I have a fascination with the late author Ernest Hemingway, referred to as ‘Papa’ in Cuba, but I have yet to read one of his books. In Havana I followed in the author’s footsteps yet again, after having been ‘introduced’ to him in Pamplona in Spain whilst walking the Camino in 2018. My interest in him is growing, and I will look to buy his books on my return. There is no doubt that Hemingway may be equally or better known for his drinking and hanging around in bars as he is for his books!
Whilst visiting the Ernest Hemingway Museum Finca Vigia outside Havana, I was able to find a book by Enrique Circules, a Havana scholar researching the relationship between Cuba and the USA, entitled ‘The Unknown Hemingway’. The book covers various aspects of Hemingway’s life in Cuba, his personality, his interests, his passion for women, his passion for alcohol and with it his favourite drinking holes, the prizes he won for his writing, and finally, his end. Whilst living in the Ambos Mundos Hotel, at the bottom end of Obispo street, he frequented the Inglaterra Hotel, The Prado, the Sevilla Hotel, and the Saratoga Hotel and its sidewalks cafes, all still going strong in Havana, except for the last mentioned sidewalk cafes. His dress was described, seemingly befitting his character: ‘..with his wasted half trousers, an old shirt, a cap with an eyeshade, and his way of walking, a little odd, you would see him… ‘
I have created a timeline from the book, to give a clearer dimension of the esteemed author’s life:
#. Born 21 July 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, USA
#. In 1921 Hemingway lives in Paris, accompanied by his first wife Hadley Richardson.
#. In 1925 he completes his novel ‘Fiesta’, and travels with the manuscript from Paris to New York.
#. In 1926 he publishes his first novel ‘The Torrents of Spring’.
#. In 1928 Hemingway visits Havana for the first time.
#. In 1929 he publishes ‘A Farewell to Arms’. In this year he visits Havana for a second time.
#. In 1930 Hemingway visited Italy and Spain and went to hunt in the USA, being in a car accident in the latter country late that year
#. In 1931 he returns to Havana, staying in the Ambos Mundos Hotel. His second son Patrick is born, and a few months later his father commits suicide.
#. In 1932 he publishes ‘Death in the afternoon’, about bulls, bullfighting and bullrings, with 10300 copies printed. Once again he returns to Havana, for a fishing trip, and again he stays in Room 511 in the Ambos Mundos Hotel, extending into an initially unplanned stay of two months, having an affair with the very young and attractive Jane Mason, and revising his book ‘Death In the Afternoon’. In this time (as well in the following year), he observes the political events in Havana, with shootings out of cars. A film version of Hemingway’s book ‘A Farewell to Arms’ is screened. A second book, ‘Winner Take Nothing’ is published, with 20300 copies.
#. In 1933 the USA imposes upon Cuba ‘a new scheme of domination’. In this year, extending into 1934, he travels to Africa for two months, on his first safari, he becomes ill with amiboidean fever, but recovers quickly and ‘hunts in the region of the Masai’.
#. In 1934 he commissions the building of his yacht Pilar to a New York shipyard, at the princely sum of $7455. On receipt of his yacht he and Jane Mason sail along the coast of Cuba for four months.
#. In 1935 Hemingway is in Havana again, still involved with Jane Mason. He starts writing ‘Green Hills of Africa’, about his hunting expedition, shooting lions, rhinos, and antelopes. The book is published, with 10500 copies.
#. In 1936 he publishes ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ as well as ‘The Brief Happy Life of Francis Macomber’. He meets Martha Gellhorn in Key West, and she arrives in Madrid, a journalist, there being an instant attraction between them.
#. In 1937 he publishes ‘To Have and Have not’. He travels to Barcelona, then to Valencia, and to Madrid, joining the Spanish soldiers fighting in the trenches of the Civil War. He meets Martha Gellhorn in Madrid. He leaves Madrid, to travel to the USA. He visits Havana four times in this and the following year.
#. Hemingway and Gellhorn visit Paris, and Spain briefly, before traveling to New York by ship in 1938.
#. In 1939 Hemingway divorces Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife, and gets engaged to Gellhorn. He rents a room at the Sevilla Hotel, in which Gellhorn stays, while he writes in the Ambos Mundos Hotel. This leads them to rent Finca Vigía in San Francisco de Paula, and to buy it eventually.
#. After numerous visits to Cuba, he settles on the island from 1939. In this year he publishes ‘Nobody ever dies’., about a Cuban revolutionary.
