The Old Man and the Prize

Published 9 April 2020 in:

Thanks to a Swedish entrepreneur and our Embassy in Havana, there is now a fine Hemingway sculpture in the garden of his Cuban villa.

Indeed, Sweden and Hemingway have a long history. Presenting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 called for heroic efforts by Envoy Borgenstierna and Consul Aurell. They were shattered for days afterwards…

Read this charming story by Björn Cronstedt, our Cultural Attaché in Havana.

Dark rain clouds hung heavy above Finca Vigia. It was Saturday 16 November 2019 and in central Havana celebrations for the city’s 500th anniversary had just got under way. Out in San Francisco de Paula, a few miles away from the capital, a sculpture was due to be inaugurated.

An energetic caretaker assured us that not a single drop of rain would fall during the ceremony. But the artist, Johan Falkman, declared in front of the some two-hundred guests present that when so many Swedes gather in one and the same place – then yes, it WILL rain.

And it did. But it was just a light drizzle, almost a sign from above as Ernest Hemingway was once more about to be honoured at Finca Vigia, his Cuban home. Some seventy Swedes had travelled across the Atlantic to join philanthropists Dan and Christin Olofsson as they unveiled the sculpture, created by artist Johan Falkman. Dan Olofsson talked about how he had been “affected” by Hemingway and had followed in the writer’s footsteps to Africa and finally to Cuba. Dan Olofsson now owns the largest Hemingway collection in Scandinavia.

As there was no sculpture at Hemingway’s home in Cuba, he thought it would be a suitable gift to highlight the legendary author in connection with the 500th anniversary celebrations of Havana. And this was what happened.

But it was by no means easy. When we first heard about the Hemingway project, we at the Embassy thought that the idea was perfect for us.

The project would be a good complement to other cultural projects through which we continuously highlight issues concerning fundamental values linked to various artistic expressions, workshops and debates, and where we build collaborations between Swedish and Cuban cultural actors. Here there was a clear link to Sweden, and there was actually no statue of the Nobel Laureate in his own museum.

Because the whole project had taken so long and it was suddenly urgent to get the sculpture in place, one of the staff members at the Embassy who was due to travel back to Havana offered to take Hemingway’s head as hand luggage on the flight; on the photo we’d received it looked very small. Much smaller than the original at least…

However, it turned out that the whole package weighed two and a half tonnes and a crane was needed to lift the valuable freight. So Hemingway had to travel to Havana in the hold this time.

But once the flight had arrived and the necessary administrative procedures were complete, we were ready to receive the cast of Hemingway on Cuban soil. But there were new challenges afoot. The sculpture was a work of art! Works of art can’t just be brought into the country any old how! Thanks to the cultural collaborations in many other contexts between us and Consejo Nacional del Patrimonio Cultural – the authority responsible for issuing the necessary permits – the sculpture was swiftly registered, with new documents containing signatures and stamps. Now we had made good progress. We won’t go into the complicated negotiation that was held in parallel with another responsible and competent authority about what formal status the bronze sculpture should be given before it was presented. Was it a gift or a donation?

Once Hemingway in his sculpted form had passed through the bureaucratic maze, we were able to quickly move on with the actual inauguration, which bore a very Swedish touch.

Carl Adam Landström’s organ improvisations of The Old Man and the Sea and Fanfare for Cuba, in a recording from Sankt Petri Church in Malmö, rang across the landscape and started the inauguration ceremony on the steps of Finca Vigia.

The Cuban actor Emilio del Valle and the Swedish jazz musician Gunhild Carling were both present to provide entertainment to some 200 guests. During the ceremony, a special bell-ringing was performed by the Sankt Petri Church in Malmö, and it was even broadcast on Cuban radio.

Apart from a large group from Sweden, there were also representatives of Cuba’s cultural institutions present, as well as parts of the small Swedish colony and a group of Hemingway enthusiasts. Speakers included Ambassador Tomas Wiklund, the initiator Dan Olofsson and the artist Johan Falkman. Following the opening speeches there was a fanfare and a long applause which even drove away the rain. A little ray of sunshine appeared between the clouds and shone through the leafy treetops of the park and onto Hemingway’s head.

Dan Olofsson said that the bust was not just a thank you for the strong and life-changing reading experience that Hemingway had offered, it was also “a special way to make it up to Hemingway” who wasn’t able to travel to Sweden to receive his Nobel Prize in Literature from the King in 1954.

Hemingway had survived two plane crashes in Uganda – after the first crash he was being transported by plane to hospital, but that plane crashed too – and he was convalescing. So the Nobel Laureate was not able to attend the ceremony in Stockholm. This was why it was decided by the highest authority that Sweden’s envoy in Venezuela, Carl-Herbert Borgenstierna – who was also concurrently accredited to Havana – should travel to the island and present the prize.

After contact with Hemingway, it was decided that the ceremony would take place on Sunday 13 February 1955, at 10.00 – not at the Consulate but, at his own special request, at the author’s home at Finca Vigia.

Some months previously, on the morning of 28 October 1954, Ernest Hemingway had received a telegram from Anders Österling, then Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy: the eighteen members of the Swedish Academy had selected Hemingway as the winner of that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Ernest woke his wife Mary, whispering in her ear:

“I won the thing!”

She replied, somewhat sleepily:

“What … thing?”

“The Swedish thing!”

In its citation, the Swedish Academy wrote: “For his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea.”

