Ricardo García Blaya
| Néstor Pinsón

Malena - Who's Malena?

any times we have commented about the need of the tango lovers to incarnate the female protagonists of tangos, that is to say, recognize them in people with a real existence in the present or in the past.

If there is a representative case of this, this is “Malena”s, that beautiful tango composed by Lucio Demare and with Homero Manzi´s lyrics.

Tango lovers are not satisfied with just the beauty of its music or its lyrics. They are after something else and so, without knowing, they build a mythology, sometimes with precise information and sometimes with funny stories, but absolutely in vain. Tango is nurtured with stories and legends, alternating true chapters with pages definitively inspired by popular imagination.

As in every story the case of “Malena” has a true part and consequently, we may accept only that and so finish the issue.

In the late 1941, the poet Homero Manzi, coming back to Buenos Aires from a journey to Mexico, stopped in the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil. There he had the chance to go to a cabaret where he heard the female singer Malena de Toledo, artistic name of Elena Tortolero, of whom, we ignore her nationality and any other further personal information. It is said that she spent her childhood in Brazil, in Porto Alegre, where his father was honorary consul of the Spanish government.

The researcher Raúl Castelli places her birthplace in 1916, without mentioning where, and the place of her death in the city of Montevideo, Uruguay, on January 23, 1960.

In an interview made by Néstor Pinsón, Eduardo Moreno (author of the lyrics of the tango “Recuerdo” composed by Osvaldo Pugliese) told him that when he was manager and agent for the Vardaro-Pugliese orchestra around 1929, after the gigs they used to go with some friends to a barroom on 500 Maipú Street where they usually met Elena Tortolero, who lived on that same street a few blocks from there. He offered her a job as singer in the orchestra, she agreed and immediately they went on tour throughout the country.

At a time during the conversation Moreno asked: «Did you know that Malena (Elena) was Chilean? I had her document in my hand and I read born in Chile». Furthermore he exhibited a photograph where he was seen with the full orchestra and a woman also appeared in the picture.

For Héctor Benedetti, in his book Las mejores letras de tango, the singer was born in the province of Santa Fe (Argentina) and, after Vardaro-Pugliese disbanded, she went to Brazil to sing where she recorded with the Héctor Gentile orchestra and where she adopted her pseudonym.

Evidently, and after Moreno´s testimony, the year 1916 might have been a mistake when typing in the newspaper that published Dr. Castelli´s research, otherwise Malena (Elena) would have been thirteen years old, possibly, the year 1906 was the correct one.

In 1941, on an evening in Sao Paulo the poet met the female singer. Lucio Demare told us that the name Malena haunted him and he promised to write a tango for her.

There are also different opinions if the place was a cabaret in Sao Paulo or, as Benedetti tells us in the book above-mentioned, a cheap café in Porto Alegre.

He also says that, the lyric was made and immediately delivered to Lucio Demare, who left it forgotten in a jacket pocket. Time later he found it and he was surprised by the beauty and the musicality of those verses so, on a table at the El Guindado Tearoom, in only fifteen minutes, he composed the melody that he himself premiered with his orchestra at the Boite Novelty.

Our Venezuelan friend, visitor of Todo Tango, Omar Valera, tells us that she was in Maracaibo (Venezuela) in the years 1943 and 1944, singing on Radio Popular. And he recalls that Malena de Toledo had a beautiful figure, elegant, with a good voice and that she sang in Spanish and Portuguese.

Time later, on a tour of Cuba, she met and later married the Mexican singer of boleros Genaro Salinas, known as The Gold Voice of Mexico. They lived together for a time in Argentina, and then he left, definitively, because of a tour, finally settling in Caracas, near the end of his career.

When they were in Buenos Aires, Genaro Salinas performed on Radio El Mundo and met the theater actress Zoe Ducós, with whom he started a sentimental relationship. Years later, and at the time of the dictatorship of the General Pérez Jiménez, Ducós was based in Venezuela playing in theaters and on the Caracas TV.

There, the actress married the Venezuelan actor Héctor Hernández Vera, of whom she later divorced to marry one of the directors of the notorious police of the régime, named Miguel Silvio Sanz.

