In a bright blue sky, our propped aircraft chopped through wisps of clouds as we flew south over the strong currents entering the Gulf of Mexico from the great Atlantic Ocean and separating Florida from Cuba. As we approached the island’s northern coast, our plane veered right to circle her capital, dark blue depths turned to turquoise shallows, and we spotted dozens of tiny islets, or cayos, below, with wakes trailing, like stardust, behind them. Then, under our wings, the harbor came suddenly into view, and there was Havana, still standing, and as magnificent as ever.
Crossing the tarmac, we glimpsed at the swaying palms before being ushered into a hangar and submitting to interrogations by customs officials in green uniforms, about why we’d come and what our bags contained, until being released hours later. It was 2008.
Peering out the window of my taxi at the aging steel hulls of Buicks and Chevrolets and at cracking facades of skyrise hotels from another era, once innovative in Art Deco style, I felt that I had entered another world. In my hotel room, I opened the window so that I could catch my breath, watching the waves collide along seawall they called, El Malecón. When I turned on my television and saw a fading black and white documentary with a scratchy-voiced narrator remembering how “un dia como hoy (one day like today)” Castro’s three columned army arrived in Havana and then the thick-bearded man gesticulating in front of cheering crowds, I understood that I had actually travelled back in time, to a city where January 1, 1959 never ends.
As a North American arriving in Cuba, I was apprehensive how I might be received. After all, my country has been at war with the island of Cuba for 60 years, and recently retightened restrictions, returning the hostile policies of the Cold War. Although our policies impacted them adversely, every one of the people I met was careful to make me understand that Cubans do not confuse the American people with the American government. Regrettably, they explained, a government is not always something that people can control. Did I know that even Fidel had said it? Americans are welcome in Cuba, they repeated: I am welcome. And they always said it so naturally that I believed it could be true, yet I was also haunted by the understanding that hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans, a generation in fact, would have likely felt so deeply hurt by historical events that they would have found the island of Cuba to be difficult to speak about and the memory of their estranged homeland to be a source of profound aggravation. But, the story of the relationship between Cuba and one of America’s most influential writers, who found redemption there, drew me irresistibly to the source to investigate.
Now seated at a table in front of the Hotel Inglaterra, I watched a boy as he turned the corner of an alley, ascended the stairs of his decrepit building in Habana Vieja (Old Havana), and arriving in his family apartment, came out on the balcony to shout happily at neighbors, on their balconies, and others he knew, passing in the street below. I began to understand that how every person in his neighborhood was connected, how he knew their voices, how he knew what they had and what they did not, and how they understood their limits and the horizons of their dreams. If above all else, Havana is defined by the horizon seen from her Malecón, where over the water, across the distance, her inhabitants can never forget the American dream, how can we on the other side, imagine ourselves to be so different from those sitting there remembering who we could be? Crossing the Plaza de Armas with the others, I did as I was instructed and kneeled at the foot of the Ceiba tree in front of El Templete to echo a wish, for “salud, amor. . .y dinero! (health, love. . .and money!)”
Descending a dusty road towards a busy street corner of Central Havana the next day, I boarded the bus that would take me to the village of San Francisco de Paula, just north of the city, where I would find Hemingway’s former home. Aboard, I hung from hooks with other commuters, a box of sweating bodies jostling as the driver swerved past potholes and the chaos of rush-hour traffic, screeching his breaks to pack more in at every stop along the way. Wandering up through the gentle morning buzz in the village and through tranquil grounds of the author’s verdant hilltop estate, I stood, hushed, staring at his hunting trophies hanging high on the walls, at his typewriter still sitting on his bedroom bookshelf, at the pencil lines on the white washed walls where he marked his weight next to a doctor’s scale, at a writing tower, at his leather boots and WWII correspondent uniforms (something about looking at clothes in a dead man’s closet makes him seem suddenly alive), at his pets’ tombstones, at the empty pool where he used to swim afternoon laps, and at his boat, which had been devotedly and paradoxically restored by the Fidel Castro’s government. After I had seen it all, I asked the museum staff if I might steal a moment of the Directora’s time, and from a cramped office, inside Hemingway’s former guest house and garage, emerged a woman in her late 50s with a ruffled silk blouse, bleached blond hair, and flamingo pink lipstick and painted nails.
After cordial introductions, Directora Ada Rosa Rosales, motioned for me to sit down at a white iron table just in front of her office.
“Sí, mi amor (yes, my love), how can I serve you?” she asked as she tapped out one of her Upman cigarettes and started to smoke with singular pleasure.
I explained that I was from the United States but had just finished a dissertation at the University of Paris IV, La Sorbonne. In a French newspaper a few weeks ago, I had read that the Finca Vigía Museum was opening its doors to foreign researchers, so I was interested in studying Hemingway’s friendship with the Cuban people and writing a book about it. I asked if the museum might be receptive to my spending some time in residence to pursue as much.
“Como no (but, of course), mi amor, we would be delighted to have you.” She took my email down and promised to speak with the Minister of Culture, a high position in the Cuban Cabinet, so that approvals could be obtained, then all else arranged, all while I was wondering how it was possible for such a poor country to have a Minister of Culture when ours did not. The next day, I bid Cuba farewell. A few months later, Ada Rosa emailed to inform me that my request had been approved. After navigating peculiar bureaucratic quandaries, made all the more perplexing by an economic embargo maintained in perpetuum by the U.S. Treasury, I was on another flight to Havana.
Because I was the first, Ada Rosa and her assistants made sure my time in Cuba was a success, making all historical documents available to me, granting me access to the museum’s databases, inviting me to conferences, introducing me to Cuban writers, reporters, and intellectuals, procuring often non-existent transportation, and even accompanying me for more important interviews. I asked Ada Rosa if the books on Hemingway’s shelves had ever been inventoried, and she directed her staff to give me access to their database. One of the first things I did was search this database to see if any Cuban authors reappeared on Hemingway’s shelves, and I found out that along with José Martí every one of Enrique Serpa’s books was there, signed with a dedication to “My friend, Ernest Hemingway.” This seemed significant, especially since nobody had noticed or written about it before.
There was an excitement in that first meeting at the museum that never faded: it came from the idea that we could be the founders of a cultural and intellectual exchange between Cuba and America, one that had been frozen for 60 years due to the inanity of politics. It was such a simple idea but was also one that seemed impossible given the previous six decades of Cold War, which came to no end. Yet we were there together, unexpectedly enjoying each other’s company, and both feeling sincerely touched by the opportunity, and by a promise of friendship.
Coincidentally, I met a girl who came from the same small town in Camaguey that Ada Rosa was from. This girl would later become my wife, which meant my wife and I visited Ada Rosa from time to time away from the Finca Vigía. This time away from the museum caused Ada to become like family though I will say that I often felt en familia (in family) in Cuba because it seemed in their very nature to compartir (share). These words are difficult to translate.
As I got to know Ada, she impressed me in many ways. She has what Cubans call chispa, or the spark. Bursting with personality, poise, temperance, and tact, she appeared born to play the role of the Directora of the Finca Vigía Museum. She had so much encanto — enchantment — the gift of gab, certainly. It was fun to spend time with her and to watch her beguile, delicately lead, and inspire her staff, with a delightful intelligence and an enormous heart. The things she said and did were so unique and funny that they stuck in the minds of people she knew, becoming instant trademarks.
One morning, she accompanied me and my wife to visit Enrique Serpa’s daughter, Clara Elena, who was 83 years old at the time. The Serpa house in Central Havana had once been a modest mansion that was by then disintegrating and being overrun by banyan trees pushing from the floorboards to the rafters. When we arrived and saw the condition of the house, we understood why Clara Elena had been hesitant to meet us. Though the four-columned stone façade evoked the former glory of the city and her family home, Clara Elena, lacking the funds to maintain it, now lived at the back corner of her garden in a shack whose roof was also in urgent need of repair. We introduced ourselves to the gaunt old woman and sat on chairs in the garden, for lack of a better venue, for the duration of the interview.
Clara Elena was still very sharp; it was easy to see that she had been raised by one of the world’s greatest writers (even though his work has since slipped into relative obscurity). Transporting us back into that epoch with her descriptions, Clara Elena Serpa fascinated us with her own stories about her father and about his friend, Ernest Hemingway. Among them was a jewel about a departure party for the Hemingways that she, while still a little girl, had attended along the docks in Old Havana just before Ernest and Mary’s transatlantic steamer carried them off to Venice, and the amusing antics that had ensued as Hemingway gifted her a doll marred by several signatures.
