Hemingway and his love for Cuba

By Rosario Villaplana

Since I was very young I was fascinated by Hemingway, his work, his life, his magnetic and controversial personality and thus I became passionate about his books and anecdotes.  How much truth and legend surround his name?  A man about whom so many stories are told and who seems a character taken out from a book of fiction.  One night, at a bar in California, I heard that my friends were planning to make a trip to Cuba and, at that very moment, I thought of Hemingway; this was my opportunity to visit the places where he lived, to learn more about his life and even to talk with people who knew him personally.

I made up my mind and embarked on the trip to Cuba with my friends.  I wanted to see with my own eyes all that had made Hemingway fall in love with the island.  In my mind, Hemingway was an adventurer, a remarkable fisherman, a three-war hero and a lover of life, literature, women and alcohol; but, above all, an admirable writer.

Mi first impression in arriving in Cuba was unforgettable.  I was captivated by the sea and the sky views and, after a few days, I had been seduced by the Cubans; their joyful and extroverted manners were passed on to all of us.

Finca La Vigía, Hemingway’s home for almost two decades, was rented by him and by his wife Martha Gellhorn.  As Martha was tired of living in Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana, and weary of unreasonable visits and meetings with tourists, she decided to rent the house in order to feel more at ease.  La Vigía is 10 miles away from Havana, in San Francisco de Paula, a small and humble town.  The entrance, populated with trees, invites the visitors to walk along to the house where we announced our arrival following the tradition of ringing a bell placed at the entrance.  This bell used to be rung to welcome special guests of the family.

The Casona (big house) with its fully open doors and windows allows the entry of the sun rays in each corner of the rooms where you can breath the same air as Hemingway did while he read and studied books and when he wrote works like “For Whom the Bells Toll.”  The house was completely open to the public since 1962, a year after Hemingway´s death, but after some incidents like the breakage of a dish by Raisa Gorbachev during her visit to the house, access was restricted to the interiors, thus safeguarding one of the greatest heritages of Hemingway that exist in the world.

A wide collection of Hemingway’s manuscripts, letters, hunting trophies and his personal library containing more than 9000 books, among them, Mark Twain’s, Honoré de Balzac’s and other classics’ complete works are kept in the Casona. The rooms, which were decorated by his fourth wife Mary Welsh, are wide and tidy, and carry the visitor’s imagination to Hemingway’s everyday life.  In the courtyard there is a 40-feet high tower built for Hemingway to isolate himself and write in the third-floor room.  However, Hemingway never went there to write but to relax and enjoy the view from that place; he studied manuscripts, revised his books and kept collection objects from his trips around the world.  I enjoyed hearing about Hemingway’s writing ritual: he typed standing up, usually in the early morning when the silence in the house must have been absolute.  He used his typewriter or a graphite pencil to write in the working room of the “Casona”, barefooted most of the time, stepping on the skin of a kudu hunted by him.  The room remains intact as if the typewriter keys would suddenly break the silence creating another masterpiece.  Some of Hemingway’s belongings, papers and collection objets still remain there, incredibly preserved.

Felipe, our guide in Havana, told us that Benito Mussolini once sent a blank cheque to Hemingway in order to buy a kudu’s head, but Ernest replied that it was priceless and that if he wanted a kudu he should go to Africa and hunt it himself.

Hemingway’s passion for fishing is also present at La Vigía.  His precious yatch “El Pilar” is kept there as a tribute to his partner in so many adventures.  El Pilar was Hemingway’s longer lasting love; he had it for almost 30 years and he sailed uncountable times between Havana and Key West and went to Bimini in the Bahamas.  Hemingway equipped his yacht to hunt nazi submarines during World War II, helped scientific friends to carry out research on the marlin fish and enjoyed long fishing outings and numerous parties he gave almost every day on its deck.  His yacht was his accomplice and most faithful friend.  Unbelievably, after his death, the yatch was abandoned at the shores of Cojímar for several years.  Cojímar is a small fishermen’s town at the east of Havana and became internationally renowned as the place where Hemingway used to anchor “El Pilar” and from where he departed when he went fishing.  This place inspired his most outstanding novel “The Old Man and the Sea” that would award him the Pulitzer Price in 1953 and then the Nobel Prize, “For his powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of modern narration, as most recently evinced in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’”, according to the words by the Stockholm panel of judges.

I leave the house almost with the conviction that Hemingway will soon be back.  It is so well preserved and intact that it seems that, at any moment, “Papa” will come in through one of the doors reading a book or sipping a drink.

After our visit, we tasted a fresh cocktail made with the typical Cuban “guarapo” (sugar cane juice), orange juice, pinapple juice and a few of us added some rum to pay tribute to one of the hobbies of our host.

During the following days I was led to tread along Hemingway’s steps through Havana.  Hemingway used to visit bars and restaurants, always following his favorite drinks.  He used to go to the Floridita Restaurant, where there is a full-size statue of Hemingway, the Bodeguita del Medio, where he used to drink Mojitos, the Sloppy Joe’s Bar and, as some connoisseurs say, it would be better to mention the bars where he did not go or else the list would be endless.  We also visited the Ambos Mundos Hotel, room 511, where Hemingway stayed many times before he decided to rent Finca La Vigía.

Hemingway’s legacy in Cuba is amazing.  The famous marlin fishing tournament named after him was initiated by him in 1950 and, curiously true is the fact that the biggest marlin was caught by Mary Welsh, his fourth wife.  There is also a bust of Hemingway in the main roundabout of Cojímar.  The famous beach called El Pilar in Cayo Guillermo was named after his yatch, and he is also remembered and honored in many other places.

I left Cuba with a promise to come back.  These have been intensive days for me and I carry in my heart a joyful country, eager to live and to open to the world.  I returned with sadness, leaving the friends I have made, but also happy to have made contact with Hemingway.  I am sure that his spirit is still roaming about the Casona and that from some place, below or above, he is smiling mischievously with a daiquiri in his hand, inviting me to share together all his passions.