Hemingway's Cuban Son
Reflections on the Writer by His Longtime Majordomo
Publication Year: 2008
“This is the story of a poor, young Cuban boy who grew into a man and gained the trust and respect of a famous American author, whom he loved like a father. A man he called ‘Papa.’’—from the Preface
In 1996 René Villarreal returned to Cuba to retrieve his memoir of his life with Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia. Sadly, he learned that the manuscript and photographs had been lost. Determined to tell his story, Villarreal, together with his son Raúl, set about rewriting the account of how he came to be Ernest Hemingway’s majordomo, confidant, and friend—his Cuban son.
Hemingway, called El Americano by the Cubans, moved into the Finca Vigia, an estate outside of Havana, in 1939. He allowed the village children to play on his property, and they soon became fixtures, caring for his pets, performing odd jobs, and running errands. Hemingway recognized René as especially responsible and attentive and made him household manager, or majordomo, in 1946 when René was only seventeen.
For the next fifteen years, René ran the Finca, tending to Hemingway and his wife, Mary, and their visiting family and distinguished guests. Villarreal’s clear recollections offer up humorous stories of escapades and adventures with Hemingway as well as insightful comments on the writer’s work habits, moods, passions, and friendships. He also writes of Cuba before and after the revolution, capturing so well the sense of place and time. Scholars and readers of Hemingway worldwide will be caught up in this compelling story of a great friendship and will find insight into this complicated, fascinating, brilliant writer.
Published by: The Kent State University Press
Title Page, Copyright
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My father, René Villarreal, first wrote his memoirs in the mid-1960s when he was serving as the director and administrator of the Hemingway Museum in Havana, Cuba. However, that manuscript was either lost or stolen—we’re not sure which, because those involved and the . . .
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To my father, I extend my sincere gratitude, love, and great admiration for sharing his incredible life with me and for recognizing that his youngest son is a dreamer. My soul-felt gratitude to my mother for her love and strength throughout the years and to my brother René Jr., . . .
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Fours years had passed since my last trip to Cuba, and I thought this one would be my last. This trip was supposed to give me the opportunity to say good-bye, to see my brothers, sister, and old friends one last time. I wanted to see Cuba once more. I wanted to see again the . . .
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The Finca Vigía should be properly introduced before I begin my stories. After all, for two decades it was an important character in Hemingway’s life, . . .
Call Him Papa
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I was born on August 30, 1929, in El Vedado, a beautiful suburb of Havana. My parents named me René Luis Rosa de La Caridad Villarreal Vergara and my identical twin brother Luis René Rosa de La Caridad Villarreal Vergara. We were born on the day of Santa Rosa de . . .
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When Hemingway bought the Finca Vigía in 1940, he told Señor D’orn that he would honor the servants’ positions and keep their service. The majordomo at that time was a Jamaican named Luis. Also on staff were the cook, a short, heavyset Spanish woman named María, and . . .
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Sometime after Don Pedro’s death, three of my brothers, Fico, and I were in the middle of a ballgame with other boys from the pueblo (Oscar had stayed home drawing under the kitchen table, as he liked to do) when we heard the oxen-pulled wagon of the old . . .
Working in Paradise
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La Finca was paradise to an eleven-year-old boy. The rooms were filled with heads of antelope, gazelle, and other animals I had seen only in schoolbooks. The spacious rooms were covered with interesting, colorful art and images of bullfighters. As I swept the terrace . . .
The Ghost in the Darkness
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When I started working at the Finca, Martha Gellhorn was the lady of the house. A sophisticated, attractive, independent woman, she didn’t approve much of having the local kids running freely around the Finca and swimming in the pool. I had little contact with her. I only heard . . .
A Time of War
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Before the summer of 1942 was over, more than thirty ships had been attacked by German submarines off the Cuban coast. Hemingway, restless and wanting to be involved, managed to convince personnel at the American embassy in Havana to allow him to patrol the Cuban . . .
Papa Comes Home
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In March of 1945, Ernest Hemingway returned to Cuba from Europe. Justo, Fico, and I were waiting for him in front of the house when he cheerfully stepped out of the stationwagon, clearly happy to be home. Looking fit, he had shaved the long beard he had when he left and . . .
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Since his return to Cuba, Hemingway had gone out almost every day to Havana to dine and meet with friends. But with Mary Welsh soon to arrive, a new cook was needed. Papa placed an ad in one of the Havana papers, and within a couple of days we had a response. Papa asked me . . .
After War, Peace
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During the spring of 1946, life in the Finca was running smoothly. Mary liked her new maid Marta, and Papa Hemingway was hard at work early every morning. Justo was working well and not causing any problems. Ramón had been with us for over a year, and Fico had . . .
