August 27, 2008 / 12:41 PM / 11 years ago

Hemingway confidante brings author's Havana to life

EDINBURGH (Reuters Life!) - She was a teenager from Dublin looking to make her name as a journalist when American author Ernest Hemingway entered her life in 1959.

Visitors walk near a bust of late Nobel-prize winning author Ernest Hemingway at Finca Vigia in Havana July 2, 2008. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

The young Irishwoman became his secretary and traveling companion, and after his death married his son.

Decades later, Valerie Hemingway brought her memories of daiquiris in tropical Cuba and bullfights in Spain to rainy Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital.

She teamed up with Scottish director Toby Gough and a Cuban music and dance group to recreate the Havana of the 1950s in a stage production called “Hemingway’s Havana” as part of last week’s Fringe Festival.

“Hemingway loved Cuba because it was a place where he could be anonymous,” she said in an interview with Reuters.

“Somewhere he could live and write without being interfered with and bombarded for autographs.”

Valerie’s involvement with the family began in Madrid, the city she had moved to in search of a career in journalism. Ernest Hemingway showed up in town and although she had read little of his work, she was sent to interview him.

They hit it off and he invited her to the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, renowned for its running of the bulls and the setting for his 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises”.

She went to the raucous fiesta and afterwards went to Malaga for his 60th birthday party. When she protested she had to get back to work, he hired her as his secretary.

Valerie returned with him to his home in Cuba, where she worked for him until his suicide in the United States in 1961. She helped his widow Mary sort through Hemingway’s archives, a process which took four years.

During that time she met Gregory Hemingway, his youngest son, and they married in 1966.

Her time with the Hemingways, including her marriage to the troubled Gregory, who died in 2001 after they had divorced, are recounted in her memoir “Running with the Bulls”.


Still vivacious in her late 60s, these days she lives in the U.S. state of Montana and writes and give talks. On assignment for the Smithsonian magazine in Havana a year ago, she met Gough, who is based in Cuba and manages several dance companies.

Gough told her his next project was a performance recreating the world of Hemingway’s Havana and suggested she take part. He invited her to act at the Edinburgh Fringe, guaranteeing only that “you’ll have a great time”.

She went along “mainly for a lark” and he was right.

The show was performed every night at St. George’s West theatre as part of the World Festival, starring Papi Oviedo of Cuba’s acclaimed Buena Vista Social Club and Julio Padron of Latin jazz legends Irakare along with salsa dancers recruited from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

They recreated the scene at the Floridita bar in the 1950s, where Hemingway would drink copious daiquiris and hold court with friends such as actor Gary Cooper and bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin.

Valerie sat at the bar and between songs such as “La Caridad” and “Chan Chan” recounted tales of nights out with Hemingway, his life and legacy in Cuba, the aftermath of his suicide and her marriage to Gregory.

Hemingway admired Cuba so much he dedicated his Nobel Literature Prize to its people, she recalls.

Like him, she saw the Cuban people as industrious but happy, able to appreciate the simpler things in life.

She described Hemingway as a fascinating man with many sides, an immense writer who led an interesting life with universal appeal.

“He seemed to have understood people and situations in a way that very few writers have,” Valerie said.

The Fringe venue also hosted singers and dancers from Brazil, Cambodia and Tanzania. They drove around Edinburgh atop a double-decker bus with the band playing and dancers dancing.

Valerie likens the spirit of the Fringe to Pamplona’s San Fermin, total madness but ultimately people just having fun.

Asked about the future of the show, Valerie said it was very much an “oddball thing”. She would consider performing outside Edinburgh but she is not looking for a career in acting.

“I don’t want to talk about Ernest Hemingway for the rest of my life, “ she said.

Editing by Matthew Jones

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