Writer Ernest Hemingway had many loves, and one of them was his adopted home, Cuba. In the following email interview, writer Andrew Feldman — the first from North America to visit Hemingway’s iconic Cuban home, Finca Vigia — discusses his new biography Ernesto: The Untold Story Of Hemingway In Revolutionary Cuba (hardcover, Kindle).
Photo Credit: © Yelani Feldman
There have been a number of books about Ernest Hemingway over the years. Why did you decide to write one, and why did you decide that Ernesto would be about his time in, and relationship with, the country of Cuba, as opposed to one that covers his whole life?
Well, of all the biographers you could blog about, why ask this bozo a dozen questions?
Sorry, I promise to be serious for the remainder of the interview.
The serious answer is that Hemingway was a ton of fun. He radiated electricity and enjoyment — if we recall A.E. Hotchner’s expressive description of the writer — a roman-candle of a person really, while alive, and even dead he seems more alive than most. He is a lot of fun to read and to write about; that’s the main reason so many people write about him. He inspires them to do so. Because he was larger than life, in the Greek tradition of Achilles, Hercules, or Perseus, or in American tradition of Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan, or Teddy Roosevelt, Hemingway will never die, though some might like him to. Hateful people? But he’s Superman. A demi-god, a genie (or jinn); part human, yet apparently capable of so much more than most of us. Heroes inspire us to reach for the stars. Spider-man and Batman are fine and dandy, but can they write?
And my honest assessment as a professor of literature is this: Hemingway was a genius. I don’t care what the haters retort, nor do his fans. Sweating every morning to put each word in its perfect place, he re-engineered this form of human expression, rocked the cannon to its core, so they should remember that.
The Cubans get it too. As the expression goes, “Esta Hemingway.” In Cuba, to say something is Hemingway is to say that it is great, that it has exceptional proportions.
As for Cuba, I smelled a story there, one that was very important, and trapped behind an iron curtain, one that had not been told outside of Cuba, or had a chance to become part of the consciousness of the world. So, I went to Cuba to pursue that story. When I confirmed that it was there, I asked the Directora of the Finca Vigia if I could have some time to complete the study, and she obtained permission from the Minister of Culture, making me the first North American researcher to do so.
During my time in Cuba, I worked very hard, researching every tiny lead — many were dead ends. Some were not. Because I was the first, and because of the generosity of Cuban researchers, I was successful in finding and documenting the historical facts behind my story. I also spent an exorbitant amount of time and effort laboring with the prose because with Hemingway’s reinvented classicism and perfectionism always on my back, I wanted it to be not only well documented, but also readable, a story as boiled-down and electric as the writer himself, a poetic vortex, as Ezra Pound, Hemingway’s most dedicated mentor in the early years, would have called it.
I was lucky to have two of the best editors I could hope for, Gay Claiborne and Ryan Harrington. They are very talented and were very patient with all my attempts, stumbling, and misses; I would not have been able to tell this story without them. As I read it over now, I can hardly believe I wrote it, but there is a pearl or two on every page, so I am happy to be able to present it to readers.
You sort of touched on this already, but biographies can strike different tones: academic, detailed, light-hearted…. What approach did you take with Ernesto and why did you feel that was the right one to take?
Above all, I wanted the reader to enjoy the ride, so I had to beat my head against a wall. No, really, it’s ok. It was only writing, but I had to open a vein and bleed for some time, so that the story would be dynamic, taut, readable, etc. I think it reads well with just the right details to take the reader on that magical roller coaster ride, also known as history, supporting itself with a solid foundation of research, the underwater part of Hemingway’s famous iceberg, giving dignity to the movement of the piece above the surface. Wanting the story to be well supported by research, I assiduously documented every detail in an extensive bibliography and endnotes. Those notes are there when readers want them, but they don’t have to get bogged down in each reference as they read. If I had known it was going to require so much work, I might not have begun. Mentira! I lie. But I am done, and I am so happy and proud of it, so I hope people will enjoy the ride and what it reveals.
But to answer your question more precisely, I think this book, because it concerns Hemingway and Cuba, is both light-hearted and heart-breaking to read. For this story of Ernesto, I feel both tones are appropriate. That’s human history for you.
