Hemingway's lament for the downtrodden working class is supposed to be his worst novel. But is it really?
Don't let the cover blurbs fool you. In general To Have and Have Not is considered by critics to be Ernest Hemingway's worst novel. Originally published in 1937, it was completely rewritten and became a great 1944 movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. If you've already seen the movie but never read the book, hold onto your hats, because this is extraordinarily rough stuff from Hemingway, a tale of desperation and murder in the depths of the Great Depression. Harry Morgan is a Key West boat captain who's stiffed for $825 after his three-week charter skips town. That would be about $15,000 in today's money, so it's no surprise that losing this bundle means Morgan, who's married, has three kids, the usual assortment of bills and responsibilities, and has spent his life fighting to get ahead, is now destitute.
If you opt to read the book, make sure not to gloss over exactly how far in the hole Morgan is. $825 dollars would bend the morals of most people in 1937, just as $15,000 would today. After being cheated out of this cash he makes a fateful decision to turn criminal himself by running illegals from Cuba to Florida. That's when things go from bad to worse. If you look closely at the cover art on this Perma Books edition from 1953 you'll see what the result of Morgan's criminal foray was. That's one reason cover art is so interesting. The scene the artist chooses to depict—in this case it's Tom Dunn—can sometimes be so specific as to give away an important plot point. If you can't tell what we're talking about by looking at the art we'll give you a hint. What happens to Morgan is the also title of an earlier Hemingway book.
But moving on, To Have and Have Not is—we'll just come out and say it—brutally racist. There are some who would like to gaslight you into thinking you're seeing something that isn't there, and others who would prefer you to ignore this, but you shouldn't, because racism is actually pivotal in the narrative. Morgan's initial foray into crime is against people he clearly feels are subhuman. They and other ethnic groups are referred to with slurs, and these come not just from Morgan's mouth, and from his thoughts, but from the writer's thoughts too. There are places where Morgan uses actual names to refer to characters that Hemingway still refers to by slurs. Think: “Hey Joe, give me a hand with these poles,” said Harry. The [slur] put down his coffee and helped Harry with the poles. So while it's always good to separate the author from their fiction so they have freedom to create any sort of characters they wish, it still raises an eyebrow when you read something like that.
Another aspect of To Have and Have Not that may jar is its lack of sympathetic characters. Morgan's ex-prostitute wife Marie is probably the nicest person in the book, and even she drops n-bombs all over place. But you have to root for someone, so it's her and Harry. You do it because they're at the economic mercy of terrible people. Most of these folks—who are generally of a better class—wouldn't use racial slurs, but they also wouldn't think twice about ruining someone for a few dollars. And while Harry employs a black man and gets along with him fine, you can be sure none of his rich charters would let a black man deign to speak to them. So in its way, To Have and Have Not is relevant in 2020 by starring a working class character who's uncouth, uneducated, and devoid of genuine empathy, but who constantly deals with people that think they're better than him and really aren't.
This is why losing the charter and those $825 bucks is such a clever way to open the novel. The charter, Johnson, flies away and doubtless never gives what he did much thought, but in shafting a working man creates wreckage that crushes not just the man he cheated, but those around him. We think this is the way to focus on the book if you read it—acknowledge the obvious deficiencies of Harry Morgan, but pay close attention to the secondary characters. This is what Hemingway wanted, which is why Morgan's narration lasts for only a while. Everything after his first crime caper is told from outside his point of view. As the book goes on, Hemingway drags you deeper into the lives of these ancillary characters, dispassionately leaving a struggling Morgan to recede into the distance.
So is To Have and Have Not Hemingway's worst book? We don't like it as much as his other works, but with its changes in point-of-view, mood, and even narrative tense, it's also more challenging than those books. Ultimately, the most serious indictment of To Have and Have Not comes from the author himself—he thought it was his worst book too. And who are we argue with Ernest Hemingway? But on the other hand, when you write The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and win a Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, and later win a Nobel Prize for your body of work, your worst book can still be pretty good.
Whether by day or night the action was non-stop.
