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Stories from Cuba: An Interview with Rene Villarreal

Stories from Cuba: An Interview with Rene Villarreal

I am delighted to share with you more stories from Rene Villarreal’s memories of his life with Ernest Hemingway in Cuba.  Rene began working for Hemingway at the Finca, outside of Havana Cuba, in 1946, and stayed until Ernest and Mary moved to Ketchum, Idaho fifteen years later. When Rene joined Hemingway’s household staff, he was just seventeen years old. During those years, Rene eventually took on greater responsibility for running the Finca, his own life merging with the day-to-day life of the Hemingways. Not surprisingly, Rene became part of the family. Many of Rene’s stories are lovingly told in his memoir, Hemingway’s Cuban Son, which was published in 2009 by Kent State University Press.  Rene wrote down his memories and told stories to his son Raul, who wrote the book for his father. 

In the following interview, Rene and Raul worked together again to answer questions about Rene’s life and Hemingway’s life in Cuba.  Rene is now 83 years old and although his health is at times fragile, his memory of those years is keen.  I am honored to have Rene and Raul here to share more of stories of his remarkable years as Hemingway’s “right hand man”. 


Raul, Rene’s son, writes of the interview process:

For close to a month my father has been in a physical rehabilitation center. Over a month ago he suffered a small stroke, which did not compromise his memory, but did leave him very weak.  At 83 years old, my father has a very weak heart and damaged kidneys.  He suffers from congestive heart failure, diabetes, has lost sight from one eye and can hardly see from the other. Yet, with his undaunted and tireless spirit, his face stills lights up when we speak about his friendship with Papa Hemingway. A surge of energy overtakes him and a boyish smile surfaces.  It gives me pleasure to see him react this way and be happy.

The questions listed below were answered by my father during a number of different sessions. I visited him on the weekends in Union City, New Jersey, about 30 minutes from where I live. He is still providing me with more Hemingway material and gets also great joy in signing books even with his lack of vision. As I promised him before, I will make sure to share his stories and write them as well as I can. As in Hemingway’s Cuban Son, the translation for these questions is not verbatim. I also tried my best to find his voice again. I need to get to that mental state again in order to complete what is to come.  Thank you Allie and all of you for being interested in his story. Thank you for making an old man happy and a proud son even prouder of his Papa.

Raul Villarreal

December 2012

AB: In the beginning of your book, you mention that your first manuscript of Hemingway’s Cuban Son was lost in Cuba, along with other things you had saved from your years of working with Hemingway. Were you ever able to recover any of the mementos, letters, photos and other items you left in Cuba?

RV: The manuscript that was lost was an account of my life with Papa. It had the working title of Mis Memorias con Papa Hemingway. It was in memoir format and included lots of information, which eventually I had to recall for the writing of Hemingway’s Cuban Son. There was also a lot of material edited out of the book in order for the story to flow, so there is still a significant amount of unpublished accounts from those years. I was able to painstakingly recover a number of photographs that were scattered around in the possession of family and friends. Once they heard of the misfortunate of the lost or stolen manuscript and photographs, they volunteered their photographs, which I had given them throughout the years. The photographs that were recovered and brought back to the United States from Cuba now make the Villarreal Family Collection, of which Raúl is sole proprietor and administrates. In 1972, I was able to take with me out of Cuba into Spain a cashmere light olive green sweater, which Mary had given me after Papa’s death and also the black beanie, which Papa Hemingway wore during the African Safari of 1953-54. Raúl is also taking care of those items. However, the most important item that was lost was Papa’s last letter to me, which Life magazine photographed with me holding it. I did not allow them to photograph its content, which I memorized and published in the book.

AB: What do you think has happened to the missing material?

RV: I honestly don’t know. Perhaps the friend I had entrusted them to was tempted or pressured to sell the items. I really wanted a straight answer but never received one. If any of those materials ever surface then we will know the full story and put a claim to them.

AB: Your memoir of Cuba shows a kind and generous side to Hemingway – his nurturing of children, animals, his gardens and the ceiba tree – what do you attribute this to?  Was it his age, was he more settled down, was it the absence of American competition, or the influence of the Cuban ethos?

