When Ernest Hemingway wasn’t at Finca Vigía, his house 30 minutes from Havana, he was likely at the Floridita, drinking frozen daiquiris at the end of the bar. Hemingway was very specific about those daiquiris, as he was with many things. They contained two shots of rum but no sugar—his daiquiri record in a single night was 16. Remember, they were doubles, but who’s keeping track? These days, the Floridita is a tourist theme park with a life-size Hemingway statue installed along the rail. A statue in a bar means its best days are behind it. One look inside and you know to keep walking. The old magic is long gone.
Hemingway was a regular at the Floridita, but he spent even more time on the water, aboard his beloved Pilar, the boat he owned nearly half his life. This was where he fished, of course, and where he entertained his children and wives number two, three, and four, as well as legendary anglers, film stars, publishers, suitors, sycophants, and soon-to-be enemies. How Hemingway acquired Pilar is tied up in the history of this magazine, and where the boat rests reveals the complicated legacy of its owner, who, along with Esquire, helped define how men lived in the 20th century. In a life of celebrated stories, many exaggerated, this story has the benefit of being true. Or true enough, anyway.
The gold statue of Hemingway inside his favorite Havana bar, the Floridita, which is now a tourist theme park.
ADALBERTO ROQUE/GETTY IMAGES When Arnold Gingrich envisioned the first issue of Esquire, the magazine he would edit for 15 years, he knew what he wanted: a byline from America’s best-known writer, who symbolized adventure and the sporting life. He wanted Ernest Hemingway. He reassured Hemingway that while the magazine would cover men’s style, it would still have “ample hair on its chest, to say nothing of adequate cojones.” A motto that, thankfully, did not appear on the masthead.
ReadWe are celebrating our 90th anniversary with a wildly ambitious package called The Next 90. Learn more about it, as well as Esquire’s living legacy, in this letter from Editor-in-Chief Michael Sebastian.
Hemingway was open to the idea and knew what he wanted: $3,000. This, combined with $3,500 he had in the bank, could help pay for a 38-foot twin-cabin cruiser. The Esquire money, about $70,000 today, would be advanced against future Hemingway dispatches on Gulf Stream fishing, Spanish bullfights, and African safaris. Hemingway’s wish list wasn’t done: He had to be the highest-paid Esquire writer. And his work couldn’t be edited. Other than that, he was good—nothing more, really. Gingrich accepted the terms gladly. This was an era when writers were genuinely famous—they traveled with Gary Cooper, and their photos ended up in Life magazine. Writers don’t get boats anymore; we’re happy to get expenses.
Hemingway went to the Wheeler Shipyard in Brooklyn and ordered a boat, like his daiquiris, to his own specifications. Have you had a boat built? I haven’t myself. I guess it’s like going to a tailor on a more monumental scale. A suit takes, say, four to six weeks. Wheeler built the boat in just over two. They launched it into the Coney Island Creek, then delivered it to a Florida marina where the proud new owner was waiting.
Hemingway’s love for Pilar was immediate and total. He put off work and went out on the water whenever he could and even when he shouldn’t have. He invited friends to join him. Archibald MacLeish came down; so did John Dos Passos and Mike Strater. The boat changed Hemingway’s life. He was free from the constraints onshore, fishing the Gulf Stream at a time when it never fished better, learning a sport he came to master.
Today, Pilar rests on cinder blocks outside Hemingway’s home in Havana.
DAVID COGGINSWhen he moved from Key West, he captained Pilar to Cuba. The engine started smoking, so he used the trolling motor. The last two miles took three hours. When the boat finally approached land after dark, it was stopped by Cuban authorities, who thought the slow, late-night arrival meant smugglers were onboard. A friend on another boat kept Hemingway from spending his first night in a Cuban jail. Otherwise, it was a great trip.
Pilar lived mostly in the Gulf Stream when the marlin were running. Hemingway would fish all the way to the Bahamas with seven-foot rods and Hardy reels, made, as they still are, in Alnwick, England. Anglers could find fish in sizes and numbers rarely caught before: marlin, swordfish, bluefin tuna, and sailfish in the wildest part of the ocean, which went farther down than they could measure. Don’t expect to catch fish like those today.
