Atlanta, GA

Meeting Ernest Hemingway: Author Jim O'Kon Remembers

Doc Lawrence
The most recent Hemingway biography.Jim O'Kon
Author, Esteemed Engineer, Global Traveler Jim O'KonJim O'kon

By Doc Lawrence

Jim O’Kon once met Ernest Hemingway. While still in high school in Atlanta he came to Havana, Cuba for a track competition known as the Havatlanta Games. It was a life-changing event that transformed a teenager, infusing him with ambitions and dreams that eventually led to a biography of the fabled author, Sitting in Hemingway’s Chair, (Amazon 2021), a remarkably original work about the man many called “Papa.”

I did some editing for O’Kon at his request, knowing I was also greatly influenced by the novelist. O’Kon’s accomplishments include playing football at Georgia Tech, becoming a successful design architect whose work is seen daily at Disney World, the Carter Presidential Library, Orlando International Airport, to name just a few. One of the most respected authorities on Maya Civilization, O’Kon authored respected works about the architectural and agricultural feats of these ancient people.

This story-an interview-is about that first meeting with Papa.

What led you to Hemingway?

Cuba is a country of poets and Cuban literature is replete with their work. However, there were few Cuban novelists and the greatest author on the island was not a Cuban, but an American, who had chosen Cuba as his home. That writer was Ernest Hemingway, I was focused on exploring Hemingway’s haunts.

Hemingway had recently won a Pulitzer Prize and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for writing a book about a poor Cuban fisherman. A novel that recounts the story of a hapless fisherman who, after eighty-four days of "bad luck", finally makes a big catch. This is not a story about fishing, but about man's resolve, his spirit of endurance and is a beautiful fable about the human condition.

When the novella was first published in Life Magazine, I read The Old Man and the Sea, in one sitting. I was not surprised that the novella became so popular. Writing about the courage of a poor Cuban fisherman had endeared Hemingway to the Cuban people.

You were in Havana as an athlete?

The Havatlanta Games lasted for a week and we were allotted some free time for sightseeing. The day before our team was to compete changed my life; I met Ernest Hemingway.

My host family was familiar with the great writer and knew the general location of his home. All I had to do was ask anybody, “Donde es la casa de Hemingway?” and they would point the way.

Armed with my new-found knowledge of Spanish, I set out to visit the Floridita bar and then to locate the Finca Vigia, as Hemingway called his home

My final directions came at the corner of the Caldeza. I stopped a dark-skinned Cubano and asked him [for directions]. The man’s face lit up and he pointed up the side road and said,

“Si, senior. La casa de Papa es todo derecho. El es mi amigo.”

I caught the words “mi amigo,” the hand pointing the direction and the beaming face.

I thought, “Hey, how bad can he be? He can kill me, but he can’t eat me.” That was wishful thinking.

Walking down the road toward Hemingway’s Finca, I had butterflies in my stomach. Who would have thought that I would be here? Who would have ever guessed that I would be approaching Hemingway’s house? Again, I wished that I was wrapped in a cloak of invisibility; I wanted to see the house, but I wanted to be unnoticed. After all, I was coming unannounced, and he was known for his surly moods. I thought.” I hope he does not see me.”

Approaching the driveway into the Finca, my anxiety almost made me turn around and head back to Havana. I was losing my nerve.

I paused before starting down the driveway to the Finca. I could see the house and a tower rising through the trees. Well, I had found Hemingway’s home where he had done his greatest writing. I started walking slowly toward the house.

What were your initial impressions? Weren’t you a little timid?

The villa was a long low structure with two wings and large windows along the façade. This was no ordinary country residence. It showed that it was the work of an excellent architect.

This was a beautiful home. Sitting on high ground rising above the town of San Francisco de Paula, you could see the skyline of Havana. That’s why Hemingway choose to call it Finca Vigia or “Lookout Farm.”

When I was in front of the house, I stopped, standing perfectly still, trying to blend into the lush landscaping. I had full view of the house and the four-story tower to its left. A white 1953 Buick automobile was parked at the side of the house.

