Fashion Designer Wayne James Directing Film on Golden-Age Cuba
Georgetown University law graduate and former United States Virgin Islands senator Wayne James seems to do it all—from fashion to furniture to food to federal prison. And now the über-talented, ever-resilient author of the critically acclaimed Manly Manners can add yet another “F-word” to his credentials: filmmaker.
Going…Going…Gone: The Grandeur of Golden-Age Cuba is a 90-minte docufilm featuring more than 450 photographs of Cuba during its heyday between 1890 and 1925. The film will premiere in Miami in December.
But in many ways, Going…Going…Gone has been coming along for almost a century. In 1918, at age 29, James’ maternal great-uncle Alexander Messer, born on St. Croix in 1888, migrated to Cuba to work as a sugarcane laborer and musician. And while living in Santiago de Cuba, the island-nation’s second-largest city after Havana, Messer would occasionally enclose with his letters to his parents and siblings tobacco cards issued by Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., manufacturers of fine cigars. The cards featured beautiful images of Cuba: churches and cathedrals, municipal building, private mansions, parks, bridges, monuments, casinos, theaters, bays and beaches, plantations, factories, etc.
“This was before the proliferation of the instamatic camera,” James said. “For Uncle Alex, sending picture-cards of Cuba was the best way he knew how to share his adopted homeland with his beloved family.”
Messer’s cards, totaling about 100, remained in the Prince-Messer family’s ancestral home in the town of Frederiksted, St. Croix, until 1973 when Alexander’s younger brother, Alphonso Messer, died, the seminal collection passing to James, who would turn 12 years old in September of that year.
“I was always intrigued by the photos, especially since Cuba had become a ‘forbidden land’ by the time I became conscious of the greater-world,” James said. “Those cards were always very sentimentally precious to me because they connected me to my great-uncles Alex and Richard, both of whom migrated to Cuba, never to return to St. Croix.”
In the late summer of 2005, while visiting a friend in Barcelona and partying on the enchanted isle of Ibiza, James came upon a cache of about 250 of the cards in an antique shop in old Barcelona, not far from the Pablo Picasso Museum, and quickly purchased them. Then in 2009, while visiting Cuba in his capacity of Senator of the United States Virgin Islands, James donated copies of his collection to the University of Havana, which, at the time, had no archival record of the existence of the photos.
“That’s when I realized how rare the photos were,” James said. “I figured that if the University of Havana had never heard of a series of tobacco cards featuring Cuba in its glory days, I was onto something. And I knew that the photographs had to be officially shared with the people of the world. Also invaluable about the cards is that each photo was produced with an identifying caption, making it easy to recognize the structures, sites, and scenes even if no longer extant.”
In September of 2020, James’ collection again grew fortuitously when he noticed 150 of the photos up for bid in a Spanish auction house. He won the bid, bringing his collection to approximately 450 distinct images, the collection now believed to be the world’s largest. The esteemed Cuban Heritage Institute of the University of Miami, for example, one of the foremost repositories of Cuban scholarly material, only has 60 of the images.
Beginning in the 1870s and continuing until the 1920s, tobacco companies routinely inserted cardstock in order to stiffen the packaging of cigars and cigarettes. The cards also doubled as advertising, typically featuring the world’s royalty, famous athletes, celebrated beauties, and general-interest subjects such as exotic animals, churches, or circus characters, for example. Today, some of those cards have become very rare and very valuable.
“Very few of the ‘Cuba Series’ tobacco cards have survived the ravages of time,” James said. “And little about them is known or documented, even by the great cartophilic publications and societies of the world. And unlike many tobacco card series, which were typically issued in sets of 25 or 50, the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., “Cuba Series” contained hundreds of cards, leading me to believe that the cards were never inserted into tobacco packaging but were, instead, presented as giftsets to preferred clients. How Uncle Alex came in possession of the cards has been lost to history. He was not a known smoker, and it is unlikely that he was a preferred client of Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd. In any event, the cards are today exceedingly rare, making it all the more imperative that they be shared with the world. Much of the Cuba depicted in the cards no longer exists or exists in a state of relative decline.
“I was inspired to put the collection on public display by my dear, dear friend, Luis C. Garcia-Menocal, great-grandson of Mario Garcia-Menocal, Cuba’s third president [1913-1921]. I was profoundly affected by Luis’ longing for his beloved homeland, Cuba, and knew that the sentiment was not unique to him. Cuban people need to see this film,” James said. “Perhaps this docufilm will inspire Cubans in Cuba and those that comprise the diaspora to preserve one of the most precious jewels of the New World.”
Going…Going…Gone masterfully combines the breathtakingly beautiful black-and-white photos of James’ collection with archival film footage, contemporary photos, and television broadcasts that delve into the political landscape that is Cuba. Primarily a visual experience enhanced by the music of Latin American composers such as Cuba’s Ernesto Lecuona and Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla performed by PASO (Pan American Symphony Orchestra) of Washington, DC, the film looks like an exhibition and sounds like a concert.
“The Miami premiere of the Going…Going…Gone will be buttressed by an eponymously titled exhibition and book,” James said. “And, of course, the film will be made simultaneously available at no charge online so that people all over the world—especially those in Cuba—can share in the experience. This project has been a labor of love on many levels. I am thrilled to see it bear fruit,” James concluded.