El Caballero de París ("The Gentleman from Paris")
was a well known street person in Habana in the 1950's. He was of medium
height, less than 6 feet. He sported long unkempt dark brown hair and
beard, with a few white hairs. His fingernails were long and twisted from
not being cut in many years. He always dressed in black, covered with
a black cloak, even in the summer heat. He always carried a portfolio
with papers and a bag where he carried his belongings.
He was a gentle man who would appear in the most unlikely places at
the most unpredictable times, although he visited many places on a regular
schedule. He would walk the streets and ride the buses in Habana greeting
everyone and discussing his philosophy of life, religion, politics and
current events with everyone that crossed his path. He could regularly
be found in the Paseo del Prado; the Avenida del Puerto; in a park near
de Armas"; near the Church "Iglesia de Paula"; in the Parque
Central, where he sometimes slept on one of the benches; in Muralla
street; near Infanta and San Lazaro; and in the corner of 23 and 12
streets in El Vedado. I also remember him walking along the central
path of the "Quinta
Avenue) in Miramar, where he usually was in the afternoons.
He was a fluent and educated talker. Many still remember
the times when they used to chat with him. He never begged or used bad
language. He only accepted money from people he knew, who in turn would
be given a gift, which could be a postcard colored by him, a pen or pencil
decorated with strings of various colors, a pencil sharpener, or similar
object. He often would give change to those who gave him money. Although
children were initially scared by his appearance, they soon lost their
fright and chatted with him. Everyone, adults and children, spoke to
him with utmost respect.
Biography and Genealogy
The book by Dr. Calzadilla (see below) contains a wealth
of information, some of it conflicting, obtained from interviews with
El Caballero, his family and acquaintances. Dr. Calzadilla was the last
Psychiatrist who attended El Caballero at the Mazorra Hospital for Mental
Illness in the outskirts of Habana. The book contains a photo copy of
El Caballero's birth certificate and of the passenger entry list when
he arrived in Cuba. It also contains his medical diagnosis, results of
laboratory and psychiatric tests and his autopsy report. From these documents
we obtain the following facts:
El Caballero's real name was José María
López Lledín. He was born at 11AM on 30 December
1899 in his father's home in the small town of Vilaseca, in the Municipality
of Fonsagrada, Province of Lugo, Spain. His father was Manuel Lopez Rodriguez,
age 30, also born in Vilaseca, and his mother was Josefa Lledin
Mendez, age 30, born in Negueira in the same Municipality and Province.
His paternal grandparents were Bernabe Lopez and Manuela Rodriguez,
both previously deceased. His maternal grandparents were Manuel Lledin
and Francisca Mendez, both living at the time of his birth.
His parents owned a small villa with vinyards where they produced wine
The book relates that he was baptized in the
Parish of Salvador de Negueira
. He started his primary schooling at age 7 in Negueira and completed
half of his secondary education. One report states that
he had been the 4th of 8 children. Another reports that there had been
11 children in the marriage of which 2 had died and 7 emigrated to Cuba.
According to his sister Inocencia, José fell in
love with Merceditas, the daughter of a doctor in Fonsagrada. She died
very young, and José
was by her bedside when she died. The day that she died, José swore
he would never marry and he always kept his promise.
According to the entry documentation (Cuba National Archive
- Registry of Passenger Entries in 1913 - Folio 283), José Maria
Lopez Lledin arrived in Habana on 10 December 1913 at the age of 12 aboard
the German steamship "Chemnitz".
There he was united with his uncle (known as AG, a brother in law of
his brother Benigno) and his sister Inocencia, who had previously
arrived in Cuba in 1910. José worked
for a brief time at a grocery store in Genios street, owned by another
Galician, until he left his uncle's home to seek his own destiny.
He worked as a clerk at a flower shop, a tailor (according to his sister
Inocencia), a book store and a lawyer's office. He studied and refined
his mannerisms to get better employment and was able to get higher paying
jobs working [as a restaurant waiter] in the hotels "Inglaterra", "Telegrafo", "Sevilla", "Manhattan",
"Royal Palm", "Salon A" and "Saratoga".
According to his cousin Julio, he could even speak some English.
"El Caballero" confessed to Calzadilla that he had never married,
but had a son and a daughter from a woman who was a secretary of a sugar
company. El Caballero relates that his son lived in Marianao and
worked in radio, and that the mother and daughter had left Cuba.
