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Hemingway haunts Havana

Hemingway haunts Havana

Whether in his favourite bars, at his secluded country house or among the fishermen and boat builders of Coj?mar, Hemingway?s presence in Havana is still almost tangible.

In April 1932, Ernest Hemingway and his friend Joe Russell sailed from Key West to Havana for a two-day trip which ended up lasting for four months. Amongst Cuba?s principal attractions were excellent marlin fishing and the company of beautiful women.

Hemingway had his fair share of wives and girlfriends both before and during his Cuban sojourn, but the great love of his life was the Gulf Stream. He wrote, ??this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted?That stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone.?

Complementary to his love of the sea was his obsession with marlin-fishing. Hemingway invested the pursuit of these majestic fish with a romantic, swashbuckling sense of adventure and chased them from his boat Pilar day after day, frequently sailing back and forth off the mouth of Havana harbour where the coast juts out to meet la Corriente, the Stream, and the marlin often stop to feed. He even went as far as collaborating with the Smithsonian Institute in the classification of marlin species and in 1950 he instigated an International Marlin Tournament. After the Revolution, the contest was named after him, which didn?t particularly please him; he called it ?a lousy posthumous tribute to a lousy living.? First prize that year was won by Fidel Castro.

Hemingway ended up staying in Cuba for 22 years, keeping Pilar at Coj?mar, a small fishing village east of Havana. The Terrazas Restaurant there is still one of the most evocative locations for those who wish to experience the Havana Hemingway Effect. Sitting in the rear dining room on a blowy winter afternoon, eating lobster and drinking rum, whilst an Atlantic gale rattles the shutters and whips the ocean into a glittering sunlit froth, one half expects ?Papa Hemingway? to come rolling in to the bar with his fishing friends. It was from Coj?mar that he sailed daily with Gregorio Fuentes, who looked after his boat. The saltiest of Old Salts, Fuentes lived to the age of 104, fascinating visitors to Coj?mar with tales of accompanying Hemingway on all his adventures, from hunting German submarines in Cuban coastal waters during the second World War, to battling with giant fish, to holding court with admirers in his favourite haunts.

Many people think that Fuentes was the inspiration for Santiago, the tragic hero of The Old Man and the Sea. This was not actually so. One day, whilst they were at sea, Hemingway and Fuentes encountered an old man in a small boat struggling to catch a huge marlin. When they offered to help him he waved them away, and later Hemingway heard that the old man had died whilst playing his vast fish. This was the trigger for Papa?s creation of the book, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and it was a measure of its author?s affection for Cuba that he placed the prize in the sanctuary of the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, the island?s patron saint.

It?s no wonder that Hemingway liked Cuba so much and stayed here longer than in any other of the various locations to which his peripatetic lifestyle led him. Cuba liked him, too. His unrelentingly macho attitude made him popular in Havana, where machismo and loud mutual reinforcement of maleness was, and to some extent still is, a way of life. He was an aficionado of cockfighting and the terrifyingly fast-paced and dangerous ball game called Jai Alai, at that time very popular on the island. Like many Cubans, he regularly fell in and out of love, having lots of wives and girlfriends, both his own and other people?s. Almost as soon as he arrived in Havana he began an affair with Jane Mason, the tall, blue-eyed wife of the head of Pan Am in Cuba. Jane was creative, clever, beautiful, fascinating, a good shot and an accomplished flirt. Often she left her luxurious mansion west of Havana (now the residence of the Canadian Ambassador) to go fishing with Hemingway, and on one occasion her daredevilishness extended to climbing through a window at the Ambos Mundos Hotel to spend the night with him.

Hemingway took up residence at the Ambos Mundos in room number 511; it was to be the nearest thing he had to home for several years. With its view of the beautiful Plaza de Armas and the surrounding buildings, its proximity to the American Embassy and the ease with which he could go down to the harbour, the hotel was conveniently located for Hemingway to write and it was here where he began the final draft of For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was also comfortingly close to his favourite bar, the Floridita. It was there that he repaired in the morning; to drink sugarless daiquiris?his record was eleven of them before eleven o?clock in the morning. The Floridita daiquiris aren?t drinks for sissies; most of us would have serious difficulties in articulating after three or four, but Papa must have built up considerable daiquiri antibodies. He drank ?double frozen daiquiris, the great ones that Constante made, that had no taste of alcohol and felt, as you drank them, the way downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow and, after the sixth and eighth, felt like downhill glacier skiing feels when you are running unroped.? Glacier skiing and powder snow are seductive images when you?re sweltering your way through the soupy steam of a Cuban summer. The icy impact of Floridita daiquiris (lime juice, maraschino, dry rum, crushed ice) is wonderfully moreish; it?s only when you try to get off your bar stool and walk that you wonder whether you should have had the last three.

In 1940, Hemingway married Martha Gellhorn and they bought a large estate 15 miles outside the city. Finca Vig?a ?Lookout Farm? was very run down but Martha determinedly set about restoring it. The marriage soon began to disintegrate, though, due to Hemingway?s drinking, outbursts of temper and bullying and Martha?s departure to cover the war in Europe for Collier?s magazine.

The war provided Hemingway with an excellent excuse for going to sea to search for something more substantial than marlin. By 1942, German U-boats were entering the Gulf of Mexico to attack American shipping and encouraged by the American ambassador in Havana, Spruille Braden, Hemingway fitted the Pilar with machine guns and ammunition for U-boat-hunting voyages. Unfortunately no opportunity for heroic behaviour presented itself and eventually Hemingway followed his wife to Europe to write for Collier?s. This trip sounded the death knell for the marriage when he met another journalist, Mary Welsh, whom he brought to Cuba in 1946. They lived at Finca Vig?a with crowds of cats and dogs, but travelled frequently to the United States, Europe and Africa in search of excitement.

Finca Vig?a has been maintained since Hemingway?s departure from Cuba exactly as he left it. Visitors are not allowed into the house but may walk around it, peering in through the open windows. The place looks as though Papa has just gone fishing for the day, with his books, papers and personal possessions much in evidence. Nearby in the woods the Pilar, his beautiful little boat, has been carefully preserved. The collection of original letters and manuscripts held at the house is unique; recently the Cuban government agreed to send copies of the papers to the John F Kennedy Presidential Library in the interests of continuing scholarly research into Hemingway?s life and work.

After the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, most Americans in Cuba swiftly returned home but Ernest Hemingway, who had closely observed the corruption and oppression of the Batista regime, wished Fidel Castro ?all luck? in his endeavours to bring social equality to the troubled island. He stayed in Cuba until the summer of 1960. Those were to be his last days in a country he had always considered as ?a good place to live in.? Of his long stay in Havana, he wrote subtle evocations like this one:

?He got into the car and told the chauffeur to go up O?Reilly to the Floridita. Before the car circled the plaza in front of the embassy building and the Ayuntamiento and then turned into O?Reilly he saw the size of the waves in the mouth of the harbor and the heavy rise and fall of the channel buoy. In the mouth of the harbor the sea was very wild and confused and clear green water was breaking over the rock at the base of the Morro, the tops of the seas blowing white in the sun. It looks wonderful, he said to himself. It not only looks wonderful, it is wonderful.? November 2008

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