The old man and the boat: Hemingway, Cuba and me

Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway

6 minute read
A ladies' man, and also a guy's guy.
A ladies' man, and also a guy's guy.
In July 1961 I was visiting my brother in New Hampshire, where he had a summer job at his prep school. That's when the news came that Ernest Hemingway had blown his head off. If you can bear the details, you'll find them in Paul Hendrickson's very important new book, Hemingway's Boat.

"Hem," as he was called (also "pig" and "big fat slob" by the women who loved him), had spent the last year of his life in Ketchum, Idaho, with interim trips to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He was struggling— big time— with bouts of depression, paranoia and more ailments than I can list.

Dying is something we have to tend to, and be done with, he would sometimes say in a letter. It's at the end of our "to do" list.

"When you have loved three things all your life," wrote Hemingway, "…to fish, to shoot and, later, to read; and when all your life the necessity to write has been your master, you learn to remember."

He worked hard at "getting it right," finding the few simple words that might convey something new. (He played hard, too.) If you haven't read Hemingway's masterpiece, The Old Man and the Sea, just read the first page. Chances are you'll read Page 2, and more.

I've spent time in Key West and the Bahamas— Hem's boatyards — but not until several bike tours in Cuba did I become more interested in Hemingway the writer. He's Cubans' second most widely read author, behind only José Martí (author of Our America, and more). Hemingway dedicated his 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature medal to the Cuban people. Cuba is where he caught the big ones, 500-pound marlins that took hours to slack and tire, and to protect; he would use a machine gun to fend off the sharks. (A shark could yank off 25 ponds with each bite. For the grim details, see Hendrickson.)

In quest of an idol

Gregorio Fuentes, the old Cuban who baited the hooks and fixed the lunches, who looked after the boat when Hem was away, was asked in later years if he had ever read Hemingway. "No need," he responded. "I was there."

What drew me closer to Hemingway, after visiting his Havana haunts, his Finca (where his beloved boat, the Pilar, now sits on blocks on Papa's tennis court), the little town of Cojimar where the local fishermen, after learning the news, melted several anchors to forge a bust in memory of their good friend… what really hooked me was the DVD Hemingway in Cuba, a deft, fast-moving 30-minute film on how Hemingway and Cuba became inseparable.

A few years later a friend gave me a copy of Arnold Samuelson's With Hemingway; A Year in Key West and Cuba. As a young man in Minnesota, Samuelson had idolized Hemingway. After reading that Hem was back from Africa, en route to Key West, he promptly packed his bag and began hitching south to meet him.

Unannounced, he knocks at the author's door and hardly knows what to say when Hem suddenly appears. "I thought maybe we could visit," says Samuelson.

Hendrickson's chapter on the friendship that developed is very special, at least to me. At about Samuelson's age, I had done something similar (though first writing for an appointment), hitching to New York City to meet with the poet e.e. cummings in Greenwich Village.

Lesson: Don't be shy. If someone has written a poem or a book that means a lot to you, reach out to'm.

Train to Key West

Hemingway had returned from Africa via Europe in the spring of 1934. While in New York he put down a deposit for a 38-foot fishing boat to be built by the Wheeler Boat yard in Brooklyn (he'd name her the Pilar). Then he and Pauline (wife No. 2) would board the Havana Special, a Pennsylvania Railroad train that ran daily from New York to Key West, with ferry connections to Havana (the same train that President Coolridge took en route to the 1928 Pan American Conference in Cuba). On the way, Hem stops in Philadelphia to meet with Charles Cadwalader at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Charlie Cad and a colleague later joined cruises with Hem in Cuba, researching the Gulf Stream fish.

Hendrickson is not just a great researcher/writer; he's a private detective— at times the "guy noir" of Hemingway's life and letters, purchase orders and train schedules, documenting at length Hem's troubled family and his bouts of rage and depression. Drunk one night in Bimini, the boxer Hem staggers to the dock where his 400-pound tuna hangs like a punching bag, and Hem goes for it, 20 minutes on the bag.

The chapters on Hemingway as a boy in Michigan (where I also learned to catch bass and pike), as host to his friends Nita and Walter Houk (whose wedding reception was held at the Finca), the chapters on Hem's youngest son Greg, aka "Gigi" aka "Gloria"— these pages paint the larger canvas of Hemingway's private life.

(Hendrickson currently teaches creative writing at Penn. His earlier book, The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives Lost to War, approaches Vietnam in the same way he has approached Hemingway.)

Water-skiing to Havana

On a clear night, from the lighthouse near Matanzas, Cuba, it's said that you can see the lights of Key West, historically a "suburb" of Havana, a city far closer to Cuba than Miami. Hendrickson's theory on Gigi's last living hours near the big lighthouse at Key Biscayne may not break your heart, but it just might reacquaint the eyes with moisture.

A "ladies' man," yes. But Hem was also a "guy's guy." While in Key West I visited with the former Mayor Charles "Sonny" McCoy, who in September 1978 had water-skied from Key West to Havana, all in six hours and ten minutes. I asked McCoy a very Hendrickson question: Didn't he take a break at some point, just to rest a while in the water?

"Not in the Florida Straits," he responded. "In those waters, once you're up, you want to stay up. It's too much work getting up."

Hemingway, some would say, walked those waters for 20 years, until it was just too hard to stay up. But what a guy.

What, When, Where

Hemingway’s Boat; Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, 1934-1961. By Paul Hendrickson. Knopf, 2011. 544 pages; $30.

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