I was so engrossed in admiring the house that I did not notice a large, bearded man walking around the corner of the house. He was wearing khaki shorts, thatched sandals and had a certain lightness in in his step. He was walking with a tilt on the balls of his feet. The man glanced up from his stroll and saw the uninvited stranger standing in the front of his house.

The man with the beard walked toward me. I recognized him immediately, it was him. It was really Ernest Hemingway, but he looked different than he had in photos. He would [soon] be 56 years old, but he looked older.

He had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he was moving into the twilight of his life.

My first impression of Hemingway in the flesh was his astounding size. He was barefoot and barelegged, wearing only floppy khaki shorts and a checked sport shirt.

He must have weighed about 230 pounds, but there was no suggestion of softness in the burly, broad-shouldered frame. He had the biceps and calves of a linebacker. He squinted down at me through round, silver-framed glasses; a tentative smile showed through his white beard.

And, you then had a conversation?

He spoke [to me] in a loud voice.

” Hey, there! What do you think you are you doing here? This is private property.”

I was startled and looked up at him, “I am sorry sir; I just wanted to see the house. I don’t mean any harm.”

The bearded man looked at me, “What the hell are you doing way out here? Are you a tourist that got lost?

“No sir. I am visiting Havana as a participant in the Havatlanta Games.”

“Well now, that’s good, what is your sport? Are you a boxer?”

“No sir. I am a runner in the mile relay.”

“Are sure that you are not a boxer? Do you want to box? Let’s see how good you are.”

At first, I had no idea what he was talking about. But then, as he came closer to the edge of the patio, he assumed a semi-crouch, his clinched hands were bunched at his waist, and I realized he wanted to box.

First, he had challenged me, now, he wanted to box against me. I had boxed before, but it was against people that were my age and size. This was a large man. We were of similar height, but he outweighed me by over 80 pounds. Plus, he was a man, and I was still a boy.

I responded.” No sir, I don’t think it would be appropriate, I have to race tomorrow.”

“I just can’t seem to find anybody to box with me. What time do you race tomorrow, maybe I’ll come out and see you”?

“That would be great; my race is at 4:00 in the afternoon.”

“I just might see you there.”

“Thank you, sir. Pardon me, sir, but may I ask if you are Ernest Hemingway.”

“Hemingway? Hemingway? I never heard of him. My name is Hemingstein”

I could not believe what I had just heard. This had to be some kind of a joke. I knew that his man was Ernest Hemingway but why would he give me a phony name? I decided to trust my luck and not ask. It was time to leave.

“Well, Mr. Hemingstein, sir, it has been a pleasure meeting you. I hope you can come out tomorrow and watch my race.”

With wide grin on his face, Ernest Hemingway said. “I will try to make it to the stadium. In any event, good luck on your race.”

The great writer turned, traversed the four steps into his house and was gone. I turned and walked up the driveway toward the road to Havana.

I [barely] remember walking back the seven miles to Havana, I was in a trance. It was as if my feet had taken wing and never touched the ground. I had actually met Ernest Hemingway.

Well, it was more of an encounter than a meeting. The conversation had started out a bit strained, but in the end, he turned out to be a nice man. I was puzzled by the name he had given himself: Hemingstein. It had to be some kind of joke. Well, I had succeeded in my goal of visiting the Finca, but the main prize and frosting on the cake was meeting my literary hero.

The mile relay was scheduled for the next day. As I warmed up on the infield, I peered into the crowd of spectators. I was searching for the face of the big, bearded man. I observed the crowd while waiting for the race to begin; I did not see Hemingway before or after the race. The Atlanta team did well in the race and the games were well-played, but I was disappointed. I wanted one more chance to see Mr. Hemingstein.

An amazing story. Thank you.

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Veteran journalist, editor and publisher (Nationwide News), and published author specializing in food, wine, drinks, visual and performing arts, travel and cultural tourism. Currently writing a screenplay, "Requiem for a Wine Taster."

Stone Mountain, GA

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