In early 1955 I was a first lieutenant in the United States Air Force stationed at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. Our base’s basketball team had been invited to Havana to help the Cuban national team prepare for the Olympics. Having no qualifications for anything relating to the game of basketball, I had nevertheless managed to get myself assigned to go along as team “trainer.” I had no idea what duties that entailed, nor did I care. There were few places in the world as exciting as pre-Castro Havana. I was going. That was enough.
I was vaguely aware from a recent story in the press that Ernest Hemingway lived near Havana, but that fact held no significance for me. Celebrities, as a rule, did not go to great lengths to seek out the company of lowly lieutenants; but fate was about to change the rules.
In 1955 Ernest Hemingway was at the pinnacle of his fame, probably the most celebrated author on the planet. He was besieged by admirers wherever he went, and the relentless adulation had by now driven him into retreat at his estate, Finca Vigía, on the outskirts of Havana. He had become one of the world’s most reclusive and inaccessible celebrities.
We landed at Havana Airport to a tumultuous reception. As we taxied into the terminal, cheering crowds waved Cuban and American flags. We waved back, graciously accepting the unexpected honors.
“Damn,” I exclaimed, “they must love basketball in this country.”
We did not learn until we reached the terminal that the airplane taxiing in front of us carried Richard M. Nixon, then Vice President, on an official goodwill visit.
Our reception at the Vedado Club was exceptionally friendly. We were put up in a first-class hotel downtown. Maj. Jack McKinnon, who had arranged the trip, was not directly involved with the team, so I found my duties as “trainer” to be even less demanding than expected. We deemed it sufficient that I could be reached by phone if the need arose, the phone being located conveniently at the end of the Vedado Club bar.
One gentleman in particular seemed dedicated to making our stay as memorable as possible. His name was Mario Menacol, and his grandfather, I was later told, had been president of Cuba at the turn of the century. He was also a close friend of Ernest Hemingway and one of the few people in the world who could drop in on the novelist.
One day Menacol casually asked us over lunch if we would like to take a drive in the country and meet a friend of his. We accepted.
About ten miles from the club we arrived at a fenced compound with a large wrought-iron gate. As we drove up, a servant approached, and we learned, with a shock, the identity of our host-to-be.
“Mr. Hemingway is expecting us, José,” said Menacol.
I had read most of Hemingway’s novels and short stories, and I admired him enormously. I was thrilled beyond imagination and, indeed, a trifle terrified.
After letting us in the gate, José accompanied us up to a large Spanish-style house, situated on a hilltop commanding a magnificent view of the wooded countryside. A four-story tower was attached, rather incongruously, to the otherwise conventional structure.
We were led into a long, rectangular living room surrounded on three sides by glass-paned French doors. As we entered the room, dozens of eyes stared solemnly down at us from the heads of hunt trophies that Hemingway had collected from around the world. The remaining wall space was covered with several decades worth of photographs of famous people, places, and events. And there, seated on a chair set on a raised dais, was the great man in the flesh, of which a good deal was exposed. He was wearing nothing but khaki shorts and sandals, a wet towel draped over his large belly. He sat facing the single wall, ignoring the lovely view through the French doors.
As we introduced ourselves, he did not rise, explaining that he had suffered a ruptured disk in the first of his two recent plane crashes. I was surprised, since the injury had not been reported in the press. He was in constant pain and rose only once in the course of the afternoon—to take us out on the veranda to show us the tower where he did his writing when in Cuba. Hemingway waved us into chairs arranged about the dais; his own chair placed him head and shoulders above us, so that he seemed a plump Buddha surrounded by his disciples.
The first order of business was clearly a matter of serious concern to him. “Gentlemen,” he said, gravely addressing Major McKinnon and me, “I want you to give me your word, as officers, that you will not reveal your visit here to the press.” Apparently satisfied with our pledge of secrecy, Hemingway visibly relaxed. Here, it occurred to me, was a lonely man, held hostage by his legions of fans. He seemed actually looking forward to a good bull session.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “let’s have a drink!” We had several.
Happily for me, Major McKinnon’s interests inclined more to sports than literature. And Menacol seemed content to sip on his rum and soda and listen. I would have Ernest Hemingway virtually to myself!
My first comment was to congratulate him on his recent award of the Nobel Prize. “Thanks,” he said, “but I can’t get my hands on the money. The goddamned American ambassador [who had accepted the prize on his behalf] is holding it. He wants to come out and ‘present’ it, and I don’t want the son-of-a-bitch in my house!” Why, he did not say. “My taxidermist in Nairobi is holding up my trophies, and I need the forty thousand dollars!”
I found it hard to believe that Ernest Hemingway could need money, but he seemed perfectly serious. How he finally collected the prize I never found out.
I was eager to steer the conversation around to Miss Redmon’s class in American literature at the University of North Carolina. I had always been a bit skeptical of her ability to see into the minds of authors and extract hidden meanings that routinely went over my head.
I recalled vividly one lecture in which she had explained the exquisite symbolism she discerned in this brief preface to The Snows of Kilimanjaro : “Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and it is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngàje Ngài,’ the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.” Could we not see, she wondered, the beautiful metaphor therein expressed: the leopard, sensing impending death, climbing the mountains as if reaching out to God? Hemingway was alluding to the bond that exists between God and nature. I quoted Miss Redmon as best I could remember and asked Hemingway if this was what he had had in mind.
“Bulls——!” he said. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about! I just thought it was a hell of a good story, that’s all. If you ever see her again, Lieutenant, you tell her what I said.”
As we talked, Hemingway noticed that our eyes were drawn to his beard, which he scratched incessantly.
“Damn beard itches,” he said.
“Why don’t you shave it off?” offered Major McKinnon, happy to find a way into the conversation.
“Got a skin problem. Shaving only makes it worse,” Hemingway replied.
I asked every question I could think of, from serious to frivolous. I even asked if, after his acquaintance with Ava Gardner in the filming of The Snows , he believed the tabloid reports of a torrid affair that she was said to be having with Sammy Davis, Jr.
“No, Lieutenant,” he said. “Those people write that crap for one reason—money. Truth has nothing to do with it.” Ava was a sweet Southern girl, he said, and he just didn’t believe the story.
As the sun sank into the hills, shadows began creeping up the wall, and Hemingway suddenly became acutely aware of the time of day.
“José,” he shouted, “come get this damned rum out of here. Can’t you see it’s martini time?”
Perhaps understandably, I cannot remember how many martinis we stayed on for. Fascinating hours slipped by and darkness fell. I do recall that at one point our conversation was interrupted by a disturbance outside.
“Mr. Hemingway, Mr. Hemingway,” a female voice yelled. “Are you at home?”
“José,” he hollered irritably, “get her ass out of here!”
Finally we sensed that it was time to take our leave. Reluctantly—and unsteadily—we said good-bye, and my brush with history was over. The forty years that have passed have surely released me from my pledge.