By GRACE WING BOHNE Herald Staff Writer
LISBON - Although free of fiscal worries, Gen. Fulgencio Batista, the deposed dictator-president of Cuba, knows how to hold onto a half-dollar.
He's kept the same one for nearly 20 years, a souvenir from Daytona Beach where he lived from 1945 to 1948 between terms as political and military boss of his native island.
A story goes with it, he told us when we visited him and his wife, Marta, in their exile home last week in Estoril, an elite Lisbon suburb. Seems the cherished four-bit piece was given to Batista by an elderly tourist couple after he gave them a lift in his car from the Daytona Beach railroad station to their hotel. They thought he was a taxidriver.
"My son - he was only a small boy then and people called him my bodyguard because he wore cowboy boots and pistols in his belt - told me I must give it back to them," the one-time Cuban strong man told us, laughing. "But I say, 'No, I will keep it. Maybe it brings me luck, eh?"'
A lot of people would say it has. Granted that it was a comedown, to say the least, after a quarter-century career of calling the shots, to be routed from Havana by Fidel Castro's leftist forces on New Year's Day 1959.
But he did get out in good shape, together with his wife and family, which is more than Latin American strongmen of an earlier era could have counted on.
THE FAMILY is still together, except for the months when the children are away at school, in one of Europe's most exclusive communities Their neighbors are wealthy Lisbon professional people, aristocrats, diplomats and dethroned royalty of a dozen countries.
Only a 20-minute drive along the oceanfront "marginal" from the Portuguese capital, Estoril is a counterpart of Palm Beach, except that grandeur is left to nature. It's a place where every prospect pleases and only memories give pain.
Does Batista, who by the way calls himself general rather than president, feel at home there?
"No one can feel truly at home anywhere when his own country is suffering and he knows he cannot go there or even be close to it," he replied readily. "But if you mean am I comfortable - well, here I feel really free for the first time since I lived in Daytona Beach."
From outward appearances, the once fiery soldier who seized control of his country's destiny when he was an unknown army sergeant of 32, has settled down - whether permanently, who can say? He seems content in his self-appointed role of elder statesman (at 62, he's a little young for it), adored husband and father, and man of letters.
Since he went into exile he has turned out four books, each carefully documented with the daily box score he keeps on world affairs from the newspapers and correspondence that pours in from many directions.
He reads and writes in the mornings, drafting in longhand with a pencil; a stenographer types up the day's output for his revision.
Whipping out a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, the general produced a membership card from the Colegio Nacional de Periodistas de La Republica de Cuba, to prove he is no amateur writer. He pointed to the word "exilio" stamped across the card.
Twice a week he and his wife take French lessons.
The only medal he wears nowadays is a small gold lapel pin, a gift from his family during the past summer, commemorating the fateful day in September 1933 when he, instead of Fidel Castro, was the victor leading his army followers into Havana and chasing out leaders of the Machado regime.
"It makes me feel proud and sad at the same time," he confided ruefully. "I have to think that 30 years ago I was already a grown man!"
Maybe some of the disillusionment he has suffered at being refused permission to visit family in the U.S., his staunch ally and second home in palmier days, has been worked off in his books. After sweating out the earlier years of their exile on Madeira, a heavenly but admittedly remote Portuguese island off the northern coast of Africa, Gen. Batista and his wife both are clearly elated at being now where their friends can find them.
* * *
HIS MOOD was jubilant when we met him for the first time last week. He telephoned the invitation himself to my husband and me at our hotel, having received a note written from Miami in our behalf shortly before.
He said he was lonesome because his wife had been in Switzerland, settling the older children in school, but would be home before we got there.
Their rented villa on a quiet side street is luxurious but not pretentious, and definitely old-fashioned by Miami standards. Like most of its neighbors, it is surrounded by flower borders and a chin-high wall with wrought a iron gate that unlocks from inside the house when the bell is rung.
A white-uniformed maid greeted us in English, showed us into a sitting room cheery with printed slipcovers, and in a moment the general hurried in, hands outstretched, his famous magnetism radiating as if somebody had flipped a light switch.
He started out at once in a flow of conversa ion about his latest book, his motor trip through Spain with his wife this past summer, his nostalgia for Daytona Beach and his views on world affairs, all with equal readiness. ("I should like to speak as an American as wells as a Cuban," he said emphatically.)
He apologized that his English is getting away from him, but it hasn't slowed him down any.
Marta Batista, tall and chic, was wearing charcoal colored sweaters and a matching knit skirt, and the faintly worried air of a mother whose brood has just lately fled the nest. She looks unbelievably young to be the mother of five children, the oldest 21-year-old Jorge who had just gone back to the university at Lausanne.
"He is very tender with his mother," the general said.
comes home he always tells me that I am more beautiful than ever," Jorge's
mother said with ' a little laugh. She understands English but declines
to speak it except for an occasional comment. Helpfully, she tailors her
Spanish for amateur linguists.
(Marta Batista is the general's second wife, and their acquaintance began in what hardly seems an auspicious way. She was a schoolgirl riding her bicycle when she was struck by his car.)
* * *
THE MOTHER went upstairs and brought down a billfold so she could show us pictures of each of the children. The general complained that the house was too quiet now that Jorge and the three younger boys had gone back to school. Just then a door popped open and a white poodle puppy whirled in, bouncing from lap to lap and giving each of us a kiss.
Like the handsome doll that stood on a chair nearby, he was a gift to six-year-old Marta, the baby of the family and the only girl. Shy and leggy, with big dark eyes, little Marta was called in to shake hands. Looking melancholy, her mother told us that Marta would soon be sent to Madrid to stay with her her grandmother and start to school.
The maid brought in a tea tray and Marta Batista identified the various Portuguese sweet treats. In a country renowned for the grape, which conveniently grows its own cork trees, the Batistas drink nothing at all alcoholic, but the general said he is expected to provide wine for the two Portuguese servants who take their meals there.