March 2013




Postcard from Havana

It was all about the bananas, and dig, poke and hunt as I did, they were nowhere to be found. Sarabeth died in 2007 and I do recall seeing those bananas in one of the boxes that came over here with all her stuff in it. She was a “keeper” and she had saved the bananas, actually a banana-looking dinner menu, from a trip she made to Cuba in 1951.

She was fond of telling the story. “I went to Cuba on a banana boat.” That’s about all I can remember of it. Likely that’s about all she could remember of it. Nevertheless, I was getting ready for my upcoming trip to Cuba and just had to find those bananas.

On the way to the bananas, I found a postcard. It was a picture postcard with a ship on the front. The caption says, “T.E.S. Antigua, one of the sister ships of The Great White Fleet – United Fruit Company.”

According to Wikipedia, the Antigua set sail in 1932, a turbo-electric cruise liner taking its guests on two-week cruises to Cuba and several other Caribbean stops. It was one of the Great White Fleet’s six sister cruise ships, each 450 feet long and carrying ninety-five passengers in addition to its bounty of bananas.

Addressing her parents in Lubbock, Texas, my mother wrote, “Havana is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Eloise got seasick today. The officers say I’m a real sailor. Guess I’d better close. Love, Sarabeth.”

That was back in her working-girl days, post-college. Everyone went to Dallas back then and she had a job as a draftsman for Standard Oil Company. No one had any money. She and three friends decided to take a real vacation and go somewhere exotic. Thus Cuba. And because they had no money, they booked passage in the belly of that banana boat.

I continued digging into the bellies of the boxes of souvenirs from eighty-three years of her collecting, still hunting for the banana-looking dinner menu. There was a watercolor. It looked like the Chiquita Banana lady. I had never seen it before. Sarabeth majored in commercial art and her early dream was to be a fashion designer but the war took care of that. Nevertheless, she drew and designed fashion as a hobby for as long as her fingers would let her, and somewhere along the way, had made a watercolor of what looked like the Chiquita Banana lady with a dance partner. It was signed “Sarabeth Kimmel”, her maiden name.

Chiquita, Incorporated (1944) is the successor to United Fruit, the Caribbean monopoly from which O. Henry coined the phrase “Banana Republic,” and that owned the T.E.S. Antigua, on which my mother and her cohorts sailed.

When Chiquita Banana was born, so was its signature logo, Miss Chiquita, and I thought maybe Sarabeth had drawn her inspiration from the original cartoon character we so quickly identify with the brand. But according to, the original Miss Chiquita was depicted as an animated banana from 1944 until 1987, when she was re-drawn as a woman by Oscar Grillo, the artist who also drew the Pink Panther.

Our upcoming trip to Cuba was to include an evening at the famed Tropicana Cabaret, which first opened its doors in December, 1939. Back then, in Havana’s heyday, it and the San Souci were the two hottest hot spots. It’s a sure bet that Sarabeth went to one or the other, and most likely where she found the inspiration for that banana lady watercolor.

I have made photographs of dance in strange places for almost ten years now. I do it poorly but I also do it passionately. I love movement, taking pictures of movement, so I was eager to get to the Tropicana and give it a try.

The first person out on stage was Sarabeth’s banana lady. Actually there were a lot of banana ladies. The music was hot and loud enough to set my back on fire, with intoxicating rhythm. Cubans are masters of syncopation. Unlikely and improbable upbeats pepper the sounds. The lights were blazing, the colors, a white-balance nightmare, the music, pulsating. I tried to “get” the banana lady with my camera. Sarabeth’s banana lady, right up there on the stage.

Among the many things you don’t wish to talk about with your mother is the subject of death, and Sarabeth was kind enough to say nothing more than, “Cremate me.” Her first passion was travel and she did a lot of that, although in her later years she couldn’t remember where she’d been. “I can’t remember where we went,” she’d say, “but I had a wonderful time.”

Because Sarabeth so loved to go, and because she is now so transportable – “YOUR MOM’S ASHES TRAVEL FOR FREE” – my sister-in-law (with whom I most often travel) and I undertook to sprinkle her on every continent. And we have done so, at the foot of a vineyard on the Rhone, in Halong Bay, at Eva Peron’s tomb, in the Sahara, and on the Antarctic continent, among other eventful locations. All but Australia, so far.

Of course we were planning to sprinkle her in Cuba. It took most of the week to find the right spot. And I can’t exactly say specifically where, but she’s near Hemingway and Che, in a corner, in a hotel that was popular in Havana when she was there. We had banana daiquiris to commemorate the occasion, and made a picture of her at the bar. She was a Republican’s Republican so I confess to delight each time I can locate her near a Democrat.

Which brings us back to bananas and that banana-looking dinner menu I was digging for. It finally floated to the top. Dated Saturday, June 16, 1951, it was four years before she met my dad, five years before I was born.

United Fruit Company
Steamship Service
On Board The
T. E. S. Antigua
W. A. Card

The menu that evening? Poached Salmon with Hollandaise, Crepes Confiture, Asparagus Tips au Beurre, and Bananas.


I was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, and have now lived in the same zip code for all of my 56 years. My first camera was an Ansco Panda. My first dog was a beagle. My first construction project, a wooden boat that sailed on its side, much like the Costa Concordia, only in the bathtub.

I now shoot a Rolleiflex SL66. My puppy, B, is a very funny dog. A pointer. And there’s a new camera design in my head: a Rapid Fire Pinhole.

Making cameras is my number one hobby. That and shooting them. And road trips with B in a car full of cameras, hauling the Airstream.

If this new camera design works out, I’ll use it to pinhole the wildlife on the Galápagos Islands this summer. Its design is specifically for the trip.

S.Gayle Stevens and I collaborate on a portfolio of 20×20-inch wet-plate collodion tintypes made using a pinhole camera. You may see the individual plates on Gayle’s website: or follow project updates on the blog here: