James Leavey's Corner
Hemingway And The Old Man By The Sea

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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If you can't get there by powered sail, a 20 minutes' taxi ride from Havana will take you seven miles east down the Cuban coast to the sleepy fishing village of Cojimar where Ernest Hemingway used to dock his famous boat, Pilar.'Papa' also immortalised the local fishermen in his Nobel-prize-winning novel, The Old Man and the Sea.

At the side of the small harbour is the La Terraza restaurant, which first opened in 1925 and is renowned for its seafood and long polished wooden bar.The elegant dining room is decorated with photos of the great American writer, a much valued - in every sense of the word - former customer.

Nearby in a small house lives 'Capitan' Don Gregorio Fuentes, who was born in the Canary Islands on Sunday 11 July 1897 and grew up in the presence of the sea.When he was four years old, Fuentes crossed the ocean from Lanzarote to Cuba as a stowaway.His father died on the voyage and the boy arrived alone.

In 1928, Hemingway was stormbound in a very heavy northeast gale, on a friend's yacht at the Dry Tortugas.One day they went on board a fishing smack to buy some Bermuda onions, a staple of Ernest's diet.The boat's skipper was Gregorio Fuentes, who handed over the onions with some rum to wash them down, and refused payment.

The cleanliness and order of the vessel struck Hemingway forcibly and he took at once to its lean and laconic skipper, who, he later recalled, "…would rather keep a ship clean, and paint and varnish, than he would fish.But I know too, that he would rather fish than eat or sleep."

It was said at the time that if Hemingway ever realised his ambition of buying a boat of his own, Fuentes was just the kind of man he would have liked to employ to run it.

Which was maybe why on that fateful day, Ernest took Gregorio aside."I would like you to be the skipper of my boat," he said.

"I didn't take him seriously," recalled Fuentes, "because I thought it was just something that occurred to him because of the circumstances in which we met.But weeks later, when I arrived from France, a port of Havana coastal pilot took me to see him.He was waiting for me to come back so that he could confirm his proposal."

Fuentes had survived his first passage to Cuba by helping the fishermen, as does the young boy in The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway's story of an old man who goes out fishing every day for three months without catching anything.Sometimes he is accompanied by the boy but finally, alone, he hooks a giant marlin, which he fights for two days and two nights.Sharks are then attracted by the blood and rip the marlin to pieces.The old man arrives back on land with just a skeleton.

Both the character of the young boy and the old man were partly based on Fuentes who, 10 years after their first meeting became Hemingway's veteran mate and cook aboard Pilar, and eventually the Cuban-based skipper of the boat.

A couple of years ago, Fuentes recounted the true events behind the idea of Hemingway's best known novel, which was first published in 1952.

"He talked to me about his writing projects," said Fuentes, "and his travels in Africa.One day he asked me to find him a place, a spot where he could meditate and write in peace.And that was what led to The Old Man and the Sea.

"Then one afternoon on the high seas off the Cuban port of Cabanas, we came across a boat with an old fisherman and a young boy on board, trying to save a marlin they had just caught from the sharks attacking it. We tried to help and the fisherman responded by insulting us. Mr Hemingway told me not to pay any attention to him, and said he probably thought we were trying to steal the fish from him."

Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Illinois and became one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.He was noted as much for his boozy, brawling, macho lifestyle as for his taut, selective narrative technique.

The typical Hemingway hero is a sensitive and vulnerable human being struggling to achieve stoical courage and dignity (one of his favourite words) while facing up to life's brutalities. Perhaps that was the reason why the great writer, who had long suffered from depression and could write no more, blew his brains out with both barrels of a shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho, on Sunday 2 July 1961.

He bequeathed his old friend who had accompanied him on fishing trips through the Caribbean, the Florida Straits and the Bahamas, a free meal and a free Havana cigar at La Terraza every day for the rest of his life. Hemingway also left a letter, now in the Museo Hemingway, asking Fuentes to take care of Pilar.

The old man by the sea is now 102 and still graces the restaurant with his daily presence, washing down his usual free meal of shrimps and snails with a double Havana Club Old Gold, straight up, and a Hatuey beer chaser.

The first time I tried to meet him, in summer 1997, I was told he had been drinking and smoking the week before, fallen off the barstool and broken his leg.

Fuentes has since recovered from the fall and remains a living literary legend."Everything about him was old except his eyes," Hemingway had written of his elderly hero, Santiago, "and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated."That description now fits the old man of the sea's role model, who shuffles into La Terraza every day.

One morning years ago, he made a special lunch for Hemingway and some friends to share aboard the Pilar. "All I did was cook the spaghetti in the same water I had used to boil some shellfish," explained Fuentes."It had a different flavour because I put chunks of shrimp, lobster and fishin the sauce and added a touch of hot pepper, the way I like it.That dish became the typical one we served to all the special guests who came on board and Mr Hemingway called it 'Spaghetti a la Don Gregorio.'"

On another occasion Pilar was moored at the dock of the Havana Nautical Club on Port Avenue. Fuentes claimed his right as the boat's skipper to ask for a shot of rum at the club bar when he was rudely pushed away by a drunken American millionaire.Affronted, Fuentes knocked him out and was promptly expelled.

