VIGNETTE By Ellen Hecht (c) 2012, 2013, 2014 All Rights Reserved

Many of the intellectual Cuban immigrants living in Miami in the 1930’s were familiar with Desimondo Ruiz-Ruiz. They knew him as a brilliant avant-garde photographer, an innovative thinker and a keen observer of human nature. What very few of them knew, was that he was also secretive, a taker of risks and a prankster.

While making a name for himself in Miami as a creative photographer, he was discovered by patrons of the arts and whisked away to Manhattan, becoming the toast of the heirs of wealthy tycoons.

Easily ingratiating himself, Desimondo was invited to the best parties. He joined them in the squandering of their bottomless inheritances, participating in the various amusements of the privileged. His wealthy American friends referred to him as, “Ruiz.” He permitted only his closest friends to call him “Desi.”

Ruiz had become known for staging, posing and photographing human vignettes. The prints sold as art posters at galleries and made their way to grace the walls in all sorts of campy, smoke-filled clubs and drawing rooms, the hangouts of the intellectuals and artists – the bohemians, predecessors of the beatniks, the hippies of their day.

Over time, Ruiz grew bored with his success. It had all come effortlessly, just as one would expect that talent, which comes too easily, rather than effort, would lead to apathy. The drugs he and his friends took no longer gave him what he craved. He needed more stimulation.

On one particular day at his private photography studio, Ruiz was working with a slim-hipped, girl in her teens. There were many ways in which an attractive young woman could make money. But today she was his model. The scene was set to look like a city street corner as though it were night. He had his stylist dress her to appear to be a young man. The model was instructed to lean against a light pole in a masculine manner and pretend to be reading a newspaper in the lamplight. She was told to tilt her head down, but look up over the top of the newspaper as she observed another model – a male – dressed as a female. The male model was asked to pose with one high-heeled foot up on a prop made to look like a bus stop bench, his skirt hiked up, while adjusting a garter. This type of scene was Ruiz’s signature device. Not only did Ruiz swing both ways, he enjoyed illustrating the blurry line between the sexes in his photography.

As he was working on this project, Ruiz had an epiphany. What if he were to manipulate reality as easily as he manipulated the models who performed his photographic fantasies? How humorous! How outrageous! How titillating to devise a scenario with people who were unaware of having been placed in staged vignettes of his imagination outside his studio. It could possibly be risky, but how much more delicious! He mused about concocting some sort of plan, using a few individuals and placing them in his imaginary situations. His mind seemed to go into a creative high-gear contemplating the devising of such a situation purely to entertain himself. What a sensation, he thought, to be tiptoeing to the very edge – the border that divides normal and abnormal psychological boundaries. He was both brilliant and bored, which for some, is a dangerous combination.

After snapping the last shot of the two models, Ruiz paid them for their time and dismissed them. The stylist had another appointment and departed quickly as well; all for the good. He lit a cigarette, threw himself on the fainting couch in the dressing room and began to ruminate on the prospects of this new project. How would it take form? What would be the elements he would need to accomplish such a project? No, not “project.” That sounded too boring. This feat! This entertainment; this play. Yes, he would use the stage play as a format. He would write a play, a play in which the stage would be set by him, but the performers would unknowingly be making up their own lines. And when he completed writing his play, he would cast the performers. Ah, performers! Who would he use? Not models. That would ruin the whole point. He must use real people for the characters in this “play.”

Would he choose from among his own circle of friends? He weighed the pros and cons. How very devious it would be to draw into his web members of his own inner circle of trusted (and trusting) acquaintances. Afterwards he would be the talk of the town or vilified in the press and shunned by artistic society. But there was that other option; the equally tantalizing possibility of selecting unsuspecting strangers from the mundane and the day-to-day, from the masses of the average, the unknown, random victims of this new art form, this new sport. The prank was beginning to take shape in Ruiz’s mind. This would be an entirely new genre of creative entertainment; it would be “art as sport.” And that is how it all began.

Ruiz continued to plan his photographic shoots in his typical manner, hire models, shoot photographs at the studio sessions, develop his film and meet with the printer and his agent. Evenings he spent in the salons and clubs, as usual, but with one exception. He was now on a quest, keeping an eye out for potential unwitting individuals to exploit in his developing scheme. More and more the plan became clarified. As was his propensity, his plan would involve a man and a woman with some sort of twist. And it wasn’t long before he found the first.

