DOMINGO QUESTEL: Have a good shot on that one. There you go. Heel down. Goooooooooooal!!! Wow. [laugh] That was nice.
CHRISTOPHER RIVAS: It’s a sunny morning in LA and I’m riding a horse at the California Polo Club. It’s a big stable with a dirt arena. I’m here learning the basics of the game from a polo champ named Domingo Questel. Gotta say, I think I’m a natural, y’all.
DOMINGO: Gooaaal! [sound of mallet hitting ball] Nice, especially nice.
CHRIS: Backshot specialist!
CHRIS: Domingo’s a phenomenal teacher. He also happens to be Dominican, like me… and like Rubi.
CHRIS: Did you know about Rubirosa when you were a kid?
DOMINGO: I hear, you know, he was a polo player. And he was in the army as well. No, he was a great one, yeah.
CHRIS: What makes a good polo player?
DOMINGO: Good control of the horse, control the situation, where you are. He was a really, really good player.
[Polo sounds fade down, merengue fades up.]
CHRIS: I can’t share Rubi’s story without talking about Polo. He loved this sport SO much. Just google his name and you’ll see exactly what I'm talking about.
Rubi started playing polo when he joined the military in the DR. He even became captain of the national team. He started his own team — Cibao-La Pampa.
Rubi’s relationships with polo lasted longer than any of his marriages. His polo ponies were there for him till the end, quite literally. Rubi won his last polo tournament on the day before he died.
[Merengue fades down.]
CHRIS: His old pal Taki Theodoracopulos played against him that day. Taki loved polo, too.
TAKI THEODORACOPULOS: Everybody who has played polo you get addicted immediately.
CHRIS: What you think you loved about it so much?
TAKI: Polo, it's the only sport I know that you have great pleasure of playing it, and it's the biggest, most boring, except for sailing, sport to watch. Because the spectators do not see the speed that is played on. It's great fun to play. It's wonderful, because it's very exhilarating, you know, to take it backhand and you take the man you're actually fighting with a man like they do in cowboy movies. You attack him. So you're fighting with other people in a civilized manner. It's a terrific sport.
[Horse sound effects.]
CHRIS: Like any sport, Polo takes practice. Rubi would spend almost every afternoon at the stables, taking his horses out to ride and train them. See, in a polo game, you only ride a horse for a few minutes, tops. You run them as hard and as fast as you can… and then you switch them out. Get a fresh horse and do it again.
CHRIS: I guess a living thing can only go so fast for so long…
That’s what we’re gonna talk about today. Rubi’s fast life — his last sprint, and the moment his run came to an end.
I’m Christopher Rivas and this is Rubirosa Ep 9: THE LAST SPRINT.
[Theme music fades out.]
CHRIS: The last time we checked in with Rubi, he was marrying and divorcing the richest women in the world. Dating movie stars. Breaking up other people's marriages. He was flying airplanes for fun. Jet Setting across Europe. Performing late night ballads for his legendary friends. This was his life in the 1950s, and what a life it was! But Marty Wall says the high life eventually came to an end.
MARTY: I mean, talk about, you know, a drop from the peak of the mountain to the lonely valley.
CHRIS: And what a drop it was. Just a decade later–in 1965–Rubi crashed his Ferrari into a tree and died. He was 56 years old. He was married to a woman half his age with more energy than he had. By many accounts Rubi was lonely. Drunk. Depressed. So what happened?
[Dialogue in French.]
CHRIS: This is a French film from 1955 called Futures Vedettes. It features a young woman named Odile Rodin. She’s thin, blond, playing a school teacher.
ACTOR READING MEMOIR: She was so young, fresh, so pretty, with I don't know what mysterious look in her eyes. I immediately grabbed onto her.
CHRIS: This is Rubi, in his memoir, describing the night he met Odile.
ACTOR READING MEMOIR: I spoke to her about my country, the Caribbean Sea, the sunsets over the corals, the coconut groves and mangroves that come to die on sandy beaches. She listened to me smiling. I told her the pleasure I would have in making her discover this warm place bathed in sea foam, where life is slow and made for love.
CHRIS: Where life is slow and made for love… is this a rum commercial?? Lol.
