March 2009

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Salsa at Bar Monserrate

There are many great bars in Havana. My favorite is Bar Monserrate, a block up from the Floridita. At the Bar Monserrate you can order a queso y jamon pizza for less than $2.50 and get a beer for about a buck. There are also as many Cubans at the Monserrate as there are tourists, which you can’t say about the Floridita.

Saturday I spent the day wandering around Habana Vieja, hanging around the Plaza de la Catedral and then meeting up with friends late in the afternoon at the Monserrate. There was a hot band playing, led by good-looking guy in a red blazer and white fedora.


William Valoy and a fan at Bar Monserrate

William Valoy and a fan at Bar Monserrate

This was William Valoy, a respected Cuban sonero. You can’t walk a block in Havana without coming across a live band, maybe playing in a bar like Monserrate or in a restaurant or even on a street corner. Sooner or later, no matter whether the band is made up of two people or seven, like Valoy’s band, Septeto Sabor, you’re going to hear the classic Buena Vista Social Club song Chan Chan.

 There’s something very nostalgic and dignified about the song, making you think that it’s an old Cuban classic, but, according to Ry Cooder, it’s actually a relatively recent composition by famed trova guitarist Compay Segundo (trova is the old country-style Cuban music that originated on the Eastern end of the island, near Santiago, where a balladeer writes and sings his own music—sort of like a Cuban Bob Dylan).


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

I didn’t know this at the time, but there’s a link between Compay Segundo and William Valoy who has done some back-up vocals with Segundo. Another vocalist in the band was Felix Valoy. That’s a famous name in the Cuban music scene. Felix Valoy (also spelled Baloy), like Segundo, is an old-time arranger and famed sonero (son being the slow country music that produced trova and eventually led to salsa and rumba). But the original Felix Valoy is in his sixties so I’m guessing that the Felix Valoy playing in this band is maybe his grandson. And is he related to the band’s leader, William Valoy? God only knows.

It’s all a little confusing. Just like Cuban music itself. I mean, what’s the difference between son and salsa? Ask three people and you’ll get three different answers. Here’s what I say: Salsa is the sexy, sensuous sister to the older, more austere son. And the difference between salsa and mambo? They’re the same thing. Although Tito Puente, known as the Mambo King, once famously proclaimed, “The only salsa I know comes from a bottle.”

Whatever. Watch this video of William Valoy and his Septeto Sabor band at the Bar Monserrate and, whether it’s the salsa or mambo, you’re going to want to dance.

Bar Monserrate in Havana, Cuba from David Lansing on Vimeo.

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Mussolini and the kudu

Chris and I had both heard the story a couple of times before. How Mussolini had so admired one of Hemingway’s trophy heads, hanging on the wall in the dining room at Finca Vigía, that he’d sent Hemingway a blank check and told him to write in whatever amount he liked for the animal that Hem had shot while on safari in what was then called Tanganyika in 1934.


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Hemingway was no fan of Il Duce who he’d derided in print on more than one occasion (a Toronto Daily Star article from 1923, penned by Hemingway while living in Paris, was titled “Mussolini: Biggest Bluff in Europe”). So when Hem received the fascist dictator’s blank check he wrote on it, “Shoot your own” and sent it back.

The question, as we stood in front of the dining room looking at the many heads on the wall, was which animal was Mussolini so covetous of. I thought it was perhaps the oryx which is sometimes called the African unicorn because in profile it looks like it has a single horn. Chris was certain it was a wildebeest. Of course, we were both wrong. It was the kudu, which Hemingway wrote about bagging, in only a pseudo-fictitious way, in Green Hills of Africa (1935).


Hemingway with kudu and oryx heads, 1934. Public domain.

Hemingway with kudu and oryx heads, 1934. Public domain.

These three photos reveal a lot about Hemingway, I think. The first, above, from 1934, shows the middle-aged author smiling and looking tickled-pink with the same kudu antlers that eventually ended up on his dining room wall in Cuba.

Public domain

You can see the kudu head, on the left, in this second photo, circa 1955; his fourth and last wife, Mary, with back to us, is toasting their guests while Hemingway looks on rather impassively (this shot was taken a year or so after he’d sustained serious head injuries from two successive plane crashes while on safari in Africa in 1954; it was also the beginning of the end, healthwise).

The last shot, undated, of Hemingway sitting at his dining room table with one of the 60-odd cats that roamed Finca Vigía, is a very sad photo, I think. It must have been taken shortly before he and Mary abandoned their Cuban house for good. He looks a big dazed here, his gaze indirect, his shoulders slumped. A man who has given up on life.

Hemingway’s motto in life was always, “One must, after all, endure.” But towards the end of his life, that changed. The end was near and he knew it.

One must, after all, die. 

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The Son Also Falls

It’s the little things, the odd bits Hemingway collected over the years and yellowing photos tucked away in a bookcase, that most fascinate me when I visit Finca Vigía. Like this odd little cigarette box, sitting on an sofa-back table in the living room, which looks to be hand-carved, etched to “Ernest Hemingway Gran Amigo De Cuba” and signed by Jaime Bofill.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

Who was Jaime Bofill and why did he give Hem this memento? My guide has no clue. And a Google search for “Jaime Bofill Cuba” comes up blank. But surely there’s a story there, don’t you think? 