At a dinner theatre he had previously frequented but had been avoiding for some time, there was an all-women band. Ruiz knew several of its members. They were Cuban and socialized in some of the same circles as he did. He had even briefly had a dalliance with the band leader, Rita. It had been comfortable. They were able to speak Spanish with each other using the Cuban dialect and talk about the Havana of the old days. Perhaps she demanded too much emotionally, but for whatever reason, he soon tired of her.

This particular evening, while ordering his drink, he slipped a note to the waiter which was then delivered as Ruiz had instructed him. Rita received the note and, at intermission, rushed to Ruiz’s table, greeting him by his more intimate name, Desi. She sat down, and reaching for his hand, looked at him with evident pleasure. She had been in love with him, while it lasted. For his part, Ruiz was incapable of any feelings approaching that depth. Instead, he tended to use people up and becoming bored, toss them aside. Her first words to him were reproachful. Why hadn’t he rung her up or returned her calls? What had she done wrong? Was there the slightest chance . . .?

Bending towards her and giving her a cool kiss on each cheek, European style, he then flashed Rita a brilliant smile. He was, after all, not without his charms. Would she do him a favor? Of course, for Desi, anything! Would she have dinner with a friend of his? There would be money in it for her. Rita was affronted. How could he? Had Desi stooped to become some sort of pimp? Her hand itched to slap his face. She wouldn’t make a scene in public, but as the saying goes, there was fire in her Latin eyes. Ruiz protested. Certainly she had misunderstood. She would be having dinner with someone he had recently met who was new to the city and lonely, a woman; just dinner, nothing more.

After some cajoling, Rita reluctantly agreed. Was she working all week? No, the theatre was dark Thursdays. Ruiz asked her to come to his studio the following Thursday night. Again, a cool peck on her cheek, a squeeze of her hand, the charming smile and goodbye. Ruiz then left the club. Rita returned to the little stage, to the microphone and resumed her duty as band leader.

Strolling up the street and turning into an alley, Ruiz made his way to the backstage entrance of another club, known for what is nowadays referred to as a drag review. He preferred entering the back way – no pun intended. The bouncer winked and ushered him right in. Ruiz took a seat at a table at the edge of the stage footlights.

A new act was performing, a comedian Ruiz had heard about, with a flare for visual stunts and an incredibly expressive face. He was on stage during the interlude between musical acts and, appropriately enough, was dressed as a woman. His double talent of comedy and convincing cross-dressing was of the highest caliber. And from the beginning, the audience, including Ruiz, was amused and intrigued. When his act concluded, the performer left the stage to wild applause.

Ruiz jotted a note on the back of his calling card and gave it to the waiter with instructions to deliver it backstage into the hands of the young comedian. He had written, “Please ring me up immediately.”

After returning home, Ruiz took a shot of whisky and prepared himself for bed. The telephone in the hall rang. It was Lewis, the comic, who had quickly phoned to ask the nature of Ruiz’s inquiry. Ruiz introduced himself. He explained that he was a professional photographer and was fascinated by his act. Would Lewis like to pose for some photographs which he would then be free to use for promotional posters? There would be no charge. And in exchange? A private performance. An unusual arrangement, but Lewis accepted the terms and they concluded the call. Ruiz went to bed. The plan was in the works.

The following Thursday, Lewis arrived at Ruiz’ studio. He had brought his costume and kit and Ruiz showed him to the dressing room. When Lewis emerged, Ruiz was ready, having adjusted his lighting, the backdrop and set his camera in place.

Lewis posed, his red-haired wig shining in the overhead spotlight. Ruiz explained enthusiastically that recent technology allowed him to take photographs in color. Lewis’ bright red lips and flaming red wig would be represented in all their glory, just as he looked in person. Ruiz captured Lewis on film complete with the red hair, the arched eyebrows and the broad, slightly toothy smile ringed by vivid lips.

After a few headshots and a full-length shot of Lewis grasping a microphone, the photo shoot was completed. Ruiz reviewed what he and Lewis had agreed upon. As Lewis’ part in exchange for the photographs, in one hour he would go to Restaurante Cubano in mid-town Manhattan. A man would be joining him for dinner. He was told to wait in the first booth by the window. Lewis’ part was to stay in character as a female impersonator for the evening, during which he would enjoy an excellent meal; only dinner, he assured him, nothing more. Ruiz had arranged for a table reservation and paid for their meals in advance.

The timing was impeccable. Rita arrived at Ruiz’s studio within minutes of Lewis’ departure.