In deciding what approach to take with Ernesto, did you look at other biographies of Ernest Hemingway?
Yes, I read / studied every Hemingway biography known to man. Every one (Baker, Blume, Burwell, Farah, Fenton, Fuentes, Paporov, Lynn, Meyers, Mellow, Hotchner, the two Reynolds — Michael and Nicholas — McIver, McLendon, Mort, Hendrickson, Dearborn) was useful in its own way. However, as Hemingway used to say, why write it if it had already been written? I had to beat those guys. But it is worse than you think, because one must also read the biographies of everyone he was close to and all the people he knew (Mary, Hadley, Martha, Pauline, MacLeish, Dos Passos, the Murphys, Campoamor, Bruccoli, Diliberto, Rollyson, Moorehead, Kert, Hawkins, Samuelson, those by sisters, brothers, wives, apprentices, friends, enemies, editors, butlers, and boys on the baseball team). In addition to the time in the field, I hunched over these books, and over literature by American and Cuban writers (like Fitzgerald, Stein, Anderson, Serpa, Marti, and many others) — this was quite enjoyable really, and history and biography (by Gott, Harris, Thomas, Moruzzi, Munro, Perez, Paterson, Ortiz, Zinn, and a hundred more), and literary criticism by countless scholars (like Beegel, Bickford, Grimes, Kurnutt, Sinclair, and many others), journalists and interviewers like Herbert Matthews, Ramonet, Marino Rodriguez, and countless others…I got a long list already and have left hundreds of amazing folks off of it. And I poured over historical documents from the Boston Library, Finca Vigia Museum, Princeton, and other libraries: telegrams, manuscripts, race programs, lottery tickets, scribbles in the margins of a book…
This question is making me tired because I actually pursued every lead, over ten years, and I could not permit myself the luxury of avoiding reading anything. I was most drawn to those sources that could shed light on the subject in new and poignant ways. Yes, the sources I cite above made an impression on me, but so did many others listed in my bibliography, which is big. I don’t like to brag, but it is a big one.
For this reason, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Hemingway’s biographers, as he is not an easy person to write about. First, a lot has been written about him, and second, his presence was so intense that it was difficult to capture him in print, or to do a better job at this, than he, a master writer, did. For these intimidating reasons, and their impressive scholarship, I am in awe of the people who research and write about him, and those lucky few that had to live with the man, who could be as unbearable as he was magical.
What about biographies of other people, are there any that had a big influence on either what you wrote in Ernesto or how you wrote it?
In addition to lessons learned in formal academic training and from the literature of the authors I love, I learned a good bit about setting, context, balance, documentation, summary, pacing, description, character, and perspective from the work of Louis Fischer, Albrecht Folsing, Konrad Heiden, Rudolf Bultmann, Alex Haley, Herman Hesse, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Kenneth Silverman, Justin Kaplan, Ron Powers, Herbert Lottman, Olivier Todd, Kendall Taylor, Linda Wagner-Martin, and Arthur Mitzener.
How about documentaries; did any of those have an impact on Ernesto in any way?
As far as documentaries, these surge to mind: 638 Ways To Kill Castro, Rafters (Balseros), Waiting For Fidel, Sicko, The Spanish Earth, Running From Crazy, Taber’s “Rebels Of The Sierra Maestra: The Story Of Cuba’s Jungle Fighters,” Motorcycle Diaries, the Cuban movie Hello Hemingway, Gates Of Heaven, Sherman’s March, The Thin Blue Line, Shoah, and many others taught me something I could use.
Hemingway and Fidel Castro after the former’s fishing tournament.
As you mentioned, you visited Cuba. But were you able to get any kind of comment from the Cuban government, or even Raul Castro?