#. In 1940 ‘For whom the Bell tolls’ is published, a book reflecting the Civil War in Spain, in which he participated so closely. The last paragraph of the book was rewritten 39 times, the author admitted. It was a success, and a movie about the book followed, with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper in the lead roles. The book was a favourite of Fidel Castro, guiding him in how to fight a guerrilla war. In this year too Hemingway travels to Hong Kong, to report on the war between China and Japan.
#. During the Second World War Hemingway hunted German submarines along the Cuban coast with his yacht Pilar, winning a Bronze Medal of Courage for ‘his commitment against Fascism’, having founded an anti-Fascist agency he called ‘Crook Factory’, in Cuba. In this period too the FBI opens a dossier on Hemingway, and his activities in Havana, the power of Hemingway’s fame as an author becoming a potential threat if he were to write about the Cuban-USA relationship at the time, involving the Mafia and Cuban President Batista at the time.
#. In 1943 Martha Gellhorn moves out of the Finca home, returning to New York.
#. In 1944 Hemingway is in London, during war bombing, he ‘had an accident, and the news of his death was scattered throughout the world’.
#. In 1945 Hemingway returns to Cuba. He divorces Gellhorn.
#. He started a book called ‘The Sea Book’, about the Second World War, but never completed it, having written about 1000 pages of it by 1947, but it was never published, having been intended as a trilogy.
#. In October 1947 Hemingway flees Cuba, and stays away for two years
#. In 1950 he publishes ‘Across the River and into the Trees’. It is documented that Hemingway and Welsh threaten to shoot each other, due to the hospitality Hemingway affords the Countess Adriana Ivancich and her mother in their guest bungalow at the Finca.
#. In 1951 his mother and ex-wife Pfeiffer die. At this time it is documented that Hemingway had 57 cats, a few dogs, and hundreds of pigeons.
#. In 1952 ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is published.
#. In 1953 Hemingway travels first to Spain, the first time since the Civil War, and then to the Kilimanjaro area, for his second safari. In Uganda he experiences two serious aviation accidents. Once again rumours of his death spread around the world. He wins the Pulitzer Prize for ‘The Old Man and The Sea’, a Book based on an old fisherman Santiago and a boy fighting off a shark whilst fishing, by harpooning the shark, being from the fishing village Cojimar, outside Havana. In this village is a bust of the author, created by the local fishermen of the village, created from the ‘bronze of their propellors’.
#. In 1954 he wins the Nobel Prize, declaring himself to be the first Cuban to win this prize. He undertakes a second safari to Africa.
#. In 1960 he writes ‘A Moveable Feast’, based in the personalities he met in Paris in the ‘Twenties, including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Scott Fitzgerald.
#. In 1960 he leaves Cuba, ‘disappointed with the process of social justice that had unchained in Cuba’, under pressure of the American government, given his vocal support of the Cuban Revolution, never to return. His phone is tapped, and he is aware that he is under investigation by the FBI.
#. On 21 July 1961 Hemingway commits suicide in Idaho in the USA, just like his father had done before him. Welsh travels to Cuba, and removes key valuables and documents from the Finca with the assistance of Valerie Danby-Smith, Hemingway’s personal secretary in 1959 and in 1960. She donates the Finca and its remaining content to the Cuban government.
#. In 1999, in an article published in El Mundo 38 years after his death, Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary Welsh is quoted as saying about the author: ‘Ernie has become truculent, brutal, aggressive, and extremely childish. I am witnessing the disintegration of his personality….’.
What I learnt about Hemingway whilst in Havana is the following:
#. He had a fishing boat called Pilar, and is quoted as saying that the Gulf Stream on the north coast of Cuba offers prime game fishing of sailfish, tuna, mackerel, swordfish, barracuda, marlin, and shark. The best known fishing centre of the country is the island Cayo Guillermo, which was uninhabited in Hemingway’s time, a setting he wrote about in ‘Islands in the Stream’. Lonely Planet recommends fishermen to visit this island off the mainland island, for a ‘fishing trip extraordinaire’, with a tropical setting, large and lots of fish, and being accompanied by ‘the ghost of Hemingway from port to rippling sea and back’. The Pilar yacht can be seen at the Finca Vigia.
