The reviews are in, and they’re pretty unanimous: Papa:Hemingway in Cuba movie stinks. It was to be expected. The truth about the history of Hemingway in Cuba is that he’s more of a footnote than a main character. Hemingway was already famous when he first began drinking, writing, and fishing in Cuba in the 1930’s. By the time the Revolution came to Havana in 1959, he had been living at his house in Havana’s outskirts, Finca Vigía, for almost 20 years. Over the years Hemingway certainly came to know Cuba’s power players, dictator Fulgencio Batista, mob kingpins Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante, and eventually the victorious Fidel Castro, but it was because Havana was (and is) a relatively small city. Cuba’s powerful would occasionally run into the famous writer and sometime drinker-about-town, but Hemingway wasn’t one of them, nor did either he nor they particularly wish to be chums.
The Real Hemingway in Cuba
Hemingway was usually a curmudgeon, and sometimes a full-blown asshole. He wanted to fish, drink, and face the demons that a working writer must confront, all alone. He reportedly wrote in longhand, standing, leaning against a bookshelf. Beginning around sun-up, he’d manage four or five hundred words daily. By mid-morning on a good day he was off Cojímar aboard his fishing yacht, Pilar, and on a bad day he was grumping around the house simmering an argument with his wife, Mary. He enjoyed his celebrity when it suited him. Afterall, he created it. But he was a social loner, alone in a crowd that was more often than not gathered around him, the celebrity attraction. If you want to read some contemporary first hand accounts of Hemingway in Cuba, there are great articles in The Atlantic and Esquire.
One of the best tidbits about Hemingway in Cuba involves him and a much more important figure in Cuban history, Meyer Lansky. Hemingway evidently enjoyed drinking on the shaded patio of the Hotel Nacional (most people do – it’s a great place for a drink or three), and when he learned that Lansky had struck a deal with Batista giving Lansky effective control over the landmark hotel, Hemingway confronted the diminutive mob boss, demanding to know if Lansky intended to “spoil the place” by installing a casino. Imagine a man set in his ways, the 230 pound 6-foot Hemingway, facing off against a man who gets his way, the 150 pound 5-foot-5-inch boss of bosses Lansky. Lansky supposedly looked up at the writer’s bearded ruddy face and replied, “Spoil the joint? We’re making it better. From what you say there’ll be one less drunk hanging around.” Game, set, match Lansky!
One scene of the movie, Papa, places Hemingway in Cuba with the younger sidekick who is the author of the movie’s story at the site of one of the most iconic actions of the Cuban Revolution, the 1957 assault by the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil against Fulgencio Batista at the Presidential Palace. The attack involved a courageous band of grad students who commandeered delivery trucks and uniforms, pulled up in front of the Presidential Palace and charged inside, machine guns blazing. It was a desperate, crazy act, and it almost worked. The attackers made it into Batista’s 3rd floor office where they found a still-hot cup of coffee perched on the president’s desk. Batista narrowly escaped. The shooting went on for hours. Tanks surrounded the Palace. Gunsmoke wafted through the streets of Old Havana. A few of the attackers escaped. Most were killed on the spot. And this movie conveniently places Hemingway and his little buddy on the scene, ducking bullets.
If you travel to Havana with Havana VIP Tours, we’ll give you the true story of Hemingway in Cuba. Check out our Farm to Table (plus Hemingway) Experience, or our Fortresses, Ché and Hemingway Experience for visits to Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s home in the outskirts of Havana. We’ll show you the Presidential Palace. It’s called the Museum of the Revolution now, and we’ll point out the bullet holes still in the portico and entry hall. The delivery truck the student attackers used is preserved around back, right next to the Granma the small ship Fidel, Raúl, and El Ché, sailed with around 70 would-be revolutionaries from Yucatan Mexico to start their armed insurrection on the eastern end of the island. We’ll show you Hemingway’s house, and some of the places he purportedly liked to drink. Spoiler alert: there’s one Old Havana watering hole that has been fraudulently making money on Hemingway’s name for about 70 years. If you want to know which place that is, click the button below, and start planning your trip to Cuba with Havana VIP.