RV: We have often been asked this question in interviews, because the portrait of Hemingway in our book is different than in other biographies. And one of my happiest moments after the publication of the book was when we received a beautiful note from dear Valerie Hemingway, who thanked us for writing about the Papa she also knew. I believe that Papa was at home in his beloved Finca Vigía—his Cuban paradise. He spent many happy years there with his Cuban family and neighbors. He had a life where he could work peacefully and without distractions. He was able to swim in his pool, box and shoot with his friends, and make his usual haunts in Havana. The Finca was a place where his friends from around the world came to visit and he showed them a good time. I think that Cuba for him represented a fusion of Spain and Africa, two places that he loved and wrote beautifully about. It is evident in the Old Man and the Sea that Hemingway saw and admired the noble spirit of the Cuban people, just as he had seen it in Spain and wrote about it for The Spanish Earth. The Hemingway I knew was a kind individual and respected his employees and loved the pueblo of Cuba, but he was also a man who preferred his privacy and if that was bridged, then that is when the other Hemingway came out. Papa had a mercurial temper, but once he clamed down he usually felt remorseful. I saw that temper a couple of times with an electrician apprentice, who cut a branch of a tree and also with Frankie Steindhart, the neighbor, but never with the Finca’s staff. Papa had been very tolerant even with the lazy Justo Pajé, the majordomo, (or head of the household), who was there before me.

AB: You mention the house as a character in Hemingway’s life, which I have also felt about the houses I’ve loved living in in my own life. Can you speak more about Hemingway’s relationship to the house?  I sense that even though he loved to travel, he had a side of him that loved to be home.

RV: I have often said that Papa loved the Finca Vigía, his Cuban paradise. Papa enjoyed the tranquility of the property with the varied scents from the plants and flowers flowing throughout the house from early morning into the night, depending on the direction of the constant breeze. He had his beloved cats and dogs, his friends (who visited on Wednesdays) the Finca staff and the pueblo’s neighbors. Then there was the easy access to Old Havana and to the Gulf Stream. Papa had grown to love his “old farmhouse” and the ceiba tree that menaced the roof with its immense branches. Papa enjoyed his writing routine, his swims in the pool, the siestas, and the ability to peacefully write and then read, while enjoying a nice glass of wine. The Finca Vigía was indeed his Cuban paradise.

AB: One biographer claims that it cost $4,000 to keep the Finca going each month.  This seems like a lot given prices then. How was this amount of money spent?

RV: I think that the biographer was correct. There was permanent staff at the Finca, such as myself, a gardener, a carpenter, and one or two maids. Then there was a lot of upkeep for the “old” house. Though I believe that the large portion of expenses went to the warehouses in Old Havana, which supplied the liquor and food: Casa Gallareta and Castillo del Morro. There were cases and cases of wine, champagne, gin, vodka, scotch and beer stored in the basement. There were certain steaks ordered and hams, along with other goods which were imported from the US or even Europe. There was a time when Papa purchased a large amount of French wine from his very good friend and former boxer Evelio Mustelier, a.k.a. Kid Tunero, who was importing the wine into Cuba, as a means to get his money out of France. Hemingway had also recommended some of his wealthy friends to help the legendary retired boxer, so by the time the cargo ship arrived in the docks in Havana, Mustelier’s entire wine shipment was already sold and just had to be distributed. Papa Hemingway was responsible for Kid Tunero’s good fortune.

AB: Do you think the Cuban tradition of “keen memory and artful storytelling” affected Hemingway’s writing?  If so, in what ways?

RV: I think that Papa had his own storytelling skills and an incredible ability to recollect conversations verbatim, as well as anything he read. When Papa was not writing, he was reading books, newspapers and magazines of very diverse subject matter. At some point there were about 9,000 books at the Finca, and some were precious first editions of classics works of literature. I picked up the Finca’s mail in the morning and in the afternoon and there was usually a book or magazine in the day’s mail. Juan, the chauffer also brought several newspapers from Havana everyday when he arrived at the Finca in the mornings. They were in English and Spanish newspapers, such as the New York Times, a paper from Florida and El Pais from Cuba.

AB: It is often said that Hemingway was an extremely good listener. He must have had the opportunity to hear stories about politics, history, local lore and legend in Cuba. What kinds of local stories was Hemingway interested in?

