Hemingway's Cuba. An exclusive article from the Hemingway Resource Center.
Other works by Tom Sanders at the HRC:
Hemingway Resource Center>Exclusives>Feature Articles> Pilgrimage to Cuba - In Search of Hemingway's Ghost by Tom Sanders
fat Kraut was sitting on Hemingway's
barstool when I walked into the Floridita my first
night in Havana. This woman was no Marlene Dietrich. She wore a stupid
tourist hat, and was getting smashed on Daiquiris.
Hemingway arrived a little late. He was wearing khaki pants held up by a wide old leather belt with a huge buckle inscribed GOTT MIT UNS, a white linen sports shirt that hung loose, and brown leather loafers without socks.
Floridita Bar Havana 1948
PAPA by A. E. Hotchner
The Frau's blatant invasion of revered literary turf was getting to me. I was debating with my wife what Cuban police would do to me, an American citizen, if I slugged her husband, when the Daiquiri's kicked in, and saved me the effort. The German woman's face turned the color of lime jelly. Sweat beaded on her forehead and trickled down her face. A grimace replaced her idiotic smile. She jammed the ridiculous hat down tight over her ears, slid off Hemingway's barstool and waddled out the door, insipid husband trailing along in her wake.
I made silent apology to Hemingway's ghost, straightened the barstool, and replaced the gold braided rope cordoning off the corner where he drank for damn near half his life (1934-60). The bartender in red tuxedo jacket, cleared the glasses, looked at me, and shrugged. I ordered two more Papa Dobles.
Maybe, I was expecting too much from this Hemingway pilgrimage. After all, I conceded, the Frau wasn't Atilla the Hun, and it was only a barstool, not the 'sacred chair of Torcello'. The rum was starting to calm my psyche, when a bus pulled up outside and disgorged a herd of Japanese tourists. We paid our tab and fled down Obispo Street to our room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel.
I was fifteen when Papa shot himself. He was a dead man before I came to enjoy and appreciate his writing, and I've been searching for his ghost ever since. I have visited the room where he was born, and the room where he died. I once sat by his gravestone drinking rum at sunrise. It's an avocation; my wife calls it an obsession that I am reticent to try and explain because I don't understand it myself. Oak Park, Ketchum, Key West, Paris; now I had followed his trail to Cuba.
"Atoms can't dream, Gig, " I could hear him say. "No use deluding yourself, old pal."
A PERSONAL MEMOIR by Gregory Hemingway
I have read enough by and about Hemingway to know he didn't place much stock in a hereafter. So, my search for his ghost was a metaphorical one. However, in the unlikely event that his apparition did happen to be outside Room 511 fumbling for keys, I was ready with my question.
"Mr. Hemingway,'' I'd say. To call him Papa or Ernest on first meeting would be presumptuous, ''Which is the better rum, Bacardi or Havana Club?"
If his ghost was in a garrulous mood, I'd promised my wife Alison the second question. She wanted to know whether Jane Mason had really climbed the Ambos Mundos into his fifth floor window for a sexual tryst. A Yorkshire tomboy, Alison inspected the hotel façade when we arrived and pronounced it an impossible task. We agreed that Mason probably crawled in through the transom over the hallway door.
The Ambos Mundos has character and ambience. It would rank as a great hotel even if Hemingway had never crossed its threshold. An ornate metal cage of an elevator lifts to the rooftop bar, the perfect place to watch nightfall on Havana. One floor down the grey marble staircase, a wall plaque identifies the room on the 5th floor's Northeast corner where Hemingway stayed on and off for several years in the 1930's and wrote numerous short stories and parts of several novels.
The next morning, a gracious hotel hostess unlocks the door to his room. We are the first visitors of the day, and she opens the shuttered windows to reveal a Caribbean sun almost blinding in intensity. The sounds of Havana Vieja waking up to another day drift up from the street. The room is L-shaped; one part of the L occupied by the bed. Photographs, mementoes and news clippings are on the walls and in glass display cases. An Underwood typewriter sits on a table under Plexiglas, I ask if it is the original, regretting the pettiness of my question as I speak. She just smiles as if she didn't hear, and it occurs to me how many times she has been asked. It doesn't really matter anyway.
