For decades after his death, Ernest Hemingway’s iconic 1955 Chrysler New Yorker was lost somewhere in Cuba—until a determined museum director caught a lucky break, and then teamed up with the star of “Starsky and Hutch” on a mission to restore Papa’s ride.
History sometimes travels on wheels.
A silver Porsche steered James Dean into legend. A pink Cadillac escorted Elvis to Graceland. On the streets of Havana, a 1955 Chrysler New Yorker carried Ernest Hemingway to the long bar at the Floridita, which he called “the best bar in the world,” for daiquiris mixed strong and sour. A two-door convertible with chrome details across the gunwales and an Art Deco eagle over the hood, wings spread wide, this car ushered the Nobel laureate to the fishing boat that he sailed into the blue current, which he simply called “the stream.” It took him to the hilltop farmhouse where he lived among royal palms and mango trees most of the last twenty-two years of his life.
Then it disappeared.
For decades, Hemingway’s car survived only in legend. Was it still on the island? Had it been secreted away? Or was it lost to history, fallen into scrap metal? It became the automotive version of Hemingway’s missing suitcase, the one full of early manuscripts that his first wife Hadley lost in a Paris train station and never found.
“This is where Hemingway lived for twenty-one years and this was where he felt at home,” said Christopher P. Baker, a British writer who had long been on the trail of the vehicle himself.
“His homeland was the United States, but his home was Cuba. He’s revered here. His books are essential reading in school. They teach here that he sided with the revolution. That’s never been proven. But everybody who comes here wants a mojito and daiquiri. That’s de rigueur. How many places in the world have so many associations with Hemingway? That’s the whole mythology about Hemingway’s Cuba.”
Baker heard the first hint about the car back in 1996 from an American who believed he was buying the legendary auto. “Somebody was selling him a joke,” Baker said. But somewhere out there, he thought, the car must exist. In 2009, he talked with the director of Cuba’s automobile museum. He told Baker he’d seen the car, but it was “hidden away.”
The alleyways of Old Havana are still full of vintage Plymouths and Packards, cars with graceful curving hoods and rocket ship fins, relics of the 1950s, when Americans descended on Cuba for its bars, brothels and casinos. More than fifty years after Castro’s socialist revolution ended the party, those old cars linger as postcards of Cuba’s past. Some gleam like they just motored off the showroom floor. Others seem held together by rust and fading paint. Hemingway’s Chrysler was lost among these fossils.
Then one day it reappeared, but before it could find a new life, it would have to endure an adventure of real-life sleuthing, an aging TV detective and Cold War politics thawing in a new millennium.
If any bridge has connected the U.S. and Cuba despite the nations’ Cold War feud, it is Hemingway, a man who was both quintessentially American and utterly devoted to Cuba. He’s the reason tourists still pack the Floridita to snap selfies by his statue. No time has been better to revive his spirit in Cuba than now, when the two countries are flirting again. And no vehicle could be more fitting to bring him back than the Chrysler New Yorker he used to drive.
Hemingway lived longer in Cuba than anywhere in his life. He worked “as well there in those cool early mornings,” he once wrote, as he had “worked anywhere in the world.”
He lived in a Spanish farmhouse at the top of a hill above the village of San Francisco de Paula, twenty miles from Havana. Hemingway called his home the Finca Vigía, Lookout Farm. It was just one story, but grand and wide open, with an enormous ceiba tree that sheltered orchids and bromeliads in its branches towering over the terrace. From a white tower his fourth and final wife Mary had built, Hemingway could look all the way to the sea. Cuba was home. It was where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, where he swilled daiquiris, where he gambled on cockfights and organized neighborhood boys into baseball teams.