RV: Hemingway was interested in anything within earshot. I clearly remember when Pichilo, the gardener, started breeding fighting cocks in the mid-1940s and how Hemingway became very interested in learning every aspect of it. Papa would listen very carefully when Pichilo explained how things were done and why they were done in that way. Then Papa would ask a couple of questions after carefully taking in all the information that Pichilo had. I have never seen an individual with such focus and skill when it came to listening. Papa had a very inquisitive and curious nature. I don’t think that Papa ever wrote about the cockfights in Cuba, but I am sure that he had material in his head to do so, if he ever wanted to.

AB: Your description of Hemingway’s work habits is fascinating – was his routine established before he got to Cuba or did he develop it there?  Did it ever change or vary with deadlines or writers block?

RV: I don’t know about his working routine from before, but his routine at the Finca pretty much remained the same for the years I was majordomo. The only time I noticed a different routine was when A.E. Hotchner arrived at the Finca to assist with A Dangerous Summer. That was the first time ever I saw Papa need someone’s assistance with his work in that capacity. During that time Papa was edgy, agitated and very nervous. He was not himself at all.

AB: Your portrait of Mary is very affectionate. She comes across as an extremely stabilizing and creative partner – designing furniture, coordinating menus, tending the gardens, helping with the “diet” that Hemingway was on. Can you talk about who Mary was?

RV: I think that Miss Mary was the woman Hemingway needed around him. She came into his life at the right time. She went through a lot of rough times with Papa, but stuck it out. She knew how to protect his privacy and secure her future. Believe me, it was not easy for her, but when it was good, it was really good. I know that they cared for each other – because I was there and no matter the arguments they had – but they usually made up soon after. Miss Mary took her role at the Finca seriously. She wanted very much for life to run smoothly and for their tranquility and comforts not to be affected. Since her arrival in Cuba in 1945, she was very kind to my family and I. The rest of the staff liked her as well.

AB: Did Mary have friendships that were independent of Hemingway?  Did she have close friends of her own?  How did she get along with Cuban women?

RV: Upon her arrival in Cuba, Miss Mary made friends with a seamstress in the pueblo and her Spanish teacher. Miss Mary did not know Spanish in the beginning so it was difficult to communicate with anyone from the pueblo. She also tried very hard to mend or keep the peace between Frankie Steindhart and Hemingway. Miss Mary would often accept their party invitations and went alone to the affairs, just to be a good neighbor. If Miss Mary had friends in Cuba, they were one way or another connected to Papa.

AB: What is the Villarreal Family Collection? How was it assembled and what does it include?

RV: The Villarreal Family Collection, assembled slowly and painstakingly, consists of numerous photographs of Hemingway at the Finca, some contact sheets of the African Safari, and photos of Hemingway at the Finca after learning he had won the Nobel Prize. There are also a couple of photographs from his Key West days, and even a negative print from Bimini. There are also some postcards with Mary and Papa’s signature, and then the old Villarreal family photographs, and of my brothers and sister in the pueblo and at the Finca. The collection has never traveled and I have given Raúl complete control over it. He is free to decide what to do with the photographs, postcards and the clothing items. He has full control of anything related to the book. That has been my gift to him in return for getting my story published. It took a lot of effort and perseverance on his part. I always have to remind myself that he is a visual artist and not a writer, but he did write the book and got it published. Who better then Raúl, who knows the stories inside and out, to tell this tale? As a child he was always telling fantastic tales and creating his art. He is very committed to his projects, so I know that all is in good hands.

AB: Tell me about the process of writing your book –

RV: The book project was difficult at first. We had just lost Rodolfo, our second oldest son. Raúl tried very hard to get me out of my depression with the book project and it worked. He worked with me every weekend as we shared Cuban cigars and drank Spanish wine. For hours he listened to my stories, taking notes and recording the conversations. It also inspired me to write down my recollections as well. Raúl has over 700 pages I wrote with pencil and paper. He can read my handwriting and follow my thought process. However, it was entirely Raúl’s idea to format the book the way it was formatted and the style of the prose. To get the material suitable for publication he had to find my voice. I know that he worked really hard at it and eventually he got it. Then we had to find the right publisher and editor for the project. We met Joanna Hildebrand Craig in Ronda, Spain and she believed in the project from the start, as did our literary agent Mary Yost. I feel that there is a lot more mileage to come from this story of mine. I may not be around to see it, but Raúl will see to it that it gets published. To this day I am still providing him with more Hemingway material, so perhaps another book or a number of anecdotes may be published in the near future.

AB: Is your book available in Cuba?  What has been the response?

