Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Hemingway lived in a hotel for seven years. That’s something that, now that I have been traveling nonstop for nearly two years, I can identify with.
Ernest Hemingway came to the Ambos Mundos (“Both Worlds”) Hotel in 1932 and moved into room 511 on the fifth floor, only one floor below the balcony bar — it’s no spoiler to say that following Hemingway’s footsteps means stopping in a number of bars. He continued to rent the room until 1939. And he only moved out because his soon-to-be third wife, Martha Gellhorn, declared that she could not live in a hotel room.
When I knocked on the door of room 511, which is now a sort of museum within a hotel, a middle-aged peroxide blonde in heels answered the door. “Can I come in?” I asked.
“Yes, okay,” she answered in a Cuban accent, looking annoyed. “But only for five minutes. We have a conference today.”
“A conference? On Hemingway?” It dawned on me who those people were I saw a few minutes earlier gathering in the second-floor conference room.
“Yes, a colloquium.”
“Can I come?”
She snorted. “No.” She struck me as a would-be literary groupie. If Papa came back to life and appeared magically in room 511 she would surely throw herself at him. But I was just some guy off the street to her and unworthy of much attention.
I looked around the room. It wasn’t big, surely a bit cramped for a seven-year stay, even if he wasn’t here nonstop but traveled for long stretches. A writing desk with a glass case shielding it held Hemingway’s typewriter aloft near the center of the room, along with a copy of the issue of the Paris Review with his contribution to its “Art of Fiction” series. Near the door a bookcase held copies of some of his books in various translations. Although he began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls here after returning from the Spanish Civil War, I didn’t see a copy of that novel. Instead, several versions of Old Man and the Sea dominated the top shelf, beneath a wooden model of his beloved boat, the Pilar.
A portrait of the great writer himself hung over the bed. I rather wished that they would have left the room the way it might have been when Hemingway stayed here — surely without his own portrait. Reproductions of Impressionist paintings — Renoir, Monet, and Cezanne — took up some of the remaining wall space. “He wanted to write,” the woman in heels said to me, “the way Cezanne painted.”
My mind circled back to the name of the hotel: Ambos Mundos. What both worlds? In this room there was a hint of the world of literature on the one hand and that of the plastic arts on the other. Outside of it, well, a hotel is by definition a way station, a place where one moves from one world to another, from an origin to a destination, from where we come from to where we’re going. A threshold. What did it mean then that Hemingway lived with one foot on the threshold for seven years? Could he not make up his mind to move forward or backward? What does it mean that I have by now been living in innumerable hotels in dozens of countries?
A sudden cacophony: Half a dozen conference attendees came in with name tags pinned to their chests. One man had a serious video camera on a tripod. They were all speaking Spanish — was the colloquium to consider Hemingway in translation, then? I left them and went upstairs to the rooftop bar overlooking Havana harbor and the old palace of the Captains General of the Spanish colonial government. Here Ernest must have ordered quite a few drinks.
But in his own words, the Ambos Mundos bar was not his favorite. “My mojito in La Bodeguita,” he wrote, “My daiquiri in El Floridita.” And Hemingway’s endorsements had brought legions of tourists to both. El Floridita, at the other end of Obispo Street, on which the hotel was also located, was not subtle about cashing in. A bronze statue of Hemingway stood at the end of the bar, and tourists took turns taking photos with it. As I came in, a young white American man with a broad face and a receding hairline was loudly exclaiming to another couple: “Tomorrow no one cares! Yesterday is already gone!” He said it like it was very profound. The other couple got up and left. He clutched his Asian girlfriend and glared at me when he saw me looking. I doubted that Hemingway would enjoy the place much today.
La Bodeguita del Medio, or La B del M, a stone’s throw away from the hotel in the shadow of the cathedral, struck me as more authentic. From the outside it looked like it might be a garage, with twin roll-up aluminum doors. The bar was small and left most of the space to the restaurant behind. And when I arrived I was pleasantly surprised to find so few patrons that I had a seat at the bar. I looked up and saw framed amongst bottles of rum the quote above in Hemingway’s own handwriting. Yes, he might still have come here, though I had to assume that he would disapprove of the pink straw that now came with every mojito.
And the quietude was short-lived. A moment after I sat down, all the colloquium attendees came over from the hotel, name tags still on their shirts. I left the bar behind and went inside to see the restaurant. Photos of celebrity guests covered the walls, from Rihanna to Rita Hayworth, interspersed with scribbles of all sorts.
The next morning I took one of Havana’s innumerable classic-car taxis to La Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s old estate where he lived after moving out of Ambos Mundos and until 1960, after the Cuban Revolution. The car was a Chevrolet, but the driver explained that everything on the inside was now Toyota. “Cuban ingenuity,” he said with a wan smile. With US sanctions, Cubans could get neither replacements nor replacement parts for their old cars from the 1950s.
I had met no one else intending on going to La Finca Vigia (“the Lookout Farm”), which was out of the way in the working class suburb of San Francisco de Paula. So it was an unpleasant surprise when I arrived and found a large Taiwanese tour group, the members of which kept getting in my way posing for photos.
More useful to me was an American family who had hired a professional guide for me to eavesdrop on. The Joan Miro painting in the dining room, he said, was a copy of the original that the Hemingway family had taken back to Washington, D.C. (Left unspoken: the Cuban government appropriated this house and all that was in it after the Revolution.) Ernest had asked Miro to hold it for him while he waited for his royalties from The Sun Also Rises to come in, and with that money he finally bought it. By the guest room the guide enthused that Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, and Ava Gardner among others had all slept there. And there were two theories about the telescope atop the tower, he said, one was so that Hemingway could see which bars in old Havana were open, the other said that it was to spy on Gardner sunbathing by his pool. Old photos decorated the walls of the pool house, one was of Hemingway throwing a party for local fishermen when he won the Nobel Prize. The Old Man and the Sea had been inspired by one of their number from the nearby fishing village of Cojimar.
But throughout the house were also reminders of where my sensibilities part ways with his. That self-conscious machismo of his. Indeed, if a contemporary male American writer acted the way he did, we’d all be asking if he wasn’t compensating for something. Did he really need all of those stuffed gazelle heads as hunting trophies? Did he really need that buffalo head looking over his desk, with the bullets and shotgun shells on it? Of course he eventually shot himself with one of those. But if he were alive, PETA would be protesting outside. And his fishing boat, the Pilar, resting on the far side of the pool. Hemingway sailed out in it during WWII to help patrol for German U-boats in the Caribbean. But did he really help the Navy at all, or were weekend sailors like him more of a nuisance?
Hemingway looms large in the minds of aspiring male writers, and I can’t deny that he looms large in mine. We dream, on some level, or being him — if only our prose is true and our hearts are brave. But then I’m reminded of a certain freelance journalist and law student I know of who went off to Syria spouting Hemingway — he wanted to see the war the way Papa saw WWI and the Spanish Civil War. He’s never been heard from since.
On the wall in the bathroom Hemingway had scribbled years of results of his daily weigh-ins, a small but poignant record of one man’s physical decline. And then of course there was the final suicide, shortly after he left this house and Cuba behind.
Perhaps the two worlds were that of his image and that of his reality. When you set yourself up to be the embodiment of literary masculinity, perhaps you’re never quite man enough. When you declare, more or less, that you’re the most interesting man in the world, perhaps you’re never quite as interesting as you’d like to be.
But who am I to judge any man who lived a life like Hemingway’s? And I sure would like to be the most interesting man in the world.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."