“Papa was a rolling stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home.” But when Ernesto “Papa” Hemingway “laid his hat” in Cuba, it became his “home” for over twenty years. I needed to know why.
I grew up in the 1950’s, the child of upper middle-class master’s degree parents who were both accomplished educators. Life was simple then. With a total three TV stations, all of which signed off at midnight, no computers and no cell phones or tablets, the options for a child were limited. The 1950’s version of the “smart phone” arrived in our house when the rotary dial on the phone was replaced by a mechanical keypad. Our home was stocked from floor to ceiling with books, and this is where most of my time outside of school was spent. My lifelong fifty books per year habit can clearly be traced back to this. I was introduced early to the great authors of the day including Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Mailer, Michener, Steinbeck, Salinger, and many others, but my love for the works of Hemingway reigned supreme. He was the “Big Bopper” of literature. By the time I was sixteen I had consumed his entire catalog at least twice. In the years that followed I have circled back many more times. With the fullness of time more about this man’s talent, genius, and personality has been revealed to me. He was a figure of enormous brilliance and wisdom, and the man of his day in so many ways.
When travelling I like to visit the homes and final resting places of the world’s great statesmen, artists, philosophers, writers, musicians and scientists. In doing so, more of the person is revealed to me. I have done this with Winston Churchill, Lyndon Johnson, Vincent Van Gogh, William Butler Yeats, and dozens of others that I admire. Following Hemingway has been in my sights since I retired. I have done extensive research on this enigmatic man and the more I learned, the more I yearned to know. I set my sights on Europe and found that to visit Hemingway’s many dwellings throughout Europe is not possible, as most of these are now private residences. I moved on, only to find that his final home in Ketchum, Idaho is closed to the public. Although I was discouraged, perhaps this was for the better, as Papa was not happy in Ketchum, being neither physically or mentally sound during this final period of his life. He had lost his writing genius and was painfully aware of this. He had always seen life as a losing battle, and this theme is central in almost all his writings. He had now become one of his own characters.
A paiting of Hemingway on display inside his writing studio.
Next, I decided to visit his Key West home of eight years. For $14 you can get a 30-minute guided tour that is well worthwhile. It is here in Key West that Hemingway was prolific and wrote many of his great novels including To Have and Have Not, A Farewell to Arms, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The Hemingway’s personal tastes are visible throughout the house including furniture purchased in Europe and by the then-current Mrs. H., and Ernest’s animal trophies and skins from African safaris and hunting outings. Yet to my dismay, and for reasons that I cannot explain, I did not feel Papa’s presence here, even in the studio where much of his genius flourished. It felt like a museum, and not a home. Papa’s spirit had long since “left the building.” I was disappointed, but not discouraged.
I knew in my heart that the spirit and genius of this man was still with us, even 56 years after his death. I would stay on the trail.
Cuba would be my next and final stop. I was aware of how much Hemingway loved Cuba and its people, as well as their love and admiration of him. I was sure I would find Papa’s spirit here. Hemingway did not go directly to Key West from Paris, but in fact arrived by way of Havana. He felt a deep affection for Cuba, as he returned after his time in America. It is here, in the small seaside fishing village of Cojimar just outside of Havana, that Hemingway spent his mornings beginning at sunrise working on what are amongst his greatest works including A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, and The Old Man and the Sea. Cuba provided the inspiration, and Papa’s genius did the rest.
The 1955 Chrysler New Yorker that Howie rode to the Hemingway house in.