We love vintage nightclub photos, and vintage pix of people partying in general. Since Havana photos are unusually interesting, we're always drawn to them. There's a large number of Havana photos out there, but not primarily because of Cuba's political history. The photos really exist because Cuba was a pioneer of Caribbean tourism, attracting travelers beginning in the 1920s through a heyday of the mid-1950s. The island was promoted as a place of sophistication, mixed with permissiveness, unpredictability, and a touch of the primitive. This prompted various movers and shakers—from New York City businessmen to top musicians to Hollywood stars—to flock to Havana. And where important people went, cameras followed.
Was the Havana image true? Probably, based on what we've read. But it was not unique. During the same period Tangier had a similar reputation, as it attracted writers like Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and numerous gay expatriates. During the 1960s Acapulco was knownas a great place to go for thrills. During the 1980s, Ibiza or Mykonos. The 90s, Thailand or Goa. The 00s, Tulum. Havana wasn't unusual in terms of what it offered. Bigger, yes. More convenient for Americans, for sure. But numerous far flung locales have served as paradises for foreign visitors to lose themselves and get crazy.
Most or all of the aforementioned places are considered to have changed for the worse, whether through ecological damage, destruction of historic architecture, unchecked overbuilding, overtourism, or all four scourges at once. But it was revolution that changed Havana, a fact that gives vintage photos from there a particular poignancy. A typical narrative is that while elites and tourists partied, exclusion, inequality, and poverty helped fertilize the seeds of upheaval. But we don't judge anyone in these shots. We've lived in similar circumstances in Central America. We were even partners in a beach bar in the Caribbean. We were always well aware of the prevailing socio-political problems, and we sympathized greatly with the local populations. But it didn't stop us from partying the nights away.
There's an immense feeling of freedom being in a simpler place—and for all its opulent nightclubs and restaurants, Havana is said to have exuded a primeval sensuality that intoxicated tourists and expatriates. If you live in the U.S. or some other modern nation, that feeling isn't something you can achieve by merely paring down your current lifestyle. The things you give up continue to exist all around you. By rejecting those, you become a weirdo. But by living in a less modern nation your life truly changes top to bottom, and you gain this while still existing above the local mean. That's the paradox, or the injustice, depending on your point of view: your satisfaction derives partly from the ability to take or leave anything you wish, because you are economically able to do so. You live more simply than you did, yet live better than most people around you. It isn't noble, but it's very much an attraction.
Bowles and Burroughs lived well in Tangier because it was immensely cheaper than Europe or the U.S. With the savings gained they hosted parties and had time to hone their literary crafts. They were a part of the local society, but existed in a middle-upper stratum, high above the impoverished, well below the Moroccan elites, benefitting from the general perception that foreigners from rich nations are themselves rich. That's how it was for us too. So there's inequality built into thattype of expatriate experience. It's unavoidable. A friend of ours lived in a stick shack on Cayos Cochinos for an entire year and he was still considered a rich foreigner. Everyone knows you have a choice. The Americans who partied in Cuba could never have been anything but wealthy invaders, no matter the reality of their finances, or the inclusiveness their sensibilities.
Living comfortably means the novelties one experiences seem thrilling or romantic. When we were knocking around Guatemala, El Salvador, and the Bay Islands, we turned washing our clothes by hand into an enjoyable ritual, yet understood quite well that many families' daily water intake literally depended on walking a mile to a river. Buying food from the local fruit and veggie stand was far more convenient than queuing at the supermarket for meat, and we ended up dropping to our college weight, but we were nevertheless aware that many people couldn't afford any food, and would have been disgusted at how pleased we were that our reduced fat intake meant we could show six pack abs at the beach. We helped some local families, both financially and logistically, but when your downsized existence is a choice you can never truly fit in.
But the freedom you feel is real. Offloading the burdens of modern life brings legitimate satisfaction. The pursuit of pleasure takes on a special joy. We hit bars, parties, and gallery mixers continually. As foreigners there's no social stigma to drinking every night. Unless you have a job—and we didn't—it's how you form a social circle. Locals generally disapprove, but their judgements carry little weight. So when welook at Havana partying shots we don't quite see oblivious, entitled people, because we know it isn't that simple. Most of them knew what was percolating. Stability was diminishing fast. There was a dissolved parliament, large protests, a 1953 battle in Santiago de Cuba, and other signposts on the way to change. It was clear the fun could never last.
