Ernesto: The Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba by Andrew Feldman (Melville House, 496 pp.)
By Paul W. Gleason
A Hemingway biographer is spoiled for material. Styling himself a man of action, Hemingway drove an ambulance during World War I and then reported from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. His private life was even more exciting. Papa had four wives, innumerable lovers, and feuded with everyone from Gertrude Stein to F. Scott Fitzgerald. One time he punched the poet Wallace Stevens in the mouth.
It’s all in Andrew Feldman’s new biography, of course. Who could leave any of it out? But in Ernesto: The Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba Feldman focuses on Hemingway’s life in the fishing village of Cojímar. Other biographers “had concluded that Hemingway lived in Cuba in isolation,” writes Feldman, but his research “revealed a completely different Hemingway.” Hemingway enjoyed long friendships with Cuban artists, athletes, fishermen and their children.
While he may not have lived in isolation, Hemingway called writing “the loneliest of trades.” He both needed to be alone and found it very difficult. In Ernesto this tension inspires the best and worst of his behavior. His loneliness made him needy and therefore controlling and cruel, especially to the women in his life. It also made him generous and kind to his Cuban neighbors.
Hemingway first arrived in Cuba in 1928. He was in flight from his life in Paris, where he had won literary acclaim and then betrayed everyone who made it possible, especially his first wife, Hadley, whom he had abandoned for the younger and wealthier Pauline Pfeiffer. “He couldn’t help himself,” Hadley later reflected, “Pauline fell madly in love with him. And Ernest was weak in the sense that if someone wanted him very much, he was tremendously touched by it.”
He needed Pauline’s affection, but soon resented his dependence on her money. Asserting his independence, he left her in their Key West home for weeks at a time, fishing the gulf between the U.S. and Cuba. Often as not, he took a girlfriend along.
One of his girlfriends was the dashing blonde reporter Martha Gellhorn, who was destined to become his third wife. He quickly became dependent on her, too. While preparing to report on the Spanish Civil War, Feldman writes, “Ernest phoned her often from New York, complained of loneliness, and pleaded with her to come along.” After the war, he left Pauline and “sought refuge, as he often had, on Cuba.” Martha joined him and convinced him to buy Finca Vigía, a 15-acre farm with spectacular views of Havana.
It should have been a domestic paradise; instead, Hemingway was miserable. When Martha left on reporting assignments, Hemingway “complained of a gut-wrenching loneliness, which felt like he was dying a little every day,” writes Feldman. When Martha finally divorced him, she observed that “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”
The details of Hemingway’s disastrous marriages would appear in any biography. But as Feldman shows, he wasn’t always so loathsome. Before Hemingway bought Finca Vigía he met a group of boys playing baseball outside its walls. Ernest told the children that if he bought the property they could play there any time they liked. Once he owned the estate he was better than his word. He “put bats, balls, and gloves in their hands and fitted their scrawny bodies for new uniforms.”
When one of the boys died in an accident, Hemingway paid the funeral expenses. “While the family was mourning, the boys did not return to the Finca, so Ernesto went to check on them and tell them how empty his house felt without the sounds of baseball outside. Like his own boys, he missed them,” Feldman notes.
Feldman also reveals that, in Martha’s absence, Hemingway started a long affair with a woman named Leopoldina Rodriguez. The Cuban writer Enrique Serpa described her as “one the easy, attractive luxury women in Havana.” but he and Feldman insist that her and Hemingway’s relationship was about more than money. “Leopoldina could never attain happiness,” Serpa recalls, “but more than with any other, with Hemingway she had known friendship, a comforting, tender, and attentive” relationship. It may have been the happiest romantic relationship of Hemingway’s life, too (though his fourth wife, Mary, understandably disapproved).
Finally, Hemingway spent a tremendous amount of time with the local fishermen. “In interviews,” writes Feldman, “many Cojímar fishermen recall drinking with the writer at La Terraza besides the docks and his numerous questions about fishing conditions, the weather, and their experiences in smaller boats.” Their expertise, combined with local legends, gave him raw material for his late masterpiece, The Old Man and the Sea.
That slim book—about an aging fisherman who hooks an enormous fish and struggles with it for days alone on the water—revived Hemingway’s reputation and won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. In an interview he dedicated his prize to Cuba and the people of Cojímar, “where I’m a citizen.”
In his heart, perhaps, but he was legally an American. The United States was not as good a neighbor as he was. Feldman’s biography moves back and forth between Hemingway’s life and the long, ugly history of U.S.-Cuba relations. In 1820 Thomas Jefferson urged his War Secretary to “take Cuba…at the first possible opportunity,” and for the next century and a half American governments and business interests looked at their southern neighbor as la fruta madura (the ripe fruit).
No wonder Castro and his guerillas distrusted Americans, though Fidel also declared himself a big fan of Hemingway’s novels. Papa returned the compliment by publicly supporting the revolutionaries. At the same time he saw trouble ahead. “Cuba is really bad right now, Mouse,” he wrote to his son Patrick. It was hard to live in a country “where no one is right—both sides atrocious—knowing what sort of stuff and murder will go on when the new ones come in—seeing the abuses of those in now . . .”
He left Cuba for the last time in 1960, already suffering from the headaches and paranoia that would lead to his suicide a year later. When Mary heard that Finca Vigía was falling into disrepair, she offered to return, but the property manager dissuaded her. “No, no, Miss Mary,” he told her over the phone. “Much better to stay there. Much.”
Cuba and the U.S. have kept an uneasy distance ever since. Feldman concludes hopefully, observing that ordinary Cubans remember at least one American fondly. “In contemporary Cuban vernacular,” Feldman reports, “to say ‘Eso es Hemingway’ (‘That is Hemingway’) means that the thing being referred to is magnanimous, great, or fantastic.” To them—and maybe only to them—he always was.
Paul W. Gleason has written reviews and essays for the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Point, and Pacific Standard. He won a National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critic fellowship. He holds a PhD in religion and lives in Los Angeles.