Ruiz would need to be highly skilled to pull off his scheme. However, he also knew that no man was more capable of getting his way than he. Ruiz was well-aware that Rita was still enamored of him. He played on her emotions, hinting that doing him this small favor would obligate him somehow for future intimacies between them. But there was a catch. She would have to let him dress her from his costume closet. He told her he knew it was an odd request, but she would have to be dressed for dinner. . . as a man. Yes, as a man and pretend to be one during the entire dinner that evening – and not ask why.

A cloud drew over Rita’s face. She balked. He hastened to reassure her. He had faith she could do it, he assured her. After all, her band members all dressed in men’s white dress shirts and black slacks while performing at the theatre club. She was tall for a Latina. She would only have to slick back her short, dark hair with pompadour grease and daub on a bit of smokey-colored makeup to simulate the shadow of a beard; perhaps a little thickening of the eyebrows, a lowering of the voice. After all, she was a performer! She could do it! He encouraged her. He charmed her. He reminded her there would be a free meal at her favorite restaurant. He held both her hands in his and called the singer his pet name for her in Spanish, “Pajarita,” which in English means “Little Bird.”

In the end she agreed. She would meet Desi’s female friend at Restaurante Cubano and go dressed as a man. He had just enough time to complete her transformation. They left the studio and he flagged down a cab for her. Before the taxi door closed behind her, Ruiz overheard the driver ask Rita, Where to, Mister? The ruse was succeeding, the plan had advanced. He was enjoying the process immensely.

Feeling almost gleeful as he went back to his studio, Ruiz took his camera and returned to the street to hail himself a cab. Once seated, he was amused to realize he felt sexually stimulated. Yes, he was excited. But he would have to ignore it as there was little traffic and the cab made good time, drawing up to the Restaurante Cubano within minutes. He was in luck. Rita had gotten a case of nerves and had walked up and down a few minutes in front of the restaurant to calm herself. For that reason when Ruiz arrived, Rita was only just approaching the table where Lewis was waiting. There was enough time for Ruiz to slip the maître’d a tip and quickly sequester himself behind a potted palm, his camera at the ready. His players were in a public place and the curtain was about to go up.

As Rita approached, Lewis made a movement as though to stand, but stopped himself. Well done, Ruiz thought. A woman would not rise for a man. Rita, he thought proudly, looked the part too. The padding made her shoulders appear broader, the bandages compressed her breasts flat. She made a slight bow (perhaps a little stiff, Ruiz thought) and sat down across from Lewis as they exchanged their own introductions. Lewis introduced himself as “Lucy,” his stage name. Rita reached for the hand that Lewis offered. Ruiz held his breath as Rita almost used her real name, but caught herself in time. Unprepared to be asked her name, she had drawn a blank. Then she told him that her friends call her “Desi.” Lewis didn’t seem to notice the hesitation and appeared charmed by the Cuban-accented English.

The waiter came to take their order. Hidden not that far away, Ruiz overhear him address Lewis as “Senorita,” and was pleased to hear when he turned to Rita and asked, “And will the gentleman be ordering for the two of you?”

They settled in over drinks and small talk, politely avoiding prying into each other’s private lives. As dinner progressed they appeared to be enjoying each other’s company. Ruiz stayed crouched behind the potted plant, clicking away at the shutter button and enjoying a high he had only achieved in the past with cocaine.

Inexplicably, not only did the couple appear to be getting along, they began to flirt openly with each other. Ruiz, from where he was hidden behind the small potted palm, was elated. This new game of his was so engrossing, at various points during his observation of their dinner date he had to remind himself to capture the moments on film.

After they finished their dessert, Ruiz observed Rita lean towards Lewis and give him a long kiss on the lips. Assured that the tab for their meal had been previously paid for, the two left . . . together. . .

Ruiz emerged from behind the plant. He strode rapidly out of the restaurant and stood at the curb, stunned. He could only watch as their cab disappeared up the street.

Lucy the comic and Desi the Cuban band leader had fallen for each other. The dramatic climax of all his preparations would be out of reach of his camera’s prying lens.

VIGNETTE By Ellen Hecht (c) 2012, 2013, 2014 All Rights Reserved

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Artist's Description

A Cuban artistic photographer living in Miami is discovered by wealthy N.Y. socialites. He becomes the darling of Manhattan’s high society which eventually bores him. He initiates a plan to entertain himself at others’ expense. The results surprise even him.

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