Pilar was a sassy fishing boat with a shiny black hull. She carried a phonograph, slept six, and had two engines—one for trolling, the other for cruising. The cruising engine propelled her to a top speed of 16 knots. For most of her event-filled 27 years as Ernest Hemingway’s faithful sport-fishing companion, she berthed in Cojimar, Cuba. Wheeler Yacht Company, her builder, named this model a “Playmate cabin cruiser,” but Hemingway disagreed. Instead, he said his boat was “a functional fishing machine, sturdy, reliant and built to take the worst weather and sweating in any kind of sea.” He remained faithful to her until he had to leave Cuba in 1959, one year before his suicide. Hemingway, who cast aside longtime friends and left behind three broken marriages, referred to Pilar as the “one true thing” in his life.Pilar on display, still proudly displaying her numbers and the classic Wheeler badge and nameplate on her stem.
Wheeler built Pilar for Hemingway in 1934 at its yard in Brooklyn, New York. Hemingway had commissioned her construction for $7,495. Having just returned from Africa with the 1933–34 Wheeler catalog he had brought on his safari, the author visited Wheeler’s shipyard to make a down payment. The payment of $3,000 was advanced by Arnold Gingrich, then editor of Esquire, as payment for future articles. As part of the commission, Pilar was customized to include a ladder-back fighting chair and a wooden roller bar across the transom, which was lowered 12 inches to assist in bringing fish into the cockpit. Hemingway named the boat after the nickname he gave his second wife, Pauline.
Last winter on an especially wet and windy El Niño day, I learned about all this and more while reading Paul Hendrickson’s engrossing biography, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934–1961. A chronicle of the last 27 years of Hemingway’s life, the book centers on Pilar, the creative muse for some of Hemingway’s novels and the rolling stage upon which his later years played out. “Pilar was a Buick boat, not a Mercedes,” Hendrickson told me during a recent interview, “and I used her as both a literal and figurative storytelling device to think about Ernest Hemingway and this object and machine he loved so deeply.” A former reporter for The Washington Post, Hendrickson took seven years to write this meticulously researched book, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. “I wasn’t interested in this floating piece of wood and her technics,” he told me. “I wanted to use my reporting skills to discover what happened on this boat as a through line for the life of a man who was at war with himself.”
After his self-inflicted death by shotgun in 1961, Hemingway’s fourth wife and widow, Mary, flew to Cuba to read the will that bequeathed Pilar to her longtime captain, Gregorio Fuentes, with the provision that Fuentes “was free to dispose of the yacht as he sees fit.” Fuentes couldn’t afford the upkeep and donated her to the Cuban government. For some time after, Pilar rested high and dry on concrete blocks behind Hemingway’s home, “Finca Vigía,” which had been converted into a national museum. Though the boat was swathed in a gray canvas bound with rope, it was no deterrent to the termites that ate away at her upper deck and transom while Pilar awaited restoration by the cash-strapped Cuban Ministry of Tourism.
Two months after reading Hemingway’s Boat, I traveled to Cuba to retrace the wake left by Hemingway, Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner and “boat-struck” adventurer, using Hendrickson’s book as my guide. At the airport I breathed in the warm humid air of this vibrant island and felt as Hemingway once wrote, “Like that you’re on the other side of a lost world that’s always been so seductively near and simultaneously so far.” Except for throngs of tourists visiting Havana from two cruise ships, the island nation looked much like it would have when Hemingway left in 1959. Vintage cars rattled their way through Havana’s cobblestone and pot-holed streets.
In Old Havana I made the pilgrimage to Hemingway’s haunts from the time that the city’s lifestyle “was on a rumba” and Hemingway roamed harbor-side bars, partying with wife No. 3, journalist Martha Gelhorn. I crossed the broad plaza of San Francisco Square where the first scene of To Have and Have Not takes place. Henry Morgan, the main character of the book (played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie adaptation), enters the Pearl of San Francisco Cafe for coffee and is offered $1,000 a head to smuggle human contraband out of Cuba to Key West during Prohibition on a fishing boat quite similar to Pilar. Morgan refuses to risk his boat and a gunfight ensues. After Hemingway’s alter ego hears bullets go “bop, bop, bop” and “ bottles smashing all against the wall,” he slips out the cafe’s kitchen, crosses San Francisco Square, and hops onto his boat waiting at the dock nearby.
Although the dock no longer exists, the room at Hotel Ambos Mundos where the author rented Room 511 with billowing white curtains, still survives, although without the curtains. I rode the aging Otis screen-cage elevator to the fifth floor. Hemingway lived in this room, his first residence in Cuba, on and off for seven years beginning in 1932. Here on a narrow bed (and on another bed at the more luxurious National Hotel), he had a tryst with a 22-year-old heiress, leaving behind wife No. 2, Pauline, in Key West. He also finished For Whom the Bell Tolls in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, writing while standing up to lessen leg pain from a wound he received in World War I. I paid $4 to enter the spartan quarters to view Hemingway’s Remington typewriter (with a questionable provenance) enshrined in a plastic case. Hemingway once told an interviewer he rarely used the typewriter except when writing dialogue. He said he preferred “blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener.”
