by Terence Clarke, author, journalist, and Alma del Tango board member
Tango is the blood with which Buenos Aires pulses, and great writing adds to that blood. The Café Tortoni has been a place for both, sometimes separately, sometimes in concert with each other.
One of the most famous meetings here took place in 1933 between the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello and the legendary tango composer and singer Carlos Gardel. Pirandello, the author of Six Characters In Search Of An Author, and many other plays, was an intellectual.
One need only look at the sheer bulk of the work he produced to realize that this was a serious man, and according to eyewitness reports from the Tortoni on that evening, he was also distant and cheerless. He was being feted at the café by the local literati when the celebrated Gardel arrived.
Gardel was a very different sort of fellow. Like Pirandello, a man of the theater, but he was a performer, not a writer. He arrived in a Packard limousine dressed in his best, wearing one of the signature fedora hats that were specially made for him in London. He was accompanied by two of his guitarists, and, taking the three chairs immediately in front of the Italian playwright, they sat down and performed several of Gardel’s most popular tangos.
The hundreds of onlookers in the cafe burst into great, spontaneous applause upon the completion of each number, while Pirandello looked on, apparently bored.
When Gardel was finished, he grabbed Pirandello’s hand, shook it with great enthusiasm, and waved his guitarists out the door. The Packard disappeared into the night.
After the applause and shouting died down, Pirandello turned to one of the others at his table and asked, “Who was that?”
“Well, señor,” the man replied, a little nonplussed by the question. “It was Gardel!”
“The greatest performer of tango in the world!”
“Ah!” Pirandello sighed. He sat back in his chair, waving a languid hand before his face. “Bravo,” he whispered.
Luckily, it is Gardel’s spirit, and not Pirandello’s, that breathes in the Café Tortoni. Perhaps the finest tribute to the place can be found in the words of the celebrated Argentine writer José Gobello, who observed that you can find in the Café Tortoni the entire city of Buenos Aires.
If you’re planning a trip to Buenos Aires, don’t miss this landmark cafe. Here’s a preview of what awaits you at Cafe Tortoni.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, will be published on February 1, 2019