The late Desi Arnaz was recognized for his financial contributions -- undocumented but legendary to some -- that helped free Bay of Pigs veterans four decades ago.
BY ELAINE DE VALLE
Desi Arnaz: singer, songwriter, bandleader. Patriot?
A little known detail about the late Cuban-American entertainer is that he helped finance the freedom of hundreds of Bay of Pigs fighters captured by Cuban government forces, veterans say.
But they never publicly thanked him -- until Friday, 18 years after Arnaz's death.
Surviving members of that ill-fated mission presented a posthumous award to Arnaz for his ``moral support and generosity.''
Lucie, his daughter with Lucille Ball -- who is starring in a Coconut Grove Playhouse drama -- accepted it on his behalf along with her daughter, Kate.
Arnaz's monetary contributions are not documented, and when he was alive, he did not want them publicized. Several Bay of Pigs experts contacted by The Herald did not know about them. But they are a legend among Bay of Pigs veterans.
''He always supported the Cuban cause,'' said Felix Rodríguez Mendigutia, president of Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. ``Anything against Fidel Castro, he supported.''
Lucie Arnaz said that her father would be honored. She had never heard that he had donated money to the cause of the imprisoned invaders, but said it would be consistent with his character and his sympathies.
Arnaz said she was ''very proud of his actions.'' In an earlier telephone interview, she said, ``Knowing my dad and my grandfather, I'm sure they were emotionally very involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion. I'm sure my father would be very proud to be acknowledged.''
At Friday night's ceremony, she said: ``I feel a little awkward accepting this because he donated the money anonymously. He wouldn't have wanted to be singled out for doing something that he felt was right while others were not acknowledged.''
Surrounded by black and white photos of Bay of Pigs veterans, Arnaz was regaled with stories about shared moments with her father. One woman pointed to a picture of her own father and said he and FELIX RODRIGUEZ MENDIGUTIA,
president of Bay of Pigs Veterans Association
Arnaz had serenaded the ladies in Santiago, Cuba.
Laughing, Lucie Arnaz responded, ``I'm sure he did.''
She told the crowd: ``I feel like I have a lot of friends and family here. We're all probably related.''
It was Lucie Arnaz's Cuban pride that got her noticed by members of the veterans group in the first place. A story in El Nuevo Herald about the play was paired with a photograph of her in a T-shirt that read: ``Made in the U.S.A. -- with Cuban parts.''
''When I saw that photo I remembered about her father's contribution to our freedom,'' said Nilo Messer, vice president of the association and one of the invaders imprisoned in Cuba for 20 months until the United States bought their freedom.
He first learned of Desi Arnaz's interest in their plight while in prison.
''We would always get news from the common prisoners and the employees,'' Messer explained. ``Someone told me that Desi Arnaz was helping with the efforts to get us out. He was one of the people pushing for a commission to negotiate our release.''
At the time, Cuban exiles in Miami scraped together whatever money they could -- many gave watches and wedding rings -- to build a fund for the prisoners' release. Though there is no documented record, the veterans say Arnaz donated $50,000 -- worth about $300,000 today.
Is it possible the veterans honored a myth? No, said Messer. He and Rodríguez said Arnaz gave the money to a commission headed by Eleanor Roosevelt that arranged to send $53 million worth of food, medicine and farm equipment to Cuba in exchange for the prisoners' release.
Both Messer and Rodríguez said Arnaz also provided seed money for several exile organizations, including one headed by the late Jorge Mas Canosa that preceded the Cuban American National Foundation. Arnaz also is said to have provided the contact that led to injured prisoners appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show.
''He cooperated a lot,'' Rodríguez said. ``And he never sought any publicity for helping us or anyone else. But now that he's gone, we want to honor his memory.''
Herald Writer Kristen Bolt contributed to this report.