The next morning, Hemingway insisted on confronting the meddling magnate who was still recovering from Gregorio's blow. "This gentleman offended the skipper of my yacht," said Hemingway, loudly addressing all and sundry, "and went so far as to push him.Worse, the director of the club arbitrarily expelled my friend without even hearing his arguments or waiting for me.It seems that money goes farther than a man's honour here.Very well, if you expel my skipper, I consider myself expelled too: and since you have no reason to do that, I'll give you one!"Hemingway then delivered a blow that knocked the millionaire between two barstools.

Today if you ask Gregorio Fuentes about his loyal old friend, he will usually reply,"I am Mr Ernest Hemingway's captain, with a century of sea for him." For in the mind of the former skipper of Pilar, Papa still baits the fishhooks, casts the lines and supplies the yarns.

"Mr Hemingway was a man in every sense of the word," said Fuentes, who is now thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck, like the old man in the novel, "like none other I've ever known.All he asked in return was loyalty, for he would have nothing to do with rumours or cheating.He was my best friend.You know why"Because true friendship smells of the sea."

A few steps north of the restaurant stands a bust of Hemingway cast from old propellers donated by the town's fishermen.Next to this sculpture rises the towers of a small fort officially known as Santo Dorea de Luna de la Chorrera y Cojimar (it was built in 1643) but better known as La Chorrera.

If you ever get to stand at the top of the fort, try to visualise a hilltop in the town of San Francisco de Paula, due south of Guanabacoa, the location of the Museo Hemingway, also known as the Finca Vigia.This was Hemingway's Cuban home from 1939 until he gave it up in 1960, after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

Since then this luxurious white painted country house, with its empty swimming pool, tower and guest house, has been kept as a time capsule,preserving all of Hemingway's books, papers, personal effects and furniture.Just outside sits his boat, Pilar, and one of the rarest signs seen in Cuba, 'No smoking'.They wouldn't have dared place it there during the lifetime of the Havana-cigar loving writer, who once presented Ava Gardner with a Cuban cigar band as a memento of their first encounter.

The Cubans now fish for tourists using Hemingway as bait.As well as visiting the outside of his former home, for a few dollars you can also see the corner room, No. 511, in the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana, where he is said to have written For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Nearby is the city's most celebrated bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, where Papa downed umpteen mojitos, Cuba's national cocktail of rum, lemon juiice, sugar, soda, ice cubes and mint leaf, stirred.

Which brings me back to June 14 1997 when I was in the El Floridita, another of Hemingway's haunts in Havana, smoking a brand-new Vegas Robaina robusto.

I was celebrating what would have been Che Guevara's 69th birthday, if he hadn't been shot dead 30 years earlier.And for the recently revealed fact that he had actually been born on May 14 - a secret closely guarded by his parents for over three decades to avoid the embarrassment of admitting to their snootier fellow members of Buonos Aires society that Che's mother was three months' pregnant on the day she married.

Some of us like to believe that the great American writer and the Argentinian-born revolutionary had met at least once, given the esteem with which they were both held by Fidel Castro, and their love of Cuba.

In 1950, Hemingway donated the cup that is still awarded at the annual fishing tournament held every May at Havana's Marina Hemingway.Ten years later, Fidel Casto caught the biggest fish and was photographed shaking hands with the writer.

So there I was, trying to imagine that meeting, with a Cuban baseball cap parked on my head by some cheery fool who thought it suited me.Then the barman remarked that with it I bore a passing resemblance to Hemingway.

I was downing Daquiris with my friend, Jan Olofsson, the Swedish photographer and music producer.A couple of years earlier, he had met and taken a picture of Gregorio Fuentes enjoying a Havana cigar at La Terraza.Jan was determined to introduce us and mischievously kept telling everyone that I was Hemingway's love-child.For a while I found myself agreeing with him, especially when I was drunk.

That wouldn't have been difficult in Hemingway's day.The El Floridita mixes a lethal Papa Doble by combining two and one-half jiggers of Bacardi White Label Rum, the juice of two limes and half a grapefruit, plus six drops of maraschino, and whirring it in an electric blender with shaved ice.Hemingway held the house record for consuming 16 of them in one sitting and still managing to stagger home. It has to be said that I had no plans to emulate the great man's prowess with booze.

But as George Plimpton, who got to know Ernest well in extensive interviews during the 1950s, put it, one could see the bulge of Hemingway's liver "stand out from his body like a long fat leech."

Forty years on, our illegal taxi driver ferried Jan and me via a creaky 1952 Ford to Miramar, one of the Cuban capital's more prosperous neighbourhoods.It is also the home of Alberto Korda, who took the world-famous Messianic-like photograph of Che Guevara which sparked off student unrest around the world in the 1960s and is still an icon of revolution.

Korda had often got rolling drunk with Hemingway in Havana's bars so I asked him if I resembled his old drinking pal, Papa. "No," came the instant, gruff reply and my ego, briefly puffed up, was just as swiftly deflated.