Prison and "Birth" of "El Caballero"
Most reports agree
that José Maria lost his reason and became "El Caballero" when
he was arrested in late 1920 and sent to the prision at "El Castillo
del Principe" in
Habana for a crime he had not committed. His nephew, Manuel, confirms that,
according to his aunt Mercedes, sister of "El Caballero", the
reason José lost his faculties was that he was jailed for a crime
that he did not commit.
What is still yet to be determined
is the crime he was accused of and how long he was in prison. Neither
"El Caballero" nor his family members discussed this point
in any of their interviews, other than reiterating his innocence. Apparently
none of the reporters in Cuba who wrote stories about "El Caballero" were
able to find any record of his arrest and conviction.
It is reported that in
prison he learned the art of making pens from plumages (the old calligraphy
pens). It is stated by several sources that in prison he would give speeches
in which he would present himself to other inmates as Pope, King or Caballero.
[These two details lead us to believe that he was probably in jail for
more than the 30 days sentence usually given for minor offenses.]
There are several
contradictory theories about why José Maria was arrested [this editor's
comments are provided in square brackets]:
- Lottery tickets - According to Julio
Ledin, a cousin interviewed by Dr. Calzadilla,
"He was arrested during a Carnival dance that was being celebrated
in the Centro Gallego (Galician Center) of Habana. He was with his
girl friend who was a secretary to the wealthy Gomez Mena family. It
all had to do with a lottery ticket. José had a sales
stand and he sold a false ticket or something like that."
our opinion, it seems improbable that José had a sales stand,
given his employment as a waiter.]
A newspaper reporter interviewed in the book, Jose Quilez Vicente,
tells a variation of this story. He relates that José lived
in a rooming house that he rented from an old man who made a living
selling magazines and lottery tickets. One day in September 1920 the
old man accused him of having stolen a sheet of lottery tickets.
[It should be noted
that a single lottery ticket in the 1950's was worth about 40 cents
($1 in holiday drawings) and therefore a sheet of lottery tickets
(10 tickets) would have been worth only $4-$10, which seems insufficient
cause for the police to come looking for him and result in a subsequent
- Killing - A reporter, Guillermo
Villaronda, gives the following reason: "A
man was murdered. José was there and someone accused him of
One of our readers sent the following alternate version:
After accidentally killing a man, his mind was affected after he
was hit in the back of the head, during or after the struggle that
accompanied the killing.
Robbery of a grocery store - One
of our readers sent in this version: "In Monte (or perhaps Corrales)
Street, at the corner with Revillagigedo, there was a well supplied "bodegón" (grocery
store), property of Spaniards. In this bodegon worked as a counter
clerk a young Spaniard. One day there was a robbery. The police investigated
and found reason to accuse the young clerk of having participated
in the robbery. The clerk was taken to jail and, unable to post bail,
remained a prisoner. In his court appearance, he was defended by
a public defender who was not very interested in his case. The owner
of the bodegón
also did not try to help his clerk. He was condemned, probably for "robbery
with the use of force", which is how the 1870 Penal Code classified
a robbery where there had been a window or door broken to gain entry.
He probably served no more than 2 or 3 years in prison. If
this version of history is true, there is a double drama. First is
the lack of defense of the modest worker. Second was the indefensible
actions of the judicial system."
[This story also seems unlikely.
Although José did work in a grocery store when he first
came to Cuba, he had been working as a hotel restaurant waiter for
many years at the time of his arrest.]
- Jealousy - Another famous street
person and bar administrator in Habana, Manuel Perez Rodriguez, also
known as "Bigote
de Gato", relates that the wife of the owner of the Hotel "Habana" where
he worked as a waiter, fell in love with José, who
was very good looking. The owner, out of jealousy, put a $20 bill
under José's pillow and accused him of theft.
[As in the
stories about lottery tickets, the theft of $20 seems to us insufficient
reason for a lengthy imprisionment.]
- Jewel theft - Eduardo Robreño
states in his book "Como
me Contaron te lo Cuento", that José worked
as a valet to a rich couple that lived in el Vedado. One day, the
wife's jewels, valued in over $50,000, dissapeared and, even though
he protested his innocence, he was arrested and condemned to 10 years
in prison. He only served 6 because at that time, the wife fell gravely
ill and confessed that she had given the jewels to a blackmailer
who had been her lover.
[Neither "El Caballero" nor his
family ever mentioned his employment as a personal valet.]
A variation on this story was given by the French news agency Agence
France Presse. According
to their article, he was arrested and jailed as a presumed
jewel thief in an establishment where he served (his inocence was later
No one has been able to precisely determine the crime that he was accused
of or how long he remained in prison.
