Xavier Cugat: the story

Xavier Cugat's origins

I have much to tell that is surprising, amigos. Many amusing stories to confide, not all about myself, as you might expect, but about my family and friends as well; about the people who have meant most to me in my adventurous quest for the three things all Spaniards desire - salud, dinero y amor.- Which, for you who flunked high school Spanish, means health, wealth and love. Yes, amigos, I have much to tell. So relax. Light up a cigarette, pour yourself a long drink and lend your good ear to Cugat.

At the turn of the century, January 1, 1900, I was born in picturesque Gerona, Spain. As usual, one good turn deserved another. My extraordinary birth date brought about the immediate release from prison of my father, Juan Cugat de Bru, being held in custody by the royal government for rebellious talk. The unusual date also won future exemption for myself and my two brothers, Francis and Albert, from dreaded military training to which all Spanish youths were then subjected. Next time you are dying a thousand deaths on New Year’s Day, cheer up. Remember it is Cugat’s birthday.

January 1, 1900. A significant day for me. And, of course, for my imprisoned father, too. It was an omen of more good fortune to come but not to arrive, unfortunately, until after years of humiliation, discouragement and what easily might have been mistaken for despair.

I was baptized Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingall de Bru y Deulofeu! The padre almost ran out of water on that one. However, in Spanish-speaking countries, where tradition and heritage mean so much, everyone has at least three names— his own, his father s and his mother's. Often, as in my case, his grandfather’s and his grandmother s name as well. The Cugat is my father’s name. The Mingall is my mother’s name. The De Bru is my father’s mother’s name and the Deulofeo is my mother’s father’s name. My friends call me X for short.

I am a direct descendant of Father Francisco Cugat, for whom the town of Sant Cugat del Valles, nine miles north of Barcelona, is named. Father Cugat was a saintly little priest who, during the Spanish Inquisition, sheltered twenty- five Jews in his rectory so that their lives might be spared. The bigoted townspeople learned of it, set fire to the rectory and burned to death the twenty-five Jews and Father Fran-cisco Cugat. When I see some of the rumba dancers in the Chez Paree and Havana-Madrid I don’t know how it could happen to a direct descendant of Father Cugat. But, as they say in Spanish, «Así es la vida»

I was baptized a Roman Catholic in the magnificent cathedral of Girona. Although a good man at heart, my father, who had lost his religion, stood outside the cathedral while the sacramental ceremony was performed. He had no objection to anyone else in the family going to church, but he himself no longer took part in the actual practice of religion. Even on such an occasion as my baptismal day, he still would not go inside the cathedral. Perhaps, if it had rained cats and dogs ....

My father was the most determined and persistent man I have ever known. And, believe me, I’ve known a song plugger or two. He ran an electrical supplies shop and was the best electrician in Gerona. I best remember him as a vigorous disciple of democracy, forever fighting for it in a land, mind you, where the king was beloved. That made no difference to my father. He denounced the throne, its doctrines, pitied the people and king alike with every breath he took.

He was constantly, you might say, causing short circuits and blowing fuses with indignant government authorities.

They became less and less indulgent of him. That is why he happened to be feasting on bread and water on the day of my birth.

My father would not have been on hand to comfort my mother if the good king, Alfonso XIII, honoring the new century, had not proclaimed, among other national favors, a pardon for all in jail except murderers and such. Which my father was not, although their accusations sounded as if he were far worse. The release, hoped the king, would reform the prisoners’ way of life. Perhaps it changed the others, but my father remained as adamant against monarchy as the day they cast him into jail for his attacks against it.

Because father was so impelling a character, his look, now softened, was severe and belligerent. Even his moustache shot upward at the ends, sharp and defiant.

Xavier Cugat's early childhood in Girona, Spain

My early childhood in Gerona was not especially eventful. Nor very memorable. My father's activities, as you may detect, overshadowed all else. It is chiefly what he did that I recall.

However, as a small, imaginative child, I remember digging like mad for treasure with my brothers, Francis and Albert. (We got our primary school training, incidentally, from the Marist Brothers in Gerona. Disciplinarians to the fullest, but as educators they ranked with the renowned Jesuits.) Almost on the outskirts of Gerona were the eerie ruins of an ancient castle or church. We were not sure which. We believed if we dug deep enough we would find treasure chests filled with jewels and gold and silver coins.

Our daily digging was finally rewarded. We found something. Not the jewels and gold and silver coins, but a stone passageway which we discovered with help from some curious passers-by— led to several underground cells. Dungeons, whispered the townspeople, that had been used during the Spanish Inquisition, The clergy, hearing of our discovery, reproached my father for allowing us to desecrate the ruins, suspended us from school and brought abruptly to an end our adventurous treasure hunting.

