I wanted to walk those sewer-fetid and narrow cobbled streets in Habana Vieja and
gaze up at those stunning colonial mansions,
properties of the state, carved up now into
multiple-family dwellings. Mostly, though, I
went to Cuba to behold — in the flesh, so to
speak — Ernest Hemingway’s boat.
She was sitting up on concrete blocks,
like some old and gasping browned-out whale, maybe a hundred yards from
Hemingway’s house, under a kind of gigantic carport with a corrugated-plastic roof,
on what was once his tennis court, just
down from the now-drained pool where Ava
Gardner had reputedly swum nude. Even
in her diminished, dry-docked, parts-plun-dered state, I knew Pilar would be beautiful,
and she was. I knew she’d be threatened by
the elements and the bell-tolls of time, in the
same way much else at the hilltop farm on
the outskirts of Havana — Finca Vigía was
its name when Hemingway lived there —
was seriously threatened, and she was. But I
didn’t expect to be so moved.
I walked round and round her. I took
rolls and rolls of pictures of her long, low hull,
of her slightly raked mahogany stern, of her
nearly vertical bow. When the guards weren’t
looking, I reached over and touched her sur-
face. The wood, marbled with hairline fissures,
was dusty, porous, dry. It seemed almost
scaly. It felt febrile. It was as if Pilar were dying
from thirst. It was as if all she wanted was to
get into water. But even if it were possible to
hoist her with a crane off these blocks and
to ease her onto a flatbed truck and to take
her away from this steaming hillside and to
set her gently into Havana Harbor, would
Hemingway’s boat go down like a stone, boil-
ing and bubbling to the bottom, her insides
having long ago been eaten out by termites
and other barely visible critters?
Main picture: Underway
in her newness, that
first summer, 1934.
Hemingway taking a
smoke break on Pilar.
All Photos: The John F. Kennedy
Presidential Library & Museum.