The assortment of people you see here are caught on film like insects caught in amber, long dead but preserved. They're having a few laughs, enjoying some drinks, executing deft turns on dance floors, making their small, temporary marks on the world, leaving behind images showing them for one sliver of a moment in timeless eternity. Things changed in Havana, and now things have changed for all of us. If circumstances where we can dance and laugh and shout together in hot crowded places without fear of sickness ever return, be sure to embrace them fully. We don't just mean in some far flung tropical enclave. We mean anywhere. Because if it isn't a virus that takes those pleasures away, it'll be the march of years. You'll want to have done your best with this gift called life.
An ice cream vendor patiently waits for potential customers to emerge from the Capri Hotel and Casino, 1958. Fashion model Jean Patchett and author Ernest Hemingway, who habitually went shirtless, lounge at Finca Vigia, his house in Cuba, 1950. Above, Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, the "Cocktail King of Havana," inventor of the Papa Doble daiquiri, and owner of the famed bar El Floridita. Liberace performs on stage at the Tropicana with headline dancer Ana Gloria Varona, 1954. A Coke and a smile from two soft drink vendors. Patrons enjoy drinks at El Floridita, 1955. Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante stands by while Marlon Brando tries his hand—or both of them—at the conga drum at Hotel Packard, 1956. Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky, on the right in this shot, attends the opening of the Hotel Riviera in December 1957. Famed entertainer Zulema dances the rhumba at the Zombie Club, 1946. Three women liven up the room from their perch on the bar at Cabaret Kursal. Cesar Romero and Tyrone Power enjoy a drink and a chat at Sloppy Joe's Bar. Revelers including Errol Flynn and Desi Arnaz, Jr. form a conga line during the Yoruba festival known as Dia de Babalú-Ayé. José Abeal Otero, founder of Sloppy Joe's Bar, mixes up a giant batch of liquid magic. No, this isn't the same person as above, Ribalaigua. They were both small, dapper guys. A firebreather thrills onlookers in front of the Saratoga Hotel, 1949. This photo shows Nat King Cole and his wife Maria Cole, along with Martin Fox, who was the owner of the Tropicana, accompanied by his wife Ofelia and an unknown fifth party. U.S. born vedette and movie star Tongolele, aka Yolanda Montes, poses outside the Capri Hotel and Casino, 1958. Meme Solis and Elena Burke pose at the entrance to the 21 Club, located in the Capri Hotel. These photos show Silvano Chueg Echevarría, a master of percussion and an iconic musical personage. Let's go back to that Marlon Brando photo for a sec. Brando was an aficionado of percussive instruments. During that 1956 jaunt to Cuba he made it known that he wanted to buy drums from real percussionists. One of the musicians he met was Echevarría. All the Havana percussionists knew of Brando, of course, but thought he was a musical dilettante. At some point he finagled his way onto a nightclub stage, sat in with a band, and truly amazed onlookers with his ability on the conga. He wasn't a master, but he was pretty good. He won respect, and bought his drums. Raquel Revuelta, Manuel Corrales, and Mariano Rodriguez leave the famed bar Bodeguita del Medio and walk through the Havana night to other locales, other adventures, 1958.
Once upon a time there was nobody hotter than Hemingway.
We'd heard that The Gun Runners, which premiered in Britain today in 1958, is the most faithful of the several film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's novel To Have and Have Not. It isn't that close, actually, but it's Hemingway-hot! according to the promo poster. If we're catching the subtle inference correctly, that must mean it's good. Maybe, but what it really shows is Hemingway was so famous at this time that his mere name was a selling point. Think—how many novelists' names have you seen above the title on a movie poster in recent years? Stephen King comes to mind. Maybe Clive Barker, for a minute there. Michael Crichton? Possibly. After those three we draw a blank.
