With the U.S.-Cuba cold war finally melting away, it’s as good a time as ever to point out a few key sites from Fidel Castro’s trip to the area, and those associated with Houston’s Robert Ray McKeown, the machinist-turned-international businessman-turned-peripheral figure to the JFK assassination. McKeown was also Castro’s best buddy on Galveston Bay, and a man who claimed to have met Lee Oswald in San Leon and sipped beer with Jack Ruby at Jimmie Walker’s Edgewater Restaurant in Kemah.
The story begins in Houston in 1950. McKeown, then 39, was a machinist with his own shop in Pasadena. One day his ship came in: an inventor approached him with a plan for a machine that could clean coffee better than any other before it. McKeown built the machine, and apparently several more, and the two men went into business. McKeown trolled the coffee ports of Latin America for sales, which eventually lead to him moving to Santiago, Cuba during the administration of president Carlos PrÃo SocarrÃ¡s, who would become a friend.
Business was going great guns. It looked like McKeown was on his way to making millions, but then Prio was deposed and fled to Miami. Fulgencio Batista took over and started demanding stiff kickbacks. When McKeown wouldn’t pay, Batista deported him, in or around 1957, and seized his business.
By 1958 McKeown was living in Seabrook’s Shady Lake subdivision and claiming to be vice president of an oil company. He might have been, but he was definitely running guns and other materiel to Castro, who was not a yet a Communist and with whom Prio had formed an alliance. McKeown and Prio had likewise joined forces; the two reportedly met at Houston’s Shamrock Hotel, where Prio told him how he could link with Castro’s forces. After a few successful shipments, McKeown was arrested by the feds and given a 2-year suspended prison sentence and 5 years’ probation.
Sometime after his February 1958 arrest and before his October conviction, McKeown went into business with a man with a clean criminal record by the name of Jarrett and opened the J&M Drive-Inn, a bar and marina on the shores of Taylor Lake, at 2908 Red Bluff Rd., just inside the Seabrook town limits. Prio, who had made off with a fortune when he was toppled, reportedly seeded the bar with a loan.
When Castro’s forces toppled Batista, a Houston Post reporter spoke to a jubilant McKeown. â€œConvicted Gunrunner Hails Castro Victoryâ€ blazed the headline, one that seems to have come to the attention of a Dallas mobster by the name of Jack Ruby.
On April 26, 1959, the triumphant Castro visited Houston as part of a goodwill tour. “Fidel Castro swept through Houston in glory bordering on pandemonium, with sirens failing to drown out the cheers of his admirers,” the Chronicle reported at the time. Castro checked into the Shamrock Hotel, donned a Stetson cowboy hat, enjoyed a plate of Texas barbecue under the watchful eye of some of Houston’s finest, and was wined and dined by the city’s elite. Among them, Robert Ray McKeown, who met him at Hobby Airport, and was photographed with the guerrilla, McKeown beaming and sporting dark glasses and a snazzy suit.
Castro wanted to pay his old supporter back: â€œWhen he can come to Cuba, we will give a post in the government or perhaps franchises,” he told the assembled media. McKeown told Castro it would have to wait until his probation ran out in December 1963. Castro then visited a ranch near Wharton, where he was also treated to downhome delicacies at the town’s Peterson’s Restaurant, a long-shuttered town landmark famously guarded by a pair of pistol-packing shrimp.
And with that, Castro and his posse jetted off to continue their tour in Brazil and Argentina. . . . Only they almost never made it out of Houston:
“On departure, the heavily laden turboprop plane used all of Runway 3 to become airborne and barely cleared the telephone wires at the intersection of Airport Boulevard and Monroe.”
McKeown, see at left with wife Ethel at the Edgewater, whiled away his probation behind the bar at the J&M, or working in sales for the Houston Slush Pump Co. at 2112 Quitman, and living in alternately in Bacliff, San Leon or at his sister’s home which still stands at 9138 Wayfarer Ln., near the corner of Blackhawk Blvd. and Almeda-Genoa Rd., about a mile southeast of where Castro’s plane almost went down.
Years later, by his account, his in with Castro had won him fame with a cast of characters who would become internationally famous.
One was Jack Ruby, who McKeown claimed first called him in 1959, impressed by the Post article about Castro’s gunrunner. McKeown claimed that he only recognized the man as Jack Ruby after he saw him shoot Lee Harvey Oswald; during their phone calls and meetings in various Kemah and Seabrook beer and seafood joints, the man always called himself Jack Rubinstein. This Rubinstein wanted a variety of skids greased — the release of friends from Castro’s jails, Cuban buyers for surplus Jeeps from Louisiana or wayward slot machines from New Mexico — but the deals always broke down when Rubenstein balked at ponying up cash up-front. McKeown would later say he thought Rubinstein a BS artist.
Another was a man McKeown claims to have met a few weeks before the Kennedy Assassination who came to his home in San Leon out of the blue and introduced himself as “Lee Oswald.” McKeown kept mum about this meeting until the 1970s, when he said this Oswald came to his house on the San Leon waterfront seeking heavy weapons for a planned revolution in El Salvador, and when rebuffed on that score and sent away, returned 5 minutes later asking to buy a few high-powered rifles with telescopic sights. McKeown, saying his he was avoiding trouble while on probation, again sent the man away, only to recognize him on TV on November 22, and later seeing him get shot and killed by another acquaintance of his.
McKeown eventually moved in with a daughter who lived in Miami and died of emphysema in 1989. By that time he had turned against Castro because of his alignment with the Soviets.
The J&M Drive-In was reborn as Cecil’s Red Lantern, a beer n’ burger joint with a sideline in kayak rentals. It’s gone now and a home now stands on the site. This water feature is on part of the site of the Shamrock Hotel:
And Jimmie Walker’s Edgewater is now the Kemah Landry’s, arguably the culinary heart of Tilman Fertitta’s Boardwalk. (Small world alert! One report has it that McKeown would plot Castro’s downfall in one of the Dickinson clubs belonging to Feritta’s relatives the Maceo Brothers.) Details of McKeown’s accounts varied across tellings. Â Some say he inflated his claims in search of book and movie deals. But you can’t deny that he was Fidel Castro’s fondest Houston friend, at least for a time.
Photos: Texas Post Cards (Jimmie Walker’s Edgwater); Harveyandlee.net (Chronicle clipping); Houston Post, via Rice University (Castro eating barbecue); Gator Press (Robert and Ethel McKeown); Swamplot inbox (Wortham fountain at Shamrock site); Landry’s Inc (Kemah Landry’s)