Even more evocative, to me, is a modestly framed B&W photo leaning against the wall above a bookcase beside two of Papa’s thick black leather belts. The photo shows two adolescent boys, dressed in matching striped shirts, sitting on the stoop in front of louvered doors. The shot is of Gregory and Patrick Hemingway, the youngest of Hem’s three sons and, I’m guessing, was taken at Key West where they lived with their mother, Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline.

God knows why but the brothers were often dressed in matching shirts (there are photos of them in identical checkered shirts and plaids as well). This had to be their mother’s idea. I can’t imagine Papa, who was fond of wearing the same shirt for a week or more at a time, making much of an effort to dress his boys as if they were twins. Pauline, on the other hand, was a well-known clotheshorse.

It must have been difficult growing up as a son of Ernest Hemingway. His youngest, Gregory, certainly had a difficult time. He became bitterly estranged from his father in 1951, according to his 1976 autobiography, and never saw his father again.

When his father died, he said, “I confess I felt profound relief when they lowered my father’s body into the ground and I realized that he was really dead, that I couldn’t disappoint him, couldn’t hurt him anymore.”

Not that his father’s death finally relieved him of his demons. A former doctor who eventually lost his medical license because of alcohol and drug problems, Gregory became a transvestite in his later years and was known, in Miami where he lived, as Gloria Hemingway. He died in a jail cell at 69 in 2001.

His obituary in the Chicago Tribune, cruelly titled “The Son Also Falls,” begins, “On his last night as a free man, Ernest Hemingway’s youngest son slipped on a demure black cocktail dress and made his way to a small private party in the upscale Miami enclave of Coconut Grove. He introduced himself to friends as ‘Vanessa’ and spent much of the evening in the kitchen, chatting with millionaires in country club attire.”

And then, “at about 4pm the next day, the burly transsexual was seen parading down a main Key Biscayne thoroughfare, naked, with a dress and heels in his hand. After a medical exam showed he had undergone a sex change, he was jailed at the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center.

“On Oct. 1, his sixth day in jail, Hemingway rose early for a court appearance, began to dress and suddenly collapsed in his underwear onto the concrete floor. The third son of the 20th century’s most resolutely macho literary figure had died, at age 69, in a women’s jail.”

And what of the other two sons?

His stepbrother, Jack, who the family called Bumby, (from A Moveable Feast: “I woke early, boiled the rubber nipples and the bottles, made the formula, finished the bottling, gave Mr. Bumby a bottle and worked on the dining-room table before anyone but he, F. Puss the cat, and I were awake. The two of them were quiet and good company and I worked better than I had ever done.”) fared better. He served in WWII as a member of the OSS working with the French Resistance, and wrote an autobiography titled Misadventures of a Fly-Fisherman: My life with and without Papa. He died in 2000, at the age of 77, four years after the suicide of his daughter—Hemingway’s granddaughter—Margaux Hemingway (who was named after the wine her parents were drinking the night she was conceived).

That leaves Patrick—the middle son—who just turned 80 last summer. For decades he lived in Africa, working as a safari guide and great white hunter which, no doubt, made his father immensely happy. In 1975, he retired to a retreat in Craig, Montana, where he still lives. The last of Hemingway’s boys.

I wonder if he has ever been back to Finca Vigía—and what memories that photo of him and his brother Greogory would conjure up. As he said during an interview with NPR on his last birthday, “I live mostly in the past these days.”


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It may seem odd, but one of the best ways to see how Cuba is changing is by visiting Finca La Vigía, the former residence of Ernest Hemingway. The first time I came here, in 2007, the English-speaking tour guide, while being very earnest (no pun intended) was misguided, to say the least, in some of her biographical information.


Finca La Vigia photos by David Lansing

Finca La Vigia photos by David Lansing

For instance, she insisted that Hemingway had died of cancer. When I suggested to her that, in fact, Hem had climbed down the stairs to the basement room in his Sun Valley, Idaho, house early on the morning of July 2, 1961 and taken his favorite short-barreled shotgun, a Boss double-barrel purchased for his safari trips from Abercrombie & Fitch, from his gun case and dropped the butt of the gun on the floor and then leaned over, putting the twin muzzles to his forehead just above the eyes, tripping both triggers and blowing the top of his head off—when I told her all this, she acted as if I were completely crazy.

“No, no,” she said dismissively. “Cancer.”

No mention, that first year, of depression, paranoia, electroshock therapy, or alcoholism. And most certainly no mention of the “s” word—suicide.

 I got the impression that my guide had heard the stories of alcoholism and suicide before. But obviously she’d been instructed to deliver a different version. Why? Was it just a cultural thing? Suicide is often denied in Latin America, where it is considered shameful to the family; and to Catholics, of course, killing oneself is a mortal sin. Hemingway was allowed to be buried in a Catholic cemetery in Ketchum, Idaho, only after the church judged him mentally ill and not responsible for his death.


