Mary Conception McCarthy Gomez Cueto was born on April 27, 1900, to a prosperous Irish Catholic family in St. John’s, Nfld., where her father Thomas ran a lucrative Water Street grocery and with his wife, Ann, raised two daughters, Mary and Rose, in a home not far from the bustling harbour. As a girl, Mary slid down snowy Prescott Street when St. John’s was still small and quiet enough to permit it, and attended the best convent schools. Well-to-do and cultured, the McCarthys were at the centre of St. John’s musical life. Mary’s uncle, a noted pianist, accompanied the silent films at the Nickel Theatre, and Mary herself was often cast as the ingenue in local theatre productions.
Such were Mary’s gifts that her father soon sent her to study at the Boston Conservatory of Music. Tall and blond, with a sultry beauty, she there attracted the attentions of Pedro Gomez Cueto, a homely Spaniard a dozen years her senior with business interests in Boston and Havana. The pair were soon intent on marriage; Mary’s father insisted they wait a year. It did little good, and they married on May 21, 1922, with Thomas finding solace only in Pedro’s assurance they would settle in Boston. The promise did not hold and after a lengthy European honeymoon—in Lourdes, Pedro bought her a golden rosary—they set up house in Havana. There, behind a gate with her name filigreed in wrought iron—Villa Mary, it reads—Mary, in a signature strapless gown, found herself ensconced in a sumptious home of marble floors, neo-classical sculpture and Napoleon III furniture, surrounded by a garden of palm and mango trees. While Pedro hoarded Havana property, imported leather and ran a shoe factory supplying the Cuban army, Mary helped found the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra and, perhaps because she could not have children, an orphanage. Mary, who spoke St. John’s English but Castilian Spanish, knew the cultural elite in Havana’s headiest days; Frank Sinatra was a neighbour. Though marriage otherwise ended her musical career, she still performed during visits to St. John’s. “She came out on stage wearing a black lace gown to the floor and a black mantilla and a black fan in her hand and sang the Habanera from Carmen,” says historian and poet Paul O’Neill.
After Pedro died in 1950, Mary remained in Havana, running his business. Such was her devotion to him and her old-fashioned Catholicism that she did not remarry. Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution nationalized the factory and Pedro’s other properties, valued at $4 million—all save Villa Maria, where she continued on despite the exodus of wealth from Havana. The grounds of her orphanage became part of a Soviet nuclear installation. The U.S. embargo froze a small fortune Pedro had left her in a Boston bank, where her jewellery—the golden rosary, her mother’s family heirlooms—were left sealed in a safety deposit box.
Mary eked out a living teaching English, piano and singing. Two decades on, she had become as dilapidated as her villa, with its peeling walls, boarded windows, dust, overgrown garden and decrepit Steinway. “She was wildly painted, she wore a foxstole with a face on it and a tail whenever she came out in the evening, and vintage dresses,” says one-time neighbour Cita Pilgrim. Mary never refused a party invitation, and played the organ at church until it broke. There were hints of her past glory—an antique Cadillac, with tires shipped in from St. John’s, a chauffeur who doubled as a gardener, a herd of peacocks patrolling her grounds. She eventually received a modest stipend from the Cuban government, as well as the odd sum liberated from Boston. Yet the pearls she wore around her neck were fakes.
A fall just after her 100th birthday left Mary an invalid. Elio Garcia, her former student and godson, fussed over her, soaking her fingers in perfumed water, fixing her hair, tiara and makeup, sheathing her in satin. She said her rosaries thrice a day, though Pedro’s golden beads failed to register with her after a friend, Anton Wagner, salvaged them from Boston. She was still lucid, feisty even, but rarely complained of the revolution; indeed, she said good had come of it, and she spoke fondly of encounters with Castro and Che Guevara. Though she could not abide the U.S. restrictions that left her poor, she never thought of leaving, even if doing so would have freed her money (in fact little more than $250,000). Pedro rested in Cuba, and the Cuban people were too dear. She died of respiratory illness on April 3. Garcia blames the embargo, saying money could have bought crucial medical treatment. This week, the U.S. relaxed many of its restrictions, including those on remittances.