The New York Times ran an article on March 28 detailing how the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation has acquired 15 letters written by Ernest Hemingway, bought from an 80-year-old friend of the famed writer, Italian-born Gianfranco Ivancich, a member of a noble Venetian family. The most interesting of the letters expresses Hemingway's softer side: his anguish about having to shoot his favorite cat, Willie, who had been hit by a car near their home, the Finca Vigia outside of Havana, Cuba. "Certainly missed you, Miss Uncle Willie. Have had to shoot people but never anyone I knew and loved for 11 years. Nor anyone that purred with two broken legs." It was of more than academic interest to me since I have spent the last 20 years working to produce a motion picture about the life of Hemingway, and in so doing had the adventure of going to Cuba with his fourth wife, Mary, and also director Sidney Pollack and screenwriter Waldo Salt, to meet with Fidel Castro and obtain permission to film there!
There is an HBO movie about to be shown detailing Hemingway's tempestuous relationship with his third wife, Martha Gelhorn, although Mary told me that it was actually a brief relationship and she ended up hating him (as was detailed in her autobiography.) After I optioned the film rights to Mary's biography, How It Was, I enlisted the late, great film director Sidney Pollack to helm the movie and -- in what turned out to be a mistake -- got the Academy-Award winning writer, Waldo Salt ("Midnight Cowboy"), to do the script. (He took four years to write it! All 400 pages of it, which killed the deal I had made with Sherry Lansing to film it at MGM, with Jon Voight playing Hemingway and Jill Clayburgh playing Mary.) Interestingly, when Waldo was dying at Cedars-Sinai, he called me to his hospital room and gave me a cut-down 150 page version of his brilliant script.
The New York Times article makes reference to the fact that Mary had obtained permission from the government for us to go to Cuba despite the fact that civilian travel was prohibited. We went via Mexico City, and arrived in Havana to stay at a government guest house. Mary Hemingway, returning to Cuba for the first time since she and Ernest had left in 1961, was worldwide news, and our first trip to their home, the tourist-popular Finca, was an emotional experience for her. The house had been mold-proofed, but it was exactly as she and he had left it... his eye-glasses on the desk along with the mail from that day, with many cats running around the premises, the bookcase full of their volumes. Later when we met with Castro, Mary asked if she could take some of her precious first-editions home with her. Castro appeared shocked, saying "Oh, no, they belong to the Cuban people now." They had a fierce argument about that. Our meeting with Castro lasted four hours, with his pretty translator working beside him, although I realized he spoke perfect English... the translation gave him time to think of appropriate answers. "Of course you can film here," he said. "I learned all of my guerrilla tactics from reading For Whom the Bells Toll. A slight exaggeration, I am sure, but flattering to Mary.
Fidel was smoking a cigar and when I bravely asked him if I could have one, he went over to desk and took a Romeo & Juliet from his humidor, clipped it and lit it for me (I have the picture!). When I returned to the hotel, he had sent me three boxes of cigars to take home. The next day we visited the 93-year-old captain of the Hemingway boat, Pilar, featured in the 1952 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Old Man and the Sea, and we went out in the legendary vessel. Upon returning to the United States, we were told by The State Department that we would not receive permission to film there.
I still have dreams of filming the action-packed, adventurous and moving story of this exciting man and his life, which travels from Cuba to Ketchum Idaho, from Key West to Nairobi, Venice, Paris and Madrid. I have a wonderful screenplay called Ernest & Mary, and am presuming that the HBO cable movie will excite someone to do a fuller version of his life. It is an unbelievable story which deserves to be told.
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