I also remember how our mother, in keeping with the rules and regulations of the Marist Brothers Academy, dressed Albert and me in red shirts with Eton collars, flowing white ties, dark blue knee-length trousers with a white sash and silver buckle, blue socks and black low shoes. To top it off, we wore large, white pancake sailor hats with blue ribbons dangling in back.

Xavier Cugat's

First Communion

The day Albert and I made our First Holy Communion in the cathedral, a white arm band with tassel was added to our colorful attire. I was too young and distracted to appreciate what a holy and sacred day it was.

My father's closest friend, Jose Balmaña, a wealthy carriage maker in La Bisbal, was unable to attend the impressive giving of our First Holy Communion at solemn High Mass in the cathedral. As an expedient, my mother arranged that on the following Sunday we would visit him at his home in La Bisbal, ten miles away, dressed exactly as we were when we received the sacrament.

A narrow-gauge rail-road ran between Gerona and La Bisbal. The ride on the miniature train itself rivaled in anticipation our day with Jose Balmaña. On Sundays there was only one train. We arose at daybreak, attended early Mass, ate a hurried breakfast, all to be on time for its departure. Oddly enough, there was an unbelievable mistake in my father’s timing. We missed the train. However, except for one short outburst of anger, my father remained calm and undaunted. The fault is as great as he that commits it.

He walked quickly, but smoothly, to a near-by stable and hired a donkey with cestas and attendant to transport us to La Bisbal. Better late than never. The cestas were basket seats, hung one on either side of the donkey. The attendant, a bent-over old man, was garbed in a black duster and beret. ‘Our father entrusted us to his care and waved good-by. He was glad to be free of his predicament.

Albert, stiff in all of his finery, sat rigidly on one side of the donkey and I, equally stiff in mine, sat proudly erect on the other. It was a bright, cloudless day. No one in Girona could possibly have missed Albert and me as we passed, bumping along on our donkey conveyance. I can still hear the cheers and catcalls. Still feel the bumps.

The attendant, much to the donkey’s delight and our displeasure, walked slowly and deliberately. Every step was with concern. I thought we would never get there. Yet I was too self-conscious to call out and ask the dried-up old man to stop by the roadside and let me relieve myself.

Instead I sweat and suffered. The day was almost over by the time we arrived at Jose Balmaña’s pretentious home in La Bisbal. He greeted us with stirring enthusiasm. His eyes sparkled as if we had just returned victorious from the war in Morocco. His entire family and legions of neighbors, it seemed, were also there to make much of Albert and me. I soon forgot the discomfort of our long, irksome journey on the donkey's back. But please, amigos, don’t ever ask me to play ‘'The Donkey Serenade!”

Our host had prepared a feast that made our eyes pop. Albert and I were the guests of honor and sat with him at the head of the table. We were toasted and songs were sung to us. I had never before felt so grown up and important.

Josep Balmaña took pictures of us in our First Holy Communion outfits and assured us that now we would get to heaven. We were angels without wings, he said. He asked God to bless us with good fortune, for knowledge is not enough. Jose Balmaña was not the sort of man who’d stand outside a cathedral until it rained cats and dogs.

When the festivities ended, it was too late to return that night to Girona. Jose Balmaña telephoned my mother. We were going to stay over. We would return the following day, adding further expense to my father's already costly mistake.

It was my first experience of being away from home over-night. I did not like it. John Howard Payne had something when he wrote ''There’s No Place Like Home.” I was terribly frightened in the strange room and unfamiliar bed, although I slept beside Albert. Sudden noises, harmless though they were, kept me awake with a pounding heart. I prayed daybreak would come sooner than ever before, but my prayers weren’t answered. And furthermore, for all one’s early rising, it dawns none the sooner.

Jogging back to Gerona on the donkey’s back was doubly annoying, for we hated to leave and knew what deep-seated torture to expect on the road. I remember how the old attendant mumbled all the way that he had not slept well in the quarters Jose Balmaña had provided for him. The field mice had kept him awake sniffing at his feet.

Arriving in Gerona, our spirits were well in keeping with the dreary, overcast day. Our father, mother, grandfather, aunt and Francis were out in front of the house to greet us and help us out of the basket seats. Our eyes were heavy with dust and lack of sleep. My mother soon had Albert and me fed and comfortably relaxed in our own soft bed. I remember yet how comfortable it felt. Jose Balmaña may have given us the feeling of importance. But my mother, as always, gave us the feeling of comfort and security.

I gave no indication of being interested in music in those early years in Gerona. I had no musical instrument. I had no toy that resembled a musical instrument. Besides, my mother never sang me to sleep. My musical career was to start shortly, however.

