Pi­lar Af­ter Decades of Tur­moil

Passage Maker - - Contents - Stephe­nie Hol­ly­man

Vis­it­ing Pi­lar


Pi­lar was a sassy fish­ing boat with a shiny black hull. She car­ried a phono­graph, slept six, and had two en­gines—one for trolling, the other for cruis­ing. The cruis­ing en­gine pro­pelled her to a top speed of 16 knots. For most of her event-filled 27 years as Ernest Hem­ing­way’s faith­ful sport-fish­ing com­pan­ion, she berthed in Co­ji­mar, Cuba. Wheeler Yacht Com­pany, her builder, named this model a “Play­mate cabin cruiser,” but Hem­ing­way dis­agreed. In­stead, he said his boat was “a func­tional fish­ing ma­chine, sturdy, re­liant and built to take the worst weather and sweat­ing in any kind of sea.” He re­mained faith­ful to her un­til he had to leave Cuba in 1959, one year be­fore his sui­cide. Hem­ing­way, who cast aside long­time friends and left be­hind three bro­ken mar­riages, re­ferred to Pi­lar as the “one true thing” in his life.

Wheeler built Pi­lar for Hem­ing­way in 1934 at its yard in Brook­lyn, New York. Hem­ing­way had com­mis­sioned her con­struc­tion for $7,495. Hav­ing just re­turned from Africa with the 1933–34 Wheeler cat­a­log he had brought on his sa­fari, the au­thor vis­ited Wheeler’s ship­yard to make a down pay­ment. The pay­ment of $3,000 was ad­vanced by Arnold Gin­grich, then edi­tor of Esquire, as pay­ment for fu­ture ar­ti­cles. As part of the com­mis­sion, Pi­lar was cus­tom­ized to in­clude a lad­der-back fight­ing chair and a wooden roller bar across the tran­som, which was low­ered 12 inches to

as­sist in bring­ing fish into the cock­pit. Hem­ing­way named the boat af­ter the nick­name he gave his se­cond wife, Pauline.

Last win­ter on an es­pe­cially wet and windy El Niño day, I learned about all this and more while read­ing Paul Hen­drick­son’s en­gross­ing bi­og­ra­phy, Hem­ing­way’s Boat: Ev­ery­thing He Loved

in Life, and Lost, 1934–1961. A chron­i­cle of the last 27 years of Hem­ing­way’s life, the book cen­ters on Pi­lar, the creative muse for some of Hem­ing­way’s nov­els and the rolling stage upon which his later years played out. “Pi­lar was a Buick boat, not a Mer­cedes,” Hen­drick­son told me dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view, “and I used her as both a lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive sto­ry­telling de­vice to think about Ernest Hem­ing­way and this ob­ject and ma­chine he loved so deeply.” A for­mer re­porter for The Wash­ing­ton Post, Hen­drick­son took seven years to write this metic­u­lously re­searched book, which was a fi­nal­ist for a Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award. “I wasn’t in­ter­ested in this float­ing piece of wood and her tech­nics,” he told me. “I wanted to use my re­port­ing skills to dis­cover what hap­pened on this boat as a through line for the life of a man who was at war with him­self.”

Af­ter his self-in­flicted death by shot­gun in 1961, Hem­ing­way’s fourth wife and widow, Mary, flew to Cuba to read the will that be­queathed Pi­lar to her long­time cap­tain, Gre­go­rio Fuentes, with the pro­vi­sion that Fuentes “was free to dis­pose of the yacht as he sees fit.” Fuentes couldn’t af­ford the up­keep and donated her to the Cuban gov­ern­ment. For some time af­ter, Pi­lar rested high and dry on con­crete blocks be­hind Hem­ing­way’s home, “Finca Vigía,” which had been con­verted into a na­tional mu­seum. Though the boat was swathed in a gray can­vas bound with rope, it was no de­ter­rent to the ter­mites that ate away at her up­per deck and tran­som while Pi­lar awaited restora­tion by the cash-strapped Cuban Min­istry of Tourism.

