Dozens of passers-by on Oficios are drawn every day to the life-size bronze statue of this humbly dressed man that stands outside the entrance to the basilica. Approach it and you will see that his long scraggly beard and extended left hand with pointed finger are smooth and shiny where hundreds of people have touched it.
Dozens of legends have emerged around this enigmatic figure, but a few common threads emerge. His real name was José María López Lledín, a native of Lugo in Spain, where he was born in 1899 into a wealthy family. Some say he lost his mind when, during the trip from Spain to Cuba, the vessel sunk and he lost his family. Others claim that after he settled in Cuba in 1910, he was jailed, in 1920, in El Castillo del Principe for a crime he did not commit.
Either way, after his release, for many years throughout the 1950s he wandered the streets of Havana, the victim of worsening dementia. He was instantly recognizable by his mane of greying hair, a shaggy beard, long nails and an elegant black cape. With him he carried a portfolio containing his treasures: gifts, pens and coloured pieces of card, which he bestowed on passers-by. Apparently he never asked for alms, he only gave. In time, he became a well-known figure in his favourite haunts around the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, throughout Vedado, and even on Avenida 5ta in Miramar, where the eccentric self-dubbed ‘Gentleman of Paris’ would spend hours reciting poetry or recounting tales of another era.
His great-grandson has hinted that he was in love with a young lady he left behind in Spain as a boy. When she didn’t appear at the appointed time on the quays in Havana, where he was waiting with a bunch of flowers, he gave the bouquet to a passing woman. Thereafter, he returned to the quays every day in the vain hope that his love would arrive. She never did, and he continued to bestow flowers on passing women.
In 1977 he was admitted to the Mazorra psychiatric hospital, where he died eight years later, at the age of 85. He was buried in Santiago de las Vegas. When the Plaza San Francisco was restored in the late 1990s, his remains were exhumed and placed in the Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís, his final resting place. The statue, erected in 2001, is by sculptor José Villa Soberón, who also sculpted John Lennon’s statue in Parque Lennon, in Vedado.
El Caballero de París / The Gentleman from Paris
El Caballero de París, or The Gentleman from Paris, was not a character of the French aristocracy but rather a dreamer who walked the streets of Havana for many years weaving dreams and telling stories for those with the patience and wisdom to listen to him.
He was of medium height, sported long unkempt hair and beard. His fingernails were long and twisted from not being cut in many years. He always wore a black suit and cloak, even in the hottest summer days. He always carried a portfolio with papers and a bag in which he carried his belongings.
José María López LLedín was his real name. He was born on December 30, 1899 in the paternal household in the town of Vilaseca, municipality of Fonsagrada in the Galician province of Lugo, Spain. His father was Manuel López Rodriguez, also born in Vilaseca, and his mother, Josefa Lledín Méndez, born in Negueira in the same province. His parents owned a small villa with vineyards where they produced wine and spirits. He first went to school at age seven and completed half of his secondary education. One report states that he had been the fourth of eight children. Other reports say that there had been 11 children in the marriage of which two had died and seven immigrated 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. That day, José swore he would never marry and he always kept his promise. This story, however, seems a little farfetched given that José lived in Spain for only the first 13 years of his life.
According to the Passenger Entry List in the National Archive of Cuba, he arrived in Havana on December 10, 1913 aboard the German steamship “Chemnitz.” He was united with his uncle and his sister Inocencia, who had previously arrived in Cuba in 1910.
Like many other immigrants, the young José María had come to Cuba seeking the opportunity to make a fortune and worked in various trades. During his stay at his uncle’s, he worked briefly in a grocery store on Genios Street, owned by another Galician, until he left his uncle’s home to follow his own destiny. He worked in many different jobs, including a flower shop, a tailor’s shop, a book store and a lawyer’s office. Meanwhile, he studied and refined his manners looking to find better-paying jobs, which he did, as a restaurant waiter in the Inglaterra, Telégrafo, Sevilla, Manhattan, Royal Palm, Salon A and Saratoga hotels. A cousin of his said that he also learned to speak some English.
In the last years of his life, El Caballero confessed to his biographer that he had never married, but had a son and a daughter by a woman who had been secretary to the head of a sugar company. He added that that his son lived in Marianao and worked in radio, and that the mother and daughter had left Cuba.