When we left Clara Elena, as was often the case in Cuba, she invited us to take bags of mangos from her trees, in season, overflowing with delectable fruits, and Ada Rosa told her she was going to send workers from the museum’s maintenance crew to patch up her roof. When Clara Elena thanked her, Ada Rosa responded, “I don’t have much, but what I have, I can give.” As we were saying goodbye, Clara Elena remembered something, said “Wait,” then looking at me, “I have something for you,” and disappeared into the curtain serving as a door to her shack. Returning with a pile of old papers, she pulled out a yellowed, unpublished letter from Martha Gellhorn to Max Perkins, which Martha had once given to her father. When I read it, there was no mistaking that Martha Gellhorn had written it, and at the bottom, there was her signature. In shock, I thanked her for giving it to me.
The next morning, we drove out to Cojímar to see Hemingway’s first mate Gregorio Fuentes’ daughter, America Fuentes. Another old woman full of spark, she shared delightful stories with us about her father and “Mr. Way.” Then she produced a picture of the author at her wedding, which also blew me away. As we left the second of the two daughters, now in their 80s, who had in their lifetime known Ernest Hemingway, Ada Rosa said in parting again that they should call on her if they needed anything at all, and repeated her phrase that she did not have much to give, but what she had she could give freely, and it was her pleasure to do so.
One day I was wandering around Hemingway’s neighborhood on my own without the accompaniment of Ada Rosa, and I crossed paths with an old man in his 80s standing outside his residence. When I asked him how long he had lived in that house, he answered “my whole life,” so I asked him if he had ever met the Hemingways. “Claro, muchacho. . . (Of course, kid),” and as he invited me inside his house to have some cold water, he told me, “One day I was cutting my hedges, and Mr. Way was driving by, but he stopped to tell me that I was ‘using the wrong scissors for that job’ . . ” Talking with me for several hours, this man, named Ortho, and his wife, eager to help me, strained to remember every detail that they could recall.
At literary conferences that I attended in Havana, I met several Cuban intellectuals who would help me. They shared scarce resources and research with me, and for their help, I will always be grateful. At one of them, I met a Cuban researcher who opened his unpublished manuscripts so that I could use whatever parts of it might help me, and he gave me access to the unpublished interviews, memoirs and personal papers of Fernando G. Campoamor, a Cuban journalist, and one of Hemingway’s closest friends.
Whenever I told people in Cuba that I was writing a book about Hemingway’s friendship with the Cuban people, they gave their time freely, invited me into their houses, and shared the research that they had been working on for decades. While this confused me at first, I later realized that for any Cuban it was culturally the right thing to do. They were naturally a sociable and generous people, and they thought it was important for the story of Hemingway’s relationship with Cuban people to be told.
Cubans in Cuba seem to spend Sundays with their families, routinely singing and dancing with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. If you give 15 extra minutes to strangers at a Cuban bus stop, you are likely to see how they emerge with new friends. As I watched them speaking electrically in a way that was part performance and part contagion and witnessing their expressive mouth to ear network, zippier and much warmer than any post on social media, I wondered if it was necessity that prompted them to achieve such admirable “solidarity,” a word that is barely spoken up North, or if it was just their nature, a light within, like Hemingway’s genius or his discipline. In any case as a gringo, though I tried, I could never quite sing or dance or talk like them. When I maintained my distance, Cubans smiled and wondered why. For example, once, when Ada went to hug me, penetrating my “personal space,” I stammered, awkwardly, and noting my discomfort, she said, “I am sorry. Soy cubana (I am Cuban), so I like cariño (warmth/touching).”
“No,” I responded, “Perhaps I am the one who is crazy. . .” Then, I gave her the biggest hug I could, and it made her genuinely content to see that she could break down my defenses and make me feel like a member of her family. “You know, everyone is at least un poquito (a little bit) crazy,” she suggested, “though we often prefer to think it is the others,” and we laughed, agreeing that that was very true. Later when I danced with Ada Rosa at my wedding, I was certain that she was right.