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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

"It is as though he still roamed the streets of Havana, with his corpulence, his broad shoulders," Cirules writes. In his first decade there, he goes on, Hemingway spent his time "exploring the streets and taverns, observing, listening, inebriated at times, on nights of drinking, on nights of cockfights, womanizing in the most splendid places, and acquiring habits that would lead him hopelessly to seek refuge on the fifth floor of a peaceful and protective little hotel on Obispo Street" (the Ambos Mundos).

To me, Cirules' Hemingway is a blend of the man I knew, his fictional characters (especially Thomas Hudson of Islands in the Stream), local lore and the waning memories of aged locals. "Until 1936 there was an intense and scandalous affair between the writer Ernest Hemingway and the voluptuous Jane Mason," Cirules writes, naming a young woman who was then married to the head of Pan Am in the Caribbean. She and Hemingway, the author says, spent four months together on the Pilar, cruising the northern coast of Cuba.

This affair has been the subject of speculation—part of the Hemingway lore—but if it ever took place, it must have been uncommonly discreet. There was certainly no scandal. And however Hemingway may have acted as a young man, the man I knew was slightly shy and surprisingly puritanical.

Cirules and his wife, María, took me to Havana's Barrio Chino, or Chinatown, where Hemingway used to favor the cheap eateries. Enrique drove us in his 20-year-old Russian-French car, which hiccuped seriously each time it started. Near the restaurant, María pointed to the imposing Pórtico del Barrio Chino (Chinatown Gate), erected in 1999 and paid for by the Chinese government. (Since Cuba began relaxing its rules on foreign investment in the 1990s, the Chinese have funded several Chinatown renovation projects.) We ate a simple but tasty meal, paying $18 for four people, about half what a tourist restaurant would charge.

After dinner we went to the Hotel Nacional, the historic landmark built in 1930, favored by Winston Churchill and still Havana's premier hotel, to meet Toby Gough, a 37-year-old British impresario who travels the world seeking exotic dancers to put into stage shows he produces in Europe. Gough lives in Havana a few months of the year. In the last half-decade, he has taken his pre-Castro-style productions—The Bar at Buena Vista, Havana Rumba, Lady Salsa—to a dozen countries with, he boasts, astonishing success. "Cuba sells the image of Cuba in the '50s the whole time while rejecting its values," Gough told me. The Cuban government gives its blessing to such enterprises because they stimulate tourism. I suppose that for a Communist country in dire need of foreign exchange, the image of a decadent capitalist playground helps pay the bills.

Gough calls his new show Hemingway in Havana, and it features an Irish-Canadian actor/writer Brian Gordon Sinclair as a Hemingway surrounded by Cuban dancers. Gough said he "took the music of Hemingway's era, the mambo, the cha-cha-cha, flamencos during the bullfight stories, a song about fishing, a song about drinking, and then contrasted the local Cuban people then and now with a contemporary dance piece." Apparently, the Cuban Hemingway has become an export, like Cuban rum, cigars, music and art.

Gough recently staged a private performance of the show for Sir Terence Conran, the furniture retailer (Habitat) turned nightclub-and-restaurant entrepreneur, who, Gough said, was considering it for his London El Floridita. It came as news to me that Hemingway's old haunt had been franchised.

On the long flight home I had time to compare the Cuban Hemingway, with whom I'd spent the last few days, with the Hemingway of my memories. The man I knew did not belong to any country or person (though maybe to his alpha male tabby cat, Cristóbal Colón). He enjoyed the land, the sea, great ideas and small ones too, plus sports, literature and everyone who plied an honest trade. He let nothing interfere with his work, not even drink. He had an excessive love for animals and would show unusual kindness to people, but nothing could match his anger.

I felt lucky never to have incurred that wrath. He could be ruthless or cruel with friends and, especially, family if they did not meet his expectations. I watched the manuscript of his brother Leicester's autobiography go up in flames in the burn barrel on the terrace outside the library while Ernest muttered, "Blackmail." I noted the ostracizing of his son—my future husband, Gregory—after a series of false starts and academic missteps that would be explained only much later as the result of deep emotional distress. And I remember Hemingway venting, in some of the letters I transcribed in the finca library so long ago, what can only be called hatred for his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. (It was she who had found the finca, which the couple first rented, then purchased, to celebrate their 1940 wedding.) If her name, or Gregory's, came up, even accidentally, everyone in the house walked on tiptoes and spoke in whispers.

Hemingway was a born teacher and lifelong student—of nature, sports, history, of everything he engaged in—and his sense of humor is often overlooked. (He loved wordplay, as you might expect of a writer, but he was also a gifted mimic.) He taught me to fish for marlin in the Gulf Stream, to evaluate a fighting cock, to shoot a rifle—then told me what to read, and how good writing must be based on an intimate knowledge of a subject. My apprenticeship may have been the most transformative any young secretary has ever experienced.

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