On a trip to Miami, while leafing through a beautifully illustrated book on Havana, Alina Garcia-Lapuerta encountered La Condesa de Merlin for the first time. She was surprised that, as a Cuban-American and a history buff, she had never heard of this Cuba-born Parisian countess, who was intriguingly described as the “Cuban Scheherazade.”
That was almost a decade ago, and the chance encounter in a shelf-lined room at Books & Books in Coral Gables sent Garcia-LaPuerta on a years-long search through archives, university libraries and several historic cities to uncover the tumultuous story of a woman who was provocative and well ahead of her time.
The result of that research is a new book, La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid, and Paris, a 320-page account of Maria de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, later known as the Comtesse Merlin. It is the first full-length, English-language biography of the countess.
Garcia-LaPuerta will speak about her work at 7 p.m. Thursday Sept. 11 at the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection.
“I was completely fascinated by her,” Garcia-LaPuerta says. “She is truly a story for our times. Like so many of us, she was born in one place, then exiled to another, and yet through it all she never forgot her heritage.”
Though Santa Cruz y Montalvo’s life unfolded about two centuries ago, during the late 1790s and early 1800s, its trajectory resonated with Garcia-Lapuerta, who was born in Cuba, grew up in West Palm Beach, headed to the northeast for college and employment, and now lives in London, where her husband, Carlos, works as an economist.
But it wasn’t just the parallels of exile and return, refuge and redemption that appealed to Garcia-LaPuerta, trained in banking and international relations. “She was an incredible woman,” Garcia-Lapuerta says. “She lived in a time when decisions were made for women by their husbands and their families, but she still managed to slip out from under the shadows [while living in France] and do all these wonderful, artistic things that were so unusual for women of that age. In that respect, she was quite modern.”
Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo’s life was pioneering on many fronts. She became Cuba’s earliest female published author at a time when women did not participate in the literary world. Her memoirs and travel writings introduced Europeans to Cuban society, and she was an early and outspoken activist against the slave trade — again the first Cuban woman to publish an article on the topic. An amateur soprano whose voice was described as “angelic,” she hosted musical salons in Paris that were considered the “passport to celebrity” for new artists. She is credited with introducing the idea of benefit concerts to Europe.
So why did this talented socialite who discussed art with Francisco de Goya and hosted such greats as Franz Liszt and Honore de Balzac in her Paris home sink into semi-obscurity, rarely known outside Cuban circles?
“I don’t know if there is a definitive answer for that,” admits Maria Estorino, chair of the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection, where Garcia-Lapuerta did research. “The fact that she was a woman probably had something to do it. Women, in general, were not considered part of the literary canon of that time.”
But more than gender has kept the countess from achieving the kind of historical fame Estorina and Garcia-Lapuerta feel she deserves. Santa Cruz y Montalvo was writing at a time when Cuba was still very much a Spanish colony, decades before Cuba would begin its long fight for independence and achieve a national identity.
Yet this countess was famous in her time. Garcia-Lapuerta dug through countless newspapers, letters, military records, wills and love notes to sketch a portrait of a woman who “seemed to be very passionate, a romantic who was still practical enough to build a life even with all the political and financial upheavals around her — and she does this in another country and in another language. She was exceptional.”
In her book, Garcia-LaPuerta provides not only the details of an adventurous life but also of a turbulent historical era. Santa Cruz y Montalvo was born into Cuba’s colonial aristocracy and grew up in the care of her great-grandmother while her parents served in the Spanish court of King Carlos IV and Queen Maria Luisa. In 1802, the 13-year-old Mercedes was taken to Madrid, where she learned the finer points and politics of fashionable society in her mother’s popular salons.
In Madrid, she lived through the king’s abdication, the rule of Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s older brother) and a drawn-out, bloody civil war. She eventually married a French general almost 20 years her senior, Christophe-Antoine Merlin, leaving Spain for France, where she would go on to establish herself in social, musical and literary circles.
When she returned to Cuba in 1840, a year after the death of her husband, she penned one of her most recognizable works, Viaje a La Habana (Voyage to Havana), a books rife with yearning for her beloved homeland. She would return to Cuba only once more, in 1849, before dying in Paris in 1852.
To flesh out the published — and often contradictory — histories of the countess, Garcia-LaPuerta rummaged through digital and printed documents written in two languages and stored in three countries. She traveled to Cuba — only her second trip back to the island since being exiled with her family in the 1960s — where she studied ancient papers at Havana’s Biblioteca Nacional. In Paris, she gained access to the archives of the venerable Institut de France, a feat for even seasoned historians.
UM’s Estorino hopes Garcia-LaPuerta’s biography will awaken interest outside Cuban circles in Santa Cruz y Montalvo’s life and writings. Only one other English-language book, a 1998 literary criticism by Adriana Mendez Rodenas titled Gender and Nationalism in Colonial Cuba: The Travels of Santa Cruz y Montalvo, Condesa de Merlin has focused attention on this grande dame of early Cuban literature.
Garcia-Lapuerta, in turn, would like the countess to be recognized as one of the great renaissance women of her time. “She was a woman with a lot of strength who did what she did with charm and personality and talent,” Garcia-LaPuerta says. “I would’ve loved to have met her.”