Exploring Hemingways Cuba more than 40 years later
As published on page H2/H3 on April 8, 2006
Exploring Hemingway’s Cuba more than 40 years later
Times & Transcript
The Caribbean offers not only a tropical climate, but as anyone who
visits here knows, its people are super sensitive and kind-hearted. Plus
they are steeped in the old Latin American myth; habits, superstitions,
religions, loves, literature, revolution and the general turmoil of
Life is not easy here. And this in itself has helped to strengthen its
people. Because Ernest Hemingway loved and praised them, Cubans kept a
special place in their hearts for the American writer. After 40-odd
years, this remains.
Hemingway spent the last 22 years of his life in Cuba. It’s said that
his roots run deeper in this land than anywhere he lived, including
Toronto, Paris, Madrid, Key West, New York, Michigan or Idaho. It’s no
secret that he had a great admiration for the Latin American/Spanish
culture. He surrounded himself in it, spoke the language and practised
the traditions. And the Latinos never considered him a gringo, but one
of their own.
There are still strong impressions of Hemingway in Cuba. These come out
of the fiction, and also from the old people I meet in Havana, Cojimar
and San Francisco de Paula who recall “Ernesto” the man, speak of him in
the kindest of favour.
And there is the bust, the boat, the bars and cars, plus his beloved
lookout farm, Finca Vigia. All stand as monuments to a fascinating icon:
treasures that linger (though in a state of decay) on an island where
time has stood still since the People’s Revolution began. The Americans
refer to this period as a the good old days before Fidel. But Cubans see
it as a day that was less kind to its own, a time when gringo brothels
thrived. And there was racism, enslavement, illiteracy and great
Hemingway’s literary images became more authentic as years passed.
Having travelled in this part of the Caribbean, I can see how true to
life the sketches are.
It is hard to ignore Hemingway’s fiction when we think of
pre-revolutionary Cuba. He grasped the internal movements of its people,
their places in the cane fields, the towns, the churches, the markets
and the bars, Plus the absence of blacks on busses, trains and the city
plaza. And what the seasons, with their hardships and uncertainties did
to all. You’d have to live here for some time to do it justice. Like
portraits of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and other heroes from the
Revolution, Hemingway albums are sold to tourists from gift shops. There
are Papa Hemingway T-shirts, shorts, fishing caps and glasses. In sense,
Ernest Hemingway is as much alive today as he was in the ’50s.
There is an aura here that lingers; big cars, hotels, pool parties, the
American celebrities singing in Havana. These were romantic times in the
old white city of love. Men like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Desi
Arnaz performed at the Capri, a classic rooftop bar on Paseo Melecon.
Writers like Ernest Hemingway, Graham Green, (who stayed at Hotel
Inglaterra and wrote Our Man in Havana) Alejo Carpentier and others
could be spotted in the streets or at bars. The Tropicana, the world’s
biggest outdoor night club, had the best chorus lines in the Americas.
As Alina Fernandez wrote, Havana was the most feminine city in the universe.
Hemingway came to Cuba in 1928 on a steamer out of France. He fell in
love with the place. By 1936 he had moved into Hotel Ambos Mundos in old
Havana and was wooing Jane Mason. Each day he and Jane walked up Calle
Obispo to El Floridita where they sat with friends in the Red Room and
drank daiquiris. It’s said that Ernest used Jane as a model for Helene
Bradley, the heroine in his novel To have And Have Not. Old people say
they remember Ernest, a stocky and bearded man, scuffing along in
boat-shoes, a woman on his arm. In the Ambos Mundos (now a refurbished
hotel that honours Hemingway’s room as a museum) the American stood at a
small table and used a led pencil to write, For Whom The Bell Tolls, his
novel set in Spain during its Civil War.
By 1939 Hemingway had established himself permanently in Cuba. His third
wife Martha Gelhorn introduced him to Finca Vigia, a colonial home
(built by a Spanish architect) and 22 acres of cane fields in San
Francisco de Paula which is down the coast from Comijar where Hemingway
moored the Pilar. It was from this jetty with Captain Gregorio Fuentes
that the writer set out on fishing expeditions for tuna, blue marlin,
broadbill and sword fish.
