The Old Man who loved the sea

The waters off Key West gave Hemingway his greatest inspiration

July 14, 2008 

In his 1972 biography of Ernest Hemingway, James McLendon talks of Key West as the place where Hemingway became Hemingway. It was here that he came to love the sea, where he wrote most of “A Farewell to Arms,” and where he began to gather up the inspiration for what would become his most famous work, “The Old Man and the Sea,” a simply-told and tragic story of a fisherman’s battle with a giant marlin.

The 109th birthday of Ernest Hemingway is to be celebrated this coming week with the appearance in Key West of two of the author’s grandchildren - Lorian and Edward - and with a long list of events. It is as good an opportunity as any to remember the extent to which the beauty and the culture of the Keys influenced who Hemingway was and what he wrote.

Ernest Hemingway came to Key West from Cuba in April of 1928 on a steamship with his second wife Pauline. They were on their way back from Europe, where they had passed a long and cold winter in Paris — what Hemingway called a “bloody awful” winter.

Pauline’s Uncle Gus had bought them a Model A Ford, which was to be delivered to Key West on time for their arrival. But the car was late in coming, and by the time it arrived, the Hemingways had decided to stay in Key West. Their first apartment was above the car dealership on Simonton Street, in the Trevor and Morris Apartments — now called the Casa Antigua.

McLendon was able to interview many of the people who knew Hemingway during his years in Key West, and told the story of how the author came to make a life for himself here.

Hemingway had been in Key West for about a week when he drove north for an afternoon of fishing. There was surely no shortage of places to fish in Key West. It is likely that the author, like so many of us who’ve come to the Keys from someplace else, wanted to explore, to discover what lay around every bend in the road and to see what there was to see from every dock.

Hemingway drove north as far as the road went, to No Name Key. He was fishing off the dock next to the ferry terminal when he happened to meet “Georgie” Brooks, the State Attorney for the Keys. Brooks was sitting in his car, waiting for the ferry that would take him to Lower Matecumbe, as McLendon tells it, when he struck up a conversation with Hemingway. Hemingway asked Brooks if he knew anyone who had a boat and could take him fishing. Brooks told him to go see Charles Thompson at Thompson Hardware Store on Caroline Street in Key West. Hemingway went by the store later that day, and by the evening of the following day, the two men were on a boat, fishing.

Charles Thompson became one of Hemingway’s best friends, and the two men fished together at every opportunity. They pushed farther out into the Gulf Stream and fished the waters around the Marquesas and Dry Tortugas. It was in these waters that the seeds were planted for the story that became, years later, “The Old Man and the Sea.”

For his first trip to the Tortugas, Hemingway hired Captain Bra Saunders and his charter boat. According to McLendon, it was Bra’s weathered and “gnarled” hands that sometimes froze up on him while he fished that became the hands of the old Cuban fisherman, Santiago. “He saw a sadness and finality in a fisherman who was dependent on two good hands to ply his trade,” writes McLendon in “Papa: Hemingway in Key West.”

It was on a fishing trip from Key West a couple of years later that Hemingway made note of something else that made it into “The Old Man and the Sea.” He was near Havana harbor on board “Sloppy” Joe Russell’s boat, the Anita, when a small yellow and green bird appeared on deck. “The part Ernest remembered about the small bird was simply that it was almost totally exhausted when it landed on the boat far out in the Gulf Stream,” writes McLendon. In “The Old Man and the Sea,” a small yellow bird, exhausted from flight, lands on Santiago’s boat.

It was also during his years in Key West that Hemingway met the man who is thought to be the model for Santiago — Gregorio Fuentes.

Fuentes was captaining a Cuban fishing boat when Hemingway pulled up alongside him at Fort Jefferson in the Tortugas. Hemingway, according to McLendon, later told Charles Thompson that Fuentes was the kind of captain he would want if he ever bought a fishing boat himself. Years later, Fuentes served as captain of Hemingway’s boat, the Pilar in Cuba. Fuentes died in 2002 at the age of 104. It is said that he never read “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Hemingway wrote just one book that takes place in Key West — “To Have and Have Not.” It was his least favorite novel.

“Old Man and the Sea”

Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” in Cuba, where he lived with his third wife, journalist Martha Gelhorn. It was published in 1952 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. “The Old Man and the Sea” tells the story of Santiago, an old fisherman who struggles mightily with a giant marlin. It is also, as most good books are, about bigger things — about devotion, about determination in the face of great odds, about hoping against hope, and about failure.

Most Americans read “The Old Man and the Sea” in high school, though English teachers at the three high schools in the Keys say the book has not been read in any high school classes here for the last couple of years.

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