The lure of Hemingway's Cuba

They come here to find Ernesto, or is it themselves?

08/01/2007 5:52 PM

05/16/2014 4:58 PM

This story originally appeared in the Sunday, May 18, 2003 edition of The Kansas City Star

Sportswriter Wright Thompson and photographer John Sleezer traveled to Cuba earlier this year for The Star's special baseball sections. While there - and this was before political tensions re-emerged between Cuba and the United States - they tracked the legacy of Ernest Hemingway for Star Magazine.

SAN FRANCISCO DE PAULA, Cuba - He should be home any minute. Everything is waiting. Teams of maids polish the chrome on his boat, clean the leaves from his pool and sweep the dust from the floor of his home. There's a rocking chair in Ernest Hemingway's living room embroidered with the words "Poor Old Papa."

The rest of the things in the house are shrines to the life that brought him from the city desk of The Kansas City Star to a quiet lookout in the hills outside Havana.

The ceramic that Pablo Picasso made for him is in the study. His bullfight posters are on the wall. His books fill up shelves, which fill up rooms. Three pairs of penny loafers are drying by the window. The closet is full of boots and a war correspondent uniform, should he ever need to cover another war.

There's his typewriter, a classic Royal, waiting. It's on top of some shelves; he writes standing up. There are pictures of his boys and of his wife. The bar is still stocked, should he ever want to entertain or simply drink alone. The dining room table is set for three.

But the boys have grown up. The booze is undrinkable and the labels faded by the hot Cuban summers. The boat is dry-docked, where the tennis court used to be. No one swims in the pool anymore; the water is all gone. When things got bad, he had to be supervised while swimming; his wife, Mary, was afraid he'd drown in a drunken stupor.

He's gone, dead from a single shotgun blast to the head, not so long after leaving this, his home for two decades, for a bunker in Idaho. The house, which he gave to the Cuban government in his will, is almost as he left it, still waiting patiently for his return.

The typewriter is silent, as it was often toward the end. Now it has an alarm, to prevent one of the tourists from trying to make off with it. The tourists come often, to his home here in the country, to the Havana bars where he left his talent and his money, to Pamplona in Spain, or Harry's Bar in Venice, or Sloppy Joe's in Key West. For a man whose life sometimes swallowed his work, it's not surprising that the places he visited and lived have become almost more important than his words.

All over the world, shrines like this one have been turned into magnets for Hemingway stalkers and their money.

So they come, searching.

Three tour-bus loads at the moment, from the United States. They paid their money to get on the grounds - $2 to look around, more if you want to take pictures. For a professional film crew, it's five bills. That's more than an average Cuban makes in three years.

Maybe they come for Ernest Hemingway, the writer. Maybe they are searching for something in themselves, something missing from their DSL-lives and fast-food dreams, something wild and free and brave.

The boat stopped in April 1928, en route from France to America. He was just becoming famous, and Ernest Hemingway was taken to room 511 of Havana's Hotel Ambos Mundos. The windows opened to a Havana harbor scene, with the fort in the distance. Hemingway lived a life of great views. He stayed only two days that trip but was hooked. When he returned four years later, he requested the same room.

That room is still reserved for him, and a maid sweeps it clean daily. Fidel Castro has always understood how important Hemingway is to the tourist economy of the island nation. They protect that resource with pride. It's why Hemingway's home looks like he just stepped out for groceries, while most of Havana is falling in on itself.

The maid says between 30 and 45 people visit the room each day to see where Hemingway worked and slept. A guest book keeps visitors' thoughts. All around, in glass cases, are his effects. There's a Western Union from Matisse; a letter originally sent to Box 406 in Key West but forwarded here. People, it seems, have always been looking for him.

Before he became as recognizable in Havana as everywhere else, this harbor city is where he came when he was sick of being Ernest Hemingway, celebrity, and just wanted to be Ernesto, man.

The sheets are folded down, with a water glass on the table should he get thirsty. There's the predictable Royal typewriter, along with some handwritten manuscripts on hotel stationery.

The lobby might be the coolest in Havana. Its low-riding furniture accentuates the high ceilings and its windows burn the same amber as Kentucky bourbon, neat. The bar is a deep rosewood, polished to a shine by the elbows of drinkers and drunks alike.

A piano plays. His picture is painted on a plate by the bar. The bartender starts out with sugar and mint leaves and lime juice, smushing them with a spoon like his ancestors did before. Then the rum and soda water, clotting together to form the perfect mojito.

Around the corner is La Bodeguita del Medio. Like the Marina Hemingway, where the big charter boats leave to chase the marlin, this is a shrine by design. It's not exactly clear how much time Hemingway actually spent here, if any. It's a fun place to be, the bartenders treat you right, but it seems to be real Ernest Hemingway in the same way Margaritaville is real Jimmy Buffett.

