Ernest Hemingway, Mexican Baseball, German Submarines & Ava Gardner's KnickersSaturday, November 08, 2008
On February 1, 1946, my own Season of gold began as I, Frank Bullinger, Jr. arrived at the front door of La Finca Vigía, expecting to be Hemingway’s only guest, clutching in both hands the manuscript of my novel. Suddenly, several charming famous men with guns plus two wary-looking women, also with guns, came bounding down the front steps, drunk and dressed in peacoats and flannel, leather patches in the right places. Me, I wasn’t drunk, struggled to be charming, and never would become famous. I was a slight man, drenched from the storm that hit the Cuba Line on my way from Miami, dressed in a blus sport coat and a tie I’d gotten for Father’s Day. Gene Tunney brushed past me, portrait of the working-class hero turned patrician millionaire. Babe Ruth patted me on the head and said “Hiya, kid.”
The Veracruz Blues, Mark Winegardner, Viking 1996
This talk of the Veracruzanos reminds me of a famous Mexican joke. A woman comes into a produce market and asks to buy half a melon. We don’t sell that way, says the clerk. You must buy the whole melon. I don’t want the whole melon, the woman says. She gets more obstreperous about the matter and finally the clerk reluctantly agrees to go speak to the owner.
“Can you believe it?” he says to the owner in the back office. “A cheap hag bitch wants to buy half a melon.” The clerk sees alarm in the owner’s eyes and turns around. The woman is right behind him. “And this charming lady,” he quickly says, “wishes to buy the other half.”
The sale is consummated, the woman happily carts away her half melon, and the owner impressed by the young clerk’s quick mind, mentions that he is opening a new produce market in Veracruz. Someone so sharp-witted might be just the person to manage that market, no?
But the clerk is aghast. “Veracruz!” he says. “What a hellhole! There’s nothing in Veracruz but whores and ballplayers.” The owner frowns; he is furious. “I’ll have you know that my dear wife comes from Veracruz.” “Is that so?” says the clerk, not missing a beat. “Does she bat right-handed or left? “
All you wish to know about Mexico, Frank, about our masks, our sense of humor, and the weaponry of our wits, about the way Mexican men see Mexican women, about the Mexican League and my poor dead Jorge, is all contained in that joke.
The Veracruz Blues, Mark Winegardner, Viking 1996
When I first read Mark Winegardner’s lovely novel The Veracruz Blues which is a story of the so-called raid on Major League Baseball by the Mexican League in 1946 I became homesick to my own experience in having discovered baseball, a sport I was ignorant about since I had arrived to Mexico from a soccer-crazed Buenos Aires in 1952. A few years later my cousin Robby took me to see a game between the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and the Tigres. I found the experience so exhilarating that I went to other games including ones with the Águila de Veracruz, formerly the Veracruz Blues of Winegardner’s novel.
Many years later between 1965 and 1967 when my mother was living in Veracruz I went to see the Águila play in Veracruz in a stadium where I could smell the humid salt air of the port. Since I had lived in Mexico City’s thin air for so many years the sound of the cracking bats at sea level were a new and wonderful experience.
In Veracruz Blues I became curious about all the truth and lore of Hemingway’s Cuban period. I read of his fondness for drinking at La Floridita and of his life at his Havana house, la Finca Vigía.
It was in Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s Retornamos Como Sombras (We Return as Shadows, but to my knowledge this novel has never been translated into English) that I first disocovered that Hemingway had volunteered in 1942 to look for marauding German submarines in his yacht El Pilar. What was true and what was false in Taibo’s plot.?
1941. While Mexico is about to declare war on Germany, Hitler is injecting himself with Mexican caffeine and becomes addicted to peyote to resist the pressures of the Eastern Front. In the middle of the Chiapanecan forest (in Mexico) a group of brown-shirted Germans march to the tune of an old gramophone and is accosted by a persistent youth who wants to do them in. A poet, recruited as a spy, discovers that the Mexican Minister of the Interior has a lover who works for the Abwehr IV. A few German submarines cruise the Mexican coastline for a place where a final push to attack the American giant could be unleashed. Hemingway in one more of his alcoholic/literary crisis falls asleep in a Havana swimming pool and re-appears with no explanation in Mexico City.