Well, we like Hemingway, and we love the Bogart/Bacall adaptation of To Have and Have Not, though it has nothing to do with the book. This Hemingway-hot! version stars Audie Murphy—yes, that one, and he's a solid enough actor—as a boat captain working out of Key West who gets ensnared in a dangerous scheme that involves smuggling weapons to Cuba. Eddie Albert as the heavy is as amoral as they come, and in supporting roles you get Patricia Owens, Gita Hall, and Everett Sloane. Sometimes the performances in old movies don't feel quite right to modern sensibilities, but you could transplant Albert's performance note for note into a new movie. Acting that stands the test of time that strongly is rare.
Another thing that stands the test of time are the themes explored here. In the novel, the item some people have that others have not is money and the freedom it brings, but in The Gun Runners what people either have or have not would appear to be scruples. It's no surprise that the structural inequality aspect of Hemingway's text was downplayed—who wanted to hear about that in 1958, when so many Americans could work a simple job yet afford a car, a house, and a family? But people sure have a clear understanding of inequality these days, don't they? For that reason alone, we think this flick will resonate with many. We recommend putting this in your queue. In the end it really is Hemingway-hot!
I have to admit, you're pretty good in the sack for a capitalist running dog lackey.
Heat, guns, passion, and politics. What more do you need for an adventure novel? Paul Edmondson's 1959 potboiler The Little Revolution is set on the fictional island of Caimanera, which is of course modeled after Cuba, where American wife Fidessa Broughton gets tangled up in a rebellion via her choice of a bedroom partner, even as her husband goes astray with a local woman, and a military captain's daughter rebels as well, in that way all teenagers do. The excellent art on this is by the eclectic Mitchell Hooks. We discussed his singular genius in detail a while back.
They both like the beach, poetry, spicy food, and slaughtering cruel despots. They'll make a perfect couple.
The above posters for We Were Strangers, one of which seems celebratory and another that is more dramatic, could give the impression of a studio that wasn't sure what kind of film it was trying to market. Legendary director John Huston made a habit of confounding executive suites, and here produced a film that probably came close to sending studio bigwigs plummeting in despair off high ledges. The story is set in Cuba during the early 1930s rule of dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales, and deals with revolutionaries who devise a plot to tunnel from a house near a graveyard to the site of a funeral they know the president will attend, and blow him to kingdom come with dynamite.
The movie stars John Garfield and Jennifer Jones, and is beautifully shot, but the characters aren't well written, nor are the performances sufficiently involving. There's nice action, though, especially at the climax. Since the central personalities are revolutionaries in Cuba, many critics denounced the film as Marxist propaganda, which it really isn't. It's just historical drama with unavoidable economic context. You wouldn't think it would be terribly controversial to say that for Americans to live income-wise far above the global average, substantial portions of the world must remain stuck below it, but on the other hand maybe it's understandable that we want to avoid thinking about how earning a nice profit is usually dependent upon others providing raw goods and hard work dirt cheap.
It's a shame the film isn't good enough to sweeten its message with high level drama and thrills. Huston was a workmanlike director who, despite helming numerous classics, wasn't any sort of auteur. He tried to tell stories in ways he felt was best for the material, but he also loved travel, which led him to accept projects based on the potential for exotic location work. Sometimes, as in The African Queen, he struck gold. Other times, as here, he spent a lot of investment capital and made a lot of Hollywood suits cry. We Were Strangers will be of interest to Havanaphiles, but in what was a famously up and down career, this effort comes out on the lower end of the Huston scale. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
Rat-a-tat-tat, all the men fall flat.
Above is a promo image of the wonderful Jennifer Jones, made for her 1948 Cuba adventure We Were Strangers, in which she played a character with the amazing name China Valdez. Wanna see her use that gun? If you watch the film, which was directed by John Huston, you'll see it happen during one of the most action packed climaxes in ’40s cinema, though the actual movie isn't one of Jones's nor the great Huston's best.
The tabloid media was like a pack of animals and Mansfield was the meal.