When Americans and wealthy Cubans packed suitcases and fled Fidel Castro’s takeover, Hemingway stayed, and he kissed the Cuban flag as proof of his undying love for the island. Even after the American ambassador warned him to get out, Hemingway refused to leave. He meant only to take a long vacation when he boarded the ferry to Key West on July 25, 1960. But history had other plans. Cuba nationalized private property. The U.S. launched the failed Bay of Pigs invasion the next year. In the meantime, Hemingway’s health failed. His depression deepened, and he underwent electroshock treatment at the Mayo Clinic. It didn’t help. The writer never returned to Cuba, instead settling in Idaho, where on July 2, 1961, he took his own life with a shotgun.
Castro had made clear that he was fond of Hemingway’s house, and his widow Mary donated it to the Cuban government. She gave his fishing boat, the Pilar, to Hemingway’s longtime first mate, Gregorio Fuentes. The Chrysler New Yorker went to José Luis Herrera Sotolongo, Hemingway’s doctor and friend. Nicknamed “El Feo” (the ugly one), he was a Spaniard who served as surgeon on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War and fled to Cuba to escape the Franco regime.
In the 1970s the doctor passed the Chrysler down to his son. From there, it changed hands again, and again, and again. With each new owner, the car’s connection to Hemingway dimmed. The Chrysler disappeared into Castro’s automotive jungle, where it might have been sold for scrap, chopped for spare parts, or simply pushed, rusting, onto a junk heap. It would have stayed lost forever, had Ada Rosa Alfonso not resumed the search.
* * *
Alfonso’s office is sweaty and cramped, cooled only by a desk fan. It sits in the garage of the Finca, a space built to house horse carriages, where Hemingway kept the seven cars he owned during his time in Cuba: two Lincoln convertibles, three station wagons for staff errands, a yellow Plymouth convertible for Mary and the orange New Yorker for Papa.
Alfonso is short and energetic, with reddish curly hair and a voice made raspy from cigarettes. As the director of the Hemingway Museum, which the Finca Vigía has become, she can say with certainty the year and cause of death of the former occupant’s favorite dog (1957, of natural causes), the size of his record collection (more than 900 albums) and the precise date he received the Soviet deputy premier at the Finca (February 8, 1960). The museum spent eighteen years trying to track down Hemingway’s car. Her own search began January 1, 2005, a date she recorded on a note about a phone call to a man who claimed he had some knowledge of the convertible’s whereabouts.
“It’s a classic car. It appears in literature — in Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. It belonged to Hemingway. It couldn’t be more valuable,” Alfonso said.
Hemingway’s home remains largely as he left it, as if he might walk through its wooden doors again any minute. His old Royal typewriter, a sturdy metal machine that pounded The Old Man and the Sea onto paper, remains propped on the Who’s Who volume atop the white bookshelf where he stood to write. The record player waits to play Fats Waller one more time. Out back, behind the pool where Hemingway boasted that Ava Gardner swam nude, the Pilar sits in dry dock, polished to a sheen, ready to set sail. Only the Chrysler is missing.
It seems to be one of the few items from Hemingway’s entire life that hasn’t been preserved. His birth certificate hangs in his boyhood home in Oak Park, Illinois. His wooden skis adorn the wall of Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West. His childhood scrapbook is searchable online. Hemingway’s life has been objectified and sanctified more than any other writer, and perhaps more than anyone else at all. His larger-than-life persona eclipsed his writing life. Generations after his death, he still attracts pilgrims who follow his footsteps from Petoskey, Michigan to Pamplona, Spain. It’s not his books that inspire lookalikes to sweat on the streets of Key West every summer for his birthday celebration. It’s his image as a man who lived life intensely. For devotees, to sit at his barstool or stand in his study or peek at the Pilar is to touch a little bit of the man. These objects are relics in a shrine.
The search for relics is even more powerful in Cuba, where visitors long to touch an imagined past of cigars and mojitos and smoky jazz. Short of sailing the Pilar into the stream, what could be more potent, what could be more evocative of bygone Cuba, than sitting at Hemingway’s steering wheel?
“I don’t think it could be more important,” Alfonso said.