What is real, though? Was the Hemingway who frequented these bars, the man who came down from his hilltop paradise to wear fame like a noose, was that man real?

Today, in the Bodeguita, there's a man who looks a lot like Hemingway. His name is Pedro Rojas, and a Japanese television station has hired him to play the novelist in a television documentary it is doing. He's wearing a hat - Hemingway can't be bald.

He's been sipping rum drinks all over town - mojitos here, daiquiris at El Floridita - but there's a catch. The drinks are alcohol-free.

"I'm working," says Rojas, a 64-year-old Havana man, "and the rum and the work don't go together."

At El Floridita, the Hemingway stool is roped off. This establishment, with its red-coated waiters, deserves to be seen in black and white. At the bar are Lou Jordano and Carolyn O'Brien, a couple from Boston. They came here because of Hemingway. Jordano, a fellow stalker, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, something Hemingway never did himself.

They are smart enough to recognize this place for what it is - another business kept afloat by the legend of the writer.

Yet they also know that this might be as real as it gets. The Hemingway McDonald's isn't here yet, and the drinks do go down easy. They're made the same way as back then. The waiters probably dress the same. So what if the prices are higher. They don't come for a historical dissertation. They come to feel adventure, something they've otherwise traded for the safety of a cubicle and a 401(k). They come for a feeling, for that one moment of one day when they get it. When the lights dim and the band plays and the smoke curls, this place delivers.

"You try to step back and step in his footsteps," says Jordano, as last call closes. "Besides reading his work, you try to look at the world through his eyes. It's the closest you can get to the guy. How much closer can you get than to sit on the stools he sat on, or stare at the same walls or smoke the same cigars or drink the same drinks. It's the closest you can get to time travel. What else can you do?"

A few days in country and it's apparent that Hemingway lived two lives. One he saved for himself, his writing and the unpretentious people in the little towns of Cuba. The other was more public and more powerful.

That Hemingway was the kudu-killing, rum-drinking, bullfighting, marlin-fishing cartoon character, a man who seems as much a myth as the idea that Hemingway wrote only in short, choppy sentences. Like this. Which isn't true. Not at all.

It's the curse of his greatness: With each passing year it becomes harder to cut through the bull. "Over time," Jordano says, "it's too bad he became a big personality and his personality became more famous than his work."

Even here in Cuba, the words and the man are lost in a mad rush to commercialize, to acquire, Papa.

But there's a place.

A place where Gregorio Fuentes used to live before he died at 104. Hemingway knew him as his boat captain, most people came to know him as the Old Man.

A place where the fishing camp is named after him but few tourists go, where Cubans buy fish straight from the captains and drink coffee from Mason jars, where the wind ruffles your hair and balloons your shirt.

It's called Cojimar, a $10 cab ride out of Havana, and the center of town is a restaurant named La Terraza. Now there are pictures on the wall, a wood carving of Gregorio with the inscription, "Everything was old in him except his eyes." The bar stools are simple, the rail along the bottom brass. Out by the water is a bronze bust of Hemingway; the local captains all donated their propellers to be melted for the tribute.

Back then, after a long day of fishing, Hemingway and those captains would sit at La Terraza and tell stories for hours. He'd roar in laughter with men like Armanda Diepa, whose son, now 61, still remembers the man named Ernesto. Standing next to his bicycle, outside La Terraza, Miguel Diepa remembers the time Hemingway came to his house for dinner. He remembers the hours he spent with his father.

"He would sit with anybody," Diepa says. "With you. With me. He was a very humble, simple kind of guy that liked to enjoy sharing with people." That is the person these Cubans love and the person so few get to glimpse. These are the people who don't know the myth, just the man. They know the truth. For instance ... "He liked fishing," Diepa says, laughing. "But he was not a good fisherman. But, when the time came to eat fish, he was a great fish eater."

The best, and perhaps last, place in the world to find Hemingway? It's here, in a town he loved, in a town that loved him back, sitting at the corner window table, where you hear the ocean and see the waves. If he became a persona in the old Havana bars, this is where he is remembered as nothing more than a person. Ernesto.

Across the way is the fishing village, looking much the same now as it did 50 years ago. La Terraza is a perfect place to read, to reconnect with the words. The blender grinds out daiquiris in small cocktail glasses. The fish is mahimahi. It's a fine day to dream about lions. The sun's going down, with no noise but the waves and the flipping of pages.

Wright Thompson is a writer for The Star. To reach him, call (816) 234-4856 or send e-mail to wthompson@kcstar.com. John Sleezer is a staff photographer. To reach him, call (816) 516-9667 or send e-mail to jsleezer@kcstar.com.

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