Hemingway’s Havana: The Cuban capital retains numerous tributes to the famous author

In the 1940s and 1950s, Ernest Hemingway was the most famous reveler at Floridita, one of his two favorite Havana bars, where he spent long afternoons with his large hand wrapped around a delicate daiquiri glass. Often he would order “papa doubles,” with twice the amount of rum of a normal drink, a further testament to the American author’s robust appetite for life.

Hemingway still oversees the bar’s revelers, but now as a life-size bronze statue by Cuban artist José Villa Soberón, which leans comfortably over the long mahogany bar at Floridita’s far end. Beside him, uniformed barmen busily mix the signature cocktail for what has now become a fairly posh restaurant.

The statue smiles serenely at the hundreds of tourists who daily come to pay tribute to the author. Behind the statue, a framed black-and-white photo of Hemingway with Fidel Castro offers Cuba’s own homage to one of the Caribbean country’s greatest expat celebrities.

Hemingway loved Cuba, where he lived for more than 20 years and wrote several of his most famous novels, including A Moveable Feast, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. The latter work, the story of a lone Cuban fisherman and his struggles with a huge marlin, earned the author both the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Hemingway always considered himself a Cubano sato — a man of the people and an ordinary citizen. For that and other reasons, Cuba is still in love with the 20th-century American author, who in some sectors almost rivals revolutionaries José Martí and Che Guevara in influence and popularity.

While there is no formal Hemingway trail in the usual tourist sense, the author’s haunts and habitats still abound in and around Havana. The most motivated acolytes could visit the major sights during one full day (and evening), provided that too many daiquiris are not consumed in the process.

Start at Floridita — its location in Old Town Havana at the end of Calle Obispo (Bishop’s Street) and across the plaza from the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana has made it a popular tourist destination. In addition to Hemingway, American poets Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos and British novelist Graham Greene frequently favored its rum-laced cocktails.

Hemingway liked daiquiris at Floridita, but legend has it that he preferred his mojitos at La Bodeguita Del Medio, a favorite watering hole for journalists, artists, writers and entertainers. Poet Pablo Neruda, novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, entertainer Nat “King” Cole and others did frequent this typical Cuban bar, but there is some dispute just how often Hemingway really appeared, according to descendants of original owner Angel Martinez.

Nonetheless, the bar is immensely popular among tourists. They often stand in long lines to enter the establishment, drink a mojito and scour the framed signatures and comments on the walls from customers, famous or otherwise — even if the authenticity of Hemingway’s autograph, “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita,” is up for debate.

After a few of either cocktail, the faithful may want to stop in at Hotel Ambos Mundos, the large salmon-colored edifice in the heart of Old Town Havana. Hemingway kept a room there between 1932 and 1939 and often slept off his nights of drinking at the place.

The cornerstone of any Hemingway homage, of course, is Finca La Vigia (“Lookout Farm”), the author’s hilltop residence that is now The Hemingway Museum. It’s located in the working class suburb of San Francisco de Paula about 12 miles east of central Havana.

Hemingway purchased the then-15-acre property and country home, designed by Spanish architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer, in 1940 for $12,500. It’s where he wrote many of his most successful works and lived with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, and his fourth and final wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway.

Hemingway was in the United States being treated for depression in 1961 when the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred, causing Cuba to declare itself a Communist state. By then the government had seized all private property, a process it had started in 1960, including Finca La Vigia. Due to the U.S. embargo of the island, the Hemingways could not return home.

Mary Hemingway was able to negotiate with the government for the return of some small and personal items, artwork and manuscripts, but the house and most of its furnishings became property of the state. The losses didn’t help Hemingway’s continued mental decline and the author committed suicide at his summer home in Sun Valley, Idaho, on July 2, 1961.

Over the years, Finca La Vigia fell into ruin and was on the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of 11 most endangered historic sites even though it was outside the country. But in 2007, Hemingway’s home was restored by the Cuban government with the help of the Boston-based Finca Vigia Foundation, which continues its work preserving the property and its furnishings.

Bright and airy, the home is a faithful recreation of how it looked when the Hemingways lived in the house. The heads of big game animals — trophies from Hemingway’s hunting days in Africa — line many of the rooms and overlook a library of 9,000 books, almost 20 percent of which have Hemingway’s handwritten notes in the margins. Even the bathroom houses a substantial bookshelf.

The house’s collection also contains 4,000 photographs, five scrapbooks, manuscripts and galley proofs. Hemingway’s beloved 38-foot fishing boat, Pilar, sits restored and drydocked on the now 12-acre property, which also includes a guest house, swimming pool with cabanas, small baseball field and groves of almond, avocado and mango trees.

Finca La Vigia often constitutes the end of the Hemingway pilgrims’ visit. But there is one more site equally important to understanding the author just to the north of San Francisco De Paula.

The fishing village of Cojímar sits at the estuary of the Cojímar River, which leads directly to the Caribbean Sea off Cuba’s north shore just east of Havana. Although more rundown, it looks much the same as it did when Hemingway used to launch Pilar from its marina for a day of fishing.

Cojímar and its people were the inspiration for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The village also served as the location for John Sturges’ 1958 film version Milwaukee native Spencer Tracy. Ernest and Mary Hemingway both had cameo roles as tourists in the movie.

When Hemingway and boatman Gregorio Fuentes returned from a day at sea, the pair would invariably stop at La Terraza De Cojímar for seafood and the inevitable mojitos to review their day.

The bar and restaurant’s small back room faces the estuary, with bright light radiating from the water into the dining area. A corner table that was Hemingway’s favorite remains roped off in another homage to the little eatery’s most famous patron.

Peering out the windows nets visitors a view of the shimmering blue-green sea, the light dancing off its placid waters the same as it must have done in Hemingway’s day. The view alone makes it easy to understand what attracted Hemingway to Cuba and how the charms of the sea kept him on the island for more than two decades.

It’s good to know, too, that daiquiris and mojitos were only part of the equation.

By Michael Muckian, Wisconsin Gazette

December 4, 2015

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