The Mystery of Hemingway’s Guns

By Guest Contributor June 15, 2015 19:47

By Steve Helsley

My first career was pretty exciting, what with car chases, gunfights and international criminal investigations. But I was taller, thinner and younger then.

Now that I’m deep into the Medicare years, my assignments involve getting grandkids to school on time, and my days of foreign intrigue are just memories. Recently though, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a foreign country searching for guns seized by a despot’s regime more than a half-century ago.

As I climbed the stairs into a very famous house near Havana, Cuba, I couldn’t help but reflect on the strange and wonderful opportunities life offers.

Generations of high school students have found Ernest Hemingway on their required-reading lists. Some of his books, such as The Old Man and the Sea, which earned its author both the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature, remain popular today, at least with English teachers. Like Elvis, Michael Jackson and other departed icons, the late Ernest Hemingway – or at least his estate – continues to earn a great deal from his life’s work.

Hemingway himself still fascinates many people too, and he is the subject of endless scholarly research. That’s how this story begins.

In 2010, Silvio Calabi, Roger Sanger and I published a book called Hemingway’s Guns: The Sporting Arms of Ernest Hemingway. The “Three Amigos,” as we’ve become known, are retired from our first careers and 15 years ago began collaborating on projects involving fine guns.

Hemingway grew up with guns in Michigan. Then, as a best-selling and globetrotting author, he accumulated, used and wrote about many more. Hunting and the shooting sports were hugely important to him, and Hemingway’s Guns wound up delving deep into his life as a sportsman, which informed so much of his writing.

When Hemingway committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961, his other home, in Cuba, had recently been taken over by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. Known as la Finca Vigía (Lookout Manor, which sits on a hill overlooking Havana), the house is Cuba’s most popular museum. This is where Hemingway wrote some of his best-known works, and very often between writing stints he went shooting or fishing. The fate of what guns he had in Cuba has been a mystery, and most assumed that they’d been lost to the Castro regime.

In September 2014, the museum’s director, Ada Rosa Alfonso Rosales, attended the annual Ernest Hemingway Festival in Idaho. Roger Sanger was there also. Through an interpreter, Roger presented Rosales with a copy of Hemingway’s Guns and asked if she knew of any guns left in Cuba. For those of us who’ve been chasing these things for years, her answer was almost heart-stopping: “Oh yes, they’re in the basement.”

What happened next will surely make the Three Amigos the envy of all Hemingway buffs: Ada Rosa asked us to come to the Finca to curate the guns – assess their condition and review the museum’s records for accuracy. An Egyptologist invited into King Tut’s tomb couldn’t have been more excited.

Planning for our trip began well before President Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba. A Washington, D.C. company called CET (Cuba Educational Travel) secured the necessary visas and permits for us. In early February 2015, we met in Miami, where Mike Wysocki, a serious Hemingway aficionado, joined us for the brief charter flight to Havana’s José Martí International Airport.

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Exterior of Finca showing the ‘tower’ and the main house

On our arrival, it was immediately apparent that any significant surge in American tourism will strain Cuba’s inadequate and decaying infrastructure. (A metaphor for the country’s condition was a general lack of toilet seats, which posed a challenge.)

We were met by our CET driver and guide. The highway into town was remarkably traffic-free and dotted with memorials and billboards still proclaiming La Revolución, with heroic pictures of the Castro brothers, Che Guevara and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. If you have fond memories of 1950s DeSotos, Packards, Edsels, Buicks, Fords and more, Havana is a wonderland, as these vintage cars are everywhere. Many are taxicabs; most spew clouds of blue smoke, and it’s anyone’s guess what’s now under those 60-year-old hoods.

Before Hemingway bought the Finca in 1940, he lived in Room 511 of the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana’s old quarter. There he began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway’s room, largely untouched since he stayed there, is now a shrine.  CET had arranged for us to have the adjoining rooms.

Arriving at the Finca’s 15-acre compound behind busloads of tourists from Europe and Asia, we were warmly greeted by Ada Rosales and her staff. We spent two full days there, using as our photo studio a room in the house’s tower that Ernest and Mary Hemingway had given over to their many cats. (Thankfully, it had been cleaned.)

We were given extraordinary access to the Hemingways’ documents and personal possessions, including seven guns, two rifles and five shotguns. It is the first time anyone outside the museum’s staff has been allowed such access.