Hemingway fine-tuned his habits. He wore white visors for shade and bought them in bulk. He liked to fight fish on an empty stomach; breakfast was a piece of bread, maybe an avocado he picked up on the way down to Cojimar, the sleepy fishing village where he kept Pilar docked. He did need a steady supply of his preferred drink on the water: Gordon’s gin, coconut water, lime juice, bitters, and a lot of ice, wrapped in paper towels to keep the glass cold. (They didn’t have Yetis back then.)
Pilar was not immune to drama. Hemingway may have committed adultery belowdecks, the cuckolded husband snoring one door away. Hemingway could be gracious—he preferred company to being alone—but also imperious, petulant, and fiercely competitive. He got bored when there were no fish and sometimes, to the shock of guests, shot seabirds. Once, he managed to shoot himself in both legs. Machine guns, alcohol, and boats: not, historically, a winning equation.
When myths are vast and contradictory, as myths often are and Hemingway’s certainly is, it’s good to see the facts on the ground. Or what’s left of them. If the Floridita inspires a sinking feeling, the house where Hemingway lived is undiminished by time. I visited in August, when the air was humid as hurricane season arrived. The Finca is not a humble retreat; this is a compound where you swim, play tennis, and host Ava Gardner.
I was given a rare tour inside the house. (Most visitors only get to look through the open windows.) There are enough mounted animal heads on the walls to open a natural-history museum. The living-room chairs, surprisingly, are covered in a floral print. I think they were a concession to Mary, wife number four, to offset the masculine decor. In his bathroom, a bookshelf is within arm’s reach of the john. In small handwriting on the wall next to the scale, he wrote the date and his weight in pencil. Sometimes an increase in poundage was explained away with “after a big lunch.” If things were going in the wrong direction, he vowed to swim more and drink less. So much for skinny daiquiris. As a lover of white bucks, I was thrilled to see a pair in his closet, though he preferred brown leather sandals and worn-out loafers. Outside, there’s a worn grass yard where he taught local kids to play baseball, which makes you feel good. Next to the field, he trained roosters for cockfighting, a sport he loved and gambled on, which makes you feel less good. The swimming pool, large enough for a resort, is now empty and starting to crack, a fall from grace from when Ava swam there naked. There’s poured concrete where the tennis court used to be, and here, beneath a protective corrugated metal roof, sits Pilar. It’s impressive, even noble, like an aged royal in exile. But it really belongs down in Cojimar. A boat on land is out of its element, done for the season, being repaired, or in this case, an aging artifact.
Pilar, one of the most famous boats that never sank, is more robust than sleek but more elegant than utilitarian. The 38-footer’s hull is painted black, Hemingway’s choice, which makes it appear more imposing. The cabin is slightly stocky and could sleep eight; Hemingway’s berth was widened to accommodate his bulk. The stern was sheared by a foot, the transom fitted with a roller that ran its entire width, to make it easier to hoist gaffed fish on board. He added the flying bridge across the top of the cabin so that he could steer from a higher vantage point. One time he fell off it, crashing to the deck below. He said he was fine—it had nothing to do with drinking all day.
This article appeared in the 90th Anniversary issue of Esquire
Hemingway wrote more than 30 stories for Esquire. These included detailed analyses of marlin behavior that were dry even for angling aficionados. But one told the true story of a man out fishing alone who caught an immense marlin that was destroyed by sharks. Decades later, it evolved into The Old Man and the Sea. The story—simple, direct, no dreaming of lions—may be better than the book.
Writer and editor continued to correspond easily. Gingrich sent clothes from advertisers when they were big enough for Hemingway (collar size: 17½). But Hemingway was infuriated by printing mistakes or editorial errors that appeared in Esquire. (These things happen!) Inside the house, I got to see his personal copies of the magazine with handwritten edits and corrections in the margins. Anything going to be republished needed to be fixed. Gingrich came down to fish. He got seasick but played along, enthralled by the writer, who was on his best behavior. Gingrich was not, by temperament, a deep-sea fisherman; he was a trout angler. (As a trout devotee, I feel you, brother!) But Hemingway had moved beyond Michigan streams. He wanted higher stakes and heroic fish. He didn’t even want to catch bonefish in the nearby flats—which I’ve fished for in Cuba and around the Bahamas. A five-pound bonefish on a fly rod is good; eight pounds is great. Bonefish were for “grandmothers,” Hemingway said. Frankly, that hurts, Ernest.