Rubi is 31 years older than Odile when they meet – he is almost 50 and she’s only 17 at the time. And, she has no idea about Rubi's reputation. But her mother certainly does and is not excited about her young daughter getting involved with an international playboy. She tries to shut the whole thing down immediately.
But then, one night, Rubi takes Odile's mother to the dance floor. After just one spin, she’s changed her mind about him. He must really have some moves…
Rubi and Odile get married in 1956. Rubi is still a diplomat for the DR, and just a year later, he gets a new assignment.
Dominican dictator Raphael Trujillo sends Rubi and his new Bride to a country that is perfect for them.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER (ARCHIVAL): Today, Havana is one of the most modern and colorful cities in the world…
CHRIS: Cuba, baby!
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER (ARCHIVAL): At night the city takes on a new complexion. Amid a blaze of lights, the cabarets come alive, offering a variety of Latin entertainment.
ISABELLA: In the 50s, everybody was partying and their jets in their yachts and in the Caribbean and treasure hunting and this and that.
CHRIS: Chasing Rubi co-author Isabella Wall says Cuba was basically America’s backyard in this era.
ISABELLA: The Caribbean was the, you know, the jet setting mecca.
CHRIS: Havana in the 1950s was more than a nice tropical vacation spot. It was a wild party — home to gamblers, nightclubbers, mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Sam Giancana. Frank Sinatra spent so much time at the Hotel Nacional that newspapers called it his home away from home. Odile said Havana was “the wildest place in the world.” Rubi loves wild. He fit right in. He even brought his polo ponies over and set them up in a stable near the embassy.
We don’t exactly know why Trujillo sent Rubi to Cuba… but it could have had something to do with Cuba’s precarious political situation. The president of Cuba at the time was US-backed Fulgencio Batitsa. But Fidel Castro – maybe you’ve heard of him? – was orchestrating a full-blown communist revolution. Every country in the Western Hemisphere was keeping a close eye on Cuba, especially its closer neighbor, the DR.
Sending Rubi was a smart choice for Trujillo. Castro, like everyone else, was supposedly very charmed by Rubi. Rubi used that to his advantage. He made weapons deals with both Castro AND Batista. The DR would be considered an ally no matter who ended up on top.
But Rubi didn’t have to play both sides for long.
UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER (ARCHIVAL): Joyous followers of Fidel Castro sweep triumphantly through the Cuban capital hours after their rebellion had toppled the regime of Fulgencio Batista.
CHRIS: This is a newsreel from 1959… the Rebel forces were ecstatic… but the international diplomatic community was on edge. There were still battles breaking out in the streets.
Odile said her last weeks in Havana were frightening. Quote: “machine guns were going off everywhere, and everyone was on the floor. It was raining bullets.” She told Taki a story about being woken up one night by a loud explosion. It sounded like it was right outside their embassy.
TAKI: I think Rubi and Odille were making love because the way she told it. I remember making a joke saying, Did you? Did you know it was a grenade? Or did you think it was a Rubi orgasm. Ha ha. But yes, they threw a grenade and they had to leave.
CHRIS: It’s the middle of the night, there are explosions everywhere. Rubi’s in danger, a diplomat in the middle of a full-fledged historical crisis. Rubi is worried about his wife’s safety, but also … his polo ponies.
He apparently calls a friend in the US saying:
ACTOR AS RUBI: “They are having a revolution. We have to get my polo ponies out.”
[Menacing piano chords under salsa drums gives way to dancey piano and bass line.]
CHRIS: Eventually, Rubi and Odile–and the ponies, I hope–get out of Cuba and head to Belgium. Maybe Rubi thinks it’s time for a bit of rest and relaxation… a chance to get back to his old ways of collecting a paycheck while not really having to do any work.
For a few years, things are low key. In May of 1961 there are newspaper reports that Rubi is hard at work. Not diplomatic work, no, sir, he’s training his polo team, getting ready to play a tournament in England that summer. But the team doesn’t wind up making it to the tournament.
NARRATOR (ARCHIVAL): Assassin's bullet put a bloody end to the 31-year dictatorship of Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo. His violent death creates a new and dangerous political vacuum in Latin America for without the generalissimo's strong personality, a political chaos could develop. Even in death, Trujillo is a danger to the world!
