Oscar Hijuelos, Cuban-American
Writer Who Won Pulitzer, Dies at 62
13 October 2013.
Oscar Hijuelos, a
Cuban-American novelist who wrote about the lives of immigrants adapting to a
new culture and became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer
Prize for fiction for his 1989 book, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of
Love,” died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 62.
Mr. Hijuelos collapsed on a tennis
court and never regained consciousness, his wife, Lori Marie Carlson, said.
A New Yorker by birth,
education and residence, Mr. Hijuelos (pronounced ee-HWAY-los) was said
to have been more American-Cuban than Cuban-American.
In novels like Our
House in the Last World (1983), which traces a family’s travails from
Havana in 1939 to Spanish Harlem; “Mambo Kings,” about the rise and fall of the
Castillo brothers, Cesar, a flamboyant and profligate bandleader, and his
ruminative trumpeter brother, Nestor; and The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez
O'Brien (1993), about several generations of a Cuban-Irish
family in Pennsylvania, he wrote about the non-native experience in the
United States from a sympathetic, occasionally amused perspective and with a
keen eye for detail in his period settings.
Unlike that of many well-known
Latin writers, his work was rarely outwardly political, focusing
instead on the conundrums of assimilation. And rather than
employing a syncopated musicality or fantastical flights of magic realism, Mr.
Hijuelos wrote fluid prose, sonorous but more earthy than poetic, with a
forthright American cadence.
“Everything was different back when;
125th Street was jumping with clubs, there was less violence, there were fewer
beggars; more mutual respect between people,” he wrote, as Cesar Castillo
reflected on his halcyon days.
“He could take a late-night stroll from
the apartment on La Salle street, walk down Broadway, cut east on 110th Street
to Central Park, and then walk along its twisting paths and across the little
bridges over streams and rocks, enjoying the scent of the woods and nature’s
beauty without a worry. He’d make his way to the Park Palace Ballroom at 3 Fifth
Avenue, to hear Machito or Tito Puente, find musician friends at the bar, chase
“You could walk through that park
wearing your best clothes and a nice expensive watch without worrying about
someone coming up behind you and pressing a knife against the back of your neck.
Man, those days were gone forever.”
His characters were not
necessarily new arrivals — in Mr. Hijuelos’s books, which sometimes
ranged over decades, they certainly didn’t remain so — but in various
stages of absorbing the sometimes assaultive American culture while holding on
to an ethnic and national identity.
Cesar and Nestor
and their band, the Mambo Kings, do achieve a brief period of celebrity,
and at one point — the high point, in fact, of the brothers’ fame before it
begins to flicker and fade — they appear on the television sitcom “I
Love Lucy,” which starred Lucille Ball and her husband, the Cuban bandleader and
actor Desi Arnaz.
biography of a successful artist, the ‘I Love Lucy’ appearance would take on a
kind of mythic quality: it would stand as one of those happily ironic moments
signifying the hero’s own ascent toward the American dream,” Michiko
Kakutani wrote in her review in The New York
Times. “But in the case of the Castillo brothers, the “I Love Lucy” show
provides no more than a momentary glimpse of success. Although
it will be rerun endlessly on late-night television, it will remain just
a bit of cherished family folklore, an anonymous (and dead-end) brush with fame.
“Indeed, Oscar Hijuelos’s remarkable
new novel is another kind of American story — an immigrant story of lost
opportunities and squandered hopes. While it dwells in bawdy detail on
Cesar’s sexual escapades, while it portrays the musical world of the ’50s in
bright, primary colors, the novel is essentially elegiac in tone — a
Chekhovian lament for a life of missed connections and misplaced dreams.”
Oscar Jerome Hijuelos was born in
Manhattan on Aug. 24, 1951, and grew up in the borough’s northern Morningside
Heights neighborhood that later often figured in his books. His parents,
Pascual, a cook at the Biltmore Hotel, and Magdalena Torrens Hijuelos, emigrated
from Cuba in the 1940s.