RV: The book has made it to Cuba and the staff at the Finca Vigía love it. Our dream is to eventually publish it in Spanish and have it available in Spain and Latin America, and especially en Cuba.

AB: Rene, your life was entwined with some very influential people during the years you were at the Finca – Gary Cooper, Ava Gardner, Fidel Castro, and Rocky Marciano, to name a few .  What was that like for you at such a young age?

RV: I look back now and realize how fortunate my life has been. I worked for Ernest Hemingway and met celebrities from around the world. I went to cockfights in Havana with Gary Cooper and Hemingway, who til this day has always been my favorite guest at the Finca. He was the kindest, simplest man I have ever met. He did not behave at all like a movie star. He was a real person and the nicest human being. He was also very generous. I met his daughter, Maria, some years ago in Raúl’s loft and I told her how highly I regarded her father. Maria shares many of those same qualities her father had.

AB: What is your favorite biography of Hemingway?

RV: One I was able to read, because it is in Spanish, is by J. L Castillo Puche, whom I met. I really hated Hemingway en Cuba by Noberto Fuentes. There are so many lies and inaccurate accounts that it was shameful. For me it was nothing more than an opportunistic venture by Fuentes.

AB: You didn’t write about Pauline’s death in October of 1951.  It must have been a very difficult time for Hemingway – can you talk about that time in Hemingway’s life?

RV: After Pauline’s death there was a huge rift between Papa and Gigi. Each blamed each other’s for Pauline’s death. I don’t remember exact details but I do recall that was the beginning of their constant feuding – to the point that Papa forbade Gigi from visiting the Finca. I remember in the mid-1950s Gigi showed up at the Finca with his tie wrapped around his waist and a toothbrush in the front pocket of his jacket. Hemingway was in the US and when he called, I told him that Gigi was there. Papa told me to kick him out, but he knew that I would not do that and then asked me to keep Gigi away from the good liquor. Some of the Gigi All- Stars former teammates came to visit him at the Finca. After a couple of days we raised up enough money to get Gigi back to the States.

AB: What kinds of things did Mary have you burn before leaving Cuba?

RV: Miss Mary had me burn wheel barrels of papers, letters and photographs. I have no idea of the content of the letters or the other paperwork, but there were several wheel barrels full of paperwork burned.

AB: Did you stay in touch with Mary throughout the rest of her life?  How about the boys, Gregory and Patrick?

RV: Yes, Mary was solely responsible for getting my family (my wife and children) out of Cuba to Madrid, Spain and eventually to New Jersey. During the time Miss Mary was alive, I visited her often in her apartment in New York, especially on Papa’s or her birthday and on Mother’s Day. Throughout the years I saw and heard very little from Patrick and Gigi. I was never in contact with Bumby (Jack). The last time I saw Patrick and Gigi was at Bumby’s memorial service in New York. Raúl keeps in touch with Valerie and at times with her son, Sean. I met Sean and his wife at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2007. They gave me quite a surprise on a Monday when the museum was closed. Sean showed me the Miró painting, which was on loan for a special exhibit. It had been almost 50 years since I had seen the painting at the Finca. I was truly moved by his gesture.

AB: Did you read Hemingway’s books as they were published? Were they available to Cuban people?

RV: Yes, I was able to read works by Papa, as a young man. I read my favorite work by Papa, The Old Man and the Sea in Bohemia, a Cuban magazine that published the novella. It became my favorite work by him and it still is to this day.

AB: Part of what makes Hemingway’s years in Cuba so romantic are the hours Hemingway spent on the sea, fishing, thinking, and embodying total freedom on the Pilar. Can you talk about the Pilar and what it meant to Hemingway during different times in his life?

RV: The Pilar was another special “character” in Papa’s life.  Papa enjoyed his fishing trips in the Gulf Stream and visiting the various keys. The Pilar gave him a great means to search and find material for his writing. I think that Papa really loved the sea and the embodiment of freedom. That aspect of nature was precious to him. He loved to eat what he fished and also share the bounty with his neighbors in San Francisco de Paula.

AB: What is your favorite memory of your years with Hemingway?

RV: There are so many. Imagine twenty years. I really cherish the early years as a young boy playing baseball and boxing with Papa. If I had to settle on an era, then those early years would be it.

