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spacer Billy Joel, Havana, 1979
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Billy Joel, Havana, 1979

I met Billy long before he had a hit record. In fact, when I met him he was literally playing at a piano bar in Los Angeles. This had nothing to do with my music gig at The Post; his wife – now his first former wife, and still a good friend of mine – had known one of my friends in Washington since high school. Billy, Steven Stills, Stan Getz and several other musicians were going to Cuba to play in something called Havana Jam. Somehow I had managed to convince my editors at The Post that coverage was essential. This picture was taken after the entire group of us – musicians and journalists – had been drinking entirely too many Cuba Libres at Hemingway’s old haunt, La Bodeguita del Medio. Before leaving Washington, I had consulted with Karen DeYoung, who had covered Cuba for the paper for a number of years, and she had shared with me the secret to filing from the island. Since it was virtually impossible then to make phone calls to the U.S., you needed to go to the office of the news agency Agence France-Presse with a crisp hundred dollar bill in hand, and bribe the telex operator. I was filing every night. I assumed every other journalist there was as well. When I learned that John Rockwell, my friendly rival at The New York Times, not only wasn’t filing, but also didn’t know that I was, I devised a practical joke to let him know he had been bested. I had brought to Cuba a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop,” an hilarious novel about foreign correspondents covering a mythical war in Ishmaelia, “that hitherto happy commonwealth [which] cannot conveniently be approached from any part of the world.” The book is filled with cables about scoops and missed opportunities, and each night after I filed my story, I would have delivered to John at our hotel a cable purportedly sent by Abe Rosenthal, then the Times’ editor, drafted in Scoop-esque prose: “YOUR PAPER BADLY BEATEN STOP CABLE FULLIER OFTENER PROMPTLIER.” I assumed any journalist would know “Scoop,” and thus immediately get the gag. The last day we were in Havana, John came up to me and said, “How the hell did you file from here? Abe is really pissed at me.” The last laugh, however, was on me. In 1979, visitors to Cuba were permitted to return to the US with twenty five cigars. I had left a box of Montecristo # 1s lying on my desk at The Post overnight; the next day I found the box containing only a note written on a yellow pad: “Zito – We all enjoyed the cigars. It was nice of you to think of us while you were away. – Don Graham”

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