The family spoke Spanish at
home, and young Oscar became fluent in English only after a 1955 visit to Cuba,
where he contracted a severe kidney infection that required him to spend a year
away from his family in a Connecticut hospital.
“It was during that long separation
from my family that I became estranged from the Spanish language and,
therefore, my roots,” he wrote in a 2011 essay in The New York Times.
Mr. Hijuelos graduated from Louis D.
Brandeis High School in Manhattan and attended several colleges in New York
City, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Fine Arts from City
College. “Our House in the Last World,” his first novel, was published in 1983.
Mr. Hijuelos’s first marriage ended in
divorce. He met Ms. Carlson, a writer and editor, in 1983 at the Center for
Inter-American Relations, where she was an executive. The organization, now
known as the Americas Center, promotes diplomacy between the United States and
Latin America. They struck up a friendship and she became a sounding board for
him, listening as he read aloud the manuscript that became “Mambo Kings.”
“In 1989, he called one night and said
he’d like to take me to dinner,” she recalled in a telephone interview Sunday.
“He said, ‘Because my second novel is being published and I want to thank you.’”
That was the beginning of a romance. They married in 1998. She teaches at Duke
University, as did her husband. They have homes in Manhattan; Durham, N.C.; and
Mr. Hijuelos is also survived by a
“The Mambo Kings
Play Songs of Love” was made into a 1992 movie (called simply
The Mambo Kings) starring Armand Assante and Antonio
Banderas as Cesar and Nestor Castillo. In 2005 a stage musical
adaptation appeared in San Francisco but a planned Broadway opening was
Mr. Hijuelos’s later novels include
“Mr. Ives’s Christmas” (1995) about a man whose life is in tatters after the
murder of his son; “Empress of the Splendid Season” (1999), about a Cuban
émigré, once the spoiled daughter of a well-to-do businessman who, in New York,
has become a cleaning woman; “A Simple Habana Melody (From When the World was
Good)” (2002), told the story of Israel Levis, a Cuban composer returning home
in 1947 after years of living in Europe, including being imprisoned by the
Nazis, who had thought he was a Jew; and “Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” (2010),
in which he returns to a character from “Mambo Kings,” the woman who broke
Nestor’s heart, filling in her life from the time she vanished from his.
He also wrote a young adult
novel, “Dark Dude” (2008), about an introspective Cuban boy living in a tough
Harlem neighborhood, and a memoir, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes”
“Despite the strange baggage that I
carried about my upbringing,” Mr. Hijuelos wrote in The Times in 2011 about the
evolution of his view of his cultural background, “and despite the
relative loss of my first language, I eventually came to the point that, when I
heard Spanish, I found my heart warming. And that was the moment when I
began to look through another window, not out onto 118th Street, but into myself
— through my writing, the process by which, for all my earlier
alienation, I had finally returned home.”
Oscar Hijuelos, ‘Mambo Kings’ author, dies at 62 - The Washington Post
from The Washington Post
Oscar Hijuelos, ‘Mambo Kings’ author,
dies at 62
Schudel, Monday, October 14, 6:39 PM
Oscar Hijuelos, who won the Pulitzer Prize with his
best-selling 1989 novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” about the
sensuous world of Cuban musicians in mid-century New York, died Oct. 12 in
Manhattan. He was 62.
He collapsed from a heart attack while playing tennis, his
agent, Jennifer Lyons, told the Associated Press.
In 1990, the New York-born Mr. Hijuelos (pronounced
ee-HWAY-lohss) became the first novelist with roots in Latin America to be
awarded the Pulitzer. He often explored the uprooted lives of Cuban
immigrants in his eight novels, but he resisted being aligned with any
formal artistic movement and took no overt political stance on the thorny
issue of relations with Cuba.
Instead, Mr. Hijuelos chose to build panoramic tales
around the messy lives of his characters, with vivid depictions of romance
and sorrow and the mood of the times. He had published one novel before “The
Mambo Kings,” a sprawling account of the changing fortunes of two brothers,
Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who left Cuba to lead a high-energy band during
the mambo craze of the early 1950s.