AB: The story of Gigi’s baseball field and the makeshift teams is one of my favorite stories from that time. Did those baseball games continue after Gigi and Patrick grew up and did children continue to play at the Hemingway house?

RV: As the Gigi All-Stars’ boys grew up they got jobs and moved on. A couple became baseball players in local minor leagues. There was no more baseball played at the Finca after the boys grew up. Those were indeed innocent and happy times.

AB: Did Hemingway speak primarily Spanish at the Finca or did the staff eventually learn English too?

RV: Papa spoke primarily in Spanish to the Finca staff. Once we had Jamaican maids, the Richards sisters, and they spoke English, but for the most part even Miss Mary learned Spanish. At first when she arrived in 1945, she tried to speak a lot to my little sister, who was very eager to teach at the young age of nine. Then Papa eventually hired a Spanish teacher, who taught castellano Spanish, which Hemingway thought would be wiser because that way one would be understood in any Spanish speaking country.

Rene and Raul's visit to the Finca in 1996

AB: What was the Hemingway’s diet in Cuba? Did they eat primarily Cuban dishes?  What was a typical menu for the day? 

RV: Hemingway’s breakfast consisted of a glass of grapefruit juice, a teapot with enough hot water for two servings of black tea (no sugar), two fried or hard-boiled eggs, two slices of toast, and three strips of bacon. One of the eggs and two strips of bacon were served in a separate bowl for Boise, his favorite cat. Lunch at times consisted of a peanut butter and onion sandwich, accompanied with a chianti. Depending on what was for lunch, Papa and Miss Mary would have either a Rioja, French rosé or white wine. When Ramon Wong worked as a cook at the Finca, the Hemingways enjoyed his delicious Chinese cooking for both lunch and dinner. Hemingway really liked the Chinese shrimp meal that Ramon prepared. Fish was served often, because there was always some in the freezer from the fishing trips. Many times there was turtle soup or steak that was served. Miss Mary was very proud of her garden and the vegetables that she harvested. It was from the garden that the sweet white onions used in the peanut butter sandwiches came from.

AB: Could Hemingway have mediated between Cuba and the US if he had lived longer?

RV: I don’t think that given the political climate at the time that would have been possible or even prudent for Papa. Either way his health was failing and I think that he would have had to make a choice and that would have been the US, as he eventually did.

AB: If you could ask Hemingway any question, from your perspective now as an adult, what would you ask him?

RV: That is such an interesting question. I would perhaps ask him the same question you asked me. What was his favorite time or era in Cuba? Or perhaps I would ask him what he has not written about and always wanted to? There are many other questions, not just one.

AB: In the months before the house was eventually donated to Cuba, what items were lost?

RV: The most important item that I remember being lost was a George Braque work of art. The artwork was usually rolled in butcher paper and kept in a drawer in Papa’s study. Only once in a while it was displayed on top of one of the bookcases in the study. To this day, I don’t know what happened to that work of art. If my memory serves me correctly, the artwork had to do with bullfighting and it was not a painting. I don’t know what it was exactly, because as I mentioned before it was not displayed often, so I only saw it a few times.

AB: What is the state of the house and museum now?  How does the future look for the Finca?

RV: The last time I was in Cuba was in 2007 for a Hemingway conference and Raúl also traveled with Fanny, my wife, and myself. The house looked great. There had been lots of repairs and efforts to properly maintain the books and papers and photographs. The Finca Vigía Foundation out of Boston was responsible for raising funds for this significant undertaking. The foundation deserves recognition for their wonderful effort and contribution in keeping Hemingway’s legacy alive in Cuba. During that trip in 2007, my room in the basement at the Finca Vigia was inaugurated as part of the Museum tour. I was very moved by the thoughtfulness of the Finca’s administration. We have enjoyed many years of wonderful exchanges and collaborations.

AB: Do you have any thoughts on what will happen to Cuba when it opens up for travelers from the United States?

RV: I don’t want to speculate, but I do wish for the transition to be peaceful and beneficial for everyone. The Hemingway scholars in the United States will benefit a great deal by having easier access to travel to Cuba. Hemingway’s legacy is very much alive in Cuba; after all, it was there where he lived the longest. I want my children and grandchildren to be able to go to Cuba and see where I was born, where I worked and knew a world famous writer, who became my employer and my friend. The man who was a father figure and lovingly I called, Papa.

AB:  Thank you Rene and Raul!