So, I went to Hemingway’s home in Cojimar in search of Papa’s ghost. If I were to find it, it would be here. Castro ruled Cuba for forty-nine years and outlasted eleven US presidents. Che Guevara is an international hero. Yet in Cuba Hemingway, now dead almost six decades, still looms large. He unequivocally remains as much a symbol of Cuba as the others. He was the “Easy Rider” of his day, and a macho man before macho ever came to town. He was More Macho than Macho, in a time when such was revered. I walked around downtown Havana near Plaza Vieja in search of the right ride. Papa drove a 1955 Chrysler New Yorker convertible in Cuba. I wanted to arrive in one of these. I asked many of the taxi drivers and all indicated that finding this model would be unlikely. There were many other classic American car taxi’s there but no Chryslers. I decided to be patient and spoke to one of the drivers indicating what I was looking for. He said he would “look into it.” I slipped him a small gratuity as well as my room number at Hotel Nacional. Cuban’s are amazingly resourceful, and my request was sent out on the grapevine. That evening my phone rang and I agreed to meet a driver the next day who had a Chrysler, but not a convertible. I was thrilled! I arrived at Plaza Vieja and met my driver and my soon to be taxi to Cojimar. It was a shiny black Chrysler sedan and a New Yorker to boot! Not a convertible, but close enough. I asked the driver what the model year of the car was and he replied “ Cincuenta y cinco Senor.” 1955!! Is this possible? Unbelievable! The stars had aligned. I am working hard to connect with you Ernesto. Please let me into your world.
The drive to Cojimar is a short one, and before I realized it we were parked in front of Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm). It felt right from the second we arrived. This home in Cuba is the real deal. To my surprise and delight, I had adequate access to the home and grounds, and could feel Hemingway’s presence everywhere. I climbed up to the small tower writing studio and gazed at the original Corona typewriter that produced some of the world’s greatest works of fiction. My mind drifted as I envisioned Papa at sunrise, bare chested in only shorts and sandals, typing away, his genius flowing with each keystroke. Downstairs I saw his hunting trophies, library, art and a few of his favorite photos. Inside the bathroom I saw the original scale where he weighed himself, as well as the record of his daily weight that he had penned onto the wall next to it. He was very disciplined about his weight.
Inside Finca Vigia, you will find Hemingway's library and writing studio complete with his Corona typewriter.
Behind the main house I saw the burial plots and grave stones of his four beloved cats. I envisioned Papa stroking one of these creatures as he read his newspaper and sipped on a Havana Club Mojito. Behind the swimming pool sits the original “Pilar,” his prized fishing vessel. He deeply loved this boat and spent many hours aboard her on the blue-green waters of the Gulfstream in search of giant Marlin. A Havana club cocktail was always within easy reach. As I stared at Pilar Papa appeared to me again. The sea was a beautiful blue-green and I could feel the wind and smell the salt air. His enormous bare-chested hulk was tanned and sweating profusely. I felt my stomach roll as Pilar pitched in the steep afternoon swells. Papa was on to a giant Marlin; in battle with a thousand-pound fish. His face was the picture of total concentration and his was so clearly in his element. I watched mesmerized. There was a bright flash and I saw an enormous fish jump as he reeled furiously to take in some line. I heard a loud splash as the fish landed back in the sea. My senses were totally alive. I was there with him.
Hemingway's beloved Pilar on display at Finca Vigia.
Suddenly the vison was gone, and I found myself staring at Pilar in her inanimate state. I got the message. It was time to leave and Papa was telling me in his own way. He was a very private man and had revealed to me all he had wished to. I had come in search of his spirit and ghost and had found both. Papa had been generous to me. Thank you, Ernesto.
Before returning to Havana I went down to view harbor to view his statue looking out to sea. This bronze casting was made in his memory from scrap propellers donated by the local fisherman who profoundly loved and admired him. I gazed at this beautiful bronze bust and looked deeply into Papa’s eyes. I did my best to convey my thanks for his generosity today and his wonderful literary gifts to the world, and to communicate how much both had meant to me. For an instant I again felt his presence. It was unmistakable and palpable. Tears began to flow uncontrollably down my cheeks. The driver asked if I was OK. I nodded and returned to the car. It was time to go. I had finally found what I had been searching for.
Hemingway's bronze statue gazes out to sea from the Cojimar harbor.
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