Farther up Calle Obispo, I checked out one of the favored watering holes of this hard-drinking writer. At El Floridita in Old Havana, the author tossed back Daiquiri Dobles after a morning’s writing or a day of fishing aboard Pilar. He rose an hour after daybreak to begin writing and was usually finished by late morning. He had an average output of 400 to 700 words a day, if he was lucky. Since he never drank when he wrote, at lunchtime “Papa” presided over his courtiers and friends at El Floridita, perched on a bar stool in a corner facing the doorway where a bronze statue of the writer is now planted. Sometimes he also visited La Terraza in Cojimar for lunch. And yes, the daiquiri in both places now tastes as if made from a mix. And no, Hemingway did not invent the daiquiri. Cuban Creoles did.
Soul for the Sea
Ever since his Michigan childhood, Hemingway had been obsessed with fishing. Once he had Pilar at his beck and call, he hooked, reeled in, and gaffed large bluefin tuna, broadbill swordfish, and blue marlin over her stern. On board, he taught his sons “how to reel in something that feels like Moby-Dick.” Some of his catches weighed up to 1,000 pounds. The thrill of a strike and the sound of marlin’s tail slapping across Pilar’s thwart was his greatest thrill, Hemingway once said. If the writing wasn’t going well or he was bickering with wife No. 3, Hemingway boarded Pilar for an afternoon of fishing if no whitecaps were showing. At the boat’s helm was his captain, friend, bartender, and confidante, Gregorio Fuentes, who outlasted all the author’s wives and lived to be 104.
Although Pilar’s usual home port was the fishing village of Cojimar, Fuentes’ home, Hemingway also liked to depart from Havana Harbor. Far from the maddening crowds of autograph seekers, he waved at lovers along The Malecón, Havana’s promenade, as Pilar steamed out to sea past the El Morro fortification. Standing in bare feet on the deck of the flybridge, he wore weathered khaki shorts, held up with a leather belt cinched over his belt loops, and a tattered checked shirt. He often took the auxiliary helm, which was a recycled wheel from a Ford Model T. He thrust his barrel chest forward and tipped his head to the sky, breathing in the sea air. Pilar’s prow rose high, as did Hemingway’s spirits, probably buoyed by a bottle of maguey beer or a shot of Gordon’s gin.
As Fuentes steered, then baited and set the hooks, Hemingway would stretch out in his boat’s cushioned cockpit below and idly watch birds’ wings slanting and the “slight bulge in the water that the big dolphin raised as they followed the escaping fish.” He listened to his boat “running nice and smooth and the water washing along her” as she trolled the Gulf Stream, which he called “the Great Blue Water.”
Pilar became the tortured writer’s refuge where he could muse, drink, entertain, and try to overcome his frequent bouts of writer’s block or a hangover, says Hendrickson. Like the fisherman Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway “was never alone because he had his friend and enemy, the sea.” While fishing and landless he could escape both tedious and fawning houseguests and the dark moods that plagued him. Hendrickson told me that Hemingway was probably bipolar and “had also been hit on the head too many times.” In one incident in Paris, a skylight fell and cut open the writer’s head. Hemingway had been to both World Wars and covered the Spanish Civil War as a correspondent. He had “heard the shots and seen the bodies,” or as the author Gertrude Stein put it, her one-time friend was “worn by war.” He had more than 200 shrapnel scars, a shot-off kneecap, and night terrors to prove that he probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. His fundamental soulfulness and occasional beastliness toward others battled incessantly, and his “mist of sadness” disappeared, if only for the moment, when he was at sea.
While in Havana, I stayed in Casablanca, in a room with a view across the harbor to the decaying shipyard where during World War II, U.S. Naval Intelligence fitted Pilar with a machine gun and a wireless radio. Like a floating Don Quixote, Hemingway used Pilar to search for U-boats in the Caribbean along the cays of Cuba, a covert and fruitless operation he called “Friendless,” after his cat. Each day from Casablanca I took the ferry across the port to Havana’s Old City, a five-minute ride. Often an easterly breeze was blowing and fishing boats in various states of disrepair bobbed in Casablanca’s brown waters. I closed my eyes to recall more clearly the early effort of Cuba’s naval engineer, Rene Guara, to conduct the first repair work on Pilar at Casablanca’s shipyard in 1965. The valiant but underfunded project was hobbled financially but resumed in 1981. “The fueling and cooling systems and exhaust and her second engine are missing at the moment,” Guara told a reporter at the time.