One of Hemingway’s copies of Esquire, with his handwritten edits in the margins.
DAVID COGGINSIf you want to get to know somebody, then go fishing with them. Sometimes you wish you hadn’t. Many people eager to fish on Pilar were even more eager to get back to shore. The inherent pressure of fighting a marlin was increased when Hemingway yelled orders and blamed friends for missing fish. Then he got mad when friends caught fish bigger than his. Then he tried to shoot the sharks attacking a marlin of Mike Strater’s that looked like a record. Now there was more blood in the water. More sharks arrived, and they destroyed the entire back of the giant fish. Strater, an accomplished angler, never forgave Hemingway, who didn’t apologize anyway.
Certain people, probably men who read too much Hemingway, think how you fight a marlin defines your life. Do you hold up under the strain and keep your nerve? You can believe in that or not. But losing a fish you care about is, unfortunately, something that stays with you. As somebody who has lost many fish, I can confirm that some are seared into my mind. I try to forget them but can’t, any more than I can forget epic playoff losses by my beloved Minnesota Vikings.
Hemingway’s relationships, as he might have said, ended gradually and then suddenly. What finally happened with Gingrich is not exactly clear, but there was a falling-out. Following Hemingway’s death, Gingrich called him a “meat fisherman,” slander coming from an angler who valued the refined skills of the trout stream. In happier days, when Hemingway agreed to write for Esquire, he playfully signed off a letter to Gingrich with “Let me know when we start to get rich.” By the time he was living the way he’d always wanted, everything began to slip away. Then he was rich, of course, but what was missing from his life could no longer be bought.
Today, Pilar rests on cinder blocks outside Hemingway’s home in Havana.
AndiaIn fishing and in print, Hemingway sought notoriety and outsize success, and he became a prisoner to that desire. We’re left with the books and stories, the letters and photographs, the myths and backlash, the brilliance and dubious behavior. These things have to be reckoned with; there’s no clean solution. He celebrated friendship but destroyed many of his friends, often in print. The marriages ended badly. He loved the natural world but embraced blood sports. The books were good—it can be easy to forget how good they were in their time, since we’re almost immune to his style today. Then they became bad, and there is really no greater bad book than Across the River and into the Trees. I love many of the novels, the places he lived, the fearless way he created his own life. I fish too but am a catch-and-release man. I live on a smaller scale—we probably all do—and I doubt I would measure up to his view of how a man should live.
Yet there’s still a strange urge to romanticize the life. The teenager at war in Italy, literary Paris, Key West, Kenya, Venice, Ketchum—you know the names. We miss the world Hemingway inhabited, the world before it was discovered: sending cables to legendary editors, drinking beer at Brasserie Lipp, checking into the Gritti Palace, which looks over the Grand Canal. He brought a ten-pound tin of caviar to a dinner party in Venice, for goodness’ sake. These days, you can retrace the path step-by-step, but it’s not the same; you’ll find somebody taking an Instagram photo of their martini while it gets warm.
Hemingway romanticized his own life—well, the first half anyway. Being in Cuba, you feel the weight of the later years, when he realized something was missing. At one time, Pilar represented all Hemingway wanted in the world. Now the boat sits graciously, if a bit sadly, on cement blocks in the shade, not what it once was. Hemingway was suspicious of metaphors, but this seems apt somehow. I have more affection for this boat than I expected, and the Finca is so impressive I’m surprised to feel sad when I leave. It’s funny about heroic figures, even flawed ones: You want their approval from the grave, but you never get it.
David Coggins is the author of The Optimist: A Case for the Fly-Fishing Life (Scribner) and the NYT bestseller Men and Style. He also writes The Contender newsletter, about travel, style and design. He lives in New York.