We never realized this before, but the editors of Whisper really had it in for Jayne Mansfield. We mean more than usual for a vicious tabloid. Most of the issues we have contain highly negative stories about her, such as this one published in 1962 that calls her and husband Mickey Hargitay “the biggest pair of boobs in the business.” Geez, what did she do to them? Piss in their grits? Dropkick their Corgis? Obviously, the biggest boobs thing is a play on words referencing Mansfield's bust, but they're referencing her personality when they talk about her “false façade” and “up-front ways.” Regardless of whether Whisper approved of Mansfield, it couldn't stop featuring her—a fact the magazine acknowledged. We'll see her in these pages again.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Whisper, the amazing Señor Fidel Castro makes one of his regular appearances. Like Mansfield, the magazine couldn't stop writing about him. According to the editors, the Beard had launched a plot to addict American youth to drugs. We call Castro amazing because according to various mid-century tabloids he was simultaneously training Viet Cong soldiers in Cuba, funneling arms to U.S. inner cities, assassinating JFK, planning to overthrow the Catholic Church, raping teenaged girls, and helping East Germany revive the Third Reich. Talk about great time management skills. If only we were half as organized.
Did drugs flow from Cuba to the U.S.? It's an accusation that has come up numerous times over the years. Considering that since at least 1950 drugs were flowing into the U.S. from Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Afghanistan, Thailand, et al—it would be astonishing if drugs didn't also originate from or transit through Cuba. With what degree of official approval we'll probably never know. Heads of state are notoriously insulated. In fact, the only one we can think of offhand who was definitively tied to drug dealing was Panama's former strongman Manuel Noriega, who was doing it with the help of the CIA,, but we can probably safely assume he wasn't the first national leader to peddle drugs.
Whisper isn't aiming for investigative journalism in its Castro piece. That would require actual work. Its story is 90% lollipop, 10% stick. But the ratio of fiction to fact is meaningless as long as the writing fits the brief: focus obsessively on the sensational, the frightening, and the infuriating. That's why we call mid-century tabloids the cable news channels of yesteryear. Though people were doubtless highly agitated about what they read in these quasi-journalistic outlets, the passage of decades makes them harmless fun for us to explore. Maybe one day a future website—or whatever passes for one ages from now—will be able to make jokes about the things agitating us. Let's hope so. We have a bunch of scans below, and more tabloids than we can count inside the website. Look here.
Two wheels, a road, and a full tank of gas.
Singer and dancer Lina Salomé poses on a monster motorcycle in Havana, Cuba, sometime in 1956. Born Luz de Peña Matos Estévez, she appeared onscreen seven times between 1952 and 1957. She had only one leading role, in the Mexican made Alma de acero, aka Soul of Steel. Another film, Los tres bohemios, appeared a month later, but the work dried up completely after that. However, we've seen her described as an iconic musical figure in Cuba, and this photo fits for someone remembered that way. It's probably just a publicity shot, but we like to think of her actually taking this machine to Matanzas on the Via Blanca, because a beast like this needs to eat a lot of road. If you want to see Miss Lina do a little song and dance, check this link while it lasts.
Spanish art for Casa número 322 may have traveled far from home.
We already showed you a beautiful yellow French promo poster for 1954's Pushover, starring Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak. Above is a cool blue Spanish language promo. This piece is signed MCP, which is the imprimatur used by the Spanish artists Ramon Marti, Josep Clave, and Hernan Pico. So is this a Spanish poster? Well, most online sites say so. But the distributor for Mexico is listed as Columbia Films S.A., and you can see that graphic right on top of the poster. The S.A., by the way, stands for “sociedad anónima,” and is a corporate designation, kind of like Inc., or LLC. The movie's distribution company for Spain is on record as plain old Columbia Films, with no S.A., so we think this poster was used in Mexico, where the movie played as La casa número 322, “house number 322.” There's no exact Mexican release date known for it, but late 1955 is a safe bet. All that said, there's no way we can claim to be correct with 100% surety that this is a Mexican poster. We're extrapolating.
Columbia had distribution branches in various Latin American countries. Its Mexican hub was the most important because Mexico had the most developed Spanish film market in the world. Yes, more than Spain, which was still recovering from civil war. Though dubbed or subtitled versions of foreign movies were routinely shown in Mexico, locally produced flicks were about 20% more popular at the box office on average, according to a 1947 report circulated by the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey. In fact, Mexican films were the most popular in all Latin America, particularly Cuba. Even in Mexico City, where U.S. and European films were more popular than anywhere else in the country, Mexican films took up more than 40% of exhibition time—again as reported by the U.S. Consulate. Why was the consulate studying this? Just wait.