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In April of 1947, Patrick and Gregory Hemingway arrived at the Finca to spend their Easter vacation with us. Patrick had arrived first, since he was studying for the Harvard College Board Exams, and Gregory came directly from Canterbury School. Both boys were happy to see . . .
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It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in April 1948, warmer than usual for that time of year. Papa Hemingway read in his favorite chair in the living room, relaxed in his khaki-colored shorts, white shortsleeve guayabera, and favorite oversized moccasins and enjoying the . . .
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Papa and I shared a great love for nature and animals, and I always respected how he provided a safe and comfortable haven for his pets and showed affection for each and every one of . . .
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Hemingway and Mary returned to the Finca in May of 1949. Juan drove them back from the port, the stationwagon filled with suitcases and boxes. Another trip had to be made with a small truck to pick up the rest of the . . .
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In the summer of 1950, Papa worked diligently—waking up earlier than usual and also finishing the day’s work later. It was a very productive period of writing for him. He seemed happy and pleased with his . . .
The Old Man and The Siren
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Among the most memorable of the many, many houseguests at the Finca were the Ivanciches. Hemingway had met Adriana in Venice in December of 1948 and was immediately infatuated with the sultry eighteen-year-old beauty. He later met her mother, Dora, and brother . . .
The Men in White Coats
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By 1953, I had been working as the Hemingways’ majordomo for almost seven years and had the daily routines down to a science. Usually around 11:00 a.m. we received the ice delivery. Each morning when I heard the truck drive up to the house, I rushed to the pantry . . .
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In 1953 we suffered a great lost at the Finca when Ramón Wong died
from a heart attack.
One day after lunch Ramón started to feel very ill, so Juan and I drove him to Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana. I sat in the backseat . . .
The Nobel Prize
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After the second plane crash in Africa, Hemingway suffered chronic back pain. I often gave him back massages using the lion lard he had brought back from safari. It seemed to ease the pain somewhat, but I was no masseur. Lily, the manicurist, told us that Frankie Steinhart . . .
The Ceiba Tree
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Mary kept herself busy making sure that the Finca looked its best for the endless stream of visitors and guests. In her scrutiny of the house, she came across the damaged floor tiles in the living room, dining room, and Papa’s workroom. The roots of the large ceiba tree . . .
in the lion’s den
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After winning the Nobel Prize, and with the incredible success of The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway seemed happier in his work. There was also a new contemplative mood about him. I would catch him gazing at Grís’ El Guitarrista, which hung above his bed, or looking . . .
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Hemingway was trying very hard to maintain the strict diet prescribed by his Spanish doctor. But it was hard for a man who was used to drinking and living the way he did to settle for just one glass of wine with lunch and dinner. I remember the days when he and Mary . . .
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Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on a sugar plantation in what is today the province of Holguín. This illegitimate son of a prosperous Galician immigrant attended a Jesuit boarding school during his early years and eventually graduated with a law degree from the University . . .
The Family Man
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It wasn’t until early March of 1957 that Papa and Mary finally met Fanny. We had been dating for three years and been engaged for about a year. Papa was delighted with my fiancée. He liked her long black . . .
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On New Year’s Eve 1958, Batista fled Cuba and Fidel Castro and his revolucionarios took over the capital. The news of the triumph of the revolution had people dancing and parading in the streets through the night and well into the next morning. Those who had been neutral . . .
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In August of 1960, Hemingway, Mary, and Valerie Danby-Smith traveled to the United States before heading to Spain. As I watched them leave the Finca, I wondered if I would ever see them . . .
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Miss Mary arrived in Cuba at the end of July 1961, accompanied by Valerie Danby-Smith. Mary looked thin and sad. We hugged and tried to maintain our composure, bracing ourselves for the tasks . . .
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Not a week had passed before Ana came to my house in a frantic state. “They’ve killed all the cats!” she screamed in horror. She told me that jovenes rebeldes (revolutionary youths) had relieved los milicianos from their posts at the Finca. Los milicianos had guarded and . . .
Expulsion from Paradise
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By the late 1960s, I was a thorn firmly planted in Marta Arjona’s side. One day, without much warning, I received a phone call from her office. The unidentified person on the other end of the line informed me that an important foreign diplomatic delegation was scheduled to . . .
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I walked down the steps from the terrace that led to the pool and saw Papa Hemingway swimming. He swam a breaststroke, exercising his powerful arms and chest. He saw me and waved me over. I walked over to the edge of the pool, squatted down, and waited for him . . .
Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2008