On a flight to the West Coast this past weekend, I finished "The Last Playboy," Shawn Levy’s fascinating new biography of the Dominican Republic’s most recognized figure in modern times — Porfirio Rubirosa.
Known universally by his nickname "Rubi," Rubirosa was a dashing lothario. His five marriages included two to the richest women in the world: Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton, the latter of which lasted seventy-five days in 1953-54 (and from which the Dominican emerged with $3.5 million, or about $24 million today, and included cash, an airplane, a plantation, clothes, jewelry, polo ponies and incidentals). As one New York wiseguy shouted to him on the street upon recognizing the altar-bound Rubirosa, "Next time, you’ll marry Fort Knox!"
From his first marriage to the daughter of the Dominican Republic’s strongman Rafael Trujillo, Rubirosa — who never finished his legal studies or rose above the rank of captain in the army — achieved major positions abroad, including diplomatic assignments to London, Paris and Rome and as his country’s ambassador to Argentina, Cuba, and Belgium. A charismatic presence in any setting, Rubirosa hobnobbed the famous and powerful from Juan and Eva Peron to Ted Kennedy.
But his passion was not diplomacy or even work ("I don’t have time to work," he is reputed to have said), but romance, polo (which he played well in to his ‘50s), partying, and racing cars at Le Mans. His death in 1965 was poignant: "Rubi" was killed in a car crash at age 56, thus missing the years of informality, antifashion, and denigration of the social scene he embodied from Paris to Palm Beach.
Upon concluding the story of Porifiro Rubirosa, my impression was how someone with such obvious talent and charm could accomplish so relatively little of significance in life? The author reached a similar conclusion: "Could he have been more? He had the tools: the native cunning, the daring, the reflexes, the style. He might have been the salvation of his nation or an important international sporting or diplomatic figure. But his ambition was not so much to do good as to feel it." (Others, apparently, had the same feelings that Rubirosa was a talented man who wasted his talents; in his best-selling novel "The Adventurers," published one year after Rubirosa’s death, author Harold Robbins tells the saga of jet-setter Dax Xenos of the fictional Latin America country of Corteguay, obviously modeled after Rubirosa and the Dominican Republic; Xenos gives up his life of swinging and wooing wealthy women to come home and save Coreguay from an evil dictator).
Fair enough. But it should also be said — and this was the major surprise in reading Levy’s stimulating work — that Rubirosa, in at least one occasion in his storied life, did perform a deed of nobility and heroism. Indeed, one could almost say that the ladies’ man was, like Oskar Schindler, one who pursued selfish goals with ends that sometimes turned out to be profound.
Levy tells the story of Fernando Gerassi, a noted Spanish abstract painter who settled in Paris in the 1920. Because of his association with the losing side in the Spanish Civil War in the ‘30s, Gerassi feared the worst as Germans prepared to invade France. He shared his fears with poker-playing chum Rubirosa, then a secretary at the Dominican embassy in Paris. "Rubi" sympathized and hired Gerassi for the staff at the embassy. He later gave him a loftier title that, according to Levy, "resulted in safe passage out of Europe not only for him and his family but, as it turned out, for many others."
"Rubirosa gave Fernando the position of ambassador from the Dominican Republic, gave him the official stamp," historian John Gerassi, the painter’s son, recalled, "Fernando, in turn, gave eight thousand passports to Spanish Republicans, Jews, whoever he could help, before the Germans caught up. My parents came to America as Dominican diplomats."
Thanks to Rubirosa, Gerassi not only saved his family and thousands more, but enlisted in the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner to the CIA) when the US entered the war and became an undercover operative and then Spain. He engaged in disruptions of German military traffic, abetting the Allied landing in Africa, and was decorated by the US government. As OSS head William Donovan wrote Gerassi: "Without your actions in Spain in 1942, the deployment of Allied troops in North Africa could not have taken place."
In the motion picture "It’s a Wonderful Life," hero George Bailey finds out how one touches so many other lives when he learns that had he not lived, he would not have been there to save his younger brother from drowning and the brother would not have grown up to be a heroic fighter pilot who shot down enemy planes and thus saved the lives of hundreds of sailors on a troop ship. So it was with Rubirosa — scoundrel and lothario — coming to the aid of a friend in a desperate situation, and the friend going on to save thousands of lives and assist in the Allied war effort. As biographer Levy puts it: "’It’s A Wonderful Life’ with an ironic coating of avarice."