After six years of searching, her quest came to an end just a few miles from where it began. Alfonso showed up at the home of Leopoldo Nuñez Gutiérrez, an elderly man who, like Hemingway, lived in the village of San Francisco de Paula. He led her to his backyard. Chickens and a goat strolled amid a riot of tropical plants. Scattered through the yard were ruined cars and spare parts.
The old man led her to a vehicle. It sat hidden beneath a tarp. That thin piece of fabric was the only thing protecting the car from Cuba’s sun, wind and rain. As he peeled back the tarp, the contours of an aging chassis emerged. Big round headlights like eyes. A long, broad hood. A deep trunk. Alfonso couldn’t believe what she saw.
“The car,” Alfonso said, “was a disaster.”
The New Yorker’s two-tone paint job, Navajo Orange and Desert Sand, was painted over, first in blood red, then in white. The matching leather seats were torn to shreds. The white convertible top had grayed and eroded away. Holes rusted through the floor. Like Havana’s old mansions crumbling into dust along the sea, Hemingway’s car was barely holding on.
Alfonso compared the car’s serial number to Hemingway’s insurance papers. It was a match. After some convincing, Nuñez agreed to donate the car and Alfonso had it hauled back to the Finca and stored on cement blocks, where it was left sitting again. Cuban mechanics have become magicians in the art of resuscitating American classic cars, but the parts, and the funds, they needed were all in the United States, sealed off by decades of bad blood and a U.S. blockade.
Enter David Soul.
* * *
Soul is best remembered for his role on the 1970s detective drama “Starsky and Hutch.” He played Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson, a dreamy police detective with a black leather jacket and a taste for fine wine. With soft blonde hair, soft blue eyes and a soft voice, Hutch and his streetwise partner, David Starsky, played by Paul Michael Glaser, prowled fictitious Bay City, California, in a red Ford Gran Torino with a white vector stripe down its side like an old Nike tennis shoe.
On a June morning in 2013, Soul sat alone between two empty chairs at a café table inside the Palacio O’Farrill, a boutique hotel in Old Havana named for an Irish sugarcane magnate who once called it home. Sunlight filtered through solarium windows and filled a stone atrium lush with wide-leafed plants hanging from iron hooks. He wore dark blue jeans and a blue Hawaiian shirt with tropical leaves spreading over the shoulders and orange frangipani blossoms at the back and sleeves. A worn leather satchel sat on the gray brick floor beside his seat. His breakfast plate sat beneath a cloth napkin alongside an emptied coffee cup, three torn sugar packets, a crumpled pack of cigarettes, a blue pocket camera and an iPhone. He was reading a book called Che’s Chevrolet and Fidel’s Oldsmobile.
Around him, a pair of filmmakers laid weighty video cameras and tripods at the foot of the atrium’s stone pillars. One approached Soul to string a microphone down his shirt. Soul snatched it from him, clipped it on himself and commenced with a sound check.
“Fuck off. Fuck off. Fuck off. Can you hear that?”
The filmmakers said they could.
Two months shy of his seventieth birthday, Soul had settled into a paunchy figure, as if the years since stardom had weighed upon him. His blonde hair had grayed and thinned but was still long enough for him to comb backward in a gentle swoop. His face was round and jowled. His goatee was white. The high, tender voice that made girls in halter tops swoon had plunged to a gravelly bass. He walked with a cane.
An aficionado of both Hemingway and Cuba, Soul has worked to restore Hemingway’s Chrysler to something resembling its original condition, navigating Cuban red tape, an American embargo and the ravages of time and tropical weather.
“You have no idea what it looked like when it was first unearthed,” Soul said. “It looked like shit.”
The convertible’s transformation was being recorded by Greg Adkins and Adam Docker, British filmmakers who came with the actor to shoot a documentary they’re calling “Cuban Soul.”
“The restoration is a kind of metaphor for Cuba itself,” said Soul. His project comes as relations between the United States and Cuba are warming. Once all but off-limits to American tourists, Cuba saw more than 700,000 American visitors last year. With Fidel Castro out of office, his brother Raul has taken steady steps toward liberalizing the communist nation. Cubans may travel abroad more freely, open businesses, buy and sell homes. The Internet is slowly creeping in. The U.S. and Cuba have reopened embassies and resumed talks.
