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Josefina Yanguas, 90; her Cambridge café served as a gathering place for intellectuals

Josefina Yanguas, longtime owner of Cafe Pamplona, was honored by Mayor Kenneth Reeves and other Spanish officials outside her restaurant in Harvard Square in May 2006.
Josefina Yanguas, longtime owner of Cafe Pamplona, was honored by Mayor Kenneth Reeves and other Spanish officials outside her restaurant in Harvard Square in May 2006. (Globe Staff Photo / Wendy Maeda)

The eyes of Josefina Yanguas were the color of ravens, like the hair she tied in a tight bun, and she dressed in austere black -- a hue of choice back home in the Basque country of northern Spain.

"She acquired a striking beauty," said her friend Juan Alonso, "these enormous black eyes, a bit like a sparrow who lights on your café table and looks at you unafraid."

Nearly half a century ago, before espresso machines and coffee shops were commonplace, Ms. Yanguas opened a café on a narrow side street in Cambridge, a few strides from Harvard Square. Named for the city of her birth, Café Pamplona unfurled from the basement of a tiny red house, an outpost of old Europe.

Just before turning 90 in November, she let others lease the business, but kept living two floors above in rooms where she had hosted hundreds of dinners that laced together the lives of artists, writers, and thinkers.

Ms. Yanguas, whose health had been failing, died Wednesday a little after 1 a.m. -- closing time in the years she ran the café.

"She introduced a way of life," said her friend Manka Madeksza, an artist in Brookline. "She became legendary for her coffee shop, but it was a whole way of life. She literally brought the Spanish way of life to Harvard Square."

Modeling her café after its counterparts in Pamplona, Ms. Yanguas created a haven where people could sit, sip, and talk. Though familiar to expatriates and those who visited Pamplona through the pages of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," the café concept defied convention in an age before the coffee shop culture flourished.

"Americans are not used to 'waste time,' " she said in 1989, raised fingers forming quotation marks around the phrase. "But you don't waste time in a café, you talk."

And talk she did with customers who gathered in the basement café with its whitewashed walls, or on the streetside patio during the warm months.

"It really was a mecca of the literati in Boston for decades," said Elizabeth Stephenson, a friend in Chicago. "She created her own café society, a salon of great thinkers and artists and musicians. She saw her job as helping to facilitate this great gathering of people."

"You never wanted to leave her, she was just so incredibly full of energy and life and stories," said Carol Fippin, an architect who lives on the first floor of the house and cared for Ms. Yanguas in her final months. "You just wanted to curl up in her lap or sit at her feet and listen to these stories. She just loved everything -- she loved food, she loved travel, she loved life. And she loved clothes -- everything, as long as it was black."

Eliodora Yanguas Perez grew up in Pamplona, where her mother died when she was a girl, leaving her to help raise three younger siblings. The Spanish Civil War began when she was 20. A dozen years later, in 1948, she boarded a cargo ship in Barcelona and left Spain and its dictatorship behind, bound for the United States.

"I came with only one suitcase. . . . A small one, not a big one. And it was almost empty," she told Stephenson, who wrote an unpublished manuscript about their friendship.

Speaking little English, she lived at first with the family of Amado Alonso, a linguistics professor at Harvard, and helped care for his children -- among them the writer Juan Alonso.

"She was, in one sense, a mother figure to me," he said, and Ms. Yanguas filled a similar role for his own children. "When my kids ran away from home, they would run to her -- which showed wisdom."

At the end of the 1950s, Ms. Yanguas raised money through friends to buy the house on Bow Street where she opened her café. The price was $23,000, the undertaking enormous.

"It was like a million dollars to me, as I was only making $36 a week," she told the Globe six years ago.

"In those initial years, she played all roles -- she was waitress and cook," said her niece, Josie Yanguas of Chicago. "She was lucky -- because she lived in the same building, she didn't have much of a commute, it was just getting up and down the stairs."

Ms. Yanguas rented out the first floor and lived on the second floor, a few hundred square feet divided into a main room, a bedroom, and a kitchen. With the help of a friend, she made the building her own. Counters were lowered to abet her height.

"She was very petite," her niece said. "She definitely wasn't 5 foot."

Fifty years of her life hangs on the austere white walls in the form of portraits by artists who became her friends.

They range from a grand portrait Warren Prosperi of Southborough painted of Ms. Yanguas, uncharacteristically wearing black gloves, to a framed paper plate in which only her head and face, looking down and away, fills the inner circle.

"There is something to a woman who every passing artist wants to paint," Stephenson wrote. "Each portrait a testimony to some past, some history, neatly and indecipherably tied up in paint and pose. Josefina is not the conventional muse."

Ms. Yanguas invited close friends to travel with her to Pamplona, where she kept an apartment. Often they would visit in July for the festival that includes the running of the bulls. Her favorite time, her niece said, was the hours "before the festival would start, when the city was kind of quiet, but filled with nervous energy."

At home in her homeland, she would dip fresh sardines in egg and flour, then sauté them in olive oil, and feed them to guests along with imposing figs -- "the size of my fist," Stephenson wrote.

"The maddening part about my aunt was that she never followed anything by a recipe," her niece said. "It was really the art of cooking. It was always a question of experimentation all the time."

A few things remained constant. Today's menu at Café Pamplona is much the same as it was in the late 1950s. Media noche -- a grilled sandwich of ham, pork, and cheese -- remains a staple.

A decade ago, Ms. Yanguas was diagnosed with cancer and gained 10 years of life through difficult surgery and treatments. Last year, the mayors of Cambridge and Pamplona honored her; the key to the city of Cambridge is displayed on a table top in her apartment. And her house was declared a historic landmark -- "My contribution to Harvard Square," she said.

She closed the café at the end of 2004, but found herself reopening when spring arrived and it was time to put the tables and umbrellas back outside.

Only one sibling -- her sister Petra Yanguas Perez of Pamplona -- is still alive. Friends plan a private gathering to honor Ms. Yanguas, who will be buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

"Josefina is what I would call a person of unconditional love," Fippin said.

"I spoke with her on the phone about five days ago and she was still Josefina," Alonso said late last week. "She told me to miss no pleasure, because she was near the end. Miss nothing."