Whether in his favourite bars, at his secluded country house or among the fishermen and boat builders of Cojímar, Hemingway’s presence in Havana is still almost tangible.
In April 1932, Ernest Hemingway and his friend Joe Russell sailed from Key West to Havana for a two-day trip that ended up lasting for four months. Amongst Cuba’s principal attractions were excellent marlin fishing and the company of beautiful women.
Like many Cubans, he regularly fell in and out of love, having lots of wives and girlfriends, both his own and other people’s. Almost as soon as he arrived in Havana he began an affair with Jane Mason, the tall, blue-eyed wife of the head of Pan Am in Cuba. Jane was creative, clever, beautiful, fascinating, and an accomplished flirt. Often she left her luxurious mansion west of Havana (now the residence of the Canadian Ambassador) to go fishing with Hemingway, and on one occasion climbed through a window at the Ambos Mundos Hotel to spend the night with him.
Room number 511 at the Ambos Mundos was to be the nearest thing he had to home for several years and it was here he began the final draft of For Whom the Bell Tolls. With its view of the beautiful Plaza de Armas and the surrounding buildings, and the ease with which he could go down to the harbour, it was also comfortingly close to his favourite bar, the Floridita.
Complementary to his love of the sea was his obsession with marlin fishing. Hemingway pursued these majestic fish with a romantic, swashbuckling sense of adventure and chased them from his boat Pilar day after day, frequently sailing back and forth off the mouth of Havana harbour where the coast juts out to meet la Corriente, the Stream, and the marlin often stop to feed.
Hemingway liked Cuba so much he ended up staying in Cuba for 22 years. Cuba liked him, too. His unrelentingly macho attitude made him popular in Havana, where machismo and loud mutual reinforcement of maleness was, and to some extent still is, a way of life.
After the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, most Americans in Cuba swiftly returned home but Hemingway, who had closely observed the corruption and oppression of the Batista regime, wished Fidel Castro “all luck” and stayed in Cuba until the summer of 1960. Of his long stay in Havana, he wrote subtle evocations like this one:
“He got into the car and told the chauffeur to go up O’Reilly to the Floridita. Before the car circled the plaza in front of the embassy building and the Ayuntamiento and then turned into O’Reilly he saw the size of the waves in the mouth of the harbor and the heavy rise and fall of the channel buoy. In the mouth of the harbor the sea was very wild and confused and clear green water was breaking over the rock at the base of the Morro, the tops of the seas blowing white in the sun. It looks wonderful, he said to himself. It not only looks wonderful, it is wonderful.”