#. At lunchtimes Hemingway went to the pink-painted El Floridita, where he savoured their daiquiris, his favourite having been a granadilla one. I visited this most popular of all tourist attractions in Havana, a jam-packed Bar, with a massive red painted wood bar counter, and a bronze sculpture of Hemingway resting on the bar counter. Staff wear red ties, white shirts, and red aprons. A second section behind a velvet curtain is a dining restaurant. Right up front at the entrance door, at which some visitors have to queue outside until there is space inside, is a live band playing delicious Cuban music. Hemingway is said to have drunk ten daiquiris (and doubles) over a lunchtime. Perhaps this kept his writing fluid. Circules writes: ‘El Floridita became his preferred place. A place that very soon would integrate the list of the most famous bars in the world’, alongside Raffles in Singapore, that at Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, The 21 Club in New York, the Pied Piper Bar at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, the Ritz Bar in London, and the Ritz Bar in Paris. His favourite drink was a double Daquiri, without sugar, made with Cuban rum, frappe ice, lemon or lime, and a touch of marrasquino.
I was extremely lucky to share a table at El Floridita with a couple from Dublin, seated right in the front nearest the band. At El Floridita it would be sacrilege to not order a daiquiri, the choice offered being a strawberry or a lime one. They are charged at 6CUCs (R90), and are served with a plate of the most delicious lightly salted banana chips. Even more remarkable and serendipitous was the chance hearing of a South African English accent in the Bar, and the lovely lady told me that she is a SAA stewardess, part of a crew that flew to Havana especially to collect 200 medical students. Just two days prior I had met two such students, who had just completed their six years of medical studies, paid for by the SA taxpayer, accommodation and food provided, with R3500 pocket money per month, all because we do not have enough study places for our South African medical students! SAA does not fly to Havana, but this was a chartered trip, by the government no doubt. They were doing a 24 hour stop over before returning. I spoke to pilot Captain Glen, who told me that they flew direct from Joburg, for fifteen and a half hours. On the way back they stop at Accra, to refuel. I had to laugh that he was enjoying a Daquiri, when pilots are not supposed to drink 24 hours before a flight. The stewardess laughed it off. It was a fantastic experience at El Floridita, and visiting this bar is very highly recommended.
Fellow Austrian BnB guests in Havana told me that a tour they went on included a demonstration of preparing a Daquiri: lime juice, sugar added and lightly stirred, a fruit juice (they were shown a mango one), making up three quarters of a tall glass, and then white rum added counting 1 2 3 4 5.
#. At night Hemingway is said to have drunk Mojitos at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, and this also was his abode, in room 511, from which he could see the Havana Harbour, and where he wrote
‘For whom the Bell Tolls’, described as one of Fidel Castro’s favourite bedtime reading books. Lonely Planet describes this hotel and its rooftop bar as an ‘obligatory pit stop for anyone on a world tour of ‘Hemingway once fell over here’! Hemingway’s room is now a museum, with the same furnishings, including his reading glasses and fishing rods.
Mojitos were Hemingways favourite drink here. According to the Austrians, these are made with lime juice, sugar added and lightly stirred, mint, and then white rum added, to the count of 1 2 3 4 5.
#. A surprise was that my Guidebook shared that the Marina Hemingway in Havana is the largest in Cuba, taking up to 400 boats. It is the home to an annual Hemingway Fishing Tournament, which first started in his lifetime, in 1950, with passionate anglers participating in this competition to catch the largest deep-sea fishing catch. In the main, boats departing from this marina catch tuna, marlin, and mackerel.
#. The setting for ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is the fishing village of Cojimar. In this village Hemingway moored his yacht, and was a regular at the La Terazza bar. I was privileged to be shown the village by Alain Barrios Chávez, who lives nearby.
Alain arranged a taxi to collect me from the BnB, and negotiated a good price of 10CUC with the taxi company, with a nice driver of Italian descent, to drive me to Cojimar. I drove through the underwater tunnel for the first time, not too long, with a ‘toll station’ on the other side, but one doesn’t stop to pay, not sure if it is charged by camera. From here it is a triple lane highway in each direction, with modern street lighting, and palm trees and greenery, along the ocean. We passed Casablanca which I had visited previously, to see the El Cristo statue, and turned off into Cojimar, on the outskirts of Havana.
