David Sheff
July 28, 1980 12:00 PM

“Is there anything more important in life than looking at beautiful women?” asks a man who has married five of them, Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat. With the question goes a doting smile for his current live-in girlfriend and protégée, Yvonne Martinez. It does not seem to matter to the 80-year-old Cugat that he has had two strokes and a heart attack, or that at 24 Yvonne could easily be his great-granddaughter. Cugi, who gained experience in May-December romances with voluptuous stage partners Abbe Lane and Charo, to name but two of his five ex-wives, says lovingly, “Yvonne keeps me young.”

Martinez, who responds with “I’ll always love Cugi” but nevertheless refers to him as “a cute old man,” makes no secret of what she expects from the relationship. An ex-model, she says, “I’m not trying to be a ballet dancer or an actress but more of an entertainer, like Ann-Margret or Lola Falana—or Charo or Abbe Lane. Cugi says I’m like a rock that is really a diamond. It just has to be polished.”

This year, in his first major tour since the ’60s, Cugat is featuring Yvonne in 35 concerts from San Francisco to New York, while his 35-piece orchestra revives such hits as Begin the Beguine. It was written for him, he says, by Cole Porter.

Cugi is back on the road not for money (“I have more than enough to do anything I want”) but for kicks and for Yvonne (“She looks sexy onstage”). The lovers met in 1976 at the L.A. Casa Cugat, the first of a chain of eight Mexican-cuisine restaurants he partly owns. The Tijuana-born Yvonne was a cocktail waitress keen on a career as a dancer. Cugat was infatuated—”She’s like a Mexican princess”—and began hanging around the restaurant during Yvonne’s shift. Though she never pretended to be attracted “that way”—Yvonne says, “I’m 24. The man is 80. Come on!”—his attention to her career won her over.

Says Cugat of their four years together: “Sure we’ve had rocky times. Who hasn’t?” Martinez bristles, for instance, at Cugat’s admitted possessiveness. “I feel like I’m always programmed,” she complains. “God forbid he should have dinner alone.”

Last April Martinez begged to join a ballet troupe. Declared Cugat, “I won’t stop you, but I’m not going to sit at home playing my maracas all day. When you hear Cugat is out with a beautiful blonde, don’t get excited.” After a two-day standoff he headed for Spain to calm himself. She soon joined him and forgot the troupe. “Cugat is not just throwing out bucks,” she insists. “I respect him a lot. Where else can you find so much experience?”

Indeed. Apart from his music, restaurants, holdings in oil and concrete, a Spanish wine distributorship, a casino bearing his name in Ibiza, Spain, and plans for a new line of tobacco pipes for women, he also paints celebrity caricatures and Latin scenes that sell for upwards of $2,000. Protests the indefatigable Cugat, “I’m angry with God. He didn’t synchronize me very well. My outside is 80, my inside is 30.”

Yvonne was raised in San Diego by her mother and stepfather, a trucking company foreman. She moved to Los Angeles at 19 to model, but got more propositions than bookings. She began taking ballet and jazz dance lessons; she still runs 10 miles every morning and spends up to five hours a day in class or the gym. She and her mentor usually meet after lunch at Casa Cugat, then go shopping or on long walks, sometimes accompanied by their Siberian husky, Igloo. Cugat wears an expensive toupee and must use a cane since a serious stroke four years ago partially paralyzed his left side. Nights, the couple does the town by Rolls-Royce, bound for restaurant, theater or nightclub.

“Yvonne and I have talked about getting married,” hedges Cugat, whose forthcoming autobiography is titled My Five Mothers-in-Law. “But five times is enough.” (For the record, his wives were Rita Montanez, a singer—three years married; Carmen Carillo, also a singer—17; Lorraine Allen, a model—five; Abbe—12; and Charo—12.) “To make a woman happy, it takes time,” Cugat says. “You study their likes, their dislikes, and not show you’re doing it. It is a very expensive hobby.” His collection of Dalis and Picassos is still intact, but he’s lavished millions in real estate and alimony on his ex-wives. Yet Cugat is not in the least bitter. “All my marriages were wonderful,” he says, “and the divorces amicable.” He often phones Lorraine, Abbe and Charo.

Age was not a problem in their marriage, says Charo, who is 46 years younger than Cugat: “If you’re mature enough to understand an older man, and if he thinks young like Cugat, you can be happy.” As to sex, she says their relationship certainly was not platonic, but as for details, she adds with uncharacteristic restraint, “Leave that to the imagination.” Shrugs Cugat, “Sex doesn’t make any couple completely happy. When you’re very young, there’s nothing else on your mind. As you get older, you put your efforts into other things.”

Born in Barcelona on New Year’s Day 1900 and raised in Havana, Cugat left home with only a violin to seek his fortune in New York when he was 12. (For 10 nights he slept in Central Park.) He aspired to become a classical soloist, and he performed on the same bill with Enrico Caruso. But frustrated by meager paychecks, he went to work on a Los Angeles newspaper as a cartoonist, then formed his first Latin combo in 1928, his first big band in 1931.

In nightclubs and theaters, and later in movies, on TV and records (with such hits as One-Two-Three-Kick and Cuban Mambo), Cugat’s flamboyant style made him the century’s most popular Latin bandleader. “Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington—those names are made like stone, and in the Latin field I am one of them,” boasts Cugat.

His contemporaries are dwindling. In early July Cugat went to the funeral of José Iturbi, the pianist, symphony conductor and onetime MGM musical star. He was the only celebrity present. “Iturbi made pictures with Jane Powell and many other stars,” Cugat says. “But Hollywood has no heart.

“There is one man who is different, Cugat adds. “Frank Sinatra. I love Sinatra. There is a man with heart. I have a violin player who had a heart attack. Sinatra said, ‘Send all the bills to me.’ He might be a son of a bitch to somebody else. But with a fellow artist, he’s right there.”

Cugat confesses only one regret: “It’s too late now to have a child. Before, I was too busy, and I always married artists, girls very busy with their careers. How the hell you going to raise children like that?” His thoughts go to Yvonne. “When she wants a child, I’ll say, ‘Bye bye, it’s been nice.’ Life has to run its course.”

Martinez says that while Cugat is “not helping me like he has helped his women before,” she feels their arrangement is fair. “I’m very affectionate with him,” she says, “and talking to him gives me direction. It’s a long and lonely road. We all need our breaks.”

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