A Seat at the Bar With Ernest Hemingway

A Seat at the Bar With Ernest Hemingway

Dateline: Havana, Cuba, 1950.  Cuba before Castro, especially in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s was the place to be.

Hollywood stars, a who’s who of organized crime figures, politicians and those who wanted to be where the action was headed to the luxury hotels, casinos, nightclubs, marinas and the grand prix car races–all part of  the good times to be had in Havana, Cuba.

During Cuba’s glamour years, Ernest Hemingway showed up in town. In 1940, Hemingway purchased a home outside Havana, Cuba where he would live for the next twenty years.

Having been born in the same town as Hemingway and attending the same Oak Park schools, along with both of us having written for the high school paper, I always felt a link with him and especially his Cuba years where he did some of his best work including writing “Old Man and the Sea.”

Growing up in Oak Park, riding my bicycle by his childhood home, meeting people that knew him and his family plus listening to endless stories and rumors about him, I had my own questions about the man and his writing.

Besides our Oak Park connection, there were other parallels between us. We both started out writing for newspapers, Hemingway for the Kansas City Star and me for the Chicago Sun Times. We both used a straight forward style of writing rather than the flowery prose that takes up way too much space in many novels.

Hemingway was able to tell his stories simply, directly and unadorned. I believe that it was his newspaper background that led him to write that way.  That is the way I want to write my novels.

What I really needed to do was to sit down with him in a place where we both felt most at home.  Unlike me, Hemingway traveled extensively, but, like me, he was most at home on a bar stool…so what better place to hook up with him than a seat at the bar.

With a little help from Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” that traveled back to the 1920’s Hemingway’s Paris. I was inspired, to travel back in time to the1950’s Hemingway’s Cuba.

The Hemingways with friends at La Florida (“Floridita”), a bar in Havana, Cuba. L-R: Roberto Hererra, unidentified man, Gianfranco Ivancich, Mary Hemingway, unidentified woman, Ernest Hemingway, and Adriana Ivancich. Credit Line: Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

The Hemingways with friends at La Florida (“Floridita”), a bar in Havana, Cuba. L-R: Roberto Hererra, unidentified man, Gianfranco Ivancich, Mary Hemingway, unidentified woman, Ernest Hemingway, and Adriana Ivancich. Credit Line: Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

I arrived, a bit disheveled, at a smokey bar called La Florida in Havana.  Sure enough, there was Papa with a group of 1950s celebrities including his wife Mary and Hollywood superstar Spencer Tracy. They were drinking, laughing, telling stories…and there I was alone at the other end of the bar.

I ordered a mojito.  Rumor had it that this was Hemingway’s favorite drink but with him having been a newspaperman plus its low alcohol content, I found that hard to believe. I took one sip of the sugary liquid and poured the rest in a nearby potted plant.  I called over the bartender and ordered a dry martini.

Perfect timing. Hemingway had left the group and was heading toward my end of the bar. He had spotted my DOOPer necklace and was wondering what a fellow Dear Old Oak Parker was doing sitting by herself at a bar in Havana.

He sat down next to me and asked what I was drinking. He approved and ordered the same.

We immediately clicked and he seemed happy to answer my questions. We both liked to drink and to write but I never write when I drink even though I know many writers do. So I asked Hemingway if he drank when he wrote.

Here’s what he said, ““Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes – and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one. Besides, who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time?”

OK, we’re on the same page.

The mojito thing was still bothering me so I fired away asking if he had a favorite cocktail. His answer: “Dry Martini.” Right again, I was on a roll.  I knew his characters liked them remembering that “In Across the River and Into the Trees,”  Colonel Richard Cantwell ordered a Montgomery Martini: 15 parts gin to one vermouth and “In A Farewell to Arms,” Frederic Henry muses of sipping martinis: “I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.”

I knew he wasn’t going to sit there forever so I had to find out if we were on the same page when it came to writing. I believe that I am a better editor than writer. The more I edit something I write, the better it gets. I wondered how Hemingway constructed a story, so I asked. He answered, “I take great pains with my work, pruning and revising with a tireless hand. I have the welfare of my creations very much at heart. I cut them with infinite care, and burnish them until they become brilliants. What many another writer would be content to leave in massive proportions, I polish into a tiny gem.”  It sounds like he, too, used a lot of editing.

Mary was calling…and Hemingway got up from the bar stool to head back to his group.  I called out to him, “just one more question, Papa, please.”  “Okay”, he said, “just one.” “How do you create such believable characters,” I asked?  He smiled saying,  “it’s easy, if you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.”

A Seat at the Bar: The Series

In our series “A Seat at the Bar” a group of ChicagoNow writers explore meeting a writer or personality that has influenced their own writing.

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