For the past 50 years countless numbers of Cubans have died attempting to flee their beautiful island. But in 1957, the "Pearl of the Antilles" was a popular destination, particularly for Floridians. That summer, my younger brother, Tony, and I sailed from the port of Miami with our parents to vacation in Havana. Not content with the usual tourist attractions in the city, my father decided we should travel to a cattle ranch just outside of town where cockfights were held on Sunday afternoons. The fights were brief, bloody and furious.
Our parents, both fluent in Spanish, soon found themselves engaged in a conversation with a nice-looking man in his 40s. He was a doctor and accompanied by a much younger woman, probably just a few years older than I, a young teenager at the time. After the last fight, the doctor suggested we return to town with him to visit an establishment or two not frequented by tourists. One of them was a restaurant and bar called the Floridita. The doctor told us, "I fish with Ernest Hemingway. He usually shows up there on Sunday afternoons for daiquiris."
I had read The Old Man and the Sea when it was first published in Life magazine in 1952. I was enthralled by the story of the epic battle between an old Cuban handline fisherman and a gigantic marlin, which was ultimately devoured by sharks. Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for literature for the book. The opportunity to actually meet the famed author could not be passed up.
Before long, a midnight blue Cadillac stopped at the curb. A large, bearded man wearing a Panama hat and guayabera emerged from the rear door and helped a blond woman exit the car. Upon entering the bar, Hemingway spotted the doctor, grinned and bellowed, "Hola, hombre," and they embraced. He joined us and ordered a round of daiquiris.
Hemingway and the doctor soon began regaling us with tales of fishing trips in the Gulf Stream. It was not long before the party was going strong and Hemingway was the center of it. The man had a presence that my brother and I still recall vividly. My parents, of course, told him what an impact the story had on me. So before he left, Hemingway inscribed the back of a Floridita postcard: "To Paul and Tony, Best always, your friend, Ernest Hemingway." The card hangs on a wall in my home study. A photo of Hemingway at the bar in the Floridita is in the frame beside it.
Delighted by our excitement at having socialized with Hemingway, the doctor invited us to dine with him the next night. This time, we met in a more casual restaurant, the Teresita, on the shore of a small harbor in the village of Cojimar. This was the village where the "old man" of the novel lived. That night the doctor was accompanied by his wife. After dinner we strolled the dark streets of the village. A Spanish fort, built in the 16th or 17th century, still stood guard as it had from the era when Cuba belonged to Spain, as did most of the New World.
Several nights later, Tony and I followed our parents through the casino area of the famed Tropicana nightclub. The Mafia controlled several casinos in Havana and this was the most lavish one. We had dinner on the patio and enjoyed the Las Vegas-style floor show. During the evening, a slender gentleman wearing an elegant beige suit came to our table. "Tony, Josephina, how are you? Welcome to the Tropicana," said Santo Trafficante.
That evening, neither my brother nor I knew that the man with reddish hair and blue eyes, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a bow tie, was reputed to be the Mafia godfather of Florida and Havana. To us, he was just a high school acquaintance of our folks from Tampa. He sat with us, asked about mutual friends and how things were going back home. After a dessert of coconut sherbet, the waiter came to the table and told us that dinner was on Mr. Trafficante.
A year-and-a-half later, the music stopped and the lights dimmed throughout Cuba. The excitement and gaiety of the Havana of Hemingway and Trafficante were no more. Bearded men in fatigues, brandishing carbines, were now in charge. The fresh air of freedom would soon be fouled by repression and despair.
• • •
In the summer of 2000, I returned to Cuba, again by water, but this time on a 38-foot sport fishing boat from Key West. We were entered in the Hemingway Marlin Tournament. I wondered if the Tropicana and Floridita still existed. I soon found out they did. In some ways, the Floridita looked exactly as I remembered it, perhaps a little worn and faded. I sat at the table by the door and reminisced over a daiquiri, of course. A black-and-white photo of Hemingway was on the wall.
I then traveled to Cojimar. The restaurant, the Teresita, had not changed either. I walked in and ordered a mojito. More black-and-white photos of Hemingway hung on the walls, most of him with prized billfish.
The tournament ended with an awards banquet at the Hemingway Marina. The guest of honor was a man named Gregorio Fuentes. He had fished with Hemingway and was reputed to be the model for the "old man" of the book. He was now 100 years old but still alert and distinguished. As I shook his hand, I told him about my afternoon with Hemingway in 1957. He smiled and replied, "El era algo serio." He was a serious man, not to be taken lightly.
We were in the Gulf Stream at first light on course for Key West. I thought about my father, the doctor, Hemingway and Havana as it was. All gone, for many years now, but all still vivid in my memory.
Paul Pizzo practices law in Tampa. He enjoys tarpon fishing with his family aboard their boat, the "Floridita."