Travels October 2005

The Old Man and the Daiquiri

A pilgrimage through Hemingway's Havana

Ernest Hemingway's house just outside Havana is called Finca Vigía. You aren't allowed inside. It's in parlous condition, and it's filled with small, pilferable items, such as unopened letters and a rubber stamp that reads "I never answer letters, Ernest Hemingway." You are, however, permitted to stroll around the outside and crane your neck through open windows and doors, from which you can see the interior much as the author left it in 1960. If you crane too far, a security guard will approach and give you a sharp look. You can smooth things over by discreetly slipping her a couple of dollars, in return for which she will walk your camera through the house and take pictures of hard-to-see items. Most visitors want a photograph of the Picasso drawing of a bull, which hangs on a bedroom wall. I directed the guard to Hemingway's tabletop bar in the living room, for a close-up of sun-faded liquor bottles.

I was in Havana researching a book about the history of rum, and at Finca Vigía I found myself amid a reverent crowd. Beginning in 1932, Hemingway lived in Cuba off and on for nearly three decades and through three wives, and devout tourists, mostly European and Canadian, trek like pilgrims along the Stations of the Papa, making obeisance where the great man lived, worked, and, mostly, drank.

The digital photograph the guard returned to me confirmed that Hemingway's tastes in liquor were catholic. The bar was stocked with Campari and Gordon's gin, among other libations. (Hemingway was also fond of tequila. On his fishing boat, now housed in an open shed behind the house, he had a small bar built atop the bridge to avoid the inconvenience of having to descend a ladder between drinks. He called tequila "the steering liquor.")

His home bar also held a bottle of Bacardi rum. Hemingway liked Cuban rum in general and frozen daiquiris—which provoked him into a small rhapsody—in particular. "This frozen daiquiri," he wrote in Islands in the Stream, "so well beaten as it is, looks like the sea where the wave falls away from the bow of a ship when she is doing thirty knots."

The daiquiri as we know it is a sort of alcoholic sherbet, often extruded from vast, Dairy Queen—like dispensers. It is associated with sundresses and strawberries, linked more to ice-cream headaches than hangovers. One wonders: How did the manliest of bare-fisted fighting men fall in with such a beverage?

Seeking the answer to a simple question can give a pilgrim great stamina. So it was with my quest.

I began my stay in Havana as Hemingway did, in a room on the fifth floor of the Ambos Mundos Hotel, a flamingo-colored pile in the heart of the old city. Hemingway's early stays in Havana allowed him to escape outbreaks of guests at his Key West home, which made it impossible to get any writing done. His favored hotel room, where he was a frequent visitor until he moved into his house, in 1939, is now a shrine, with a red rope in front of the bed to keep tourists from stealing the bedclothes, and his typewriter housed in a Plexiglas reliquary. Hemingway would write or review drafts from about 8:00 A.M. until 2:00 P.M., and spend the rest of the day watching jai alai or cockfights, or drinking in Havana's bars.

Bars catering to Americans were abundant. Hemingway had arrived on the island during the waning days of the Volstead Act, the law that ushered in Prohibition and in effect served as an economic-development program for Cuba's rum and saloon industries. Ferries and cruise lines brought thirsty Americans to Cuba throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, and aviation technology was marshaled to meet demand. The first scheduled international flight from the United States took off just ten months after Prohibition began, connecting Key West and Havana by means of an eleven-seat sea plane.

Old Havana is a sort of museum of forgotten drinks. Well-groomed waiters wearing short-waisted jackets take orders at outdoor cafés for cocktails such as El Presidente and the Mary Pickford, the latter a fine blend of rum, pineapple juice, maraschino, and grenadine. Those who have recently been introduced to the mojito may be surprised to learn that it's not new; it has been popular in Cuba for decades.

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Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, to be published next year.

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