The author of this piece, a Buffalo State College professor, first wrote to Ernest Hemingway in 1950 in an attempt to answer a question posed by one of his students. Hemingway responded with a long letter, and the two corresponded for years. Following is the account of the time they met in Cuba.
When I visited Ernest Hemingway in Cuba on April 8, 1955, he was 55 years old and I was 41.
He was still hurting from multiple injuries suffered in January 1954 when the Cessna 180 in which he and his wife, Mary, were flying crashed in Uganda and its replacement, a DeHavilland Papide, caught fire on takeoff the following day.
Hemingway was overweight from loss of exercise but cheered by the success of "The Old Man and the Sea" and the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I had spoken with him on the phone two days before and accepted his invitation to fly over from New Orleans, where I was relaxing for a week after giving some lectures at Baylor University in Texas. That was nearly 44 years ago, but the three hours spent at his Finca Vigia outside Havana remain as clear in memory as they were the next morning.
Hemingway had arranged for my stay at a hotel near the old cathedral in Havana, the Ambos Mundos, where he had lived for various periods of time in the 1930s. His longtime friend, the proprietor Manuel Asper, greeted me when I arrived long after midnight and took me to the fifth-floor room where the writer had lived and worked. I was too excited to get much sleep during what was left of the night, and at 8 Manolo took me to the beautiful roof garden for a breakfast of fresh orange juice and pineapple, hot rolls and coffee, and pointed out the main buildings of the city.
At 9, Juan, Hemingway's driver, came to take me out to the Finca in suburban San Francisco de Paula. It was already a hot day and the streets were heavy with Good Friday traffic to the churches and the beaches. On the steps of the house Mary Welsh Hemingway, a small blond woman even prettier than her photographs, greeted me warmly and took me inside. Ernest appeared, wearing khaki shorts and a comfortable shirt, and led me down to the swimming pool, where I was given a glass and a bottle of beer and he settled for an unidentified "something for my insides, after Africa."
Much of our conversation dealt with the various early biographical and critical studies, about which their subject expressed varying degrees of disapproval. Only Carlos Baker's "big book" had his approval, and that was qualified by his criticism of its overemphasis on symbolism.
The writer and I had exchanged several letters before my visit. His letters were typewritten, single-spaced and long, filled with commentary on his current work, his fishing trips on the Pilar and the people who came to see him at the Finca. This made our conversation easy and natural. The talk shifted from a New Jersey student whose stories Hemingway had to read before he would leave and who didn't have the "basic command of the language," to a woman "not widely celebrated for her good sense" who insisted on identifying the author with Jake Barnes of "The Sun Also Rises," to our common experience as small-town Congregationalist boys who converted in our 20s to Roman Catholicism.
He also spoke of his friend and neighbor, a Basque priest whom he had first known in Spain: "He comes here a great deal. He prays for me every day, as I do for him."
I declined an invitation to stay for lunch because I knew that Hemingway was expecting several old friends from the civil war years in Spain. We walked back to the house so I could see the library, where I quickly noted natural history, military history, modern literature and an occasional Hemingway title.
"All this was in good order once," remarked my guide, "but there were moves and reorganizations and hurricanes and my boys once rearranged all the books according to size and color."
He asked if I had any books in my briefcase for him to sign, and I admitted having picked up what I could find on a hurried tour of the French Quarter bookshops. Asking for information about each recipient, he signed "The Old Man and the Sea" for my father, "To Have and Have Not" for Buffalo State College colleague Conrad J. Schuck, and "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell to Arms" for Buffalo State students Roseanne Perry, the late Beatrice Beckman and Richard Lautz.
After he had signed the books, he asked why I had become a teacher. "You don't look like a teacher," he said. "You have the face of a doctor."
I remembered that his father had been a doctor and that the young American's Italian friend Rinaldi in "A Farewell to Arms" was a surgeon.
When he asked about my collection and learned that I had all his first editions except "The Spanish Earth," Hemingway found his own copy of the first issue, marked "author's copy" in his hand, and gave it to me nicely inscribed, further stuffing my briefcase with French and Italian editions of "A Farewell to Arms," "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Old Man and the Sea," signing them all with comments about the covers and illustrations or about my trip.
I would gladly have spent all day in the library, but we went on to see other rooms. In the dining room I recognized Miro's "The Farm," the only picture I could have identified for sure among the Massons, the Klees and other moderns. It turned out to be Hemingway's favorite, purchased in Paris in 1925 when he and his first wife could not afford such extravagances. He also showed me the room where he worked every morning standing at a typewriter that rested on a bookcase. The room also contained a bed, other bookcases and a table strewn with books, papers and unopened letters.
Clutching my bulging bookcase, I thanked my host and began my exit.
"I hope that you aren't too badly disappointed after coming so far and taking so much trouble," he said. "Writers are always a disappointment when you meet them. All the good in them goes into their books, and they are dull themselves."
I assured him that this time he was wrong and that the visit had been all I had hoped and more.
"When you come again," he said, "I'll save time to show you the city and to take you out in the Pilar."
Mary Hemingway came out as I was getting into the car. "I'm sorry I was so busy," she said.
"Good luck" were Hemingway's last words, as they often are in letters and his inscriptions in books.
I never returned to Cuba for time on the Pilar or in the city, and in six years Hemingway was dead.
There were Christmas cards for a couple of years and then, in his illness, nothing. I did see Mary Hemingway again, corresponding with her in later years and spending Thanksgiving 1962 with her in New York City. She wanted to read the letters Ernest had written to me, and after drinks and the turkey, she showed me the big trunk filled with manuscripts that she had bargained with Fidel Castro to bring out of the country. I saw in the old, much-traveled trunk the neat stack of papers, which in time were to become "A Moveable Feast," "Islands in the Stream," "The Dangerous Summer," "The Garden of Eden" and "True at First Light."
"I'm so glad," Mary Hemingway said, when I left the apartment late in the afternoon, "that you and Papa had the chance to talk that day."
Fraser Drew has degrees from the University of Vermont, Duke University and the University of Buffalo and is Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus in the Buffalo State College English Department, where he taught from 1945 to 1983.