When I was there, it was Fidel who was still in power. Early on, I asked him for an interview, but he was too busy at the time. Talk about Waiting For Fidel? Also, I think that he had been asked about Hemingway, and responded so often, that he didn’t have much more to say about it. He had very recently delivered a long speech about Hemingway at the Finca when a preservation agreement was signed between Cuba and the Hemingway Foundation, with the Hemingway family, and Representative Jim McGovern attending the event. Fidel’s interviews with Ignacio Ramonet (a Spanish academic based in Paris) who was editor-in-chief for Le Monde, were very informative, proved helpful. To be sure, there were certain questions that I would have liked to ask Fidel personally, like the exact words exchanged between himself and the writer when they met at the fishing tournament and had a conversation alone. However, both men known as master “embellishers,” it would probably have been better to be a fly on the wall.
So without spoiling anything, is there anything in Ernesto that casts a new light on any of his novels or short stories? Like did you learn something about him that gave The Old Man And The Sea a new context or something?
One aspect that is fascinating to consider is the extent that Cuban friends, family, writers, or painters that he admired influenced Hemingway’s work, and how he in turn shaped their lives and their creations: Carlos Gutierrez, Gregorio Fuentes, Anselmo Hernandez, Leopoldina Rodriguez, Kid Tunero, Enrique Serpa, Antonio Gattorno, Fernando G. Campoamor, Rene Villarreal, Mayito Menocal, and others.
To cite one example, Enrique Serpa stories “Shark Fins,” “The Marlin,” and his masterful novel Contraband, resemble The Old Man And The Sea and To Have And Have Not. Every one of Serpa’s books sits in Hemingway’s library with a dedication to Martha and / or Ernest Hemingway. The intriguing story of their meeting, of Hemingway’s admiration for Serpa’s work, and their friendship is in the book. The same could be said of Antonio Gattorno, whose North American career Hemingway and Dos Passos launched in Manhattan.
While Hemingway’s North American biographers tend to depict Hemingway as an expatriate isolated on Finca Vigia, he benefited from fertile friendships with fishermen, neighbors, friendships with women, journalists, policemen, and politicians, and many other Cubans who informed his writing, rescued a career failing due to insincerity, pride, depression, and intoxication. It is interesting to consider why previous biographers might have characterized him this way when his life was connected to those around him in the Cuban context of his adopted home. Without these connections, Hemingway would not have been able to write The Old Man And The Sea, and we might not have been sitting here having this interview.
The fishermen of Cojimar were characters Hemingway knew and believed in, who offered him a way to rediscover his roots, and offered him a form of redemption. Running countercurrent to the author’s wayward nature and the prevailing politics of the day, Hemingway’s evolving respect and friendship with Cojimar’s fishermen took root in the writer’s life with the passage of the years, and this is very interesting to consider given our enduring tensions and complications with the island of Cuba. I believe that these ideas do shed new light on these works, our understanding of the life of one of our most recognized writers, and our posture, perspective, relationships, and shared history with our southern neighbors on the continent of America.
Along similar lines, did you learn anything in your research for Ernesto that really made you laugh or you thought was really weird, like that Hemingway hated Cubano sandwiches or something?
Strange discoveries seemed to be awaiting at every turn, from the pet names the Hemingways used while in love, to the peculiar ways of insulting each other’s’ genitalia after their divorce. Or like the red-bearded North American revolutionary, William Morgan, who became a member of Fidel’s inner circle and was later executed. Tragicomic, Amontillado-esque, detours as amusing and as they were abhorrent.
But speaking of sandwiches, because of this book, I would learn that the cafeteria classic, the Sloppy Joe, which I grew up eating in grade school, had its origins in a Havana tavern bearing the same name. Hemingway liked sandwiches, but abhorred sugar, not very Cuban of him? — so preferred his daquiris sugarless, but with a double dose of rum. These humorous, scandalous, and mesmeric details, like Hemingway’s pretending to be a lady in bed, or taking an African bride and fathering a child with a woman from the Wakamba tribe in Africa, are all between the pages of my book if you dare.
Hemingway and writer Fernando G. Campoamor at the Finca Vigia.
As you noted, there are a ton of books about Hemingway. In fact, there’s more books about him than by him. But what is it about him that makes people want to write such specific books about him as yours and Nicholas Reynolds’ Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy [about Hemingway’s work with the Soviet Secret Service, which you can read more about here] and Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat, [about, well, Hemingway’s favorite boat, Pilar]?
