Who among my generation hasn’t been influenced by Hemingway? The man, the legend, the prolific writer. He was famous at twenty-five years old and a celebrated writer at age thirty. Hemingway was a traveler and lived in Africa, Paris, Key West, Spain, Cuba, and Idaho. He spent the longest time in Cuba from 1939-1960. During his time in Cuba, he wrote seven books, including, Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast and Islands in the Stream.
Hemingway died at the age of 61. He had permanent contact with Cuba for nearly 30 years. Most of his creative life was touched by the island. However, students of his work tend to concentrate on his years in Europe and America. It is necessary to delve into how the Cuban environment influenced the writer.
Just nine miles outside of Havana, Hemingway made San Francisco de Paula Ward his home. He and his third wife, Martha, lived and raised a family at the Finca Vigia, Lookout Farm. The limestone house sat on an estate that spread across thirteen acres with banana trees, casual gardens with tropical shrubs and a pool. Today, the estate is a museum and some of the caretakers of the property were on staff with the Hemingways. For Hemingway, Cuba was a place to relax, fish and write. His ship, the Pilar was docked nearby in Cojimer, a port town, six miles away. Hemingway depicted Cojimer as Santiago’s hometown.
Castro and Hemingway were palpable pillars in the 1950’s and their presence felt throughout Cuba. However, they met only once when Castro won a fishing tournament sponsored by Hemingway in 1960. His secretary turned daughter- in- law, Valerie Hemingway, remembers a night in 1960 when then U.S ambassador to Cuba and frequent guest, visited to say that Washington was planning to cut off aid and relations to Fidel Castro’s government. American officials thought it prudent that Hemingway demonstrated his patriotism by leaving Cuba. Cuba was beloved by Hemingway and he fiercely resisted the suggestion.
When Hemingway and Martha bought Finca Vigia, they sought out playmates for their sons, Patrick and Gregory (aged 11 and 8 at the time). They invited about a dozen boys to play a baseball game on the Finca’s grounds. The doting parents bought caps, bats, and balls. They even employed a local seamstress to make uniforms. The baseball games became an annual summer event and Hemingway did the pitching for both teams.
Noted Cuban writer, Enrique Cirules, said during his first ten years in Havana, 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 to hopelessly seek refuge on the fifth floor of a peaceful and protective little hotel on Obispo Street.”
Today, the Ambos Mundos Hotel is a dignified establishment and hosts upscale foreign guests. Room 511 is a museum dedicated to Hemingway. This was his room where he stayed intermittently in the 1930’s. A mere $2.00 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) is now the entrance fee and the same amount Hemingway used to pay for night’s stay. The hotel’s rooftop bar has a Hemingway Special of fried fish with rice and vegetables.
Another place frequented by Hemingway is the Floridita bar. Noted as his favorite watering hole. Once a gathering place for Navy personnel and American businessmen. Hemingway described the daiquiris as having “no taste of alcohol and felt, as you drank them, the way a downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow.”
The Hemingways favored Havanna’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown) for cheap eats. It is hard to imagine the swashbuckling Hemingway as a genteel family man, however, by most accounts of his time in Cuba, that was the impression of those around him.
In his later years, Hemingway’s health declined and he was depressed about the political climate in Cuba and his inability to write. The lifelong teacher and student of life who immersed himself in nature, sports and of course, writing, traveled to America to seek medical treatment for hypertension and hepatitis. There is much speculation if the celebrated author did indeed commit suicide like his father or if he really shot himself by accident while cleaning a rifle.