When he started wandering the streets of La Habana, his family got together
to see what could be done to help him. They decided that the best course
of action would be to return him ot his native town to live with his
parents. Whey they communicated this decision to El Caballero, he became
deeply upset and threatened to jump off the ship and kill himself if
they tried to ship him back to Spain. The family desisted in such efforts,
but the net result was that "El Caballero" and his family became
There are several other theories put forth as to why "El Caballero"
lost his reason having nothing to do with his time in jail:
- One such theory is that in 1919 "El Caballero"'s
wife and children had died when the ship "Valbanera"
had sunk on the way to Santiago de Cuba and that was the cause of
his loss of reason.
[This report seems to be a distortion of a story,
related by José's
cousin Julio Lledin, of another street person, companion of "El
Caballero" during his early days of wandering in Habana, who
reportedly had lost his entire family in the sinking of the "Valbanera".]
- Javier, a great-grandson of one of El Caballero's sisters, related
to us what appears to be a more romantic variation of the above story.
Javier wrote us that "El
by mail with a sweetheart from Paris.
Eventually she decided to join him in Havana, so they made arrangements
to meet at the ship docks and he went there to meet her with a bouquet
of flowers. According to one of our readers, the ship that was
carrying his sweethart to Havana was tragically sunk at sea and this
event led to his final loss of mental faculties. When his sweethart
didn't appear on the arranged date, he gave the flowers to a passing
woman. After that day he would always return at the same hour, with
his flowers, and would give the flowers to the first woman that he
[This story appears to us to be somewhat in conflict with the
story that his sweetheart Merceditas died in Spain before he left for
Origins of his Nickname
"El Caballero" was always vague about the origins of his nickname.
Once he stated to his biographer that he got his name from a French novel.
Another time he claimed that they started calling him "El Caballero"
Acera del Louvre" (the "sidewalk of the Louvre"), an
area of the Paseo del Prado where three hotels are located, including
where he had worked.
Perhaps in his mind he equated the "Acera del Louvre" with
Paris. He said Habana was "very Parisienne" and that he was "a
Musketeer, a Corsair and a Knight (Caballero) of Lagardiere". He
stated that "Paris is well known in Habana" and
that "many cubans had become famous in Paris, such as Marta and
Rosalia Abreu of Santa Clara".
Others say that at one time he worked at the "Paris" restaurant
and, when he returned rambling that he was a "Caballero" and "King" the
patrons started refering to him as the "Caballero de Paris".
Others say it was due to the French styple of dress which he sported
in his ramblings. Still others relate that it was givien to him by the
weekly humorous/satiric publication "Zig
Javier and "El
Mercedes state that
"El Caballero" got his nickname due to the sweetheart from
Paris, who was killed during her trip to join him in Habana.
Our own theory of the origin of his nickname
(completely unsubstatiated) was that it might be derived from a contemporary
French movie in which the main protagonist, also a mild mannered gentleman,
had the unenviable profession of being the executioner of Paris, an occupation
known since the days of the French Revolution by the euphemistic name "Monsieur
de Paris" ("The Gentleman from Paris"). In the movie,
the character's occupation was a mystery to his fellow lodgers until
his nosy landlady, wondering why he only worked one day a week, looked
into his briefcase and found the blade for the guillotine.
Life as "El Caballero"
"El Caballero" wandered the streets of Habana
and its suburbs for many years. Everyone who lived in Habana during the
1950's has a favorite anecdote about "El Caballero". Two that I personally
Some years after Batista became President of the Republic
by a military coup, ousting Carlos Prio Socarras, there was an effort
to normalize the government situation led by a distingushed elder statesman,
Don Cosme de la Torriente. During this time "El Caballero" was
invited to appear on a TV show. He was asked "What would you do
to fix the situation?" which he responded, "I would marry
the xxx son of Batista to the xxx daughter of Prio." [The xxx
stand for mild racial epithets which I will not repeat here].
Another time in 1953 (this story is also related in the
Calzadilla book), El Caballero, together with several other well known
street persons, including "Bigote de Gato" and "La Marquesa",
were invited by Gaspar Pumarejo, Cuba's TV pioneer, magnate and variety
show host, to serve as a panel of judges in his live TV program "Escuela
(TV School). At the end of the program, Pumarejo decided to reward
the panel by giving $20 to each. When he tried to give the money
to "El Caballero", the latter responded "Neither my
feelings nor my high position allow me to accept this money. I give
it to Bigote de Gato for a party that he will give in his establishment." Pumarejo,
taken aback, paused a moment and then asked "Why don't we give
it to the National Orphanage?" to which El Caballero replied "Well,
lets donate it...but what are the rich and the government doing who
are supposed to take care of the Orphanage? This is an act of charity
and it is not right that the children of the orphanage should receive
From Calzadilla's book we learn that, at the start of his
wanderings, he still kept clean and well dressed. The book relates that
a lady, secretary to the head of a sugar company, educated in France
and fluent in 3 languages, took him home to live in her luxurious apartment,
bathed and perfumed him and dressed him in silk shirts. She took him
to the theater and movies until their photograph appeared in one of the
nespapers, at which point, the lady's boss demanded that the relationship
be terminated if she wanted to keep her job. She complied. [This lady
is perhaps the same lady that "El Caballero" claimed was the
mother of his two children, since they both had similar employment. Her
name appears in the book but is witheld here for privacy reasons.]