CHRIS: Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic for 30 years, was assassinated while driving outside the capital city. Rubi’s former father-in-law. His lifelong benefactor. His frenemy… he’s gone.
Rubi’s memoir doesn’t cover Trujillo’s assassination, so we don’t really know how Rubi felt about it. But I can imagine he was unsettled by it. For one thing, he no longer had a reliable expense account. The DR was in turmoil and political upheaval, so it wasn’t exactly worried about keeping its diplomats well funded.
Plus, the United States was keeping a close eye on the Dominican Republic. In fact, the US is rumored to have made multiple attempts to kill Trujillo. The CIA supplied the rebels who ultimately assassinated him with guns. Milagros Ricourt, our Dominican history expert, says it all had to do with Cuba.
DR. MILAGROS RICOURT: The United States was very afraid that Trujillo was going to be defeated by a bunch of youngsters with revolutionary ideas inspired by Fidel Castro.
CHRIS: The US didn’t want a SECOND communist revolution in the Caribbean.
But again, this leaves Rubi in a precarious situation. His home country is reeling, and he will officially lose his position just a year later.
But a tiguere always lands on his feet. And in this case, our tiger lands right in the middle of a pack of rats.
FRANK SINATRA (SINGING): P-racticality d-doesn’t interest me. Love the life that I lead!
CHRIS: RIGHT around the time of Trujillo’s death, Rubi gets close to Frank Sinatra and the entire Rat Pack. You know, Sammy Davis, Jr, Dean Martin… those guys. They’re the coolest of the cool! Stars of the new film — Ocean’s 11.
Once at his show in New York City, Sammy Davis Jr. introduces the crowd to two spectators at the front: Rubi & Odile. Another time, Rubi throws a big party for Frank Sinatra at his home in Paris. An anonymous jetsetter who attended the party told a gossip column that quote “Rubi is now one of the Rat Pack.” Ooh, and get this: She adds, quote, “Old Rubi makes those rats look like a bunch of mice in a kindergarten.”
Taki was at the party, too.
TAKI: He would have this band of about four or five people who played wonderful songs and in his drawing room, and the drawing room gave on to a very large garden. And he had all his friends. And all his friends were glamorous and very young people and famous models. And he was just – he was the best party giver in Paris. And he gave a big party for Sinatra and brought back Teddy Kennedy, who behaved very badly.
CHRIS: That’s right. Rubi wasn’t just rolling with Sinatra and his boys…he was getting on well with Teddy. AND Teddy’s brother…
JOHN F. KENNEDY (ARCHIVAL): Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
CHRIS: Yup. That brother. John F. Kennedy, the president of the United States.
In 1961, the Kennedys invite Rubi, Sinatra, and some other folks out to their summer home on Cape Cod. Rubi gets a lift on the president’s private plane. And then, they all take a yacht cruise around Nantucket Sound. Not too shabby, right?
I wish I knew what Rubi and JFK said to each other on this boat. Isabella says she thinks they were talking politics.
ISABELLA: Here is Rubi. You know, who had been trying to put on a good face on behalf of the country and say things like, you know, if the people want elections, that's what should happen. And he was trying everything he could to not make it look like the Dominican Republic was in, well, in the crisis that it was.
[Tense music enters.]
CHRIS: Who knows? Maybe JFK was trying to suss out if the DR would end up like Cuba…overrun by communists. Or maybe he was seeing if the DR could become a gambling paradise — the next “backyard for America”? Hey… maybe that’s what Sinatra was doing there if ya know what I mean.
But…at the same time that Rubi is sipping cocktails with JFK on a yacht, the FBI is ramping up their investigation of him. The agents track Rubi’s flights into and out of the US. They interview the hotels he stays at. How long did he stay? What room? Who visited? Who did he call?
ISABELLA: They have all of these logs from all the phone calls that he was making. They will go over every number that he called and figure out who that person was.
CHRIS: We’ve confirmed this in the FBI documents. In 1961, Rubi’s staying at the historic Gotham Hotel. Here are the calls the FBI logs:
FBI DOC QUOTE:
Julius Caruso, Hair Dressing…
The Bar Mart Inc…
Sheelagh Gordon, Model…
Caruso’s Tudor City Beauty Salon…
CHRIS: You guys…the FBI is following him and Rubi is… getting his hair done, buying alcohol, calling models! Honestly I’m surprised there isn’t a flower shop on the list. Y’know, for his famous red rose trick.