If Hemingway was the master of the written word, he was much more modest in the thank you speech he sent. He began with the words:

“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.”

And he concluded:

“I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”

The speech was read out at the Nobel Banquet at Stockholm City Hall by the then US Ambassador to Sweden, John M. Cabot.

Envoy Carl-Herbert Borgenstierna and the Consul in Havana, Per Gunnar Wilhelm Aurell, had both dressed up in tailcoats to undertake this royal and formal task. On the dot of 10.00, the Consulate’s car swept onto the country estate Finca Vigia, which is tucked away in a nine-hectare park. Hemingway had bought the place with the royalties he had received for For Whom the Bell Tolls.

They have to slow down as they drive up the main drive. It looks like there’s a gardener trudging up the hill with a wheelbarrow. His shirt is soaked with sweat and his shorts are shabby and haven’t been washed for some time. On the wheelbarrow is a magnum bottle of vodka. Only the long bushy beard reveals that this is the Nobel Laureate himself, on his way to deliver important provisions for the party afterwards.

The Swedes are expecting a formal ceremony, but the presentation of the prize is completed very quickly. After a very brief introduction, Envoy Borgenstierna hands over the diploma, the medal and the cheque for 35 000 dollars to Hemingway. The author animatedly expresses his thanks to the King and also the Nobel Foundation for having chosen such an unworthy author – “for this overwhelming honour that has been shown to him and his country,” as the Envoy would later write in his report to His Excellency the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Hemingway concludes his brief speech with the words “Now we must celebrate!” And what follows is a long day’s journey into night.

Hemingway prefers to drink his vodka mixed as a Bloody Mary (his favourite drink after Mojitos and Daiquiris) and soon the magnum bottle is empty. Hemingway then opens up his drinks cabinet where a large variety of rum is on display, together with gin and whisky bottles. Now there’s no problem carrying on the party uninterrupted into the small hours.

Envoy Borgenstierna’s wife Anita later told the Swedish journalist and Cuba expert Thomas Gustafsson about the party:

“Hemingway was off his head, he was so wildly happy about the prize. My poor Carl-Herbert, he was shattered for days afterwards!”

During his many years as a Swedish diplomat in Latin America and then in Spain, Carl-Herbert Borgenstierna experienced many difficult situations, but ‘Mission Hemingway’ was the toughest by far, according to his wife Anita.

The Nobel diploma is still kept at Finca Vigia. It is preserved in a moisture-proof cabinet and is not accessible to visitors. However, this may be about to change. The Swedish delegation presented a well-formulated request to have a copy of the piece of art that is the diploma put on display so as to further enhance the great honour that had been bestowed upon Hemingway.

In The Old Man and the Sea, the fisherman Santiago promises that if only he manages to catch his first big catch – a giant swordfish – he will make a pilgrimage to Cuba’s patroness la Virgen de la Caridad bearing a gift. It’s a long way to travel, 870 kilometres by car. The church containing la Virgen de la Caridad is in Cobre, just outside Santiago de Cuba.

Ernest Hemingway kept this promise himself when he visited the church and donated his Nobel medal to the patroness and to the people of Cuba. The medal was then kept in the church and was on display for visitors to admire. The engraver Erik Lindberg had created the basic design that has been used since the first Nobel Prize ceremony in 1901 to the present day.

The Nobel medal presented to Hemingway weighed more than 200 grams, was 66 millimetres in diameter and made of 23 carat gold. A similar one was sold in 2014 for SEK 35 million…

So Hemingway’s medal lay unprotected in the sacred space of the church – and was stolen in the 1980s. When Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, was informed about the theft he sent out an ultimatum: “Return the medal within 72 hours or face the consequences. I know who you are.”

Less than 48 hours later the medal had been returned. Ever since it has been in safe keeping with the Archbishop of Santiago, but unfortunately not on public display. However, Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel was permitted to see it during a visit to Santiago de Cuba. It turned out that the solid clump of gold with its cover was kept in a simple envelope in the Archbishop’s safe.

So now it’s not just one of Hemingway’s favourite bars in Havana – Floridita – that has a statue of the great author. Thanks to Sweden’s efforts, visitors can now take selfies and group photos with Hemingway by the strategically placed bronze bust on their way up to his Cuban home.

And a new ritual has developed around this too. It’s not uncommon in Latin America for visitors to carefully and tenderly rub their finger along a statue’s nose. But in this case, it is the large and noticeable scar on Hemingway’s forehead that is the natural place to touch. Hemingway got the scar in 1927 when he pulled a bathroom window down onto his head thinking the chain was the toilet’s flush.

Anyone visiting Cuba really should take the opportunity to visit Hemingway’s Finca Vigia. The house still looks exactly as it did when Envoy Borgenstierna and Consul Aurell made their entrance on the morning of Sunday 13 February 1955.

His typewriter, a Royal, is on display with a piece of paper in place, with his reading glasses beside it, almost 9 000 of his books, both standing and lying, piled up on the bookshelves, animal heads from African hunts adorning the walls, photos, newspapers and unanswered letters scattered around all over the place and half-full bottles atop the serving trolley. In the bathroom hangs a shower curtain with a 1950s pattern and on the floor is a scale from the same decade. Next to the scale, notes can be seen scribbled straight on the wall.

But instead of a trudging gardener with a magnum bottle in his wheelbarrow, we are now met by a Hemingway immortalised in Johan Falkman’s bronze bust. Handsome and majestic.