Hem's living room with his favorite chair, on the left

Hem's living room with his favorite chair, on the left

More likely, I’m thinking, is that Cuba did not want any negatives associated with Hemingway since he is such a tourist draw (at least half a dozen restaurants, from El Floridita to La Terraza have lined their walls with photos of Papa, and then there are the hotels, like Ambos Mundos, and the Hemingway Marina, a few miles outside of Havana, where a hotel is named El Viejo y El Mar, and one restaurant is called Papa’s and the other Fiesta –the original name for The Sun Also Rises).


In the afternoon he liked to have three Scotch on the rocks

In the afternoon he liked to have three Scotch on the rocks


There’s a strange secular trinity in Cuba: Fidel is the Holy Father, Che is the martyred son, and Hemingway is the mysterious but powerful Holy Ghost. None of the three can have any flaws. Thus, Hem was not a deeply disturbed drunk, convinced the FBI was shadowing his every move in Sun Valley, but a genius who spoke in tongues and had such solidarity with the people of Cuba that when his greatness was affirmed with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, he had the medal placed at the foot of the black Virgin Mary, Virgen del Cobre, saying, “This prize belongs to Cuba, since my works were created and conceived in Cuba, with the inhabitants of Cojimar, of which I am a citizen.”

The perfect ending for Cuba’s Holy Ghost.

Anyway, this has all changed. This year the same guide I’d had two years ago readily admitted that Papa drank like a fish, had “many, many problems with his head,” and killed himself.

“Really?” I teased her. “He committed suicide?”

She shrugged. “Si, claro.”

Claro indeed. 

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Room 511 in the Hotel Ambos Mundos

I first visited the Hotel Ambos Mundos two years ago at the end of a rather epic day of Hemingway pilgrimages that began with a visit to the house he’d lived in for over 20 years, Finca La Vigía, on the outskirts of Havana in the village of San Francisco de Paula, and ended at the golden-friezed Floridita sipping a daiquiri at a seat in the left hand corner of the bar, Papa’s habitual seat.

It was a little after 5 by the time Hardy and I tromped up the five flights of stairs to room 511, the tiny little room where Hemingway lived, off and on, from 1932 to 1939. It was here that he began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls in the spring of ’39.


Hemingway's bed in Room 511 of the Hotel Ambos Mundos

Hemingway's bed in Room 511 of the Hotel Ambos Mundos

According to Michael Reynolds’ book Hemingway: The 30s, the author, who paid $2 a day to stay in Ambos Mundos, with its great views of the harbor and old Havana, when Hemingway started the book he stocked his room with “a 12-pound ham and 4 pounds of various cured sausages, recreating the Madrid larder for a writer who does not want to stop for lunch.”

And in Room 511, he typed the first page of the book:  We lay on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest and the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where we lay but below it was steep and we could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream along the side of the road and far down the pass I could see a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam white in the summer sunlight.

According to Reynolds, by the time Hemingway reached the third page, he went back with a pencil to revise every “we” and the single “I” to “he,” deciding almost from the start to write the story in the detached third person.

Anyway, by the time Hardy and I made it up the five flights of stairs, Hemingway’s room, which has become an ersatz museum of sorts, had closed for the day, though we could hear still voices and the shuffling of shoes on the wooden floor inside.

Hardy knocked insistently on the door and when that failed to do the trick, pounded on it with his fist.

“I don’t think they’re going to open,” I told him. I started walking down the hallway towards the stairs.

But Hardy kept pounding on the door. And sure enough, it opened—just a crack—and an attractive woman, the curator of the room, stuck her head out just long enough to emphasize that the room was closed for the day.

“Please,” said Hardy. “My friend here is a great Hemingway aficionado and we have come a very long way to visit this room. We have been to the Finca and to Cojimar, had a mojito at Bodeguita del Medio and it would just not be right to not see his room in the Ambos Mundo—even if only for a minute.”


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

And because Cubans are nothing if not gracious, the woman let us in—“For five minutes only,” she said sternly. But she could sense our passion and enjoyed talking about Hemingway, explaining, when Hardy asked, how the large man and his second wife, Pauline, were able to sleep in such a small bed (they didn’t; when Pauline was in town they spent the night at the more sumptuous Hotel Sevilla-Biltmore) and actually taking his passport out from the museum case and letting us hold it. It was a memorable visit.

So yesterday, two years later, I climbed the marble stairs in the Ambos Mundos again and knocked on the door of Room 511 late in the afternoon and Isabel, the same guide, opened the door once again. She gave me a funny look and then placed a hand on my arm.

“You were here before, yes?” she asked me.

“You remember me?”

And then she laughed. Of course I remember you, she said. You came when the room was closed and you stayed for an hour! We laughed about that.

“I am glad you have come back,” she said. And then she showed me some things I hadn’t seen on the first visit, things she made me vow not to tell others about.

Again I stayed past closing. And again she locked the door to Room 511 behind us. 

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