This is also the same era when the FBI revisits the 1935 murder of Sergio Bencosme which Rubi is suspected of arranging on behalf of Trujillo. Remember, now that Trujillo is dead, Rubi has officially lost his diplomatic immunity. So the Manhattan DA calls him in for 3 hours of questioning. Afterwards, he tells reporters:
ACTOR AS RUBI: As far as I’m concerned, the matter is finished.
Maybe this extra attention from the US government doesn’t sit well with Rubi, because eventually he stops spending much time in the US. The Rubirosas make their home in France.
His pal Sammy Davis Jr visits them there in 1964.
ISABELLA: There is a very famous story where Sammy talks about Rubirosa and how as much energy they all had in the rat pack, he had more energy than all of them together because he would like party all night. And then when they went to bed in the morning and get up at 4:00, he had already started to drink and was already partying on his own.
CHRIS: Sammy wrote in his own memoir that he asked Rubi, “How do you do it?”
ACTOR AS RUBI: “Do what Sammy?”
CHRIS: “Night after night and still look as if the Gods chose you.”
ACTOR AS RUBI: “Oh Sammy Sammy… Your job is being an entertainer, mine is being a playboy.”
CHRIS: This is the morning, Sammy tells us, that Rubi teaches him how to kiss a woman’s hand. Apparently, it’s all about the subtle shift in eye contact. Sometimes you make it on the way down, sometimes on the way up, and sometimes eye contact the whole way.
[mux post // beat]
CHRIS: But I imagine that Rubi might have a question for Sammy, too. Sammy — a Black man in a white world. A Black man whose invitation to Kennedy’s inauguration was rescinded because American race relations were too explosive in 1961. Sammy had recently married a white woman, and JFK was reportedly worried it would make Southern voters angry. I imagine that Rubi asks Sammy this.
ACTOR AS RUBI: “How do you do it, Sammy? How do you, the one-eyed-Negrito- Puertoriqueño-Jew swallow it all? Why?”
CHRIS: And I imagine Sammy says, “You know why. You absolutely know why. We don’t have another option, do we? Hey Rubi, repeat after me, keep your head up, keep cool, and smile. Keep your head up, keep cool, and smile. That’s how we do it…”
But y’all, all that smiling, all that pretending, it weighs on you. And I think it was starting to weigh on Rubi, too.
[Bass and drums enter along with piano]
CHRIS: From the outside, Rubi’s life after Trujillo doesn’t look too different from how it’s always been. He keeps up appearances: the friends, the partying, the glamor. But things are changing. Rubi is getting older. He’s lost his best source of income. He’s under investigation.
This horse… is coming up on the end of his run.
[Music fades down.]
[Brief keyboard interlude.]
ACTOR: Mr. Bond?
SEAN CONNERY AS JAMES BOND: Yes.
ACTOR: This is Mr. Goldfinger.
GERT FRÖBE AS GOLDFINGER: How do you do.
SEAN CONNERY AS BOND: How do you do.
CHRIS: Gotta hit y’all with that Bond content here, we’re getting close to the end. And so remember a couple episodes ago, I told you about that time Rubi tried to make a shot for shot remake of Goldfinger? I want to revisit that story with a little more context.
[Spy-esque drums and bass enter.]
CHRIS: It’s 1965. Rubi’s back in Europe. He, Odile and some other friends are celebrating Taki’s honeymoon. Someone has the idea to remake this movie, shot for shot. So they head out on a boat with some expensive camera equipment.
TAKI: So I fought with Rubi and he swung a phony rifle and he hit me in the funny bone and I collapsed from pain. I've never had such pain in my life, and I've been taught not to show pain. But just then the wind blew and blew everything away. Plus it put almost the boat on the rocks. It was a total disaster.
[Music fades out.]
CHRIS: The entire thing is a drunken mess. Rubi can barely slur out his lines.
This story is what comes to mind when I think about Rubi’s last years. He’s not that old, just 56, but there’s something sad about him. About his trying. His desperation to remain young and fun and relevant. His desperation to be seen. James Bond can down three martinis at a party and then beat someone in a knife fight. Rubi? Rubi’s so drunk he can’t even finish a silly project.
