Living History: Ernest Hemingway

Sloppy Joe's, a Hemmingway haunt.

“Live the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by the romance of the unusual.”  --Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. He gained early experience as a reporter for the Kansas City Star newspaper. Yearning to serve in World War I, Hemingway became an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy in 1918, where he was wounded in body and later in spirit, events which built the framework for his writing and his entire life. Ernest Hemingway lived for just under 62 years but experienced more than most men could know in five lifetimes. Although he traveled to many exotic places around the globe, the author chose a home in Cuba.

Hemingway spent more time in Cuba than any other setting, residing there for 21 years from 1939 until 1960. He dearly loved the country, its people and the Gulf Stream, which became a source of creative inspiration he called ‘the Great Blue River.’ The Gulf Stream allowed him to pursue deep-sea fishing, a sport he enjoyed, providing ample material for his Cuban-based works. To better understand why the island attracted Hemingway’s attention, we must revisit the nation as it existed decades ago.

EH 2723P Milan, 1918
Ernest Hemingway, American Red Cross volunteer. Portrait by Ermeni Studios, Milan, Italy. Please credit "Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston".

A Trip Back in Time- Havana in the 1930s- 1950s

The year is 1932. Prohibition in America is drawing thousands of tourists to Havana, where booze flows freely in an exotic setting offering vibrant nightlife, a warm, tropical climate and- for men like Ernest Hemingway- a great place to go fishing, drinking and carousing. That same year, the author took his first deep-sea fishing trip out onto the Gulf Stream. He became mesmerized by the sport. In 1934 he bought his own boat for ocean adventures, something he did hundreds of times in the following decades.

In “Havana Before Castro: When Cuba Was a Tropical Playground,” author Peter Moruzzi details the temptations available to Americans thirsty for a cocktail in the Caribbean locale. One of the many bars offering libations was Sloppy Joe’s. The spot became so popular to Americans that the Los Angeles Times described it as “one of the most famous bars in the world… with almost the status of a shrine.” The venue attracted U.S. tourists, celebrities, politicians and mobsters. Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and other Mafia chieftains frequented Havana and its many bars. Hemingway was a regular at Sloppy Joe’s and El Floridita, which became his favorite watering hole.

In her book “How It Was,” Hemingway’s wife Mary shares his views on the house in San Francisco de Paula outside Havana where they lived. “I always had good luck working in Cuba… because it is out of town and on a hill so that it is cool at night.” Cuba offered a secluded place to work- and thrills- in many ways more exciting than a big game hunt. His attachment to places in Cuba is best understood by acknowledging these links to the exotic and the creative sparks they ignited. The nearby Gulf Stream became Hemingway’s most treasured sanctuary, invigorating him with energy, which transferred into many of his works.

A charnel the Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream

Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest to create a chart of the Gulf Stream; he produced three maps (circa 1769 to 1786) showing its trends. One of these maps was printed in the annals of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. In “Out in the Stream: A Cuban Letter” from Esquire, August 1934 Hemingway says “Because the Gulf Stream is an unexplored country… no one knows what fish live in it, or how great size they reach…” and in the same article concludes: “...there is great pleasure in being on the sea, in the unknown wild suddenness of a great fish… and… satisfaction in conquering this thing which rules the sea it lives in.” That year, he spent six weeks on the water with a team from the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia documenting various species of marlin. For him, the Gulf Stream was a living, breathing companion filled with wonders of the deep which expand the imagination of those with whom it interacts.

Despite the numerous sites around the globe Hemingway enjoyed, Cuba was a very special place for him, ranking above all the others. He developed a unique attachment to the country and its people through fishing expeditions and personal interactions. Although he’s been gone for more than 50 years, today one can still feel his ‘presence’ in many of the sites he frequented… and appreciate why an American expatriate loved Cuba and the Great Blue River.




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About Gene Pisasale

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pa. His eight books and historic lecture series focus on the history of the mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s latest book is Alexander Hamilton: Architect of the American Financial System, which delves into the life and many accomplishments of this important Founding Father who almost single-handedly transformed our nation from a bankrupt entity into the most successful country in the history of mankind. Gene’s books are available on His website is; he can be reached at



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