PBS-TV this week is airing a three-part series about famed author Ernest Hemingway that’s co-directed by Lynn Novak and esteemed filmmaker Ken Burns.
Thoughts by Hemingway buffs who watch the series may turn to the Route 66 village of Cubero, New Mexico, where Hemingway was reputed to have written “The Old Man and the Sea” while staying at Villa de Cubero‘s now-closed motel. Villa de Cubero remains open to this day as a convenience store and grocery.
Sandra Spanier, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English at Penn State University and general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, told the Albuquerque Journal that legend about Hemingway is bunk.
Hemingway began his Nobel Prize-winning novel in Cuba in January 1951, and he remained in Cuba for all of 1951 and 1952. The novel appeared complete in the Sept. 1, 1952, issue of Life magazine and the book was published on Sept. 8, 1952.
“I’ve located no evidence that Hemingway ever made any extended visits to New Mexico or did any sustained writing there,” Spanier says.
Spanier goes on to say Hemingway did hold a fondness for New Mexico and made several trips through the state during the 1940s and ’50s.
That got me wondering: When did this decades-old legend of Hemingway, Cubero and “The Old Man and the Sea” originate?
A search through the Newspapers.com archive offers a clue of where it might have started. A lengthy feature article about Route 66 by Susan Croce Kelly appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 23, 1983. This section about Cubero mentions Hemingway:
At Cubero, the main sight is an old yellow adobe motel with a grocery store in what used to be the main lobby. La Villa de Cubero used to be a showplace along the highway and a haven for traveling celebrities from the West and folks who wanted to get away from the rest of the world for a few days.
Wallace and Mary Gunn of New Laguna ran La Villa for 35 years beginning in 1939, and remember a time when Ernest Hemingway holed up there while he was working on “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Says Gunn, “Hemingway wanted a quiet place to stay where he could do some writing on his book. His wife and son were with him. He had a lovely wife and the boy was a nice kid, but he was an S.O.B., the most uncouth thing I’ve ever seen. Hairy ol’ fat thing. He’d come over with his wine bottle and go to the cafe and eat and stay there and write and none of our girls would wait on him so Mary would take care of him.”
That was the earliest report found in newspapers about Hemingway and Cubero.
Croce Kelly, who collaborated with photographer Quinta Scott on the seminal “Route 66: The Highway and Its People” book published in 1988, also quoted Wallace Gunn extensively in that volume. Here’s another Hemingway reference:
“We had Hemingway stay a couple of weeks with us while he was writing The Old Man and the Sea; some General Motors designers; the Trapp family; boys building the A-bomb would want a holiday, and they’d come and spend a week with us incognito; and oh, gosh, any number of artists.”
John Knudsen checked into the legend of Hemingway and Cubero in 2009. He recounted an article that New Mexico Route 66 expert Johnnie Meier wrote after interviewing the son of Villa de Cubero’s owner:
He said Hemingway often wrote in the cafe that stands across the road from the tourist court. His mother worked there. Apparently she didn’t think very highly of the author. And she had her reasons. For one thing he had taken the screen off his bathroom window and was throwing all his empty liquor bottles outside. For another, his room was always a mess … and he didn’t seem to be changing his clothes too frequently either.
Once, as Hemingway entered her cafe, she turned to her staff and said, “Al viene el diablo puerco!” Here comes the dirty devil. Hemingway didn’t react to the statement, but he understood Spanish very well. Quite a while later, the actress Vivian Vance who owned a ranch near Cubero and was a family friend, gave the woman a copy of The Old Man and the Sea. In it was the inscription: “The Dirty Old Devil, EH.” Johnnie Meier has seen the book and documents it in a four-page article he did for the Spring 2008 issue of American Road Magazine.
Knudsen called Meier and asked about the Hemingway-Cubero connection:
He told me that he did indeed think that Hemingway had spent some time in Cubero, but that maybe the recollections of local residents got scrambled. He felt that it was more likely that Hemingway stayed here in 1948 while writing Islands in the Stream. And that the inscription in Old Man and the Sea did not necessarily mean he wrote that particular book in Cubero. Hemingway scholars, he said, remain skeptical of any New Mexico connection.
Islands in the Stream, however, is generally thought to have been written at about the same time as The Old Man and the Sea. So the story continues to twist and turn much like the Old Road itself.
Those possible scrambled memories also would explain the story told in the Croce Kelly article and book. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of her work; she’s done excellent historical research before, especially on “Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery.” But this episode also illustrates the erratic reliability of the human memory.
Regardless, Cubero’s trading post is quite a Route 66 survivor, Hemingway legend or not.
(Image of Villa de Cubero in Cubero, New Mexico, by jaygannett via Flickr)