The Mexican movie market isn't as competitive today. The decline was due to three main factors: political pressure that forced Mexico to submit to so-called free trade in mass media, suspicious difficulties obtaining raw film stock from the U.S. for movie productions, and, of course, dirty business tactics by Stateside studios. So that's where the consulate came in—gathering intelligence for both the U.S. government and U.S. business interests. Armed with alarming data about local preferences for local product, U.S. studios forced Mexican exhibitors into “block booking” agreements, which meant that if cinemas wanted to exhibit the best Hollywood films they were also contractually obligated to take on the worst. This was repeated all over Latin America, and those bad films, which were more numerous than the good ones, ate up exhibition hours and kept Mexican films off screens. Pushover, at least, was one of Hollywood's better films.
In the Aztec version of the show being sacrificed on a cross is actually first prize.
This poster for The Living Idol gives a bit of a false impression. The movie isn't the lost world epic implied by the art. Most of it is set in and around the University of Mexico, and deals with an archaeologist who believes he can unlock the secrets of ancient Aztec rituals by using a colleague's daughter as a sort of medium. James Robertson Justice is the obsessed archaeologist, and French actress Liliane Montevecchi stars as Juanita, who may have some mystical connection to the ancient world.
The movie is better than you'd expect. It's serious and intelligent, with a bit of cuteness mixed in, and what's particularly striking is the respect it shows—for a U.S. made movie—toward Mexico and Mexican culture. The default attitude for Mexico in north-of-the-border movies from the period is one of mild patronization, but not here. Give some credit to screenwriter Albert Lewin, but more credit to director René Cardona, who's Cuban, not Mexican, but was certainly versed in the culture and history of the country.
Though no Mexicans appear in major roles, Cardona manages to leave viewers with a sense of wonder about Mexico, and not just its mythic past, but its contemporary aspects too. He treats viewers to a nice tour of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, built in Mexico City in 1910, and one of the most majestic and beautiful centers of learning in the Americas today. Its central campus, built from 1949 to 1952, is even UNESCO protected, which thousands of older universities can't say.
This comes in addition to amazing panoramas of the Aztec ruins at Uxmal, probably the best represented they've ever been in a motion picture. Is the movie good? Not quite. It has many rough patches, and Montevecchi has only two expressions in her acting arsenal—innocent eyed, and bug-eyed. But it all works a bit better than it should, somehow. We cautiously recommend it for Mexicophiles, but keep your expectations in check. The Living Idol opened in the U.S. today in 1957.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1918—The Red Baron Is Shot Down
German WWI fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron, sustains a fatal wound while flying over Vaux sur Somme in France. Von Richthofen, shot through the heart, manages a hasty emergency landing before dying in the cockpit of his plane. His last word, according to one witness, is "Kaputt." The Red Baron was the most successful flying ace during the war, having shot down at least 80 enemy airplanes.
1964—Satellite Spreads Radioactivity
An American-made Transit satellite, which had been designed to track submarines, fails to reach orbit after launch and disperses its highly radioactive two pound plutonium power source over a wide area as it breaks up re-entering the atmosphere.
1939—Holiday Records Strange Fruit
American blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday
records "Strange Fruit", which is considered to be the first civil rights song. It began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, which he later set to music and performed live with his wife Laura Duncan. The song became a Holiday standard immediately after she recorded it, and it remains one of the most highly regarded pieces of music in American history.
1927—Mae West Sentenced to Jail
American actress and playwright Mae West is sentenced to ten days in jail for obscenity for the content of her play Sex. The trial occurred even though the play had run for a year and had been seen by 325,000 people. However West's considerable popularity, already based on her risque image, only increased due to the controversy.
1971—Manson Sentenced to Death
In the U.S, cult leader Charles Manson is sentenced to death for inciting the murders of Sharon Tate and several other people. Three accomplices, who had actually done the killing, were also sentenced to death, but the state of California abolished capital punishment in 1972 and neither they nor Manson were ever actually executed.
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