“Cuba is undergoing small, incremental changes and performing a new kind of approach,” Soul said. “A less bureaucratic, more entrepreneurial way of life. It has its detractors and supporters. We’re part of the support team.”
An American by birth, Soul had lived in London since the mid-1990s. In 2004, without relinquishing his American citizenship, Soul became a British subject, and he thought his British passport would ease trips to Cuba.
On one of those trips, Soul visited the Hemingway Museum and discovered a different missing artifact from its collection. Hemingway’s favorite painting, “The Farm,” by his friend and boxing partner Joan Miró, was gone. It was on loan to the Museum of Modern Art when Mary handed over the house to the Cuban government, and it has never been returned. It now hangs in the National Museum of Art in Washington. For five decades, there has been a blank space on the wall where the painting used to be. Although Alfonso had considered filling the space with a copy of the painting, the museum lacked the funds for a high-quality reproduction. Soul offered to pay for it.
When Soul returned to the museum in 2011, Alfonso made another pitch: Help her save Hemingway’s car. Soul agreed. He secured the aid of Danny Hopkins, the editor of Britain’s classic car magazine Practical Classics, and the two began tracking down antique parts, tilting Cuban bureaucracy, navigating the waters of the U.S. embargo and restoring Hemingway’s aging vehicle.
“The body is pretty much finished,” said Soul, “but there’s no go power. No engine in it yet. It has to be cleaned and polished. But it has a carburetor and an air cooler and the radiator and the gas tank and the rear seat and the front seat.”
When Soul first set off on his mission, he wondered if it would make for a good documentary. He called up filmmaker Adam Docker, with whom he had worked on a recent project, and explained his plan to save Hemingway’s car. Docker loved the idea and brought on Greg Adkins to help.
Soul’s efforts were beset with difficulties from the beginning. Cuba, he found, was mired in bureaucracy, making any move at all a struggle. Worse, the U.S. trade ban blocked the parts he needed to restore the car from reaching the island. Still a U.S. citizen, Soul realized he risked fines or jail time by getting involved. When the U.S. government found out what he was up to in 2013, it threatened to punish not only him but all his suppliers, too.
Along for the ride in the restoration of Hemingway’s long-lost Chrysler is Christopher P. Baker, the writer. Tall and sinewy like a long-distance runner, he showed up at the Palacio O’Farrill to join the filming for Soul’s documentary in a gray T-shirt, cargo shorts, running shoes and a cheap Cuban Panama hat.
“The association with Cuba is automatically classic cars,” said Baker, who published a coffee table book dedicated to Cuba’s vintage cars and chronicled his motorcycle adventure across the island in his book Mi Moto Fidel. “Here’s one belonging to an iconic figure and a legend attached to it.”
Baker and Soul stepped out into daylight onto Cuba Street, chased by Adkins and Docker, who captured their movements on camera. Baker climbed into a Havana-style pedicab, a bicitaxi. Soul, leaning on his cane, stepped in beside him. As a camera rolled, the driver pedaled the two through clouds of exhaust and rumbling diesel engines. Weathered faces watched from weathered doorways in front of buildings painted the colors of sherbet. Along the streets were parked rusting Bel Airs and Dodges, their hoods adorned with airplanes and rocket ships, their pockmarked windshields hung with Cuban flags.
* * *
David Frey is a freelance writer in Gaithersburg, Maryland. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Christian Science Monitor and the Rumpus. Follow him at davidmfrey.com, papasplanet.com and on Twitter and Instagram @davidmfrey.
Sergiy Maidukov is an illustrator who has worked with The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, World Policy, The Ride, The Architectural Review, Medium, Adobe, McDonalds, British Royal Dance Academy, Brussels Airlines and others. He is based in Kiev.