Omar Valera goes on saying that: «When Genaro Salinas came to Venezuela for the last time, he had notably declined, he sang in low quality locals, he got drunk frequently and tried to get in touch with Madam Ducós. In the morning of April 28, 1957, (a date I remember very well because it was my 25th birthday), he was found agonizing under the bridge of Victoria Ave. in Caracas, brutally beaten and he died that same day. The previous night, several men of the National Security, were probably waiting for him at the bridge, at the place he had to cross walking on his way back to his lodging, they threw him down and drove a cart on his body. His wife (Malena de Toledo) and other people, came for his remains that today are buried in Buenos Aires, I think that at the Pantheon for the Artists.»

Coming back to our main subject, there are many who think that the only thing in the female singer that interested Manzi was her nickname. And after this statement different opinions sprang up about who Malena really was and what meaning it had for Homero Manzi.

It was also said that Malena was an unknown chorus girl at the Teatro Maipo. That in reality she was Azucena Maizani, who immediately recorded that tango, but she always denied it.

In a long conversation between Néstor Pinsón and the violinist Reynaldo Nichele, the latter told the former that he worked with Malena de Toledo at cabarets in Montevideo. That he knew her very well, and furthermore, that several times with a friend of his they went out with her and another woman. And he admitted: «I think that Manzi was inspired by her. So when he says that she has a shadowy voice, a broken voice, then I think it was her, because she had a cabaret voice, a harsh voice, just like Manzi said».

The most widespread hypothesis about who Malena was, holds that it refers to the great female singer Nelly Omar. And she herself, in the latter days, began to say: «I am Malena.» It is possible, because everybody knows of the love affair that linked her with Homero Manzi. Nelly always affirmed that Homero had dedicated to her the song “Ninguna”, a fact that has never been at issue in the world of tango.

The journalist Jorge Göttling, on an article, that at its time drew a wide attention, said that the birth of the lyrics, happened in 1941, is previous to the encounter between the poet and the singer. The same thing is commented by Oscar del Priore in his book Cien tangos fundamentales: «The female singer Nelly Omar... was frequently associated with the character in the tango. But the presumption that Manzi and Nelly knew each other some time after the writing of "Malena", discards the theory that it had been written for her homage».

Del Priore says that Juan Carlos Miranda, the singer that premiered the tango (we have to remember that the first recording was by the Aníbal Troilo orchestra with Francisco Fiorentino on vocals), gives another version. It seems that «one evening Demare and Manzi arrived at the Cabaret Novelty, with the tango nearly finished. There, they finished it in front of Miranda. The authors explained to the singer that they had just listened to a female singer named Malena, at the Varieté Nueva Orleans at La Boca, very close to La Barca de Bachicha».

A close friend of Néstor Pinsón´s, a tango fan who then did not frequent the milieu, Mr. Pedro Grosso, told him, that many years before he worked as salesman at a car company and had a brother of Homero as partner. He remembers that at that time, this workmate told him that his brother had written a new tango named “Malena” and that it was inspired in his wife´s dressmaker. One day, the poet arrived home and found this woman working on his wife´s body while at the same time she sang a melody. He asked her what her name was and she answered «Malena». Soon thereafter he locked himself up in his room and only went out when the lyric was finished.

To complete this gallery of Malenas, the poet´s son, our friend Acho Manzi, told us in one of our regular meetings as collectors, that his father had had love affairs with several female singers and women of the artistic milieu, but that surely his Malena did not exist.

It is quite likely that when he knew that in Sao Paulo there was a female singer with that name, the idea of doing something with it came to his mind, until he developed the story, a fiction, from his experience with women. Then, in case of having to choose, under the obligation of saying first and last name of a female tango singer that would have inspired him, Acho surprises us: «I say Mercedes Simone».

We were all puzzled, because none of us had ever heard that possibility.

Coinciding completely with Acho Manzi´s first statement, our conclusion is that “Malena” is a fiction and, as every story, it has a trigger, this was Malena de Toledo, but the tango heroine Malena is no other thing but the poetic synthesis of the women that Homero Manzi loved.

And, to conclude this story, and definitively enter into a legend, «people say that Malena de Toledo had this tango in her repertory without even imagining that it was named like that after her, so when somebody told her that, she was so impressed that she gave up singing for good.» (Benedetti, op. cit.).