Havana via Bemidji: Writer sets out on the trail of Mary and Ernest Hemingway

When I was presented with the opportunity to visit Cuba with the Key West Literary Seminar in early January, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to follow in the footsteps of Ernest and Mary Hemingway.

When I was presented with the opportunity to visit Cuba with the Key West Literary Seminar in early January, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to follow in the footsteps of Ernest and Mary Hemingway.

Mary Welsh Hemingway, Ernest's fourth and last wife, was born in Walker in 1908. She spent much of her childhood in Bemidji, and graduated from high school in 1926. Mary and Ernest met in 1944, and lived most of the next 15 years outside Havana. Amidst the turmoil of Castro's revolution, the Hemingways moved to Ketchum, Idaho, in 1958 where Ernest died by suicide in 1961.

The Welshes lived in the big house on the southwest corner of 12th and Bemidji Avenue, and some older residents here know stories about Mary, or about people who knew her family. Local businessmen Doug and Terry Smart can tell you that their grandfather, Tom Smart, the mayor, once gave the Welsh family a dog. History tells us that Mary's graduating class gave a dinner at the old Markham Hotel at 2nd Street and Beltrami Avenue.

Mary had early literary aspirations. In her autobiography she wrote, "Since my childhood, when the editor of the Bemidji Pioneer and his wife came to our house for dinner, I had known that I would like to work on a newspaper."

She spent a year at Bemidji State Teacher's College, and then moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University's school of journalism. She worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News until she sailed for Europe in 1935. She wrote for the London Daily Express when she met Mr. Hemingway.


Literary connections

Ernest had established himself as a major American writer with the publication of "The Sun Also Rises" in 1925. He had been living and writing in Key West since 1929. Key West is a tropical island about the size of the city of Bemidji. It has a history of piracy, smuggling, cigar-making, great fishing and tourism. It has been home to dozens of accomplished writers and artists including eight Pulitzer Prize winners. Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost and Truman Capote all wrote here.

It is doubtful that this would have transpired without "Papa" Hemingway, and not surprising that the Key West Literary Seminar, established in 1982, has become one of the most significant literary events in America. This year the topic was the Literature of Adventure, Travel and Discovery, with an emphasis on Cuba.

Pico Iyer of The New York Times delivered the keynote address. He described Cuba as a place of "sunlit sadness that makes it, in the end, the most emotionally involving -- and unsettling -- place I know; Cuba catches my heart, and then makes me count the cost of that enchantment." With great anticipation, we boarded our charter flight to Havana.

Exotic discoveries

Traffic was light on our way into the city; now and then we met an old Chevy or Buick from the '50s. The occasional billboard, illustrated with the immense faces Che Guevara or Fidel, proclaimed the 47th year of the revolution. Buses rumbled along, packed with riders and leaving a trail of diesel smoke behind. Cubans hitchhike everywhere, and intersections were crowded with people trying to catch a ride.

At our hotel, we exchanged dollars for pesos, ate lunch, and then, with our Cuban guide, we walked the streets and plazas of Old Havana. We toured the Palace of the Generals, a huge Baroque structure built in 1776, now the museum of the City of Havana. We crossed the street and entered the Museum of the Revolution, where bullet holes around the entrance remain from an unsuccessful assassination attempt in 1957. On the adjacent grounds are boats, vehicles and missiles from Castro's overthrow of Batista, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The city in the afternoon was dreamy, hazy, the air hanging in the narrow streets between the crumbling old buildings like that in old paintings. There was a bustle of activity but not of commerce. There were school kids walking in rows down the street in uniform, people on bicycles, men in doorways, smoking. There was not an advertisement, nor a fast food joint, no chain stores. We asked our guide about getting a cup of coffee to go and he explained that there was no such thing here. "Coffee comes with conversation and a place to sit," he said.


The late evenings in our hotel lobby looked like a version of "Casablanca." Cigar smoke hung in the air. Waiters in white coats balanced drinks on trays. Someone was playing the piano. It was a time for fellow travelers to compare adventures of the day. We talked about the contradictions, mystery and beauty of the country, the apparent lack of a military presence, the poverty, how things might change when Castro is gone.

Personal outreach

How you see Cuba and its people depends on how you think about other things: socialism, capitalism, United States and Cuban history, the pursuit of happiness, your taste for rum, coffee and cigars. Cubans themselves seem caught between the failed dream of the Revolution and a desire to be like us.

One afternoon, we drove to the suburb of San Francisco de Paula and the Finca Vigia, the home of Mary and Ernest Hemingway. The Finca (farm in Spanish), is a park-like estate with a guest house, exotic greenery, and a huge pool in the back yard. The place is on a hill overlooking Havana. Down the road is the village of Cojimar which was the setting for "The Old Man and the Sea," and where the first film of that novel was filmed with Spencer Tracy.

Another day we headed west to Las Terrazas (the terraces), a small government-planned community. The road was empty of traffic, the palms shimmered in the sun, and the air was earthy and clean-smelling. Las Terrazas is located in a forest which has been designated as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO, a stunningly beautiful place of pine and palm trees, the San Juan River and its falls, 90 species of birds and wild orchids.

The people of Las Terrazas maintain the woods in the reserve, or work at the hotel or restaurant at the Buena Vista coffee plantation. It is a peaceful community - too good to be true it would seem and perhaps, so it is. Our guide there, a single woman in her 30s, told us that there was little privacy and almost too much isolation; it was not a likely place to meet a mate, she said, sadly. Tour guides, employees of the government, often revealed, or pretended to reveal, more in the privacy of the bus then they might otherwise in the street. When our tour ended, Maria thanked us and told us to please come back again. "I will be here," she said, "I will wait for you the rest of my life."

Cubans have a flair for the poetic, the dramatic. They are passionate, music always just under the surface of their skins, sad, but also laughing.

On the last night before our departure, the schedule called for dinner at the Hotel Nacional, and a Cabaret show at the Parisien Night Club featuring 200 dancers. After gaining some feel for this fascinating country and its people, it sounded too much like a show for the tourists, too much like Vegas.


I napped while the buses departed for the Nacional, then went down to the bar. Some other mutineers appeared, and we went off into the night, to the Floridita for a daiquiri, (invented there by Hemingway), then down the street to a joint that was big enough only for the musicians and a dozen locals. The band was playing music from "The Buena Vista Social Club," and a crowd was building outside. I managed to slide into the bar for some drinks. A woman sat on a stool smoking a cigarette. It appeared that she was a sort of staff dancer, occasionally taking newcomers into her arms and giving them a few turns on the crowded floor before returning to her stool. As I passed by her she said, "From Canada?"

"No," I said, "United States."

She stood up, wrapped her arms around me, and kissed me. "Gringo, gringo!" she said, drawing some waves and smiles my way. It was much better than being at the Nacional, and good news that the people of Cuba understand that our embargo against them is part of a grudge between our governments, not our people.

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