Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's boat captain still the old man, as anyone (willing to pay) can see

Updated: 2007-08-03T20:35:24Z

By MIREYA NAVARRO

New York Times News Service

Gregorio Fuentes
Jose Goita/Canadian Press
Gregorio Fuentes of Cojimar, Cuba, claims to have been the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Fuentes, now 101, was the longtime captain of Hemingway's fishing boat, Pilar.

Date: 06/27/99 00:01

COJIMAR, Cuba -- Gregorio Fuentes is 101 years old, but he still welcomes paying visitors to his small living room here to regale them with stories about Ernest Hemingway from a rocking chair.

For more than 20 years Fuentes was the captain of Hemingway's fishing boat, Pilar, which was anchored at times in this fishing town on the outskirts of Havana. He claims to have inspired The Old Man and the Sea, the 1952 novella about an old Cuban fisherman from Cojimar who catches a giant fish and then has to battle sharks for it.

But Fuentes has not bothered to read this or any of his friend's other books.

"What for?" he said in a bellicose tone. "I've lived them with him."

Fuentes is a fixture on a Cuban tourist trail dedicated to Hemingway, an American whom Cuba flaunts as a national treasure despite four decades of hostility between Fidel Castro's government and the United States. This year, the centennial of Hemingway's birth, commemorations in Cuba include an international colloquium of Hemingway historians and ballet and symphony galas.

Hemingway, who lived, wrote, drank and fished in this island intermittently between 1932 and 1960, is hard to miss in Cuba. His books sell in government curio shops alongside left-wing works by Che Guevara. His likeness adorns T-shirts and billboards, and a bronze bust of him donated by local fishermen looks out to the sea from a small rotunda here. And his name is attached to things such as parks and marinas, fishing tournaments and sugar-free daiquiris.

Just as the writer has been thoroughly exploited for tourism in places like Key West, Fla., which drew criticism from the writer's three sons a couple of years ago for tarnishing Hemingway's image with too much banality, cash-starved Cuba has not let communism stand in the way of foreign exchange.

A tour of Hemingway sites, including the lush estate outside Havana where the writer lived with Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh, his third and fourth wives, costs anywhere from $15 to $40 a person. A "Papa Hemingway" daiquiri (lime and grapefruit juice, maraschino and a double shot of white rum) at his old drinking haunts like El Floridita in Old Havana costs $6.

And Fuentes' 45-year-old grandson, Rafael Valdes, charges visitors $50 for 15 minutes of the captain's time, although haggling can cut the price by more than half.

Still, American visitors and some Hemingway family members note a special reverence for the man in enemy territory, a personal appropriation by Cubans of a great writer who chose to celebrate their country in his prose.

"Over there, it's like he's more of a real person," said Mina Hemingway, 38, a granddaughter of the writer who lives in Florida and has twice won the women's division of the Ernest Hemingway fishing tournament held at Marina Hemingway in Havana. "They seem to have a real respect, almost awe, for him and his work."

The feeling was mutual. In his book Hemingway in Cuba (Lyle Stuart, 1984), the exiled Cuban writer Norberto Fuentes, no relation to the captain, said Cuba first lured Hemingway -- who used the island as backdrop for The Old Man and the Sea, To Have and Have Not and Islands in the Stream -- with its abundant marlin fishing, its beautiful scenery and its low cost of living. But in the end, Fuentes said, "Cuba won him completely."

"There he settled, lived, worked, made friends, enjoyed life and transformed his surroundings into art," Fuentes wrote. "What more could a writer demand from his abode?"

When the Cold War, and the United States' break with Cuba after the 1959 revolution, interfered in this love affair, "it was a great tragedy for our family," Patrick Hemingway, 70, one of the author's sons, said from Montana.

"Any American living in Cuba had to choose," he said, adding that not being able to return to Cuba contributed to his father's depression, which ended with his suicide in 1961. "He really loved Cuba, and I think it was a great shock to him at his age to have to choose between his country, which was the United States, and his home, which was Cuba."

Today much of Hemingway's life on the island -- where the Roman Catholic Church keeps the Nobel Prize medal he won for literature in 1954 and dedicated to Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre -- is documented in black and white photographs that hang from walls in his house and bar-restaurants he frequented like El Floridita in Old Havana and La Terraza in Cojimar.

Some pictures show him handing out fishing tournament trophies to a young Fidel Castro in 1960, the only time the two met. Although Castro has called Hemingway his favorite author, the extent of the writer's support for the revolution has been the subject of debate.

Pictures also show Hemingway carousing with the likes of Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper. But it was his lack of pretension, notwithstanding his fame, that makes the writer stand out for many Cubans.

"He was very simple," said Evelio Gonzalez, a tour guide at the house on a hill Hemingway bought in 1940 known as Finca Vigia. "His friends were fishermen. He never related to high society."

At the house, now a museum preserving the home just as the writer left it (visitors can only peek from the windows), other passions are in evidence -- bullfighting artwork, including a plate with a drawing of a bull's head by Picasso; hunting trophies from safaris in Africa; more than 8,000 books.

Outside, the fishing yacht Pilar, donated to the museum by Fuentes, to whom the writer bequeathed it, sits in a special shed.

Fuentes, a Spaniard who moved to Cuba as a child, said he met Hemingway in 1928 in Dry Tortugas off Florida after both were caught in a storm. In 1934, after Hemingway had visited Cuba several times, Fuentes said, "he told me, `I'm building a boat and I want you to work with me and be the captain.' "

Fuentes, the "Antonio" in Islands in the Stream, was both skipper and cook, becoming a constant companion who took part even in Hemingway's missions on the Pilar hunting German submarines off the coast of Cuba during World War II. He remembers the author as "a man apart," worldly and capable of immense generosity and valor.

"Imagine what kind of man he was that, when we were in Africa, he ordered us to hush and not move because he could smell the lion that was coming to eat him up," Fuentes recalled recently. "The lion came and scratched him and he stuck his gun into its mouth and killed him.

"Everywhere he went people treated him like a god just arrived from heaven," he said. "I myself considered him a god because he did things I never saw anybody else do."

But it was Fuentes' own exploits that were immortalized in The Old Man and the Sea, he said, specifically his experience as a young man catching a big fish and fighting sharks all night long to keep them from eating it. The "Santiago" in the novella, however, was partly modeled after another Cuban fisherman, Anselmo Hernandez, said Fuentes, the Cuban author.

Ever since his friend's death, the captain said, he has not worked as skipper for anyone else. Nor has he ever thought of writing his own book about his years with Hemingway.

"I have a lot of secrets," he said, vowing never to reveal a single one for all the money in the world.

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