In his fight against monarchy, my father, without knowing it, had himself become somewhat of a dictator. At least toward his family. His word was absolute law to my mother. Naturally, we all obeyed it willingly. If he said it was raining, although the sun was shining, to my trusting mother it was a thunderstorm. She loved him dearly and was utterly devoted. If he was strict, if he was demanding, extreme and hot tempered, always it was for the good of his family. Every move he made was aimed in that direction. For an outsider his stern, dictatorial procedure was difficult to accept. His family knowingly felt otherwise. At least that is what we kept telling ourselves.

When I was four years old, the government authorities in Gerona, their patience exhausted, gave my rebellious father twenty-four hours to close up shop and get out of Spain. He was through shooting off sparks. They no longer would tolerate his contempt and allegations. They meant business. He knew there must be no further defiance. It was leave or be executed! And that’s no exaggeration.

He was a practical man. Keeping alive^was considerably more imperative than anything else he could think of. Dead men tell no tales. And he still had many to tell. He closed his electrical supplies shop; entrusted a friend to sell it. He hurriedly gathered us all together—my understanding mother; my three brothers (yes, another had been born), Francis, who was then eight years old, Albert, who was six, and little Henry, who was one; my ageing grandfather; my widowed aunt, who was my mother’s all but twin sister; and me. We took no trunks, just quickly-gathered-together bundles. That’s how fast we moved. Father simply dropped everything, including several well-chosen oaths, took no time for packing or neighborly farewells. The first boat had to be caught. He knew he must get out of Spain before another day passed. There are times when you must do what you do not want to do and for my father this was unmistakably one of them. Playing the dramatic departure for all it was worth, he vowed he would return.

My mother, her sister and my grandfather wept as we left Gerona. My brothers and I were then too young to appreciate its medieval beauty, its steep winding streets and archways, the grass growing between the stones of the pavements.

Xavier Cugat i Mingall: his autobiography.

See the introductory letter by Frank Sinatra (soon)

The beginnings of Xavier Cugat.

The place and date of birth influences human personality without any shadow of doubt. In the case of Xavier Cugat, these two factors were basic. He was born on the 1 st January 1900 in a Spanish region with close ties to the Mediterranean Sea and Western Europe, in the city of Girona, capital of the world famous Costa Brava .

Girona, close to the French border and the Mediterranean sea, has seen many civilizations come and go. Hannibal , the famous Carthaginian military commander and tactician, crossed the Perthus crossing with his elephants on his way to Rome. The Ostrogoths and the Franks invaded the Iberian Peninsula via Girona., and Girona was at the heart of a European civilisation while there was the Reconquista was going on against the Muslims.

Just a few years before the birth of Cugat , 1873 saw the triumph of the First Spanish Republic. In one of the Republic Ministries there were three Catalans from the Empordà region: Sunyer i Capdevila, General Nouvilas and Tutau: All of them born in an old county where the Phoenicians and Greeks civilisations had set foot on their way to pave their economic empires. The Empordà is divided into 2 areas of influence: La Bisbal, capital of the Baix (lower) Empordà, and Figueres, capital of the Alt (high) Empordà.

Xavier Cugat was born in Girona, and it is very likely his father was born in la Bisbal, part of the Empordà, an area open to universal ideas and ways of thinking that has seen the birth of renowned figures such as Josep Pla, born in Palafrugell, Salvador Dalí, born in Figueres, and the subject of this site: Xavier Cugat born in the so called "immortal” city of Girona but who lived from a young age in la Bisbal.

We must not forget that two years before Cugat’s birth there had been the Spanish-American War that ended with the defeat of the Spanish “Armada”, who were still using wooden ships against the steel ships of the Americans and with the Spanish firing range three or four times shorter than that of the Americans. This defeat, together with the fall of Puerto Rico and the Philippine islands meant the end of the old Spanish Empire. The failure of the 1873 Republic and the Caribbean defeat meant that some Spaniards would continue their plight for freedom in clandestine ways and others would leave Spain as exiles. Juan Cugat, Xavier’s father chose exile.

Cuba would be Xavier Cugat’s family’s destination, and island also known as the Pearl of the Antilles. Cugat was only four when he landed in Cuba. His family was united under the frugal character of his father and kind love of his mother, Avila Mingall. There were four brothers: Francisco, the eldest, Alberto, Xavier and Enrique, the youngest. This family remained united both in success and failure, tears and laughter. That Cuban paradise and its capital Habana was the home of many artistic circles. It was a musical island, its inhabitants having music and the sense of rhythm in their veins, and little Xavier Cugat felt that rhythm in his soul and would soon show his love for music.

But Cuba and Havana, despite its splendour, was too limited for the family, and they soon decided to go to New York, then the centre of the world. This is the origin of the man, whose autobiography, brilliant however contradictory just like his own life you will be able to read in this website. The reader must not be surprised by the peculiar style and spontaneity of the author.

(Based on the original book by DASA EDICIONS S.A.)