“I wrote it to acquaint people with that world,” Mr.
Hijuelos told the Boston Globe in 1990. “I wrote it as a long poem to
A onetime guitarist, Mr. Hijuelos said he listened to
mambo, an energetic style of Cuban dance music, while writing his novel.
“The music began taking over,” he told the Los Angeles
Times in 1990. “I became fascinated by the lives of people who had this
great talent, but then took different directions when they bumped into
tougher realities here in America.”
The book became a literary phenomenon, translated into
more than 30 languages, and was noteworthy for its steamy descriptions of
seduction and the long, dance-filled nights when music and the possibilities
of romance never seemed to end.
“By turns street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and
reflective,” New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote, “ ‘The Mambo
Kings Play Songs of Love’ is a rich and provocative book — a moving portrait
of a man, his family, a community and a time.”
The book deliberately crossed the lines of fiction and
fact, as the brothers in Mr. Hijuelos’s novel appeared alongside their hero,
the Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz, on “I Love Lucy.” In real life, a
female musician sued Mr. Hijuelos for defamation, claiming an unsympathetic
portrait in the book was based on her life. The suit was dismissed.
The novel was made into a 1992 movie, “The Mambo Kings,”
starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, but the film could not
duplicate Mr. Hijuelos’s lush, musical prose style as he told a compelling
story of human longing and failure.
“Wives were charmed by the flirtatious splendor that was
Cesar Castillo,” he wrote. “He’d come down off the stage and dance with a
dozen different women during a single song, his warm-blooded, thick hands
taking the woman by the waist and spinning her like a falling flower . . .
Cesar would sing about the murmuring seas, the mournful moons, scornful,
mocking, deceptive, cool, playful, entrancing love. Eyes closed, his face a
mask of thoughtful passion.”
Oscar Jerome Hijuelos was born on Aug. 24, 1951, to Cuban
immigrants who came to New York in the 1940s. His father worked in New York
After a visit to Cuba when he was 4, the young Mr.
Hijuelos became ill with nephritis, a kidney infection, and spent a year at
a Connecticut rehabilitation hospital.
“I went in speaking Spanish,” he often said, “and came out
Although he spoke Spanish at home, he felt slightly
removed from both cultures and withdrew into music and writing. He studied
under writers Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag at the City University of
New York, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1975 and a master’s degree in
creative writing in 1976.
From 1977 to 1984, Mr. Hijuelos worked in advertising
while writing fiction at night. He published an autobiographical first
novel, “Our House in the Last World,” in 1983. He received several
fellowships in the 1980s and abandoned another novel before completing “The
Mambo Kings” in 1989.
Many of his books had lyrical titles that were practically
stories in themselves, including “The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez
O’Brien” (1993), about a family in early 20th-century Pennsylvania, with an
Irish father and a Cuban mother; “Empress of the Splendid Season” (1999),
describing the experiences of a Cuban-born house cleaner; “A Simple Habana
Melody” (2002), a portrait of a Cuban composer returning to his homeland
after suffering under the Nazis during World War II; and “Beautiful Maria of
My Soul” (2010), which revisits the life of a female character from “The
Mr. Hijuelos had been on the faculty of Duke University
for the past six years and was at work on two new books.
Mr. Hijuelos had an early marriage that ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 15 years, Lori
Carlson-Hijuelos, who teaches in the English department at Duke, and a
In a 2011 memoir, “Thoughts Without
Cigarettes,” Mr. Hijuelos wrote that the original title “The Mambo Kings”
was “The Secrets of a Poor Man’s Life.”
A vivid image suddenly came to him, he wrote, as he tried
to imagine the later life of one of his two main characters, Cesar Castillo
— the suave lead singer of the fictional Mambo Kings.
“As I sat before my desk one day,” Mr. Hijuelos wrote, “I
envisioned him coming out of a basement into a courtyard, singing in a
wonderful baritone, but, at the same time, carrying in his arms an old
record jacket on whose cover I first ‘saw’ — cross my heart — the rubric
‘The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.’ ”