Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Remembering Hemingway

This interview appeared in the The Oakland Tribune, the Tri-Valley Herald, and other ANG newspapers in October 2005. Though I'd met Mr. Capestany a few times and heard that when he was a boy he'd met Hemingway, I had a chance to play several games of dominoes with him and hear his stories--which I encouraged him to tell--during a summer barbecue at his daughter's home in Pleasanton. (His daughter, Frances Hewitt, and my wife Pam used to work together.) About seven seconds after Mr. Capestany started talking about being a boy in Cuba, I knew I'd write about him, so I pulled out a pad and started taking notes.

On a summer day in 1946, 12-year-old Adolfo Capestany went fishing with his two brothers behind La Terraza, a restaurant built on a giant rock in Cojimar, Cuba.

“We didn’t have poles,” said Capestany, his accent as strong as the cigars he enjoys. “We had just cast our lines by hand when someone tapped me on the shoulder.”

Capestany said he looked up to find an American offering to share tips about fishing. The man spoke perfect Spanish, and, after chatting for a few minutes, pointed out his black and green fishing yacht, Pilar, anchored in the harbor.

“I didn’t know it at the time,” said Capestany, “and even when I learned his name a few days later, I didn’t really care, but the man was Ernest Hemingway.”

Capestany, who lives in Seattle and regularly visits his daughter and her husband in Pleasanton, said he and his brothers asked Hemingway if they could dive from Pilar since Cojimar’s beaches were too rocky for swimming. Hemingway agreed, and arranged for the captain of the yacht, Gregorio Fuentes, to row the boys to Pilar.

“My mother paid Gregorio 25 cents to row us out and another 25 cents to row us back,” Capestany said. “We visited Pilar probably 15 or 20 times over the course of two summers.”

Hemingway aficionados will recognize Gregorio Fuentes as the man often credited as the inspiration for Santiago of “The Old Man and The Sea.” The novella, written after most of Hemingway’s other novels, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1954.

“Gregorio—we called him Goyo—never wore shoes and always smoked a cigar,” Capestany said. Fuentes would have been 49 in 1946, and, according to Capestany, always wore a straw hat. His face was weathered from years of exposure to the sun and sea, much like the old man in Hemingway’s story.

Capestany said Hemingway became a favorite among the locals, who called him Papa, adding that he often stayed overnight in an apartment in the back of La Terazza, rather than drive home when he had too much to drink.

The Capestanys knew Hemingway well enough to visit his home, La Finca Vigia, located in a small village just outside Havana. The home, which still exists, was purchased by Hemingway in 1940.

“We visited about three times,” said Capestany, who remembers the mounted heads of big game animals killed on safari in Africa.

On one visit, the boys walked into a bathroom with a scale. When they asked about numbers written on the wall, Hemingway said he recorded his weight every morning.

Capestany also remembers the kindness of Mary, Hemingway’s fourth (and final) wife. Hemingway and Mary had recently wed in 1946, the year Capestany met the author. The Hemingways made their home in Cuba until 1960 when political pressures caused them to move back to the United States.

Hemingway’s Cuban years came after he gained international recognition as an author. By then in his mid-40s, he had already published such works as The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. His work ushered in the modern era in literature, and shapes even today what we consider good writing. Eliminating the flowery prose of the late nineteenth century, Hemingway wrote instead with a honed, journalistic style.

Along with his literature, Hemingway became and remains a cultural icon, the classic American author with a passion for world travel, women, bullfighting, big game hunting, and deep sea fishing. Adding to the Hemingway mystic are the tales of his drinking and bouts of depression, along with his suicide in 1961 when, like his father, he shot himself with a favorite gun.

For Adolfo Capestany, though, Hemingway was a man with kind eyes who cared about the children of Cojimar. A man who played marbles with the village boys, and who once secretly paid for the Capestany boys’ haircuts before their mother asked the barber what she owed.

“We looked over and saw him sitting, waiting for a haircut,” Capestany said, “and he gave us a friendly wave.”

Hemingway with fishermen in Cojimar

Playing dominoes with Cubans isn't for the faint of heart.


she said...

dearest jim ott,

thank you! -every sunday morning i wake up excited to watch "sunday morning" a cbs program hosted by charles osgood.

it is (i think incorrectly) identified as a low-key or light magazine program. but i have come to learn that what these adjectives mean is this: sunday morning is a beautiful, uplifting, entertaining, insightful, engaging
program which shares with us a small glimpse into the histories, minds, heart, souls and experiences of fellow human beings. it serves to unite not separate. share not sensationalize.

in any case.. it is for me, a complete refreshing delight.

and when i read your article this morning about hemmingway and mr capestany, it seem to contain every quality in it that i love about sunday morning. i am most grateful you were inspired to get out your pen and paper when you did; and equally grateful to read the beautiful human story you created with the information you gathered.

Jim Ott said...

So glad you enjoyed this interview, Sandra. I very much appreciate your kind comments. It makes all the effort with writing worthwhile...

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I ever actually read this article. I knew about it and stuff but I dunno if I ever read the entire thing. I love it. Very cool.