Hemingway and His Romance With Cuba

By BobbyRica | January 12, 2012

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When one talks about Cuba. One can’t help but think about how significant the island was to one of my greatest idols ever: Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway, famous adventurer, journalist and writer, who made the expression ‘The Lost Generation’ famous, lived out some of the most significant parts of his life in Cuba, and there is no doubt that he loved their shores. He started visiting the country as a favorite tourist spot in the ’30s, and later established residence there, first in Hotel Ambos Mundos and later purchasing his house, the Finca Vigia. He resided in Finca Vigia in with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, within 1941-45, as well as his last wife after Martha, Mary Welsh Hemingway. One quirk of his time in Finca Vigia was that he had learned to love and raise many cats there.

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Oddly enough, a big deal of what connected him to Cuba was his beloved fishing boat, El Pilar. There was even a period during WW II, around the time he lived in Finca Vigia with Martha, when he sought the Cuban government’s help in refitting Pilar so that he could spy for German U-boats to help the war effort. Later, Hemingway took a more active role in the war, getting himself in military court and in the hospital because of it.

Among the books he wrote in Cuba were For Whom The Bell Tolls, Across the River and Into The Trees, and the one which truly made him famous, The Old Man and The Sea. For him, Cuba was one of those places which sparked inspiration and helped percolate his writing, especially in his later years. Of course, I refer not only to the places he had resided in and loved to visit. I also talk about Cuba’s waters, where he spent days fishing with the many Cubans he hired as shipmates, catching big fish as well as braving dangers such as the elements and the sharks in the area. Notably, Cojimar is also known as the place where one of the largest Great White sharks had been caught.

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It’s commonly believed that Hemingway’s boat captain, Gregorio Fuentes, was the main inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea’s main character Santiago. Gregorio had also never read the novel and was presumably not involved in its creation. Was it possible that Ernest imagined how Gregorio was going to become as he got older? Hemingway actually had written that another of his Cuban shipmates, a Carlos Gutierrez, told him stories that inspired him to write the novel, but is on record as saying that his novel is based on ‘no one in particular.’ Perhaps even more fascinating than the truth, people imagined Gregorio becoming more and more like Santiago as he got older, and the myth of him being the inspiration for Santiago only grew until the day he passed away in 2002.

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Sadly, as much as he had fond memories of vacationing and becoming a war hero during his various years he lived in Cuba, Hemingway also lived out his saddest years there, particularly after a serious car accident in 1945. He lived to see his many literary friends, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, pass away, and health complications only grew with more accidents and injuries. Despite his numerous health problems, and although a US citizen, he was in good terms with the 1959 revolutionary government. Given his worsening mental and physical condition, however, he would eventually leave Cuba for Idaho, where he could be treated for depression and where he would live out the last years of his life.

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Hemingway was in the middle of working on his memoir, A Movable Feast, and also had three other works in the pipeline, True at First Light, The Garden of Eden, and Islands in the Stream, when he left Cuba. In his rush to leave, he decided to leave the latter three in a safe deposit box in Havana. Eventually, Cuba made a museum of Finca Vigia in his memory and housed these works, among his over 9000 books and other effects there. Today, the Finca Vigia, the El Pilar and his favorite haunts in Cuba within his life time, have become popular tourist destinations.

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