I was dropped off outside La Terazza, another of Hemingway’s drinking holes, his boat Pilar having being moored near it. But a sad surprise was that it is closed for renovation, and is only reopening in October. I saw the extent of the wooden bar counter inside. There is a priceless collection of photographs of Hemingway and his passion for fishing, but packed away during the renovations. The restaurant is called ‘The Terrace’ in Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, and Cojimar fishing village is where the ‘Old Man’ lives. Rotsen is the name of the owner of La Terazza, and sells drinks out of a little ‘bar’ on the terrace, at next to nothing, a Heineken at 1,25 CUC. It wasn’t five minutes later, and there was Alain, meeting me there, equally surprised about the closed restaurant and tourist attraction. We had a lovely walk through this little fishing village, with a completely different residential style, mainly houses, some with gardens. It felt so free, I felt I could breath, one is not living on top of each other, there is greenery, the blue sky full of heart clouds, and at the ocean of course. If one sees apartment blocks, they are no higher than five storeys, and they have space between them. At best everything could do with a lick of paint. The buildings are newer than in Centro where I am, or in Old Havana, but not brand new.
We found a bust in honour of Hemingway, under a weird Greek blue dome, he looking out to sea. He looked very lost there, in what the plaque called the Ernest Hemingway Parque. Alain showed me where the hurricane earlier this year damaged Cojimar, hitting this village the worst. A type of tsunami destroyed the houses at the seaside, but they have been rebuilt. The government warns residents in vulnerable structures, like those made from wood, about a forthcoming hurricane, and takes them to a place of safety. One has to sign a type of indemnity if one does not want to leave one’s home. There is a weather-beaten fort at the ocean.
Shocking to see is the plastic and other rubbish at the water’s edge. Even if there are bins (we saw one overflowing), one would just drop the litter in the street or into the sea, Alain explained. Some houses are decorated, and I saw one with a whale and a dolphin, another with a shark and seahorses, made with shells, and ones with retro-look brown/white and green/white tiles. And a beautiful looking but severely neglected mansion. Alain walked me to the spot where one can get a taxi, and a ramshackle blue old-timer without any suspension stopped. Once again Alain negotiated a good price for me, and I hopped back to the BnB, a combination of the suspension-less car and the potholes on the road leaving Cojima. A lovely time spent with Alain in a part of Havana having no link visually to what I’ve seen up to now, and another part of the Hemingway ‘route’.
#. The Finca Vigia, now the Ernest Hemingway Museum, outside Havana, is surprisingly large. I rented a taxi, to take me to Fusterlandia, and then to the Museo Ernest Hemingway.
A complete contrast to Fusterlandia was driving a far distance through the outer Havana countryside, no longer seeing any signs of Havana city, to get to Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Vigia, in the suburb of San Francisco de Paula, a massive property with his spacious house, a guest house, a pool, a massive space for his fishing boat Pilar, a tower from which he could see the Capitolio in Old Havana, a tennis court, and a burial space for his four dogs. He lived here between 1939 – 1960, and died a year later in 1961. The main house has been renovated by the government, and while one may not enter it, the doors and windows are open so that one can photograph each room. As I discovered to my regret, Hemingway was a keen hunter too, and his home is full of stuffed trophies of different species of buck, demonstrating his shooting skills, none of lions luckily, but I saw a photograph of him with a lion he had shot, at Hotel Ambos Mundos. He had a massive crescent-shaped desk, and in his study was a white ceramic work by Picasso, on the wall furthest from the window, so hard to see clearly and to photograph.
Hemingway had three sons, and I have only seen him in a photograph with one of them in all the Hemingway stops I’ve made.
Entrance costs 5 CUCs and there is a gift shop which sells some of Hemingway’s books in Spanish. But none in English. I have not been able to find any of his books in English at bookshops I have enquired at. I did find ‘The Unknown Hemingway’ as a biography, by Enrique Curules, which helped me in writing this post.
Hemingway has an amazing influence on Cuba, if one sees how he is revered in two museums, busts, the statue in El Floridita, in photographs in bars, in a painting on a building near the fishing marina in Cojimar, and more.
I found these Hemingway quotes whilst researching this story:
‘There is no friend as loyal as a Book’
’Always do sober when you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut,’
’Courage is grace under pressure’
’There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed’.
‘The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them’
’There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self’.
Hotel Ambos Mundos, Obispo 115, Old Havana, Cuba.
El Floridita, Obispo 557, Old Havana, Cuba.
Museo Ernest Hemingway, Finca Vigia, Vigia y Steinhart Street, San Francisco De Paula, Havana, Cuba. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday 9h00 – 17h00, Sunday 9h00 – 12h30. Closed on rainy days!
La Terazza, Calle Real 161, Cojimar, Havana, Cuba.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein