First Person: My Lunch With Hemingway

An American recalls being drawn into Ernest Hemingway's circle in Cuba.

Part of our First Person series, where we invite writers to share personal stories.

World War II was over, I was out of the Air Force and out of college, and somehow I found myself in Havana, Cuba, selling flatware.

This had little to do with becoming a writer, but there were compensations: the mystique of an alien culture, the balmy Caribbean, and the fact that my idol, Ernest Hemingway, lived there.

But how could I ever meet this venerated celebrity?

"Oh, you want to meet Papa?" said my new friend Roberto Herrera. Roberto was a Spaniard who had fled the Franco regime. "He goes everyday to El Floridita. I will arrange."

To my astonishment, he did. Somehow, I knew that my life would be changed forever.

On July 21, 1952, El Floridita—possibly tuned in to Hemingway's mood—seemed to hum. It was always lively, but this morning there was an extra beat.

The trio picked up the pace, and a sober-faced Swedish couple jumped up to dance. Hemingway kept time with the heel of his hand and said, "Festival on Obispo."

The chef, Nico, came out with two platters—one carrying chunks of roast pork and another of hush puppies. "Feliz cumpleano, maestro!" Happy birthday!

The trio, aware of a happening, finished the dance number and strummed out a birthday greeting.

There was applause, and Hemingway waved thanks—surprisingly tolerant, as I saw it: a man who did not enjoy the spotlight if not of his own device. He invited the nearby tables to share the feast.

Birthday News

"You heard from New York, Papa?" Roberto said. He knew moods do not come out of thin air. I was introduced, and we sat down.

Hemingway nodded. "Across the river."

"Contracts on the new book," Roberto explained to me.

"Nice birthday present," I said. "Happy birthday."

"Gracias, Paco," Hemingway said.

Paco? I had no idea where the name came from, but I liked the familiarity.

"It's his birthday too," Roberto announced. The evening before, he had noticed a birthday card I had received from home.

"No, it's not," I protested. Then, giving way, I conceded, "It's tomorrow."

A record of accomplishment attached to a birthday is one thing, but birthdays like mine, signifying nothing more than the passage of time, do not call for ceremony.

"What the hell," Hemingway said. "Happy birthday, Paco."

It was agreeable to have Ernest Hemingway call me by any kind of name, but going the other way, "Papa" sounded impossibly precious, and I kept jumping around it.

I grunted a signal of sorts and said, "Did you say 'across the river'?"

"That's right. Title."

A Little Help from Stonewall

"Across the River and Into the Trees"?

Hemingway looked at me oddly. "You know it?"

"Well, yes, sir. Those were Stonewall Jackson's dying words. "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees."

It was so personal to Hemingway that he almost bristled: "How the HELL do you know that?"

"Douglas Southall Freeman, sir. Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command. I brought all three volumes to Cuba with me."

"You did? Heavy books."

"Yes, sir."

"Well, don't look so goddamned smug, sonny; I read them too."

It was a new intimacy. We shared his famous grin.

"Tell you what, boys," Hemingway said. "We'll lunch up at the Finca."

That sounded pretty good. Especially to a kid who had spent a good chunk of his young life thinking about the Master, and now the Master had just invited him up to his place, Finca Vigía, in San Francisco de Paula, for lunch.

All eyes followed our progress through the heart of El Floridita. A light-footed sensation coursed through me; my nose was up and would not come down.

I did not quite nod graciously to those monitoring our exit, but I could easily sense their curiosity: Who's the young guy with Hemingway?

On the Way to the Inner Sanctum

Outside on the street, Calle Obispo, Juan, the chauffeur, jumped out of a royal blue Buick Roadmaster convertible and held the big door aside.

In keeping with my ceremonial view of the occasion, Juan approached his duties with a certain solemnity.

Indeed, his chauffeur's uniform was quite correct, and the whole—chauffeur, uniform, and regal stance, not to mention the Buick—came as something of a surprise, stemming as they did from a man who had made his mark snubbing pretense.

In any case we settled in, Roberto and I tucked into the backseat, Juan behind the wheel, Hemingway alongside, holding a four-quart canister filled with frozen daiquiris, which he began doling out the moment Juan hit the smoother stretches of the Malecón.

We nosed up into the hills above the city, watching the sea settle to a tranquil blue. There was a modest splash of bamboo forest and a few curves, which Juan, in his element, took at high speed, head adjusted to racing-car tilt.

We entered a private road, mounted a gentle promontory, and there was the sea again, now far, far below.

Just ahead was the casa—Finca Vigía—and just beyond it, a stubby little lighthouse. Roberto had told me that Hemingway sometimes used it as a second office.

Juan made a swooping approach to the front of the house and uttered his first and only words: "Estamos aqui!" We are here.

Hemingway fumbled in his pocket and said, "Where are the goddamn keys?"

He rang the bell. Then rang it twice more, before the door opened with a whoosh, and Mary Welsh Hemingway greeted us with a decided stance. She had short curly hair, sharp features, and attitude to spare.

She was the fourth Mrs. Hemingway, and Roberto, who knew such things, had mentioned that she was the least domesticated.

Sparring Partners

A curious silence followed. Husband and wife seemed to be measuring each other. I had the distinct feeling that she was displeased and that he was trying to figure out what he had done.

For some odd reason the image that came to mind was Blondie and Dagwood, although neither resembled either.

The awkward moment was made more so when Hemingway, seeking to break the stalemate, said, "I brought the boys home for lunch."

For some reason, this piece of news failed to lift her spirits: "The **** you did," said Mrs. Hemingway.

"What the hell's up your ass?" said Hemingway. His tone was muffled because he had guests, but he had definitely moved past the chatty stage.

"Next time you bring your buddies home for lunch, you let me know ahead of time!"

"Up yours."

"**** you, Papa!"

The interesting thing about this exchange was that, even as the language escalated to the coarsest extremes, Hemingway and wife maintained a civility of movement through the living room and into the dining room, placing themselves in their accustomed slots at table, as though the volleys of invective were simply meal accoutrements, like napkins.

Hemingway allocated the seating with pointed finger, and he and Mrs. Hemingway went back and forth without pause, paying no heed to either me or Roberto.

For our part, we kept our heads down, taking no part in the hostilities.

Lunch was served by two ladies who flowed in and out of the kitchen with decanters of wine, loaves of bread, and bowls of salad.

Inured to the rattle of argument, they paid no attention to master or mistress: They unobtrusively served and disappeared.

During a breathing lull, Roberto tentatively entered the bullring by holding his glass up—but not too high, so as to avoid the presumption of alien incursion—and said quietly, "Reminds me of Jumilla."

"Some of the best wine in Spain," Hemingway said, swirling his glass.

I judged his enthusiasm to include a rebuke to Mrs. Hemingway, who at the moment was drinking bottled water.

"Tastes like piss to me," she said.

Despite her descriptive exuberance, I began to enjoy the meal. I caught Roberto's subversive smile, and we struggled to appear grim.

"You wouldn't know good wine if you were swimming in it," Hemingway commented.

"Just like piss."

"Here's to piss," Roberto said. This struck Hemingway as funny because Mrs. Hemingway didn't quite hear it and wouldn't have liked it if she had.

Convulsed behind napkins, Roberto and I struggled to contain ourselves. We were only partially successful, and Mrs. Hemingway death-rayed us with a glance.

Hemingway poured, and we quickly recovered.

Lasting Impression

Ironically, the subject of writing never came up. But as I was leaving later that day, he did say one thing that stayed with me.

I saw him twice more before leaving Cuba—at a garden party festooned with bright-colored lanterns and again, having decided that flatware was not in my future, during one last visit to El Floridita to say goodbye.

I returned to Havana two years later on my honeymoon and stopped in at El Floridita and Finca Vigía.

I was able to introduce my bride, Lynn, to things Hemingway but not to Hemingway himself: He was in Africa, on safari with Mary Welsh Hemingway, a famously adventurous journey involving two small-plane crashes, premature notices of his death, and his eventual emergence from the jungle carrying a stalk of bananas and a bottle of gin.

Newspaper accounts of his demise arrived at Finca Vigía even while we were visiting—and then the revised news of his miraculous survival.

I never saw him again. Nor could I find Roberto, who had left Cuba for Brazil.

I returned to the U.S. to begin work with a new government agency: the CIA.

Later I learned that Hemingway was living in Ketchum, Idaho, and was neither physically nor mentally well.

A few days after that, news of his suicide was splashed across every newspaper in the country and around the world.

Fitfully, hoping that I had acquired something by osmosis, I tried my hand at the craft of writing.

Along the way, I kept remembering what he had said to me that day at the Finca Vigía, about writing: "There's nothing to it. Just sit at a typewriter and bleed."

Howard Berk is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Georgia. His credits include 13 feature films, dozens of TV episodes—including Mission: Impossible, Columbo, The Rockford Files, and McMillan & Wife—and four novels. His latest, The Beckendorf Option, is slated for publication this fall. He lives in Georgia with his wife, Lynn.

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