Hemingway's Cuba, Cuba's Hemingway- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Hemingway's Cuba, Cuba's Hemingway

His last personal secretary returns to Havana and discovers that the novelist's mythic presence looms larger than ever

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Today, as in the past, old magazines were strewn on the bed in the large room at the south end of the house, where Ernest worked every morning, standing at a typewriter or writing in longhand, using a bookshelf as his desk. In the library next door each weekday afternoon, I transcribed as Ernest dictated answers to his business and personal letters. (He told me to take care of the fan mail as I pleased.) He would tell me about what he had written that morning or, on days of lesser inspiration, curtly report nothing more than a word count. The early months of 1960 were lighthearted and hopeful, but as spring turned to summer he became increasingly depressed by Cuba's political situation, his failing health and his growing inability to work.

Now, the house, which was once so well worn and lived in—even a bit shabby in places—seemed crisp and pristine and crystallized in time.

I had a similar thought when my hosts at the finca introduced me to three men from the surrounding village of San Francisco de Paula: Oscar Blas Fernández, Alberto "Fico" Ramos and Humberto Hernández. They are among the last living witnesses to Hemingway's Cuban life, and their recollections of the finca reached far back in time. Before Hemingway arrived in 1939, they told me, they and their friends used to play baseball in the street outside the house's gate. They used a flat piece of wood for a bat and a rolled-up wad of cloth for a ball. But after he bought the house, Hemingway was looking for playmates for his sons Patrick and Gregory (they were 11 and 8 at the time) during their summer visits. The new owner invited about a dozen Cuban boys, all 8 or 9 themselves, to bring the game onto the finca's grounds. He bought bats, balls, caps; he had a local seamstress make uniforms from discarded sugar sacks. Because Gregory (or "Gigi," pronounced with hard g's) was a star athlete, the team became known as Las Estrellas de Gigi, or the Gigi Stars. They played every summer through 1943.

Hemingway did the pitching—for both teams. At first the boys called him "mister"—"Not señor, mister," Blas recalled. But Gigi called him "Papa," and eventually the rest of the team followed suit. To this day, the surviving players, like much of the literary world, refer to him as "Papa Hemingway."

Some of the boys were given chores—picking up the mail, tending the many cats and dogs—so they could earn a little pocket money, and two of them worked at the finca after they completed their education. Mary taught Fico to cook, and he helped her make a Chinese luncheon for Ernest's 50th birthday, in 1949. His teammate René Villarreal became a houseboy at age 17 and butler soon afterward; Mary called him her hijo Cubano—her Cuban son. No one at the finca mentioned that she later helped him leave Cuba for New Jersey.

My tour of the finca complete, I returned to Havana, where I found the Cuban Hemingway again on display, at the Ambos Mundos Hotel, a dignified establishment from the 1920s that now caters primarily to upscale foreign visitors. The hotel has designated Room 511, where Hemingway stayed off and on in the 1930s, as a museum. The entrance fee is $2 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso, on par with the U.S. dollar)—the precise amount Hemingway used to pay for a one-night stay. Framed black-and-white photographs of the man adorn adjacent walls behind a square mahogany tourism desk in the high-ceilinged lobby. At the hotel's rooftop restaurant, the menu lists a Hemingway Special, an elaborate fish dish with rice and vegetables, for about $15.

From the Ambos Mundos, I walked nine blocks to the Floridita bar, once a gathering place for American businessmen and Navy personnel, now famous as the cradle of the daiquiri and even more famous as Hemingway's favorite watering hole. Decorated in red velvet and dark wood, the place was throbbing with live music and thronged with European and South American tourists. Many lined up to have their photos taken beside a bronze Hemingway statue. The bartender set a dozen glasses at a time on the bar and expertly filled each with a daiquiri, the rum-and-lime-juice cocktail Hemingway described as having "no taste of alcohol and felt, as you drank them, the way downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow." On this occasion, I abstained and moved on.

Cojimar, the little port town six miles east of Havana where Hemingway kept his fishing boat, the Pilar, was the inspiration for the village he depicted in The Old Man and the Sea. It was once a busy fishing hub, but now the waters are mostly fished out. Gone, too, is Gregorio Fuentes, the Pilar's mate and the town's main attraction (he promoted himself as the model for Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, and indeed some scholars say he fit the bill); he died in 2002 at age 104. But, La Terraza, the restaurant and bar where Hemingway often stopped for a sundowner after a day of fishing for marlin or sailfish on the Gulf Stream, is still in business. Once a fisherman's haunt, today it is more heavily patronized by tourists. A few paces away, overlooking the water, is a bust of Hemingway, a tribute from local fishermen who, in 1962, donated metal for it from their boats—propellers, cleats and the like. When I was there, four professors from the University of Georgia at Athens were taking snapshots of the bust while their graduate students drank La Terraza's beer. Though the U.S. government bars American citizens from traveling to Cuba, it makes some exceptions, such as for education. The Georgia students, one of their professors said, were on a joint economic planning project with the University of Havana.

"For more than 30 years Hemingway had permanent contact with Cuba—in other words, for two-thirds of his creative life," the noted Cuban writer Enrique Cirules told me in the lobby of the Hotel Victoria, a writers' hangout where he had suggested we meet. "Yet students of his work and life concentrate solely on the European and U.S. years, and the influence of those places on his work. Cuba is never mentioned. I believe it is necessary to delve more deeply into the relationship between Hemingway and his Cuban environment."

Cirules is a handsome man of 68, slender and genial, a novelist, essayist and Hemingway scholar and enthusiast. He was not only reiterating what I had heard elsewhere in Cuba, he intends to personally rectify this perceived imbalance, having spent 20 years studying Hemingway's Cuban presence. His preliminary research was published in 1999 as Ernest Hemingway in the Romano Archipelago, a work through which the mythic Cuban Hemingway strides.

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