A few days later, Kiki, the driver of a flashy blue 1958 Ford (refitted with a Mercedes engine), took me to Cojimar, the setting for The Old Man and the Sea, the main anchorage for Pilar, and home to her captain who never gave away his employer’s secrets. Hemingway once said, “Everything will be old but not the shine in Gregorio’s eyes.” I framed an image of Pilar bobbing in Cojimar Bay with her dinghy, Bumby, tethered off her stern, her bow rising and falling as her brightwork glistened under the sun. Hemingway said that his own role on their boat was to hook the prey and then “gradually work him closer and closer and then in to where Gregorio can gaff him, club him and take him on board.”
Pilar’s captain introduced the author to the fisherman, Anselmo Hernandez, who was the model for Santiago, the protagonist in Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about a man, a boy, and a fish. Hemingway received the Nobel Prize two years later, and though he didn’t attend the ceremony, he dedicated the prize to the fishermen of Cojimar. After his death, they collected bronze propellers from their boats and melted them down to erect a bust of the author that today overlooks Cojimar Bay.
“Hemingway received the Nobel Prize two years later, and though he didn’t attend the ceremony, he dedicated the prize to the fishermen of Cojimar.”
I visited the sons of some of these men at their gated fishing cooperative in the Chacon district of Cojimar, just down the beach from where Hemingway’s Santiago once launched his skiff. Little seemed to have changed, although the beach was now littered with plastic bags and bottles. One fisherman, like Santiago, had brown blotches from the tropical sun. They “ran well down the sides of his face,” Hemingway wrote in the novel, “and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling fish on heavy cords.” These men of the sea were friendly, and “fine,” as the writer might have penned. The fisherman and I stood on the creaking dock as I spoke about living on a tugboat trawler in California, and we soon became fellow travelers. A fishing boat arrived with a large marlin splayed across its stern. The sun was soft and the crew of the fishing boat were pleased. Wielding a rusting machete, the mate brusquely hacked off the marlin’s fins and bill. The slanted dock groaned with the weight of the crew as they struggled to lift the marlin off the boat’s transom onto the dock. The captain lit up a cigar while spectators tried to guess the weight of the fish. One with a heavy girth chimed in, “I weigh 250 pounds so it has to be more than that.” The captain grunted.
That night I stayed in Cojimar with the daughter of Raúl Corrales, Cuba’s renowned photographer, who died nine years ago at 81. The photographer once told a reporter that Cojimar’s fishermen “are a lot of liars, each one has a catch, the biggest, but he loses it.” Corrales’ daughter, Norma, lived across the street from Hemingway’s Captain Fuentes. Her father was primarily known for his stunning and iconic reportage of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro. He also photographed Hemingway fishing from Pilar. Over coffee after dinner Norma Corrales showed me a book and her father’s contact sheets of images from that day. In the vivid images, Corrales had captured the writer’s palpable excitement as he stood on the flying bridge. Norma also showed me the photograph her father later captured of Hemingway and Fidel Castro, both holding a fishing trophy. She told me, “Everybody thinks that Hemingway was close friends with Castro, but that’s not so.” For indeed, this was the first time the two men with outsized egos had met—only one year before the author’s suicide in Wyoming at age 62.
Earlier in my trip I visited Pilar, now restored, at Hemingway’s former estate, Finca Vigía, in the village of San Francisco de Paula, ten minutes from Havana. Finca Vigía opened to tourists in 2007 and everything looks as it did in 1960 when Hemingway came home to the States for the last time, not even saying goodbye to his captain and best friend, Fuentes. Or his boat. Pilar was shackled on the hard to cement supports, displayed under a tin roof on the estate’s former tennis court, surrounded by a walkway for tourists. A tourist group stood in front of Pilar’s fighting chair, taking selfies.
I asked Hendrickson if this Playmate cabin cruiser, despite all the restoration work, was the original Pilar. He replied, “Ultimately, only God knows, but as far as man can determine and guess, she is the real McCoy.” He cites the visit of Mystic Seaport’s Dan Hewson, a renowned expert on boat restoration, who confirmed that Pilar was, in fact, the original. “As Cole Porter put it, she is the real turtle soup, not the mock turtle soup.”
Even so, my long-awaited rendezvous with Pilar was a bit of an anticlimax for me. The boat’s once-shiny black hull had slightly faded and the brightwork had lost its glitter. She reminded me of a stuffed trophy swordfish above a sportsman’s mantel with its unblinking glass eyes staring forth, bereft of life. A boat not put to use, out of the water, on the hard, lacks meaning. It becomes an inanimate object composed of wood, nails, stainless steel, varnish, and paint. It only springs back to life through the viewer’s emotional connection with its owner and history.
Hendrickson’s book creates that connection. Through his research and gifted storytelling, the animus of Pilar and her owner endure.