According to one of our readers, who used to live in the
second story of the building, he used to often sleep in the corner of
Infanta and San Lazaro, the building where the "Lamparas Quesada" offices
were located. I remember seeing him often
on the route 19 and 32 buses traveling between the suburbs of El Vedado
and Miramar and Habana city proper.
According to the Calzadilla book, "El Caballero" never
traveled outside of Habana after he became mentally ill..
Several times he was arrested and once, or maybe
twice, he was bathed and his hair was shaved completely, but the reaction
of the public when the event was reported by the press, resulted in his
immediate release. In 1941 he was briefly interned in the Mental Hospital
at Mazorra, but was released immediately by Presidential order.
In later years he would spend a great deal of his time
at the corner of 12 and 23 in El Vedado where there were several pizza
establishments who fed him at no charge.
One of our readers, Olga Caicoya, recently (11/2011) sent us this anecdote (which we have translated):
"I have a friend who lives in Cuba and met him at 12 y 23. She invited him to eat a pizza at the cafeteria. He sat at the table with her and she tried to keep her distance because of the smell. He was very respectful at all times. Then, when he ate the pizza, he pulled out a small metal mug and poured in the water that had been served. He then took a piece of newspaper from his bag and started tearing it into strips and putting them in the mug to eat. My friend asked if he wanted another pizza and he accepted and ate it. Of course, he left the strips for another time."
Olga also sent us this "Ode to the Caballero" (in Spanish).
His cousin Julio names the 7 brothers and sisters of "El Caballero"'s
who came to Cuba. They were Inocencia, Isabel ("Cuca"),
Manuela, Amancio, Mercedes, Benigno and Antonio. Inocencia
died in a nursing home in Habana and was buried in the Cementerio Colon
on 12 November 1973. Cuca and Manuela
also died in Cuba. Amancio and Mercedes left Cuba. Benigno
returned to Spain where he died. His brother Antonio who was physically
and mentally ill with depression committed suicide on 20 February 1973.
Cuca and Amancio both had
children that went to live in the USA.
We have recently (2004-2005) corresponded via e-mail with two relatives
of El Caballero, his nephew Manuel, and a great-grandson of one of his
sisters, Javier (their last names are omitted
here for privacy reasons). Manuel told us that El Caballero's uncle,
three brothers and two sisters lived in Havana and tried to convince
him to stop his vagabond lifestile. El Caballero did not want the family
to support him or give him money so he would often fight with them and
escape to live alone on the streets of Havana. During that time, he appeared
sane and often remembered and spoke of his town and family. As years
passed, his "strangeness"'
developed into insanity. After the Communist Revolution, the brothers
and sisters left Cuba and only El Caballero was left behind. Three of
his brothers had descendants, some now living in Chicago and others in
Asturias. The only surviving sister of "El Caballero", Mercedes, now
living with Manuel in Spain, is now 91 and in perfect mental and physical
health. Manuel sent us her photo which we are reproducing below.
El Caballero's sister Mercedes (January
His final years
On 7 December 1977 he was interned in the Mazorra Psychiatric Hospital
in the outskirts of Habana, as a humanitarian gesture. The fundamental
reason for his internment was not that he was threatening to anyone,
but rather his deplorable and deteriorating physical condition. There
he was bathed and his hair thoroughtly cleaned and made into a long braid.
He was given clean clothes and plenty of food. During his stay at Mazorra
he was given physical, laboratory and psychological tests and also suffered
a hip fracture as a result of a fall. The diagnosis from his psychatrist,
Dr, Calzadilla (which is included in his book) is that he suffered from
paraphrenia, sometimes considered a form of schizophrenia. He did not
suffer from hallucinations.
He died in Mazorra at
1:45 AM on July 11, 1985 at the age of 86. He was initially buried in
the cemetery of Santiago de las Vegas in Habana. According to the article
his remains were later exhumed by Eusebio Leal, the Historian of the
City of La Habana, and transfered to the convent of San Francisco de
Asis (now a concert hall and museum), his current resting place.
