The people of Cuba love Ernest Hemingway, and Hemingway, when he was alive, loved them back. That is why Hemingway dedicated his Nobel Prize for Literature medal to them. In fact, it is on display in Iglesia de la Caridad del Cobre in Santiago de Cuba. And that is why Andrew Feldman conducted 10 years of research for “Ernesto: The Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba.”
The Sorbonne-educated Feldman was the first North American scholar permitted to study in residence at the Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Cuban home, allowing him to unearth several new facts and stories about the author. Feldman accomplishes this feat by tapping into his own Cuban resources, changing what we knew before.
Feldman hooks the reader early, writing about Fidel Castro’s coup de gras over Batista, and why Castro, who met Hemingway at a fishing tournament in 1960, admired and respected Hemingway so much. Unlike many biographies, Feldman oscillates between historical facts, such as the mafia’s interest in running Havana’s casinos, and key moments in Hemingway’s life on the island, making his book an enjoyable read.
Feldman poured through thousands of letters and archived documents, mining relevant information for the historical sections: “After 350 years of slavery and colonial rule, Cuba fought three separate wars of independence between 1868 and 1898 … Historians have often described the Cuban War of Independence as the largest slave rebellion in the New World.” Additionally, the author’s research shows that “Cuba’s story of revolt started, not with Cespedes, Jose Marti, or even Fidel Castro, but with a defiant Taino native chief named Hatuey, who was burned at the stake in 1512.” It is in these sections that Feldman so deftly discusses the many reasons why Hemingway appreciated Castro as a leader, never speaking out against him.
According to Feldman in a phone interview: “Hemingway believed Castro would change how the Cuban citizens were being treated. Remember, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Cuba was a war zone akin to Iraq, and Hemingway thought Castro’s policies would favor Cubans better than Batista and his oft-corrupt police and army were treating them.”
Castro respected Hemingway as well. In fact, he used portions of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” for war tactics during his insurrection from the Sierra Maestra mountains. But after they met at the fishing tournament, Hemingway had his doubts about the dictator. “Mary (Hemingway) reported that something intangible during the encounter caused Hemingway to wonder if Castro would be able to follow through on his promises. This uneasy feeling about Castro and how his experiment would turn out, along with the rising instability and tension against foreigners in Cuba in 1960, perhaps influenced Hemingway to temporarily relocate to Idaho, where he would wait out the true results of the Cuban Revolution. He left his home full of valuables and his manuscripts in a Cuban deposit box, because he hoped in his heart to be able to return soon to his beloved Finca in his second homeland,” Feldman says.
In addition, Feldman asserts that living in Cuba was a humbling experience for Hemingway: “Following failures in his career and deflating a bloated ego, Hemingway rediscovered sincerity in himself, in his writing in Cuba, and some redemption.” Before he arrived on the island, Hemingway was married three times, and he often betrayed his friends. He belittled F. Scott Fitzgerald, calling him a rummy and disparaged him in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” He lampooned one of his mentors, Sherwood Anderson, with his parody of Anderson’s book “Dark Laughter” with “The Torrents of the Spring.” But the tide changed for Hemingway in Cuba – he befriended Cuban writers and artists including author Enrique Serpa, whom Hemingway respected immensely. He read every Serpa book and worked to get him published in the United States. He, and his friend John Dos Passos, also worked hard to support the career of Cuban painter Antonio Gattorno.
Like any reliable biographer, Feldman writes extensively about the author’s many creations, but he pays special attention to three books set in Cuba: “To Have and Have Not,” “The Old Man and the Sea” and the posthumously released “Islands in the Stream.” In “To Have and Have Not,” the protagonist, Harry Morgan, affected by the Great Depression, runs rum and Cubans from Key West to Havana. The second portion of “Islands” is set in Cuba, where, after learning that his son died in the war, Thomas Hudson drinks himself numb at the El Floridita Bar and Restaurant, Hemingway’s favorite drinking hole, which is still open. Section three deals with Hudson and his crew tracking German U-boat survivors off the Cuban coast. During this time period, Hemingway formed the Crook Factory – comprising Hemingway and his friends – who reconnoitered the north coast of Cuba in Hemingway’s 38-foot fishing boat, Pilar, in search of German U-boats.
Throughout the book, Feldman turns his attention to Hemingway’s love life on the island, which was plenteous. He discusses a relationship with socialite Cuban resident Jane Mason, inspiration for Margot Macomber; his longtime lover Leopoldina Rodriquez (Honest Lil in “Islands in the Stream”); and 19-year-old Adriana Ivancich, a Venetian aristocrat, and the model for Renata in “Across the River and Into the Trees,” who “ignited Hemingway’s creative fires” during his writing of “The Old Man of the Sea,” for which Ivancich created the cover art. It is worth noting that Feldman visited Leopoldina’s niece, who said Hemingway and Leopoldina had a 15-year affair, and Hemingway stayed with her when she was dying of cancer. Shockingly, “Hemingway was the only person at her funeral, for which he also paid.”
Feldman covers a lot of ground in his 384-page book. Most importantly, he is able to display just how much the Cuban people still admire Ernest Hemingway. The Finca Vigia is still there (recently remodeled), and after Hemingway died on July 2, 1961, the citizens of Cojimar commissioned a sculpture to be placed at the entrance of the Cojimar harbor. But the Cojimar citizens were very poor, “so they melted down the propellers from their boats” for the bust. Today, Ernest Hemingway’s eyes are fixed on the harbor where Santiago fished for marlin.
Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.