The exhibit ‘Hemingway and Evans, Three Weeks in Cuba 1933,’ opening today in Key West, recalls the brief friendship between the famous writer and soon-to-be famous photographer Walker Evans.
KEY WEST - In late spring in Havana in 1933, on the eve of Gerardo Machado regime’s collapse, a shy young American photographer struck up a friendship with a slightly older, larger-than-life, egotistic American writer.
The photographer was shooting pictures for a politically charged book called The Crimes of Cuba. The writer was penning short stories, carousing and fishing. Fearful, it is believed, that the footmen of the crumbling dictatorship would confiscate his work, the photographer, Walker Evans, handed the writer, Ernest Hemingway, dozens of his prints for safekeeping.
Evans, who would later gain fame for photographing destitute sharecroppers in America’s dust bowl, never asked for the prints back. And Hemingway ended up boxing them up and storing them in the backroom of Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West.
As it turned out, even though Evans recalled being stopped and searched by soldiers, and ‘‘once stoned by toughs,’’ he left Cuba with 400 negatives intact. The film wound up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and some prints ended up in the 2001 picture book, Walker Evans: Cuba. But until recently, the relationship between Hemingway and Evans had never been proven. Nor had the photographer who shot the four dozen prints found in Hemingway’s memorabilia been identified.
‘‘They had mutual friends, similar pasts, similar paths, and were in the same place at the same time,’’ said Claudia Pennington, executive director of Key West’s Custom House museum. “But the fact that he and Hemingway were friends was never documented.’‘
AT SLOPPY JOE’s
The Evans prints sat in the back of Sloppy Joe’s from 1939 until Hemingway’s suicide in 1961, alongside the writer’s old baby booties, childhood scrapbooks, dusty boxing gloves, stuffed bear heads and the bloodied uniform he wore when he was injured as an ambulance driver in World War I.
After Hemingway’s death, his fourth wife, Mary, sorted through the mounds of carelessly piled keepsakes. She kept some of it, threw other bits away, donated some to the Monroe County Public Library, some to the Key West Art & Historical Society, some to the JFK Library in Boston, and another pile to Hemingway’s old friends, Toby and Betty Bruce.
Two years ago, the Bruces’ son, Benjamin, told Pennington that 46 unidentified photographs in the family’s collection mirrored the prints in the Walkers Evans: Cuba book. Experts soon determined that Bruce’s photographs were taken by Evans.
More pieces fell into place: a jotting from Hemingway’s 1933 Havana journal was found which read, ‘‘Dinner with Walker Evans.’’ In a worm-eaten note to Hemingway, written on letterhead from a Havana hotel, Evans wrote that he had pictures, and asked to borrow money: Hemingway lent him $25. And in a 1950s letter to a publisher friend, Hemingway said of Evans, “I remember clearest what a nice kid he was.’‘
Now, the collection of Hemingway’s Evans photographs, along with miscellaneous letters and Hemingway memorabilia—including the baby booties and bloodied uniform—will be on display at Key West’s Custom House beginning today until January 2005.
The spring of 1933 was a dangerous, exhilarating time to be an American in Havana. Cuba, with its casinos and wild nightlife, had become a playground for rich foreigners. Hemingway loved it.
But on the fringes of Havana’s ribaldry, Machado’s regime was brutalizing suspected dissidents, and informers were showing up dead.
In his three weeks in Havana, Evans shot a few pictures of the tortured dead, but the bulk of his work chronicled everyday life in the Cuban capital: barefoot, ragged newsboys clamoring for papers, dockworkers with grime-streaked faces, an angelic girl peering through a barred window.
Pennington believes Hemingway drew on Evans’ pictures to build scenes in one of his novels, a sentiment echoed by Patrick Hemingway, the writer’s youngest son.
‘‘His grandfathers had fought in the American Civil War, and he was born at the time of the Spanish American war. He was very interested in revolution,’’ said Patrick Hemingway, 75, who was raised in Key West and now lives in Montana. “He brought that baggage to Cuba, and wrote about it pretty quickly afterward. These pictures do help to elucidate some of the passages in To Have and Have Not.’‘
Evans’ and Hemingway’s paths never crossed after those three springtime weeks, according to Pennington. Evans, who died in 1975, later wrote a friend asking about Hemingway’s whereabouts, but by that time the writer was in Africa.