Well, this is really a good question, which deserves a second run. Have you read Reynolds and Hendrickson’s books?
They are incredible, I mean, astounding writing and research. How can they write so well about a man who is so hard to write about? And so much has been said, yet, there is still always more to say about this guy. Why is this? How? Damned if I know. But when I read both of those books, I was completely blown away. Blume and Dearborn’s books equally so.
This writer deeply affected the people he knew and those who read his work. I believe this is the case because Hemingway was a demigod. Don’t worry as I won’t ask you to face Cojimar and face East, but Ernest Hemingway did inspire a generation of writers, such as Salinger, Mailer, Cheever, Carver, Hunter S. Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Denis Johnson, Ray Bradbury, and Anne Beattie, to name a few.
However, as Hemingway said famously, “People who write fiction had they not taken it up, might have become very successful liars.” Due to the embellishments and his own squeamishness about being written about, writing about him can prove a challenge, but as you have noted, many have been inspired by that, risen to that challenge, and delivered the goods. I believe this book also hits the target, reveals something new and instructive, and that readers will enjoy reading it.
Of course, the man who lost his father to suicide, blamed himself, but instead hated his mother, had a few skeletons, so he hotly discouraged many biographers during his lifetime. Like Charles Fenton whom he told to “cease and desist” in his study of his literary apprenticeship: “I am resolved not to aid, and to impede in every way, including legal, anyone who wishes to write a story of my life while I am alive. That would include my wife, my brother or my best friend.” Doesn’t that make you want to know more though? Fenton later killed himself, by the way.
The story of Hemingway’s life and its repercussions for his extended family is as massive and mesmerizing as any train wreck. Cuba is another train wreck, particularly where foreign policy was concerned, so endeavoring to understand the journey of one of America’s most influential writers in Cuba was as precarious as the mine field in Guantanamo — but this is the story that interested me, one that I hunted and developed in my book, and after working so hard on it, I am sincerely proud of the book, and think that readers will enjoy discovering the untold story of Ernesto, the journey of one of the last century’s greatest authors in the context of Cuban American History.
There have been times when biographies have been turned into movies. Do you think Ernesto would make a good movie?
Yes. For three reasons, 1. To date, no director has succeeded in capturing the life of Ernest Hemingway. The man and his life were too big to put on film. Secondly, given the current upsurge of xenophobia concerning our Latin American neighbors, what better angle to pursue than redemption of our famed author in the company of the neighbor who has remained our official enemy for the last six decades? For a filmmaker, this is fertile ground for enhanced perspective and understanding. Third, because Hemingway lived in Cuba most of his life, he empathized with her people and understood his adopted home. For these reasons, I have always believed that he, as one of our most expressive Americans, could enable his countrymen to understand. Before the world wide web or social media, Hemingway travelled extensively, offering insights, messages, and perspectives from foreign places, people, and cultures in his articles and in his stories. As we come to terms with the limitations of our connectedness and the consequences of American foreign policy for amazing peoples in other lands, I think a biopic of Hemingway in Cuba, well done, could teach us much about ourselves. Such a challenging project promises its proportionate reward.
If Ernesto was to be made into a movie, who would you like them to cast as Hemingway and why them?
Tough role! Nobody has played him successfully, though Clive Owen [Hemingway & Gellhorn] and Corey Stoll [Midnight In Paris] certainly came close. Stoll’s makes me laugh. Anthony Hopkins [Thor] was an interesting idea, cast by Andy Garcia before his film ran into difficulties. Happily, Daniel Day Lewis [Gangs Of New York] is getting greyer, so he might be our guy. Christian Bale [Vice] could also hit it out of the park.
Finally, if someone enjoys Ernesto, what biography of another writer would you suggest they read next?
The Lodger: Shakespeare In Silver Street by Charles Nicoll, My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplain, Trump Revealed by Kranish and Fisher. Kenneth Silverman’s Edgar A. Poe is a tearjerker, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, Paradise Lost by David Brown and biographies about, Zelda like those by Milford and Cline. If still hungry for more Papa, Mary Dearborn’s work [Hemingway: A Biograpy] is impressive and will satisfy any appetite.