Augusta to Havana
by Nikki Finke
I was a ridiculously young 29-year-old journalist when I began in Newsweek's Washington bureau as a correspondent under the great Mel Elfin. I had several years' experience at AP (Baltimore, Boston, Foreign Desk, Moscow, London) that included foreign positions, as well as a stint at Houston and Dallas newspapers that involved work abroad as well. Of course I was thrilled to be hired by Newsweek and hoped for an overseas post like Paris. I'd specifically told the Newsweek powers-that-be that I didn't want Washington. So of course they put me in DC. (Wasn't the inside joke that, if you spoke German, the magazine sent you to Moscow, or something like that?) Anyway I'll never forget the Four Days That Shook My World at the magazine.
Augusta National: On October 22, 1983, I was tapped for a White House weekend trip and flew Air Force One to Augusta so then President Ronald Reagan could play Georgia's Augusta National Golf Club where The Masters is held. It was supposed to be a fun assignment. Then that Saturday afternoon, a lone gunman burst onto the golf course and demanded to talk to the President. As quickly as it began, the hubbub was over, and we in the press corp filed our stories and went to sleep in a nearby hotel. Until I was awakened at an ungodly hour by one of the White House press officers and told we were flying back to Washingon immediately because the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut had been bombed.
It was a very solemn Sunday inside the White House. It was also all hands on deck at Newsweek because the magazine made the unprecedented decision to hold publication and incorporate Sunday's news developments.
After the issue (later award-winning) was put to bed, I had a few days off.
I slept all day Monday. On Tuesday, October 25, I woke up, put on a very slick St John's skirt suit, broke up at lunch with a married lover (who famously divorced his wife soon afterwards), and prepared to grab the DC-NY air shuttle for a quick dinner in Manhattan when I swung by the Newsweek Bureau just to check in.
"You don't have time to go home!" everyone in the office kept breathlessly repeating to me. Dazed and confused, I was handed one phone and another and another until finally someone gave me the briefest of briefings. "You're flying to Miami where you'll meet up with [staff photographer] Larry Downing who was on his way to Alaska when we turned him around. The two of you will meet up in Miami with two Washington Post writers, and all four of you will grab a chartered plane. Here's $25,000 in cash. Good luck."
In all the commotion, everybody had failed to give me some very pertinent information.
"Where am I going?" I asked.
"Cuba," came the reply.
"Do I have a visa? I asked.
"No, but we've been assured that the plane won't be turned around."
Cuba Charter: I vaguely remembered hearing on the radio that morning something about Grenada. In fact, less than 48 hours after the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, U.S. forces had invaded the Caribbean spice island where the Reagan Administration seemed determined to prevent Cuba from making inroads. There was worry that Fidel Castro might order a counter-attack. I was waved on with these hopeful words, "Maybe you'll have time to buy a toothbrush in the Miami airport. Just don't miss that charter."
Larry and I met up in Miami and arrived in Havana where unfriendly officials ushered us (more like shoved us) into a windowless room for hours. Eventually other journalists from around the world wandered in. In the wee hours of the next day, we were all put on a bus and driven to the Presidential Palace where Castro exhausted us by haranguing American aggression for more hours. Then we were brought to Meyer Lansky's unfinished Riviera Hotel and shown to a makeshift press room to file our stories.
Tidbits: I won't bore you with the rest of the journey, except to give you these very Newsweek tidbits. Larry had only packed long underwear and thick sweaters for his Alaskan assignment while I had no spare clothes at all. So we jumped into a taxi and visited some hard currency stores. I found only a pair of Sasson jeans and a lot of anti-American T-shirts. I was told that, every morning during the Grenada Invasion, the Newsweek conferences between Washington and New York began with "What do you think Nikki is wearing today?" and lots of laughs.
I also stopped Larry from buying a Rolex with Newsweek cash he'd commandeered. He took revenge on me soon after. Because the Riviera Hotel didn't have door locks, he thought it hilarious to sneak into my bathroom and take pictures of me naked in the shower and send them with his film.
Those 1983 photos may still be somewhere in the bowels of the old Newsweek photo archives. I hope the editors didn't see them. Or maybe they did and never told me.
Nikki Finke worked in Washington
1983 - 1987.