Now let's step back to 1934, when Hemingway found that he at last could afford his own fishing boat and ordered it to be built by the Wheeler Shipyard in Brooklyn, New York.He named it Pilar in honour of the shrine and the feria at Zaragoza, and for his second wife, Pauline, who had chosen it as one of her secret nicknames when she first fell in love with Ernest.

The bill came to $7,500 and Arnold Gingrich of Esquire magazine advanced Hemingway $3,300 against future Esquire articles so that he could make the down payment.

Before leaving for Africa, Hemingway had heard about the island of Bimini, a fisherman's paradise that lay 45 miles east of Miami, and needed his own boat to get there.He had fished enough off Key West to know precisely what he wanted: a diesel-powered 38-footer with twin screws, double rudders, ample bunk space and proven seaworthiness.She had to be sturdier than most craft both below and above the waterline.

Indeed, Pilar, with her close-set ribs of steam-bent white oak, 1 ¼ by 1 ¾ inches, was as solid as the Matterhorn.Her flying bridge was high enough to spot fish within a quarter-mile radius and give decent headroom from the lower deck.She also had a very low-cut stern with a large wooden roller to bring big fish over and the flying bridge was reinforced so that Hemingway could fight fish from "the top of the house."

The bridge was seven feet above the afterdeck, and the space above was large enough to hold half a dozen friends.According to Hemingway's fourth and last wife, Mary, it was as big as a Hollywood bed inside its steel railing, and sometimes became one, with three or four people sleeping on a big air mattress behind the topside wheel and controls.

Pilar had a 12-foot beam and drew 3 ½ feet of water - spacious and manoueverable in the shallows where the Tarpons live.The biggest Tarpon Hemingway ever caught with this rig weighed 135 pounds; he often said that he hooked bigger, but lost them.

Having no siding along her afterdeck, an innovation in the 1930s when most boats' cabins extended to their sterns, she stayed cool on the hottest days in sub-tropic seas, with the canvas curtains rolled up.

The 110-horse-power engine provided enough cruising speed - eight to nine knots.Since the Gulf Stream pours along Cuba's north coast usually only a few hundred yards offshore, Ernest had no need to run ten or fifteen miles to his fishing grounds as most boatmen usually do.

Pilar also carried a small Universal 35-horse-power auxiliary engine, which could provide strength enough to hold her way against heavy seas.She had no gadgets: no ship-to-shore telephone and no fathometer. But she did carry, when fully loaded, 2400 pounds of ice, considered essential for a boat that had a minimum cruising range of five hundred miles in the sub-tropics.

When Ernest introduced her to Mary Welsh in May 1945, Pilar was a well-seasoned craft. Three years earlier, the boat had been crewed by eight of Hemingway's most trusted cronies, including Fuentes. They loaded her with grenades, high-calibre machine guns - disassembled and sneaked on board in people's pockets, bazookas, short-fuse bombs, a collapsible rubber dingy for emergencies, and sound-detection gear.

She had then served as a Q-boat hunting German submarines, which were torpedoing Allied tankers off Cuba and along the eastern coast of the United States.Native fishermen, plying their trade along the edges of the Gulf Stream, bought back tales of enemy submarines which surfaced, boarded their vessels, and demanded supplies of fresh water, fish or vegetables.

Hemingway had sought and got the reluctant official permission for his plan from Colonel Thomason, who had been helping him with his war anthology and was now Chief of Naval Intelligence for Central America.

"Ernest", said John, who was so cautious about the scheme that Papa nicknamed him 'Doubting Thomason' but nothwithstanding broke all military regulations to procure the necessary equipment, "you are certainly going to have to improvise."

The code designation for Hemingway's apparently hair-brained plan was Friendless, named after one of his favourite cats at the Finca.

For about a year and a half, Pilar cruised the Gulf Stream and the islands off Cuba's north coast, a month at a time, pretending to be a scientific expeditionary ship, in a fruitless search for U-boats before the project was disbanded. You can get an idea of what it was like by reading the second part of Hemingway's novel, Islands in the Stream.

With Gregorio Fuentes attending her, Pilar rode out the vicious hurricane of the fall of 1944 which put half the Cuban navy and merchant and private shipping into the streets of Havana or at the bottom of the harbour.In May 1945 she was still in the prime of life, and freed of her wartime accessories.

Her fond owner, Hemingway, lived in Cuba, off and on, for 22 years - his longest residence anywhere. He used to say that the Caribbean island held many attractions for him, especially the cool morning breezes which enabled him "to work as well there…as anywhere in the world."And it was handy for the Gulf Stream, which he called the Great Blue River, where he enjoyed the finest fishing he'd ever experienced.

By the end of the Second World War when he returned to settle down in Cuba, Hemingway was beginning to lose his battle against the bottle and his inner demons.As early as 1937, he had been warned by a physician to give up drinking, but Papa relied on his ability, which he often demonstrated, to cut back on the booze when he had to write.That skill was now diminishing and, just before his untimely death, completely disappeared.

But 38 years later, in the first centenary of his birth, Ernest Hemingway's work, influence as a man and a writer, beloved boat and former skipper, still live on.Undefeated.

Copyright James Leavey, 1999.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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