Legends and Inspiration
Dozens of legends were created about his person, which frequently appeared
in the cuban press of the 20th century. They inspired various artists,
writers, movie makers and a biography by his doctor, Luis Calzadilla.
Some of the more contemporary memorials are are listed below.
A bronze life size statue, depicting him as a common pedestrian (appearing
to move a little faster than I remember), was created by the sculptor
José Villa Soberón. At Eusebio Leal's initiative the
statue was placed on the sidewalk in front of the convent of San Francisco
de Asis in Habana. Here is a photo of the statue provided by one of
our readers in Cuba:
photo courtesy of Jorge Calas
Additional photos of the above statue, and the original story by Agence
France Presse, can be seen at Carlo Nobili's web site "Cuba
Una identidad en movimiento" at: http://carlo260.supereva.it/vagabundo.html
Another wireform statue of "El Caballero" was made by Hector
Martinez Calá and is currently in the Museum housing a
scale model of the City of Habana, on 28 Street between 1st and 3rd
Avenues in Miramar.
There are a number of paintings of "El Caballero" by the
Cuban-American painter Gilberto
Marino which can be seen in his web site.
A portrait of "El Caballero" was painted by the cuban painter
Luis Roberto Miqueli Prez and can be seen at: http://www.mediopunto.it/art/opereIt.html
There is a short chapter devoted to "El Caballero" in the
Memories : A Cuban Childhood" by Pablo Medina, University of Texas
Press, 1990 [ISBN: 0-292-77636-5].
There was an article about "El Caballero" published in
the magazine "Cartel" (not "Carteles"), Year 2 Number 1.
A song entitled "Memoria y Testamento" by
the Cuban singer Liuba Maria Hevia mentions "El Caballero".
A danzón entitled "El Caballero
de Paris" was composed by Antonio Maria Roemu and interpreted
by Barbarito Diez.
There is a CD titled "El Ilustrado
Caballero de Paris" dedicated to him by the
cuban singer Geraldo Alfonso.
Several years ago, a TV Crew from Havana came to his natal town to
make a documentary and interviewed the surviving sister and other family
The corner of 36W Avenue and 8th Street ("Calle Ocho")
in Miami (the location of the popular Cuban restaurant "Versalles")
was officially designated on 9 Mar 2004 as the "Avenida
El Caballero de Paris". For photos of the event visit
page in Gilberto Marino's web site.
The most complete information about "El Caballero" is found in
the following biography written by Dr. Luis Calzadilla Fierro, the last
of his psychiatrists in the Mazorra mental hospital.
"Yo soy el Caballero de Paris",
by Dr. Luis Calzadilla Fierro, published
in 2000 by the Diputacion Provincial de Bajadoz, Deposito Legal BA-45/2000.
Our TV Photos
The TV photos in this page were taken by the author. They document one
of El Caballero's rare appearances in cuban television in 1955, The TV
show was likely "Noches de Ambar Motors", a stellar show on the Telemundo
network. The hosts were Eduardo Pagés, a Spaniard who was a long
time resident of Cuba, and Floreana Alba, an italian artist who remained
in cuba after the show "Cabalgata" folded.
(Some readers had previously incorrectly identified
the female in the fotos as Inez Sanchez de Revuelta and the show as "El
Album Philips. A later source, who
worked at Telemundo, confirmed their identity as Eduardo Pages and
Floreana Alba, both of whom also worked at Telemundo. Another reader
recently also independently confirmed the person in the picture as
Floreana Alba, a personal acquaintance. "El
was a musical show, not a talk show, and, according to the source that
worked at Telemundo, the host of "El Album Philips" at that
time was Manolo Fernandez, not Pagés.)
Here are some more pictures of the TV show:
Thanks to the various readers who supplied some of the above details,
including Robert A. Solera, Hilda Alvarez (and her Dad), Hugo Blanco,
Manuel Bascuas (Sr.), Clara Porto, Helio E. Nardo, Manuel "Manny"
Alvarez Casado, Manuel Barcia Lopez, Javier Cancio, Ghassan Gonzalez,
Carlos Aleman y Capestany, Miguel A. Dominguez, Ileana Cabanas, Jorge
Calas, Carlo Nobili and Olga Caicoya. Thanks also to Ines Cramer and Isabel Heredia
who corrected some of my terrible grammar in the spanish version of
If you can contribute any additional details, please send me an e-mail
at the address below and I will add the information here. - Ed