There’s an old saying that “guns have only two enemies: rust and politicians.” All of these seven had been savaged by both enemies and were in very poor condition.

Cuba required gun registration well before the revolution, so it was easy for Castro’s troops to seize any firearms in private hands. Fidel Castro, a huge Hemingway fan, ordered that the Finca be set aside as a museum.

Nevertheless, the guns there were crudely deactivated – the barrels plugged, key parts removed and in some cases, a hacksaw used to render them inoperable. In the decades since, grime and the tropical climate had also taken a toll. One of the shotguns was so badly rusted that we couldn’t open it. Sad as it was to see the damage, we were thrilled. Our long quest had brought us to Hemingway’s home and put seven more of his guns into our hands.

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Isbel Ferreiro Garit, museum vice-director, with the visitors in Hemingway’s study

One of these guns we knew from the records of Abercrombie & Fitch, which sold it to Hemingway in 1942. (A&F wasn’t always a purveyor of trendy T-shirts; until 1977, it was a fabled New York outfitter.) Several others we were able to identify in photographs from the Hemingway archive at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. (Mary Hemingway and Jackie Kennedy became close after the deaths of their famous husbands.)

From Cuban documents we learned of more guns yet, and learned important details about guns already in our book. We were able to linger in each room of the house, which is closed to tourists, and examine such personal items as Papa’s trophies and safari clothing, and even a Russian Cyrillic copy of The Old Man and the Sea in Braille!

Our Hemingway odyssey was launched in 2007 with a request for information from an Israeli scholar at Tel Aviv University. The search became addicting, and as more and more information turned up, we wrote magazine articles and then the book, which in turn brought more guns and information to the surface.

Our research has extended from Sun Valley to Key West and Cuba, and from the Police Firearms Bureau in Nairobi to the JFK Library in Boston. Each new discovery, however small, was exciting – yet none as exciting as holding Hemingway’s guns.

Regretfully, following our visit those guns were returned to the museum basement where they will continue to rot; there are no plans to preserve or display them.

We were able to correct inaccuracies in the Finca’s firearms records – serial numbers, models, etc. Now we’re hip-deep into a revised and expanded second edition of Hemingway’s Guns, to be published this fall by Derrydale Press. In it, we will explain for Ada Rosales their historical context and what Hemingway and his family did with them.

We are happy that we succeeded in adding to Hemingway scholarship. And just as important, three good friends enjoyed another wonderful adventure.

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Steve Helsley disassembles a shotgun while Silvio Calabi makes notes, Isbel Ferreiro Garit looks on

About the Author

Guns have been part of Steve Helsley’s life since boyhood, when his dad taught him to shoot a .22.

Now 69, the foothills resident is a firearms expert retired from the California Department of Justice – a career nearly cut short in 1970 when a heroin bust went sideways. Shot four times, the young undercover officer eventually recovered (though he still has a bullet in his spine) and began to rise through law enforcement ranks.

Helsley led the state’s narcotics enforcement and forensic services bureaus, and conceived and helped run the marijuana eradication program known as CAMP, active in California for three decades starting in the early ’80s. He served as assistant director of the DOJ’s Division of Law Enforcement until retiring in 1993.

A former National Rifle Association lobbyist, he now serves as historian for gunmaker John Rigby & Co. between writing with coauthors Silvio Calabi and Roger Sanger.

Though not a Hemingway buff himself – his writing partners’ intense devotion makes up for it, Helsley says – tracking the literary icon’s firearms has been fascinating. That chase has led to contacts around the world.

“It’s very much like police work,” says Helsley, father of three, grandfather of eight and married for 48 years to wife Marilyn. “The challenge is ferreting out sources of information, both people and documents, to help locate and authenticate Hemingway’s guns.”

He describes the path to Cuba as a series of chance encounters, “serendipity squared,” as he puts it. The highlight? The moment he saw the famous writer’s damaged but distinctive guns laid out on a table before him in the home where Hemingway lived and wrote.

“We’d been chasing these guns for five years – and there they were.”

“It was just like my narc days when we’d catch a major trafficker after a difficult investigation,” he says. “It was a good feeling – we won. In this case, we solved more of the mystery surrounding Hemingway’s guns.”

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Guest Contributor June 15, 2015 19:47
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