Excerpt from Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson
There's a small park in Old Havana called the Plaza de Armas where you can sit on cracked marble early in the morning, before the heat gets up. It's a block from Hemingway's hotel. The park dates from the 1600s. It's shaded by immense trees, with a fountain in the middle. A crew of elderly women, in their blue smocks, their heads turbaned in towels, come to clean the park every morning. They work with stiff brooms and dustpans connected to long swivel handles. They inch along. It might take half an hour to make a ten-by-fifteen-foot section pristine again from the cigarette butts and gum wrappers and condoms of the night before. They'll even comb the dirt around the protruding roots of the royal palms and Chinese banyan trees. They jabber in Spanish.
By nine or so, the park is filling up with locals and tourists—Spaniards who've been disgorged the night before from Iberia 747s, Germans, South Americans. By then, too, the booksellers, who set up their portable wooden stalls every day on the perimeter of the park, are hard at their hawking—postcards of Che, last year's calendars, Marxist manifestos, water-swollen baseball guides from the Cuban pro leagues of, say, 1946, bookmarks of Fidel and Hemingway shaking hands the one time they ever met. It's something like the booksellers along the Seine in Paris. Presently, cartoonists materialize to produce ten- second likenesses with Flair pens on sheets of slick paper, hoping for the illicit Yankee buck in your pocket. Afro-Cuban women in flowing Technicolor garb, with firetruck-red lipstick, are coming over to plant huge stencil- like kisses on your cheek, hoping for the same payday. Vendors selling peanuts in skinny white paper cones are also passing by. The music makers are best, though. With their gourds and guitars and homemade instruments, they begin writhing around, their bodies transforming into S curves. They'll laugh and pull you from your seat and try to get you to dance with them. (It'll make you think of Hemingway, who famously couldn't dance a lick. On the dance floor, he was said to be like a trained bear in a bad circus.) Meanwhile, the old women who've put the park new again have slipped from sight. They must be home, in their airless apartments, rich with Cuban aromas.
The Plaza de Armas is situated almost exactly halfway between the hotel room where Hemingway drove his thoughts and memory-sensations into literature and the docks where he nightly secured his boat, in that first summer of Pilar's history, after he'd brought her over to Havana for the striped marlin runs. If you've ever read anything about Hemingway in Cuba, before his permanent relocation there at the end of the 1930s, you know that the Ambos Mundos was his favorite hotel. The name means "both worlds," new and old, Cuban and Spanish. Room 511 is a Hemingway shrine—maybe Fidel himself wouldn't be allowed to sleep in it. The room is claimed to have the best view and cross-ventilation in the hotel and possibly in the city. It's a large corner room, in a triangle shape. When you take the state- run tour of the room, it'll make you remember all over again what a gift and sense and intuition he had for locating himself in the best symbolic place. The great critic Alfred Kazin once said that. For so many years, that luck and art and intuition held.
In 1934, a room at the Ambos Mundos cost Hemingway two dollars a day. The hotel boasted one hundred rooms—with one hundred baths.
On one side of 511 there are three floor-to-ceiling windows with white louvered shutters opening onto a balcony. The bed, low to the floor, is in an alcove, giving it a protected feeling. There's an old hulking black phone in the room and also a black typewriter on a wooden desk. In the carriage of the typewriter is a blank page. On a wall is a framed photocopy of the purchase order for Pilar. Hemingway couldn't glimpse his boat from his balcony, but he must have been happy knowing she was down there, waiting for what big fish and fight the next day might bring.
He once described room 511 in Esquire.
The rooms on the northeast corner of the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Havana look out, to the north, over the old cathedral, the entrance to the harbor, and the sea, and to the east to Casablanca peninsula, the roofs of all houses in between and the width of the harbor. . . . You look out the north window past the Morro and see that the smooth morning sheen is rippling over and you know the trade wind is coming up early. You take a shower, pull on an old pair of khaki pants and a shirt, take the pair of moccasins that are dry, put the other pair in the window so they will be dry next night, walk to the elevator, ride down, get a paper at the desk, walk across the corner to the café and have breakfast.
The elevator he speaks of is still operating—a 1926 Otis, with a black wire cage.
Sitting in the Plaza de Armas, on one of the smooth slabs on the south side of the square, resting your back against the iron grillwork, you can look to your left, up Calle Obispo, and make out the entryway to the Ambos Mundos. And if you turn your head in the other direction and crane your neck, you can catch the sun's glare glinting off the harbor between the buildings. You can feel yourself, with some imagination, secretly and privately suspended between the San Francisco wharf, where Pilar slept, and the room where her owner slept and where pages of Green Hills of Africa got shined like stones.
So imagine him, on mornings he didn't go out in the boat, on the fifth floor, behind the white balcony, the windows open, the curtains billowing inward, after having read the papers, after a glass of Vichy water and maybe a tumbler of cold milk and a piece of hard Cuban bread, seated now in a straight- backed chair, working in longhand, the intense concentration, advancing the book he'd begun back in his Key West workroom, right after getting home from Africa. By the time he came over to Cuba in the third week of July, he was three months into it and had more than two hundred manuscript pages. In the beginning he hadn't even known it was a book—perhaps only a long short story. The original sheets of the 491-page handwritten manuscript of Green Hills—the copy that Hemingway gave over to a typist in late 1934—are preserved in a maroon- colored, acid-free slipcase in a belowground room in a special collections library at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It's thrilling to untie the ribbon and lift out the first sheet and peer at the several strike-throughs and one circled insertion of his simple, declarative, action- starting, opening sentence: "We were sitting in the blind that Wanderobo hunters had built of twigs and branches at the edge of the salt lick when we heard the truck coming."
Could he have anticipated the degree to which some writers and critics in New York and elsewhere would be lying in wait for this book? Maybe, for he called them—in the book itself—"angleworms." He said that critics were the lice crawling on literature. The following year, fall of '35, he'd go up to Manhattan for the book's launch, only to slink back home in rage when it was clear the reviews were starting to turn against him—the "black ass," Hemingway used to call these rages, which could last for weeks, cause stark- awake insomnia, prompt not just new expressions but seeming promises, guarantees, of self- destruction.
From the book Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson. Copyright 2011. Reprinted by arrangement with Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.