Hemingway first occupied this room in the mid-30's when he came over from Florida on fishing trips. Perhaps, he was also attempting to escape from his wife Pauline in Key West. I think of his wives like baseball relief pitchers, one on the mound, and another one warming up in the bullpen. Pauline, (wife # 2) had romanced him away from Hadley, (wife #1) during the Paris years. Ernest left Pauline for Martha Gelhorn (Wife # 3). This time it was Martha who threw in the towel. Along came Mary Welsh (Wife #4) who married Hemingway during the seventh inning stretch, and kept pitching until the last out.
It was Martha who found the Finca Vigía in the Havana newspaper want ads, but Mary who turned it into a home for Ernest. He lived there for 22 years, and forty-one years after his death, the house on the hill remains much as he and Mary left it. The Hemingway House in Key West, and the house where he was born in Oak Park, Illinois, are fascinating, and well-worth a visit. However, both were rented and occupied by others before their restoration as Hemingway shrines.
That is what makes the Finca Vigía so unique. It is as if Ernest and Mary have gone to the Floridita for drinks and will return any minute. In fact, when he left Cuba in July 1960 on an ill-fated trip to the USA then on to Spain, Hemingway could not have known he would never return.
On July 25th, Ernest, Valerie and I boarded the ferry from Havana to Key West leaving our house fully staffed, expecting to return in the autumn or winter.
HOW IT WAS by Mary Welsh Hemingway
Museum staff is on duty in all rooms during hours when the house and grounds are open to the public. Visitors are not allowed inside as a preservation measure, and to protect against theft. I had expected to be disappointed at this restriction. However, most everything is clearly in view through the open windows, and, on the sunny morning of my visit, there was plenty of sunlight to take pictures of the interior. Flash is not allowed.
The house is filled with mementoes from their travels, clothes and other personal effects, a vast library, photos of friends and family, and, of course, numerous animal skins, heads, and other trophies from their safaris. There is mail and a gift for Ernest that have never been opened.
In Hemingway's bedroom, his typewriter rests atop a bookcase where he worked standing up. There is an air-conditioner in his room, although, according to Mary, Ernest never used it because other people were not as fortunate.
I've wanted to see the Pilar ever since I read Islands in the Stream, and finally, at last, there it was, sitting on the tennis court at the Finca Vigia out past the swimming pool. I felt sad as I walked around the scaffolding surrounding the boat. Gregorio Fuentes, the captain of the Pilar, the man who shared many adventures with Hemingway, had died at the age of 104 a few weeks prior to my Cuba pilgrimage.
"It was a pleasure to work for Papa. I was the skipper and I also cooked and served the drinks….I enjoyed being with him, and he was a real friend." -Gregorio Fuentes-
HEMINGWAY IN CUBA by Norberto Fuentes
The Pilar was custom made for fishing the Gulf Stream, for testing oneself against the elements. I imagine Hemingway at the helm, drink in hand, Gregorio down below in the galley preparing crab cooked in lemon. Mary is on deck watching the fishing lines trailing from the huge outriggers, hoping for a strike. They are all dead now, and the Pilar has become a relic for tourists to gawk at.
Cojimar, the port where Fuentes lived, and where the Pilar was berthed is a half-hour drive from the Finca Vigía. The village is a setting for The Old Man and The Sea, the book that won Hemingway the Nobel Prize. We had a forgettable lunch at the La Terraza Restaurant surrounded by busloads of tourists, under the obligatory photo of Hemingway shaking hands with Castro. The commercialisation of Hemingway was starting to get to me again, like it had that night at the Floridita. We were leaving Cuba the next day. I needed to get this Hemingway pilgrimage in perspective.
We ate quickly and went for a walk along the waterfront to a little plaza.
"Hemingway often walked in the little plaza without a name. He would be seen there in his Bermudas and long-billed visor cap, after one more battle at sea, quiet but happy, looking for his Chrysler."
HEMINGWAY IN CUBA by Norberto Fuentes
Today, it is known as Plaza Hemingway. A bust of the writer sits atop an engraved stone surrounded by Greek columns. It was erected by the fishermen of Cojimar out of respect for their dead friend. Bronze was scarce due to the economic blockade. They donated propellers from their boats so the sculptor could make the bust.
As we walked toward the plaza, children were playing, taking advantage of the shade cast by the monument to block the hot Caribbean sun. That would please Hemingway. The bust is smiling.
©2002 Tom Sanders
Tom Sanders lives and writes in Germany.
His short story 'The Meglodon
is an HRC short story winner and is archived on this
website. Also, read his other exclusive article
Hemingway's Best Friend,
an HRC exclusive.