Many years after his death, the actual reason why he lost his mind is still unknown. Most reports, however, agree that José lost his mind when he was imprisoned unjustly for a crime he had not committed. This was corroborated by his nephew Manuel, as accounted to him by his aunt Mercedes, another of José’s sisters. He was arrested in late 1920 and sent to the prison at El Castillo del Principe in Havana. What is still yet to be determined is the crime he was accused of and how long he was in prison, given that no record of his arrest and conviction has ever been found. Versions of his imprisonment are varied and are linked to robbery, jealousy and manslaughter.
Several sources assure that while in prison, he learned the art of making quill pens and that he would give speeches, introducing himself to the other inmates as Pope, King or Caballero.
Other reports claim that the cause of his alienation is linked to an alleged loss of wife and children who perished in a shipwreck on their journey to Cuba on the ship Valbanera. One variation of this story has yet a more romantic side. According to a great-grandnephew of El Caballero, he went to the docks to meet a sweetheart who was traveling from Paris to join him, but the ship was tragically sunk at sea.
When he was released from prison, he began to wander the streets of Havana. Concerned for both his physical and mental health, the family got together to discuss what they could do to help José. They decided to return him to his native town to live with his parents. When José learned their decision, he became agitated and threatened to jump off the ship and kill himself if they tried to send him back to Spain. The family soon desisted in their efforts, and they and José became further estranged.
The origin of his nickname, “El Caballero de París,” is also uncertain. He once told his biographer that he got his name from a French novel. Another time he claimed that people started calling him “El Caballero” at “La Acera del Louvre,” a stretch of sidewalk on the Paseo del Prado where the hotels Inglaterra and Telégrafo are located, and where he had once worked.
Others say that at one time he worked at the Paris Restaurant on Obispo Street in Old Havana and when he began to say that he was a Gentleman and a King, the patrons started to refer to him as the “Caballero de Paris.” Some family members claimed that it was his Parisian sweetheart who had given him the nickname.
The truth is that this man became a beloved character and an everyday presence on the streets of Havana for more than four decades. He was a gentle and kindhearted man who could appear anywhere unexpectedly. Despite his outward and unkempt appearance, no one avoided his presence or was afraid of him, including children.
He went frequently to the Paseo del Prado, Plaza de Armas, and the area around the Church of Paula. Sometimes he slept on a bench at Parque Central, just across the Acera del Louvre of his youthful years. At times, he would settle on some corner for months, like the corner of San Lázaro and Infanta Streets near the University of Havana or the corner of 12th and 23rd Streets in El Vedado, just a block away from the Colon Cemetery. He would walk the streets and ride buses throughout Havana, greeting everyone and discussing his philosophy of life, religion, politics and the day’s events with everyone who crossed his path.
The Gentleman from Paris was kind, respectful and honorable. He did not accept alms and when he gave his approval to some “help,” he would repay the kindness with pens or pencils decorated with strings of different colors or cards made by him.
On December 7, 1977, doctors at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital in the outskirts of Havana managed to convince him that he needed to be hospitalized. The main reason for his internment was not that he was threatening to anyone, but because of his deplorable and deteriorating physical condition. There he was bathed and his hair thoroughly cleaned and made into a long braid. He was given clean clothes–black as befitted a person of his “station.” During his stay at Mazorra he was given physical, laboratory and psychological tests. He suffered a hip fracture as a result of a fall. The diagnosis from his psychatrist, Dr. Calzadilla, was that he suffered from paraphrenia, sometimes considered a form of schizophrenia. However, he did not suffer from hallucinations.
During his stay in Mazorra, he received many affections of love from the staff, the same love that he had always received from the people in the street. He was interviewed many times for radio and television, and viewers were able to see a smiling and happy Caballero, whose long beard and hair, and attire had been respected.
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 Havana, but his remains were later exhumed by Dr. Eusebio Leal, the Historian of the City of Havana, and transferred to the convent of San Francisco de Asis, his current resting place.
Dozens of legends still surround his person. He has been inspiration to artists, writers, filmmakers, playwrights. Dr. Luis Calzadilla, his doctor at Mazorra Hospital, wrote his biography.
The Gentleman from Paris is an enigmatic and unique character in the world, for it is rare that a vagabond, and on top of that insane, is honored. Outside his resting place stands a bronze statue of Caballero de París. His beard and fingers are shiny because everyone that passes by touch these two spots for luck. He belongs to Havana like the Malecón or the Capitolio or Paseo del Prado.