Rubi and Odile’s home is in the countryside — outside of Paris. Maybe Rubi’s finally craving the quiet life. Or maybe he’s afraid of being surrounded by the youth and vigor of the city if he can’t keep up.
Odile, though, Odile is young and beautiful. Rubi insists she wear these high-necked dresses and not stay out too late.
ISABELLA: She was pretty, she liked to drink and, you know, have a good time and stuff like that. So that was the rug pulled right from under his behinie.
CHRIS: That’s Isabella Wall again. And by the way, what a great word: Behinie. Y’know when your behind meets your hiney? Behinie.
ISABELLA: His decline was also made worse by the fact that the night before he died, he had caught his young, lovely French wife, making out with another person in his polo team.
CHRIS: We’ll get to the night he died in just a second. But first — Isabella just said Rubi was getting cheated on. There were actually multiple rumors of Odile cheating on Rubi. Think about that! Rubi, the former world famous playboy, now unable to keep up with his wife, a playgirl.
Marty Wall says Rubi's situation got so bad that he was considering divorcing Odile and pursuing a sixth marriage.
MARTY: He was considering marrying one of the Kennedy sisters just to, you know, gain that power and influence and money. He decided he was going to make his fortune again on his memoirs. And in 63 64, a couple of years before he died, nobody was interested. And you think how you go from this character who girls are chasing and young men are chasing because they want to be like him, and now at 56, 57 years old, nobody cares about him anymore. I mean, talk about, you know, a drop from the peak of the mountain to the lonely valley.
[Music fades out.]
CHRIS: He’s in the lonely valley. But at least he’s still got polo, he’s still got his horses. On July 4th, 1965 Rubi and his team play in the championship of the French Open. Taki is on the other team. Rubi’s team wins. After the game, everyone goes out to celebrate, including Taki.
TAKI: He had won the cup and he was very happy. And because he was going through a bad period, I remember he was in a very good mood. We all had dinner at Mustache. Then we went to Jimmy's and was drinking heavily and – but it was almost forced. And then he was angry with me because I left. I left Rubi at three o'clock in the morning from Jimmy's because I had to play a tennis tournament in Nice.
CHRIS: While Taki boards a plane to the south of France, Rubi stays out drinking. Odile is there. She arrived in a separate car. Rubi gets another drink.
[Horse, sports car sound effects are heard.]
And then Rubi, this man of a thousand faces, this man who always arranged a ride home, who raced cars for fun, will drive home at 8am. He’ll start the engine of his Ferrari GT, V12 engine… 12 horses.
And Rubi will crash that horse into a tree at what his obituary calls a high speed. The steering column will crush his chest.
The official reports will say suffocation. But I think Rubi dies of heartbreak. His heart crushed.
Taki had just landed in Nice.
TAKI: When I arrived there, they said to me, There's a very important call for you. So I said, who's calling? And they said very important. So I thought something had happened to the family and picked up the telephone. "Rubi est mort, il vient de mourir ce matin." Rubi just died this morning. So I. I remember I made a bad decision, I played the match against the Dutch player Tom Auker (ph). Lost badly, then took the plane back. I shouldn't have played, but my mind was not, but Auker would have killed me anyway. Anyway, I flew back and that's it. I remember very well.
[Nostalgic, questioning music enters.]
CHRIS: I‘ve always wondered about this night… Rubi — was it an accident? Did you drive into that tree on purpose? Did you want it all to end?
CHRIS: Do you think Rubi's death was an accident?
MARTY: Rubirosa got up every time he was knocked down boxing. He got up every time he lost a race, he raced again.
CHRIS: This is Marty Wall, Isabella’s husband and co-author.
MARTY: Every time he lost a polo tournament, he played again. This guy was not somebody that gave up. And we don't think he would have consciously done that.
ISABELLA: It was slippery and he was drunk. Did he get in the car knowing that he was not capable to drive? Well, that would be very hard for Rubirosa to admit that. I mean, you know, he was a racecar driver, he could handle his car. Or did he really purposely crash his Ferrari? Remember, he had that temper that he had, too, that he had to work on controlling and there was nobody else to play with.