Hem­ing­way’s Haunts

Two months af­ter read­ing Hem­ing­way’s Boat, I trav­eled to Cuba to re­trace the wake left by Hem­ing­way, Pulitzer and No­bel prize win­ner and “boat-struck” ad­ven­turer, us­ing Hen­drick­son’s book as my guide. At the air­port I breathed in the warm hu­mid air of this vi­brant is­land and felt as Hem­ing­way once wrote, “Like that you’re on the other side of a lost world that’s al­ways been so se­duc­tively near and si­mul­ta­ne­ously so far.” Ex­cept for throngs of tourists vis­it­ing Ha­vana from two cruise ships, the is­land na­tion looked much like it would have when Hem­ing­way left in 1959. Vin­tage cars rat­tled their way through Ha­vana’s cob­ble­stone and pot-holed streets.

In Old Ha­vana I made the pil­grim­age to Hem­ing­way’s haunts from the time that the city’s life­style “was on a rumba” and Hem­ing­way roamed har­bor-side bars, par­ty­ing with wife No. 3, jour­nal­ist Martha Gel­horn. I crossed the broad plaza of San Fran­cisco Square where the first scene of To Have and Have Not takes place. Henry Mor­gan, the main char­ac­ter of the book (played by Humphrey Bog­art in the movie adap­ta­tion), en­ters the Pearl of San Fran­cisco Cafe for cof­fee and is of­fered $1,000 a head to smug­gle hu­man con­tra­band out of Cuba to Key West dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion on a fish­ing boat quite sim­i­lar to Pi­lar. Mor­gan re­fuses to risk his boat and a gun­fight en­sues. Af­ter Hem­ing­way’s al­ter ego hears bul­lets go “bop, bop, bop” and “bot­tles smash­ing all against the wall,” he slips out the cafe’s kitchen, crosses San Fran­cisco Square, and hops onto his boat wait­ing at the dock nearby.

Al­though the dock no longer ex­ists, the room at Ho­tel Am­bos Mun­dos where the au­thor rented Room 511 with bil­low­ing white cur­tains, still sur­vives, al­though with­out the cur­tains. I rode the

ag­ing Otis screen-cage el­e­va­tor to the fifth floor. Hem­ing­way lived in this room, his first res­i­dence in Cuba, on and off for seven years be­gin­ning in 1932. Here on a nar­row bed (and on an­other bed at the more lux­u­ri­ous Na­tional Ho­tel), he had a tryst with a 22-yearold heiress, leav­ing be­hind wife No. 2, Pauline, in Key West. He also fin­ished For Whom the Bell Tolls in the Ho­tel Am­bos Mun­dos, writ­ing while stand­ing up to lessen leg pain from a wound he re­ceived in World War I. I paid $4 to en­ter the spar­tan quar­ters to view Hem­ing­way’s Rem­ing­ton type­writer (with a ques­tion­able prove­nance) en­shrined in a plas­tic case. Hem­ing­way once told an in­ter­viewer he rarely used the type­writer ex­cept when writ­ing di­a­logue. He said he pre­ferred “blue-backed note­books, the two pen­cils and the pen­cil sharp­ener.”

Far­ther up Calle Obispo, I checked out one of the fa­vored wa­ter­ing holes of this hard-drink­ing writer. At El Floridita in Old Ha­vana, the au­thor tossed back Daiquiri Dobles af­ter a morn­ing’s writ­ing or a day of fish­ing aboard Pi­lar. He rose an hour af­ter day­break to be­gin writ­ing and was usu­ally fin­ished by late morn­ing. He had an av­er­age out­put of 400 to 700 words a day, if he was lucky. Since he never drank when he wrote, at lunchtime “Papa” presided over his courtiers and friends at El Floridita, perched on a bar stool in a cor­ner fac­ing the door­way where a bronze statue of the writer is now planted. Some­times he also vis­ited La Ter­raza in Co­ji­mar for lunch. And yes, the daiquiri in both places now tastes as if made from a mix. And no, Hem­ing­way did not in­vent the daiquiri. Cuban Cre­oles did.

Soul for the Sea

Ever since his Michi­gan child­hood, Hem­ing­way had been ob­sessed with fish­ing. Once he had Pi­lar at his beck and call, he hooked, reeled in, and gaffed large bluefin tuna, broad­bill sword­fish, and blue mar­lin over her stern. On board, he taught his sons “how to reel in some­thing that feels like Moby-Dick.” Some of his catches weighed up to 1,000 pounds. The thrill of a strike and the sound of mar­lin’s tail slap­ping across Pi­lar’s thwart was his great­est thrill, Hem­ing­way once said. If the writ­ing wasn’t go­ing well or he was bick­er­ing with wife No. 3, Hem­ing­way boarded Pi­lar for an af­ter­noon of fish­ing if no white­caps were show­ing. At the boat’s helm was his cap­tain, friend, bar­tender, and con­fi­dante, Gre­go­rio Fuentes, who out­lasted all the au­thor’s wives and lived to be 104.

Al­though Pi­lar’s usual home port was the fish­ing vil­lage of Co­ji­mar, Fuentes’ home, Hem­ing­way also liked to de­part from Ha­vana Har­bor. Far from the mad­den­ing crowds of au­to­graph seek­ers, he waved at lovers along The Malecón, Ha­vana’s prom­e­nade, as Pi­lar steamed out to sea past the El Morro for­ti­fi­ca­tion. Stand­ing in bare feet on the deck of the fly­bridge, he wore weath­ered khaki shorts, held up with a leather belt cinched over his belt loops, and a tat­tered checked shirt. He of­ten took the aux­il­iary helm, which was a re­cy­cled wheel from a Ford Model T. He thrust his bar­rel chest for­ward and tipped his head to the sky, breath­ing in the sea air. Pi­lar’s prow rose high, as did Hem­ing­way’s spir­its, prob­a­bly buoyed by a bot­tle of maguey beer or a shot of Gor­don’s gin.

As Fuentes steered, then baited and set the hooks, Hem­ing­way would stretch out in his boat’s cush­ioned cock­pit be­low and idly watch birds’ wings slant­ing and the “slight bulge in the wa­ter that the big dol­phin raised as they fol­lowed the es­cap­ing fish.” He lis­tened to his boat “run­ning nice and smooth and the wa­ter wash­ing along her” as she trolled the Gulf Stream, which he called “the Great Blue Wa­ter.”

Pi­lar be­came the tor­tured writer’s refuge where he could muse, drink, en­ter­tain, and try to over­come his fre­quent bouts of writer’s block or a hang­over, says Hen­drick­son. Like the fish­er­man San­ti­ago in The Old Man and the Sea, Hem­ing­way “was never alone be­cause he had his friend and enemy, the sea.” While fish­ing and land­less he could es­cape both te­dious and fawn­ing house­guests and the dark moods that plagued him. Hen­drick­son told me that Hem­ing­way was prob­a­bly bipo­lar and “had also been hit on the head too many times.” In one in­ci­dent in Paris, a sky­light fell and cut open the writer’s head. Hem­ing­way had been to both World Wars and covered the

Span­ish Civil War as a correspondent. He had “heard the shots and seen the bod­ies,” or as the au­thor Gertrude Stein put it, her one­time friend was “worn by war.” He had more than 200 shrap­nel scars, a shot-off kneecap, and night ter­rors to prove that he prob­a­bly suf­fered from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. His fun­da­men­tal soul­ful­ness and oc­ca­sional beast­li­ness to­ward oth­ers bat­tled in­ces­santly, and his “mist of sad­ness” dis­ap­peared, if only for the mo­ment, when he was at sea.

While in Ha­vana, I stayed in Casablanca, in a room with a view across the har­bor to the de­cay­ing ship­yard where dur­ing World War II, U.S. Naval In­tel­li­gence fit­ted Pi­lar with a ma­chine gun and a wire­less ra­dio. Like a float­ing Don Quixote, Hem­ing­way used Pi­lar to search for U-boats in the Caribbean along the cays of Cuba, a covert and fruit­less op­er­a­tion he called “Friend­less,” af­ter his cat. Each day from Casablanca I took the ferry across the port to Ha­vana’s Old City, a five-minute ride. Of­ten an east­erly breeze was blow­ing and fish­ing boats in var­i­ous states of dis­re­pair bobbed in Casablanca’s brown wa­ters. I closed my eyes to re­call more clearly the early ef­fort of Cuba’s naval en­gi­neer, Rene Guara, to con­duct the first re­pair work on Pi­lar at Casablanca’s ship­yard in 1965. The valiant but un­der­funded project was hob­bled fi­nan­cially but re­sumed in 1981. “The fu­el­ing and cool­ing sys­tems and ex­haust and her se­cond en­gine are miss­ing at the mo­ment,” Guara told a re­porter at the time.

A few days later, Kiki, the driver of a flashy blue 1958 Ford (re­fit­ted with a Mer­cedes en­gine), took me to Co­ji­mar, the set­ting for The Old Man and the Sea, the main an­chor­age for Pi­lar, and home to her cap­tain who never gave away his em­ployer’s se­crets. Hem­ing­way once said, “Ev­ery­thing will be old but not the shine in Gre­go­rio’s eyes.” I framed an im­age of Pi­lar bob­bing in Co­ji­mar Bay with her dinghy, Bumby, teth­ered off her stern, her bow ris­ing and fall­ing as her bright­work glis­tened un­der the sun. Hem­ing­way said that his own role on their boat was to hook the prey and then “grad­u­ally work him closer and closer and then in to where Gre­go­rio can gaff him, club him and take him on board.”

Pi­lar’s cap­tain in­tro­duced the au­thor to the fish­er­man, Anselmo Her­nan­dez, who was the model for San­ti­ago, the pro­tag­o­nist in Hem­ing­way’s Pulitzer Prize–win­ning novel about a man, a boy, and a fish. Hem­ing­way re­ceived the No­bel Prize two years later, and though he didn’t at­tend the cer­e­mony, he ded­i­cated the prize to the fish­er­men of Co­ji­mar. Af­ter his death, they col­lected bronze pro­pel­lers from their boats and melted them down to erect a bust of the au­thor that to­day over­looks Co­ji­mar Bay.

Hem­ing­way’s Im­pact

I vis­ited the sons of some of these men at their gated fish­ing co­op­er­a­tive in the Cha­con dis­trict of Co­ji­mar, just down the beach from where Hem­ing­way’s San­ti­ago once launched his skiff. Lit­tle seemed to have changed, al­though the beach was now lit­tered with plas­tic bags and bot­tles. One fish­er­man, like San­ti­ago, had brown blotches from the trop­i­cal sun. They “ran well down the sides of his face,” Hem­ing­way wrote in the novel, “and his hands had the deep-creased scars from han­dling fish on heavy cords.” These men of the sea were friendly, and “fine,” as the writer might

have penned. The fish­er­man and I stood on the creak­ing dock as I spoke about liv­ing on a tug­boat trawler in Cal­i­for­nia, and we soon be­came fel­low trav­el­ers. A fish­ing boat ar­rived with a large mar­lin splayed across its stern. The sun was soft and the crew of the fish­ing boat were pleased. Wield­ing a rust­ing ma­chete, the mate brusquely hacked off the mar­lin’s fins and bill. The slanted dock groaned with the weight of the crew as they strug­gled to lift the mar­lin off the boat’s tran­som onto the dock. The cap­tain lit up a cigar while spec­ta­tors tried to guess the weight of the fish. One with a heavy girth chimed in, “I weigh 250 pounds so it has to be more than that.” The cap­tain grunted.

That night I stayed in Co­ji­mar with the daugh­ter of Raúl Corrales, Cuba’s renowned pho­tog­ra­pher, who died nine years ago at 81. The pho­tog­ra­pher once told a re­porter that Co­ji­mar’s fish­er­men “are a lot of liars, each one has a catch, the big­gest, but he loses it.” Corrales’ daugh­ter, Norma, lived across the street from Hem­ing­way’s Cap­tain Fuentes. Her fa­ther was pri­mar­ily known for his stun­ning and iconic re­portage of the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion, Che Gue­vara, and Fidel Cas­tro. He also pho­tographed Hem­ing­way fish­ing from Pi­lar. Over cof­fee af­ter din­ner Norma Corrales showed me a book and her fa­ther’s con­tact sheets of im­ages from that day. In the vivid im­ages, Corrales had cap­tured the writer’s pal­pa­ble ex­cite­ment as he stood on the fly­ing bridge. Norma also showed me the pho­to­graph her fa­ther later cap­tured of Hem­ing­way and Fidel Cas­tro, both hold­ing a fish­ing tro­phy. She told me, “Ev­ery­body thinks that Hem­ing­way was close friends with Cas­tro, but that’s not so.” For in­deed, this was the first time the two men with out­sized egos had met— only one year be­fore the au­thor’s sui­cide in Wy­oming at age 62.

Ear­lier in my trip I vis­ited Pi­lar, now re­stored, at Hem­ing­way’s for­mer es­tate, Finca Vigía, in the vil­lage of San Fran­cisco de Paula, ten min­utes from Ha­vana. Finca Vigía opened to tourists in 2007 and ev­ery­thing looks as it did in 1960 when Hem­ing­way came home to the States for the last time, not even say­ing good­bye to his cap­tain and best friend, Fuentes. Or his boat. Pi­lar was shack­led on the hard to ce­ment sup­ports, dis­played un­der a tin roof on the es­tate’s for­mer ten­nis court, sur­rounded by a walk­way for tourists. A tourist group stood in front of Pi­lar’s fight­ing chair, tak­ing self­ies.

I asked Hen­drick­son if this Play­mate cabin cruiser, de­spite all the restora­tion work, was the orig­i­nal Pi­lar. He replied, “Ul­ti­mately, only God knows, but as far as man can de­ter­mine and guess, she is the real McCoy.” He cites the visit of Mys­tic Sea­port’s Dan Hew­son, a renowned ex­pert on boat restora­tion, who con­firmed that Pi­lar was, in fact, the orig­i­nal. “As Cole Porter put it, she is the real turtle soup, not the mock turtle soup.”

Even so, my long-awaited ren­dezvous with Pi­lar was a bit of an an­ti­cli­max for me. The boat’s once-shiny black hull had slightly faded and the bright­work had lost its glit­ter. She re­minded me of a stuffed tro­phy sword­fish above a sports­man’s man­tel with its un­blink­ing glass eyes star­ing forth, bereft of life. A boat not put to use, out of the wa­ter, on the hard, lacks mean­ing. It be­comes an inan­i­mate ob­ject com­posed of wood, nails, stain­less steel, var­nish, and paint. It only springs back to life through the viewer’s emo­tional con­nec­tion with its owner and his­tory.

Hen­drick­son’s book cre­ates that con­nec­tion. Through his re­search and gifted sto­ry­telling, the an­i­mus of Pi­lar and her owner en­dure.

Left: At La Flordita, the au­thor pre­ferred to drink Daiquiri Dobles af­ter a morn­ing spent writ­ing or a day of fish­ing on board Pi­lar. He rose an hour af­ter day­break to be­gin the ar­du­ous act of writ­ing and was usu­ally fin­ished by late morn­ing, av­er­ag­ing...

Morro Cas­tle, the well-pho­tographed sea fort that guards the en­trance to Ha­vana, Cuba. At times, Hem­ing­way would pi­lot Pi­lar through this chan­nel, stand­ing on deck in bare feet and khaki shorts.

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