The great Mexican actress María Felix is a protagonist in both Winegardner’s and Taibo’s novel. While I had known that Felix had been the mistress of Mexican president Miguel Alemán I had been unaware of Felix’s affairs with both Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. I discovered this in Taibo’s account.
Only recently I finished a delightful novel translated from the Spanish written by Cuban writer Leonardo Padura Fuentes. This ingenious murder mystery has Hemingway as a protagonist and the novel shifts back and forth when a body is found buried in Hemingway's La Finca Vigía which is now a lovingly restored museum in Havana. The investigator of the murder (the body is from Hemingway's period and an FBI badge is found nearby) is a retired policeman who is attempting to be a writer and finds Hemingway as inspiration having seen him at a dock by his yacht as a boy. The book is lovely even translated into English and the famous swimming pool of Taibo's novels here plays an important part, too. Our investigator falls asleep on Hemingway's bed and has a stupendous wet dream! The dream has all to do with a pair of black lace nickers that are introduced here where the caretaker/curator of Hemingway's villa asks Conde, the investigator if he had been at the finca before.
'But you didn't see the weapons.'
'No. They're in the tower, aren't they?'
'Yes. And I bet you didn't see Ava Gardener's knickers, either."
Conde felt a pang.
"You sure about them?'
'Couldn't be surer.'
'No I didn't see them. But I've got to see them. The nearest thing to seeing a woman naked is seeing her underwear. I must see them. What color are they?'
'Black, with lace. Hemingway used them to wrap around his .22 revolver."
And the dream begins like this:
He saw her when she was already on the edge of the swimming-pool. She was wearing a fresh flowery bath-robe and her hair was loose, falling around her shoulders. He thought her hair seemed lighter than he remembered and he once more enjoyed the perfect beauty of her face. She said something he couldn't hear or didn't understand, perhaps on account of the noise that his own arms were making in the water. He moved them so as not to sink, and they felt heavy and almost not part of him. Then she took off her bathrobe. She wasn't wearing a swimsuit underneath, just a bra and pair of knickers, black ones, made of revealing lace. The cups of the bra were provocative and he could see, through the lace, the pink aureole of her nipples.
The above passage proceeds in the kind of stuff that I used to read by sneaking into my mother's Frank G Slaughter novels which had passages the taught me what sex was all about in that distant pre-internet era of my youth.
Such was my pleasure in reading Adiós Hemingway that I proceded to Sophia Books to see if they had anything else by Leonardo Padura Fuentes and preferably in Spanish. They did. It was a new edition of Padura Fuentes's first novel Fiebre de Caballos (Horse Fever, but again not translated into English. This is about a boy (a baseball prodigy, too) in his late teens who has yet to have his first introduction to sex. Because it happens with an older woman the novel is like the film The Graduate set in a Fidel Castro envirionment of his revolutionary Cuba.
Of baseball Leonardo Pardura Fuentes says:
I am a typical Cuban of my generation. I was born in ‘55, so I’ve passed my whole conscious lifetime under the system of the Revolution. I was born and grew up (and still live) in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, where I lived with great freedom, dedicating the majority of my time to that which is still my greatest passion: baseball. Since I’m a lefthander, I played first base and outfield, but I didn’t have enough strength at bat to be a good hitter. And for that reason, when I finished high school I decided to study liberal arts at the University, and shortly thereafter, I figured that if I would not be a baseball player, I would be a writer...But even now, when I see a good game of baseball I think that I would have liked even better to be a great baseball player like el Duque Hernandez, for example: a man whom I admire for his passion and discipline, which in some way resemble what I have when I create literature.
The circle of baseball, Hemingway, Cuba, Maria Felix, Ava Gardener's knickers, German submarines closes around one of my favourite authors, the not too well known American Jerome Charyn. Charyn writes about baseball in his novels, in particular of the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. But the circle really closes here because Padura Fuentes cites Jerome Charyn and Alejo Carpentier as two of his favourite authors. Some years ago when I interviewed Paco Ignacio Taibo II I had yet to find the connection between Alejo Carpentier and Taibo's abrupt finish to our interview and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony!