Ernest Hemingway began visiting Cuba regularly in the early nineteen thirties after he and his second wife, Pauline, settled in Key West.  Hemingway was drawn to Cuba because of the excellent game fishing in the Gulf Stream.   His friend, Joe Russell, a rumrunner and owner of a speakeasy in Key West, took him to Cuba in 1932 for the annual marlin run. They had planned to stay in Cuba for two weeks and rented a charter boat, the Anita, for fishing. They ended up staying for about two months.

Hemingway reported that he caught nineteen marlin and three sailfish. He obviously enjoyed the fishing and hanging out in the waterfront bars of the Havana harbor.  The story goes that Russell was approached in one of these Havana bars and asked to smuggle some men into the United States. Russell refused, saying, “I won’t carry anything that can talk.” Hemingway used this adventure with Russell in his 1937 novel, To Have and Have Not, in which the protagonist, Harry Morgan, also refuses to smuggle three rich Cubans to Key West: “Listen” I said, “I told you I didn’t carry anything that can talk. Sacked liquor can’t talk. Demijohns can’t talk. There’s other things that can’t talk. Men can talk.”  Clearly, more than marlins had caught Hemingway’s attention that first summer fishing in Cuba. Cuba was full of potential stories for Hemingway. Off and on for the rest of his writing career, Cuba would provide him with experiences and anecdotes that would make their way into his novels and his non-fiction.

Finca La Vigía

Finca La Vigía – Ernest Hemingway House in Cuba – ©Wikimedia Commons by InZweiZeiten / CC-BY-SA-3.0

In 1933, Hemingway returned to Cuba for a second season of marlin fishing, again renting the Anita. This time he hired the experienced Cuban fisherman, Carlos Gutierrez, as his mate. Although not as well-known as Hemingway’s later first mate, Gregorio Fuentes, Gutierrez not only taught Hemingway a great deal about game fishing in Cuban waters, but also told him the story of an old Cuban fisherman that Hemingway recounts in his Esquire article, “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter” published in April, 1936:

“Another time an old man fishing alone in a skiff out of Cabanas hooked a great marlin that, on the heavy sash cord handline, pulled the skiff far out to sea. Two days later the old man was picked up by fishermen sixty miles to the eastward, the head and forward part of the marlin lashed alongside. What was left of the fish, less than half, weighed eight hundred pounds. The old man had stayed with him a day, a night, a day and another night while the fish swam deep and pulled the boat. When he had come up the old man had pulled the boat up on him and harpooned him. Lashed alongside the sharks had hit him and the old man had fought them out alone in the Gulf Stream in a skiff, clubbing them, stabbing at them, lunging at them with an oar until he was exhausted and the sharks had eaten all that they could hold. He was crying in the boat when the fishermen picked him up, half-crazy from his loss, and the sharks were still circling the boat.”

This story of the old Cuban fisherman that Gutierrez told him is clearly the basis for Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1952 novel, The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway calls the anecdote that Gutierrez recounts “a wonderful story of the Cuban coast.”  Although it took Hemingway almost twenty years before he transformed this story into his best-known novel, he continued to learn much about Cuba and the Cuban people that he would incorporate into his life and his work.

Ernest Hemingway, Hotels Room-Laslovarga

Ernest Hemingway, Hotel Rooms – ©Wikimedia Commons by Laslovargar / CC-BY-SA43.0

Hemingway not only liked to fish in Cuba, he liked to write there as well. He was always restless when writing and he frequently left Key West to stay in the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Havana when he was working on a project.  The Ambos Mundos is a lovely hotel on Calle Obispo near other Havana haunts of Hemingway’s, like the Floridita, a bar where he drank his famous daiquiris.  His attraction to the Ambos Mundos and to Havana during the early 1930’s was enhanced by the affair he was having with the beautiful wife of a rich American, Jane Mason. Supposedly, Jane Mason occasionally walked a narrow outdoor ledge connecting her room on the 5th floor of the Ambos Mundos Hotel to Hemingway’s room to ‘distract’ him from his writing and to avoid the public hallway.  If she had fallen, it would have been a long drop to the street. The story may be part of the “Hemingway Myth” but the affair was real. Jane was beautiful, wealthy, a daredevil and married to a much older man.  Some scholars believe that Jane Mason served as a model for Margot Macomber in Hemingway’s well-known short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Hemingway fans who come to Cuba today can visit the 5th floor room in the Ambos Mundos that Hemingway used as his Cuban “writing studio” and check out the narrow ledge that Jane Mason supposedly navigated.

In 1934, Hemingway purchased his own boat, the Pilar, a 38-foot fishing vessel that was docked in Key West but made many trips in the ‘30s to Cuba and to Bimini as Hemingway followed the fish in the Gulf Stream. Here is Hemingway describing leaving Havana harbor in a 1949 article in Holiday magazine:

Coming out of the harbor I will be on the flying bridge steering and watching the traffic….As you go out, seeing friends along the waterfront, your feather gig is fishing all the time. Beyond the boulevards are the parks and buildings of old Havana and on the other side you are passing the steep slopes and walls of the fortress of Cabanas, the stone weathered pink and yellow….Sometimes as you leave the gray-green harbor water and the Pilar’s bows dip into the dark blue water a covey of flying fish will rise from under her bows and you will hear the slithering, silk-tearing noise they make when they leave the water.

Statue of Ernest Hemingway by Cuban artist José Villa Soberón

Statue of Ernest Hemingway by Cuban artist José Villa Soberón – ©Wikimedia Commons by Frederic Schmalzbauer / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Frequently visiting Cuba in the 1930s and moving there permanently in 1940 after his divorce from his second wife, Pauline, and marriage to Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway had many adventures on the Pilar. In 1934, Hemingway hosted two scientists from the Philadelphia Museum of Natural History for a month on board the Pilar, where they fished in Cuban waters. Hemingway called them the “Cientificos” and helped them catch numerous marlin, which gave them enough information to revise the classification of marlin for the whole North Atlantic.

During the early part of the Second World War, Hemingway took on a more dangerous mission in Cuban waters. German submarines had been regularly reported in the Gulf of Mexico. Hemingway heard stories of turtle fishermen off the north coast of Cuba who encountered German U-boats. One Cuban fisherman actually had his catch, his food and his fresh water taken away from him by the crew of a U-boat, which surfaced unexpectedly.  With the help of the American Embassy in Havana, Hemingway obtained equipment, including a Radio Direction Finder, to help spot the German subs as he and his crew of the Pilar, disguised as scientists doing research, cruised the waters off the northern shore of Cuba.  Their job was to report activity, but Hemingway hatched another plan to actually entice a German U-boat to surface so that they could capture it. He called his friends who participated in this gambit “The Crook Factory” and he tells much of the story of these pursuits as well as other Cuban adventures in his novel Islands in the Stream, published posthumously in 1970.

Hemingway lived in Cuba from 1940 until his death in 1961. He lived longer in Cuba than any other place, though he frequently left Cuba in the hot season for cooler climates in Wyoming and Idaho. In 1939, he married Martha Gellhorn, a young and beautiful reporter whom he met in Key West in the mid-1930s.  He and Martha reported together on the Spanish Civil War from 1936-38, and returned to Havana together to begin their married life. Hemingway was working on For Whom the Bell Tolls, his Spanish Civil War novel and they lived briefly at Hemingway’s old haunt, the Ambos Mundos Hotel. Martha found the hotel cramped, with little space for her to do her work, so she set out to find a more permanent home for them in Cuba. What she found was the Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), a property about 18 miles from Havana on a small hill near the small town of San Francisco de Paulo. The house was beautiful and spacious but quite run-down. Hemingway was reluctant to be so far from Havana but Martha prevailed.  At first, they rented the house but later bought it and did extensive repairs. They added a tennis court and a swimming pool, fixed decaying walls and enjoyed the breeze from their hilltop. They hung Hemingway’s collection of paintings, including paintings by Miro, Klee, Braque and others that Hemingway had acquired when he lived in Paris in the ‘20s. They also hung his hunting trophies from several African safaris.  Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary, later built a small tower on the property that included a writing room for Earnest with a serene view of the countryside. He actually preferred to write standing up in his bedroom, using a bureau chest for his typewriter, so Hemingway’s cats soon overtook the tower room. The Pilar was anchored nearby in the fishing village of Cojimar and the house had room for his three sons to visit during their school holidays. Hemingway could write, relax and enjoy his family. He even sponsored a baseball team of village boys for his son Gregory to play with, equipping them with balls, bats and gloves and occasionally playing with them.

When Hemingway died in 1961, just as relations between Castro’s Cuba and the US were deteriorating rapidly, the Cuban government allowed Mary, his fourth wife, to retrieve many of his possessions and papers, including his paintings and his unpublished manuscripts, which had been locked in a vault in a Havana bank. Then Castro’s government seized the house and all the contents that were left, including Hemingway’s extensive collection of books, many of them annotated.  But Castro and the Cuban people had great respect and even love for Hemingway.

When he won the Nobel Prize in 1954, Hemingway had given the Nobel medal to the Cuban people and had it placed in the shrine the Virgin of El Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba. He often said “I am Cuban” and indeed he considered Cuba to be his true home.  The Cuban government and individual Cubans have honored him in many ways, the most important being preserving the Finca Vigia and opening it as the Hemingway House Museum. The Pilar was brought to the Finca and preserved as well. Now Finca Vigia is a popular attraction for visitors who can see how “Papa” Hemingway lived and worked.  Over time, the house and its contents, particularly papers and letters that Mary left behind, have experienced some serious decay but there have been recent efforts to preserve these documents by Cuban and American archivists and scholars working together. While the Finca Vigia is often crowded with tourists these days, visitors can clearly see how Hemingway and his family lived and can gain some insights into how he worked and how living in Cuba for almost 22 years affected him.

There are actually many other signs of Hemingway’s presence in Cuba.  When he died, the fishermen of Cojimar, where he docked the Pilar and where he set The Old Man and the Sea, commissioned a statue of Hemingway made entirely of metal from their propellers and other metal pieces of their small boats. It stands today in the small harbor of Cojimar.  There are, of course, Hemingway’s haunts in Havana, like the Floridita and the Ambos Mundos that attract attention. Fittingly, the large state marina near Havana is named for Hemingway.  Hemingway also started the well-known International Billfishing Tournament in Cuba in 1950 that is still being held each year.  In fact, the only time that Hemingway met Fidel Castro was when Castro entered the tournament in 1960, shortly after the revolution.  Castro won and Hemingway presented Castro with his prize.