dock. The planking is put in place. We climb aboard. We search through the bustle of the crowd for the familiar faces of our travelers. At last we find them and welcome them, cordial and effusive, but with that certain composure of people who have just met. If it were not for the fact that we knew him so well from having seen him in movies and countless photographs, seeing him today with his shy and suspicious air, we would have wondered with a certain incredulity: Is this Carlos Gardel?

We descend. We head towards the street, chatting animatedly now. A taximeter is approaching. In the meantime we noticed that Gardel and his companions could hardly stand the intense cold of that December day: about 25 degrees below zero, which is very cold, even for New York. Chattering his teeth, Gardel managed to say, with the purest porteño accent:

– ¡Che, qué frío! ¡Rajemos, viejo! ¡Todavía estamos a tiempo!

At once, the shelter of the well-heated cab made us forget the freezing temperature. A few minutes later we were at the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where our friends would be staying.


On Sunday December 17, 1933, highly expectant of his new adventure in fabled New York, Carlos Gardel was the guest of honor at a party hosted by Mrs. Sadie Baron Wakefield at the Café de Paris. Mrs. Baron Wakefield was an American, living in Paris and a close friend of the bard. Gardel had been staying in the French capital since …, and his movie Luces de Buenos Aires was still airing in town. His friends, the orchestra director Victorio Alberto Castellano and the guitarist Horacio Pettorossi, were at the party too. Three days later, on December 20, Gardel boarded the liner SS Champlain of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique.

The Champlain, though not the largest at the time, was a beautiful ship packed with amenities. In the English Channel the fog resulted in minor delays, and on the 21st they made it to Plymouth, England, for a short layover. On the 22nd, at 1:14AM they sailed west towards America. The weather was predictably cold for the start of the Winter season on the Atlantic, and a bit unstable. The seas were choppy and the liner ran into storms, again delaying its arrival in New York. Wireless messages were sent to shore indicating that the ship would not be able to dock until Thursday the 29th. New York itself was inches-deep in snow after one of the worst blizzards seen in years.

Alas, on Wednesday December 28th the Champlain made it to New York Harbor, and with the help of tugboats docked in Pier 57, on West 15th Street. In his customs declaration Gardel stated his age to be 46 years old, and his purpose to stay in New York for the next 6 months at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Pettorossi and Castellano also came, and not Alfredo Le Pera as Tucci says. Curiously Gardel declared his birthplace to be Tacuarembó, Uruguay (his passport so stated for reasons clearly explained by other historians). Hugo Mariani and Terig Tucci came to the pier to welcome them.

The party then took off on taxi to the Waldorf-Astoria.