SAN FRANCISCO DE PAULA, Cuba – A bullfight poster hangs on the wall. Of course it does. Ten bottles of liquor are on the table. No surprise there. A Billie Holiday vinyl record rests near the Victrola. Just as it should. Loads of books sit on the shelves, animal heads are mounted on the walls. We’d be disappointed if that weren’t the case.
We are at Ernest Hemingway’s house in the hills outside Havana, surrounded by the detritus from a life of action and reflection. And, to be sure, of production: Over there is the Royal typewriter, down there is the wastebasket for discarded typewritten pages. And because Hemingway was a man of vision – not only of a new form of literature but also of physical beauty – there is a spectacular view of the city miles away and, beyond that, of the sea. It is a vision of tranquility for a man of vitality and anxiety.
Modern Cuba – the island Columbus called “the most beautiful land ever seen” – is haunted by Hemingway and another revolutionary, Fidel Castro: two men of another time, vigorous and vainglorious, bearded insurrectionists who waged war against all conventions, one broken by drink and its remorseless toll, the other by the incessant force of economics. One American, one Cuban, they made for an evocative pairing at a time, the early 1960s, when the destinies of their two countries were intimately mingled, as they have been since the sinking of the battleship USS Maine and a future president’s description of himself as a Rough Rider at the 1898 Battle of San Juan Hill.
Hemingway died by his own hand, his dreams clouded by despair. Fidel Castro died of natural causes, his political ideals discredited in the eyes of much of the world after the fall of communism and, to a large extent, in the eyes of those who supported his revolution and then paid for it in poverty and disillusionment.
The two met only once, at a fishing competition held in Hemingway’s honor, and the pictures that emerged from that rendezvous have always spawned speculation. What drew them together? (Short answer: fish.) What did they say to each other? (Widely reported: Hemingway commenting that he was a novice at fishing, Castro averring that Hemingway was a lucky novice.) What do we make of that meeting, and of those pictures? (John Updike: They seemed “beatified, and resemble two apostles by Durer, possibly Peter and Paul.”)
They fought their battles, literary and military, in far different circumstances. Hemingway – like Castro a force of nature and a wonder of nature – reached his bougainvillea-draped retreat on a route that today is choked with decrepit housing, where bed sheets blow to dry in the wind off the harbor, sad and sober emblems of the poverty that may be the most enduring legacy of Castro’s Marxism and America’s economic embargo. Both cramp Cuba today.
Hemingway occupied his lyrical hillside retreat when he wasn’t strolling through an embassy party with Ava Gardner on his arm, or fishing off the Bacardi-bathed beaches, or challenging the editor of the Havana Post to a duel, or gulping a tumbler of Dubonnet amid a fusillade of resentment, or writing “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Castro, by contrast, did his most remarkable work storming the Moncada Barracks in 1953, in exile in Mexico, on the boat Granma that carried the revolutionaries back to Cuba, or hiding in the Sierra Maestra range. A mojito man, he was not known to favor Dubonnet.
The British author Norman Lewis once asked Hemingway his view of Castro, whose hiding place then was being strafed by the ancient Cuban Army Air Force propeller airplanes of the despotic Fulgencio Batista. Hemingway hemmed. “You wanted to know his opinion on the possible outcome of what is happening here,” Lewis wrote in an excerpt included in Alan Ryan’s “Reader’s Companion to Cuba,” in some ways the island’s best guidebook. “The answer unfortunately is that he no longer cares to hold opinions, because his life has lost its taste. He told me nothing, but he taught me more than I wanted to know.” Two years later Castro sent Batista packing.
Two years more, 2,300 miles away, Hemingway put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth.
Throughout pages of raw FBI files flow suggestions that Hemingway, who favored the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, might be a Communist. They show, moreover, that in the first months of the revolution, the Castro movement had Hemingway’s strong support and that he “thought it was the best thing that ever happened to Cuba.”
The FBI had been watching Hemingway since as early as 1942, with the U.S. Embassy’s legal attache cabling Washington that the writer’s “experience during the Spanish Civil War, his intimate acquaintances with Spanish Republican refugees in Cuba, as well as his long experience on this island, seemed to place him in a position of great usefulness to the embassy’s intelligence program.” The files indicate that Hemingway, though an FBI skeptic, did cooperate and, horrified by the corruption he saw in the Batista government, even mounted investigations of his own.
One of the friends of Mary Hemingway, the writer’s fourth wife, said that she was told the Castro regime was primed to take over Fina Vigia (“Lookout House”), as Hemingway’s retreat was known. So she made a shrewd deal, giving the property to the government as long as she could retain the unfinished manuscripts secreted in a safe in the house.
Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, returned after 46 years to the house she had found in an ad and had repainted from yellow to what she called a “dusty pale pink.” She reflected on the giant ceiba tree that beguiled her, recognized the furniture she had ordered, brushed by the desk where Hemingway wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls” – and bolted as soon as she could. “I remembered with what gaiety I had come to this country and how I had left,” she wrote, “frozen in distaste of a life that seemed to me hollow and boring to die.”(cq)
Today Hemingway is remembered not only as a magisterial writer but also as a boor and a bore, in fact hollow and boring to die. And Castro? His Marxist-Leninist state still exists, though the revolution has petered out. Today the most prominent billboard figure in Cuba is neither Hemingway nor Castro. It’s Che Guevara.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.