In 1950 the International Nautical Club of Havana held its first marlin
fishing tournament and named it The Hemingway International Tournament
of Marlin Fishing. Since then, each year this competition takes place,
with headquarters at Marina Hemingway in west Havana.
In 1947, Mary Walsh, Hemingway’s forth wife joined her lover in Cuba. In
a letter to Mary, he wrote, “When you come in by plane from Miami, I
will be waiting at Rancho Boyeros airport … and we will go in the car
across this beautiful country to our home.” Upon her arrival, Mary set
out to renovate Lookout Farm, a place Hemingway said was his only real
home. The two received many guests, but only rarely did Ernest share his
place with other writers. It was here he wrote, Across The River and
Into The Trees (Havana) in 1950 and The Old Man and The Sea (Cojimar) in
In 1999 I retreated in Cuba for the winter to write. I visited Captain
Fuentes, a man who was 103 years of age but bright as a brass button.
Fuentes was still living in Cojimar. The old man had been captain of the
Pilar for 22 years. He told me that during the Second World War, he and
Hemingway patrolled the islands in the Caribbean looking for German
U-boats. They searched for marlin as depicted in the novels, Islands In
The Stream and To Have And Have Not, the former drawing on the
personality of Fuentes for its character, Antonio. Hemingway later
admitted that Fuentes was also a model for Santiago, the fisherman
cursed by Salao (the worst form of bad luck) in his novel The Old Man
and The Sea, which won the Nobel Prize 1954.
Fuentes said he and Hemingway were docked at Cayo Paraiso and came upon
an old man and a youngster fighting a swordfish. They offered a hand,
but were refused. Fuentes believed the incident inspired his friend to
write The Old Man and The Sea.
Fuentes was still walking two blocks daily from his home to his
favourite chair in La Terraza, a fisherman’s bar where he was served a
Mojito and a Habana cigar. He and Hemingway drank there. As we sat in
the place where Santiago and the Afro/Cuban arm wrestled in the movie,
people came to greet the old man. The place was decorated with photos of
Fuentes and Hemingway. There were snapshots of Errol Flynn and Spencer
Tracy. Behind the bar was a poster of Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway
clutched together in a handshake.
It is said Castro (who won Hemingway’s first fishing tournament) envied
the writer because of the travelling he had done. Plus Hemingway
supported Castro’s July 26th Movement. “I believe in the historical
necessity of the Cuban Revolution,” he wrote.
Lookout Farm sits on a hill looking out to sea and is shaded by mango,
avocado and ceiba trees. Tourists pay three pesos to wander around the
grounds and look through windows at Hemingway’s guns, fishing rods and
photographs (Ava Gardner Ingrid Bergman, editor Maxwell Perkins, Gary
Cooper, and heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano). The author’s glasses
are lying on the desk where he wrote. There is a photograph of Hemingway
on the day he won the Nobel Prize. Plus 9,000 books crowd shelves that
are so tall a stepladder is needed to reach the top.
In 1961, suffering depression, Hemingway gave his Nobel Prize to Nuestra
Senora de la Caridad, the patron saint of Cuba’s only basilica in Santiago.
Upon his death, the house and grounds were given to the people of Cuba
by Mary Walsh. The Pilar was given to Captain Fuentes and it is moored
at the dock at Marina Hemingway. In return, fisherman in Havana, Cojimar
and San Francisco de Paula, donated brass from their boats which was
melted into a bronze bust of the novelist. This stands looking out to
sea a stones throw from La Terraza Bar where I was greeted by the real
old man of the sea.
On Mary Welsh’s last trip to Havana in 1977, she said, “Everything is
just where we left it in 1961. But the house is nothing without Ernest.”
Wayne Curtis is a writer living in Fredericton. His last book is
entitled Monkeys In A Looking Glass.
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