David Frey, at Narratively, describes the obsessive quest for Hemingway’s Cuban car.
A silver Porsche steered James Dean into legend. A pink Cadillac escorted Elvis to Graceland. On the streets of Havana, a 1955 Chrysler New Yorker carried Ernest Hemingway to the long bar at the Floridita, which he called â€œthe best bar in the world,â€ for daiquiris mixed strong and sour. A two-door convertible with chrome details across the gunwales and an Art Deco eagle over the hood, wings spread wide, this car ushered the Nobel laureate to the fishing boat that he sailed into the blue current, which he simply called â€œthe stream.â€ It took him to the hilltop farmhouse where he lived among royal palms and mango trees most of the last twenty-two years of his life.
Then it disappeared.
For decades, Hemingwayâ€™s car survived only in legend. Was it still on the island? Had it been secreted away? Or was it lost to history, fallen into scrap metal? It became the automotive version of Hemingwayâ€™s missing suitcase, the one full of early manuscripts that his first wife Hadley lost in a Paris train station and never found.
â€œThis is where Hemingway lived for twenty-one years and this was where he felt at home,â€ said Christopher P. Baker, a British writer who had long been on the trail of the vehicle himself. …
Baker heard the first hint about the car back in 1996 from an American who believed he was buying the legendary auto. â€œSomebody was selling him a joke,â€ Baker said. But somewhere out there, he thought, the car must exist. In 2009, he talked with the director of Cubaâ€™s automobile museum. He told Baker heâ€™d seen the car, but it was â€œhidden away.â€
The alleyways of Old Havana are still full of vintage Plymouths and Packards, cars with graceful curving hoods and rocket ship fins, relics of the 1950s, when Americans descended on Cuba for its bars, brothels and casinos. More than fifty years after Castroâ€™s socialist revolution ended the party, those old cars linger as postcards of Cubaâ€™s past. Some gleam like they just motored off the showroom floor. Others seem held together by rust and fading paint. Hemingwayâ€™s Chrysler was lost among these fossils.
Then one day it reappeared, but before it could find a new life, it would have to endure an adventure of real-life sleuthing, an aging TV detective and Cold War politics thawing in a new millennium. …
[Hemingway] meant only to take a long vacation when he boarded the ferry to Key West on July 25, 1960. But history had other plans. Cuba nationalized private property. The U.S. launched the failed Bay of Pigs invasion the next year. In the meantime, Hemingwayâ€™s health failed. His depression deepened, and he underwent electroshock treatment at the Mayo Clinic. It didnâ€™t help. The writer never returned to Cuba, instead settling in Idaho, where on July 2, 1961, he took his own life with a shotgun.
Castro had made clear that he was fond of Hemingwayâ€™s house, and his widow Mary donated it to the Cuban government. She gave his fishing boat, the Pilar, to Hemingwayâ€™s longtime first mate, Gregorio Fuentes. The Chrysler New Yorker went to JosÃ© Luis Herrera Sotolongo, Hemingwayâ€™s doctor and friend. Nicknamed â€œEl Feoâ€ (the ugly one), he was a Spaniard who served as surgeon on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War and fled to Cuba to escape the Franco regime.
In the 1970s the doctor passed the Chrysler down to his son. From there, it changed hands again, and again, and again. With each new owner, the carâ€™s connection to Hemingway dimmed. The Chrysler disappeared into Castroâ€™s automotive jungle, where it might have been sold for scrap, chopped for spare parts, or simply pushed, rusting, onto a junk heap. It would have stayed lost forever, had Ada Rosa Alfonso not resumed the search. …
After six years of searching, her quest came to an end just a few miles from where it began. Alfonso showed up at the home of Leopoldo NuÃ±ez GutiÃ©rrez, an elderly man who, like Hemingway, lived in the village of San Francisco de Paula. He led her to his backyard. Chickens and a goat strolled amid a riot of tropical plants. Scattered through the yard were ruined cars and spare parts.
The old man led her to a vehicle. It sat hidden beneath a tarp. That thin piece of fabric was the only thing protecting the car from Cubaâ€™s sun, wind and rain. As he peeled back the tarp, the contours of an aging chassis emerged. Big round headlights like eyes. A long, broad hood. A deep trunk. Alfonso couldnâ€™t believe what she saw.
â€œThe car,â€ Alfonso said, â€œwas a disaster.â€
The New Yorkerâ€™s two-tone paint job, Navajo Orange and Desert Sand, was painted over, first in blood red, then in white. The matching leather seats were torn to shreds. The white convertible top had grayed and eroded away. Holes rusted through the floor. Like Havanaâ€™s old mansions crumbling into dust along the sea, Hemingwayâ€™s car was barely holding on.
Alfonso compared the carâ€™s serial number to Hemingwayâ€™s insurance papers. It was a match. After some convincing, NuÃ±ez agreed to donate the car and Alfonso had it hauled back to the Finca and stored on cement blocks, where it was left sitting again. Cuban mechanics have become magicians in the art of resuscitating American classic cars, but the parts, and the funds, they needed were all in the United States, sealed off by decades of bad blood and a U.S. blockade.
Enter David Soul.