CHRIS: What do you think we can learn from Rubi's life?
ISABELLA: Don't drink and drive.
CHRIS: And what about Taki. This is a man who actually knew Rubi. Was with him the night he died.…Taki said he remembered Rubi was happy that night because he had been going through a bad period. What does that mean?
TAKI: You never know. He drank a lot and he was rather depressed at the end of his life. Rubi was 57 58, coming to the end, having lived a very full life and without money and without, you know, sort of the cachet of youth and vigor and all that. He had broken up with Odille. His finances were in – were bad. I wouldn't have put it past Rubirosa to have driven into that tree. I wouldn't put it past him, but you know, we’ll never know. No use even thinking about it because it's either he did it on purpose or he didn't. And you know, sometimes you can feel the end coming. Maybe he helped it along.
CHRIS: Sometimes you can feel the end coming. Honestly, when I heard Taki say all of this, my heart started to race. It’s surprising, and not, in a way. Because I know Rubi. I feel him. I am him sometimes. For better and for worse. And I’ve always had this feeling that Rubi committed suicide that morning in Paris.
[Contemplative, unsure piano music enters.]
CHRIS: Newspapers around the world published obituaries about Rubi. They didn’t speculate about suicide. The New York Times wrote that his car jumped the curb — as if the car were driving itself.
The NYT obituary mentions Rubi’s work as a diplomat, his connection to Trujillo, and the murders he was suspected of. But most of the other coverage doesn’t get into much detail. He’s the “Suave Latin romantic” who “devoted his life to beautiful women, all night parties, and fast sports cars.”
I did come across one remembrance that was a bit more thoughtful. A little deeper. It’s in a column by the great poet Langston Hughes. He remembers Rubi this way:
CHRIS: “I am all for colorful gentlemen of color adding color and excitement, romance and the light touch to this rather grim world of wars, poverty and racism in which we live.”
I am all for colorful gentlemen of color adding color and excitement to this rather grim world…I love this.
That’s what Rubi did. He added excitement to a lot of people’s lives, and color. But then, with each year that passed, that color faded. Rubi’s name was no longer in the papers. No book publisher bought his memoirs, and Rubi’s life story, it just faded into the background.
The world was dazzled by the adventures of a suave ladies man who sipped cocktails in a bespoke suit, who lived a life of international mystery…dangerous, sexy, cool. But…it wasn’t Jaime Bond. It wasn’t Javi Bond. The color had faded. To white. Everyone knows about James Bond. But who remembers Porfirio Rubirosa?
CHRIS: Why don't more people know about Rubi?
TAKI: Because my dear, I don't know what your name is…
CHRIS: We’ve been chatting for an hour by now, but OK, Taki.
TAKI: People forget everybody. And you should be forgotten and just like I would be forgotten no matter who you are. You know, Rubi did not leave something behind like a book or a film or as a church or a scholarship or a charity that repeats his name. So obviously, we who knew him and loved him, we didn't forget him. But that was a small circle. Most people don't give a damn. They say, some cheap playboy from Santo Domingo. That's all. That's the reality of life. If you write terrific books or you do terrific things, your name will be repeated. If you don't, no. And Rubi hadn't done anything that goes through the ages. It's as truthful as I can be.
ACTOR AS RUBI: “There will come a day and youth will pass away
What, what will they say about me
When the end comes I know there's a just a gigolo
Life goes on without me…
CHRIS: Rubi, you have added excitement and color to my life.
You have been an invitation. You have invited me to stand proudly in my own brown skin. And I have.
[Synth-heavy, dark scoring enters.]
But you have also been a warning. Your death is a warning. A warning about how easy it is to lose yourself.
And your memory is a warning, too. All throughout this journey, I’ve had this question. If Rubi can’t be remembered… How can I? But maybe that’s not the question I should be asking. Maybe I should be asking: How can I honor what’s already here?
Next time. I set foot in the place where I come from…a place where the color hasn’t faded.
ABIGAIL: Just think, Rubi probably walked through this very airport
CHRIS: Yeah, you think? We need to Google that. Did Rubi walk through this airport? He probably private planed, y’know?
[Bachata music enters.]
CHRIS: The Dominican Republic. That’s next time. Peace.