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The Legal Problems of the Mambo Kings

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Oscar Hijuelos died on October 12, 2013. His great contribution to American letters was his work The Mambo Kings Plays Songs of Love, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1990. The work was one of the first recognized works of fiction to dramatize and celebrate the Latino experience in the United States. The hero of the story, Cesar Castillo, was the bandleader of the Mambo Kings, a Cuban musical group. In the novel, Cesar reflects on his own experience in New York, as he wanders past the musical clubs in lower Harlem, walking from 110th Street through a safe Central Park to the lower Fifth Avenue night spots that play the mambo and other Cuban rhythms. The high point of his life was his band's single appearance on I Love Lucy, sponsored by Desi Arnaz. Many of Cesar's adventures involved his relationships with the many women he encountered as a popular band leader. Two of the women depicted in the book took umbrage at their depiction and sued Oscar and his publishers. I was his lawyer. We won one case and settled the other.

The first case involved Glorious Gloria Parker, the bandleader of the All Girl Rumba Orchestra, popular in the 1950s. Her band was heard nightly on CBS radio from 1950 to 1957. Her current website lists her accomplishments as conducting for Judy Garland, playing with the Hartford Symphony and appearing with Lionel Hampton who "recorded many of her songs." She achieved some notoriety in Woody Allen's 1984 movie, Broadway Danny Rose. Rose was a Broadway agent handing many unusual clients, including Gloria who made beautiful music by running her fingers over glasses filled with different levels of water. All of Rose's clients, including Gloria, appear at his annual Thanksgiving day party, a few, including Gloria, showing off their accomplishments.

Oscar loved the name which he had encountered by reading about the musical bands of the 1950s in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He did not think Gloria would be around in the 1990s to complain about the use of her name in his novel. So he described Cesar having sex with "three of the musicians who played with Glorious Gloria Parker and her All-Girl Rumba Orchestra, among them a Lithuanian trombone player, named Gertie." The book also reports: "One night Cesar and Gloria huddled at a table drinking daiquiris, and Gloria, magnificent is a flame-red dress and Mantilla comb in her hair" suggested that the two bands appear together in the Catskills. Cesar's memory later fades out to a moonlight night in the Catskills "when at three in the morning the Mambo King and Glorious Gloria are tottering toward the edge of a lake, enchanted by the reflection of the moon and stars, teary with light in the water, and the pines stone-blue in the distance, and at one moment the two band leaders were standing close enough to feel each other's breath, she turned to him and put two fingers inside his shirt, her nails touching his skin and gnarly hair, and she said, in the fashion of the time, 'Come on, ya big lug, why don't you kiss me.'"

It turned out Gloria was a teetotaler and did not drink any alcoholic beverages. She also resented her portrait as an aggressive finger-inserter to a man's chest and gnarly-hair-toucher. So she sued Oscar for libel and invasion of privacy in a New York state court. Her lawyer not only sued Oscar and his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, he also sued the National Endowment for the Arts and five other arts organizations that had supported Oscar while he was writing the book. Since the NEA was a federal organization, adding it to the list of defendants meant that the case could be, and was, removed from state court to federal court, who, we thought, would be more sympathetic to our case.

The case was heard by Federal Judge Thomas Platt, in the Long Island federal court. He dismissed the case. Gloria had argued that she was an officer of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers which opposed drinking by teenagers. She stated that among her M.A.D.D. members the claim that she drank daiquiris would lower her reputation. But the law of libel does not cover the loss of reputation among your immediate group. If a book claimed that an Orthodox Jew ate pork or that a prisoner in jail informed on other inmates, such a charge would certainly affect his reputation among his immediate peers. But a statement is libelous only if it lowers a person's reputation among "right thinking persons" of the larger societal community.

So accusing Gloria of drinking daiquiris or touching a man's gnarly chest does not offend the sensibilities of the broader members of society. Judge Platt reported: "It is difficult to believe that an average reader would consider either of the passages defamatory." He added: "Reporting that a person has requested a kiss or sipping a daiquiri, true or not, simply does not subject them to the scorn of the average reader on such an account."

Gloria also claimed that the picture of the dancing woman on the book jacket cover resembled her. We answered that contention by submitting an affidavit to the judge by the artist who designed the cover that the picture on the cover was not Glorious Gloria Parker. It was based on the "photograph of a woman named Vann Vore which appeared on the jacket of an album entitled Mambo Jamboree." This was another example of Oscar using real material from the 1950's to add authenticity to his book. The picture on the original book jacket came from a record album of the time, showing an attractive Latino woman dancing the rumba. In the Gloria Parker case, the judge dismissed the privacy claim, based on our submission that a different woman was depicted.

While we were waiting for the judge's decision, a reporter from California called me and asked about the law suit brought by a woman against Oscar and the publisher, claiming violation of her right to privacy. The plaintiff claimed the picture on the book jacket cover of the Mambo Kings was her. I assumed he was talking about the Gloria Parker case. I told him the case was before a federal judge in New York. He then told me: "Not that case, I am talking about the case that was just filed this week in Sacramento."

We soon received the new law suit. Sure enough, it was filed by Vanna Vane, a model who went by the name "Vann Vore" in the 1950s. Her real name was Vann E. Goodwin. Her story was that the picture on the cover of the book was a photograph of her that appeared on the record album of "Mambo Jamboree." She further alleged that the picture was taken by her husband, who committed suicide shortly after the picture was taken. So every time she sees that picture, she suffered emotional distress because it reminds her of her husband's suicide.

Oscar and I then went out to California to deal with that case. Once again we had removed the case from state court to federal court which sat in San Francisco. Under local law, parties were required to engage in mediation before we could go to trial. The mediator in our case was a woman lawyer named Susan Haldeman, the daughter of H.R. Haldeman, former chief of staff to President Richard Nixon. She sat us around a table and asked us to describe the case. The plaintiff, Vann Goodwin, told the story of her husband's suicide and how upset she felt every time she saw that picture, which was now present in every bookstore where the "Mambo Kings" was sold. She cried when she told the story.

Susan then spoke to each party separately. Susan told us. "I think you should apologize and express your regret and sorrow about what you did. That might reduce the financial demands she is making." We took her advice. Oscar and I could not have been sorrier about the pain we created. Gradually as the day wore on, the financial demands got lower and lower. Finally at Susan's urging, we came up with a number that our insurance company and Vann Goodwin would accept. We all shook hands and went home.

Leon Friedman is a professor of constitutional law at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University and the editor of "The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions," (Facts on File, 2013)