Who is this singular walking figure ever present in front of the Convent of San Francisco de Asis in Havana? A similar statue represents Antonio Gades, enjoying the shadow of the great building at the left side of the Havana's Cathedral Square. But this famous spanish dancer, Cuba's great friend needs no introduction. But, the question remains, who is this anonymous walker with a long beard and small stature? He is The Gentleman from Paris.
Rumor has it that the simple touch of his beard and his hand ensures good luck and a happy return to Havana. The statue certainly prove the faith people has in this believe, as the bronze in his beard and hand gleams as just polished due to the friendly contact of countless visitors who pay tribute to the kind and gentle insane man known as The Gentleman from Paris.
He was one of the distintive characters that roamed the streets of Havana in the XX century, from the 20s until 1977 when he was confined in a psychiatric institution. Despite inhabiting the streets, homeless himself, despite living on public charity, despite his strange and dirty appearance, he was the most memorable character between those who shared the streets.
All the city inhabitants recognized his good manners, his kindness, his eloquence, although his speech did not have much sense because of his mental condition. They recognized his dignity that allowed him to accept help only from people he knew. He became so well known that when he was arrested by the authorities, the public response caused his immediate release. On another occasion, in 1941, when he was admitted to the Mazorra psychiatric hospital, an order from former President Batista returned him to the streets.
His name was José María López Lledín, and he was not Cuban. Of Spanish origin, he was born in 1899 and came to Cuba with his brothers at age 12. He had several jobs, dependent from a warehouse, manager of a flower shop, later a bookstore, tailor, and even asistent in a law office. He even worked as a waiter in the restaurants of the hotels Inglaterra, Telégrafo, Sevilla, among others, the best hotels of the city at that time.
Nobody knows how he lost his mind, some refer unjust imprisonment, some others the loss of his girlfriend in a boating accident when she came to meet him in Havana, a charge of murder, etc.. What we do know is that it happened around the 20s and despite pressure from his family he refused to be confined or let anyone to support him, so he ended in the streets of Havana for 50 years.
He was an eloquent talker, very polite. Many remember his talks, he never asked for money or sayed bad words. He only took money from people he knew and then he gave them a gift, a card colored by him, one end of pen or pencil wrapped with threads of different colors, or any similar object. He frequently returned a small amount to those who gave him money. Although many, especially children feared him for his appearance, soon they lost their fear and chatted with him. Everyone, adults and children, spoke to him with much respect.
It was finally confined in 1977 because of his deteriorating physical condition and died in Mazorra psychiatric hospital at 85 years of age.
Now he has become a legendary figure. His image idealized through popular songs by Cuban musicians, or through the visual arts. He has become so linked to Havana as the streets he walked for more than 50 years. His remains were exhumed and buried in the Convent of San Francisco de Asis in front of which is the statue.