Tennessee Williams meets Ernest Hemingway for Lunch at the Floridita, Cuba 1959
It was the English theatre critic, Kenneth Tynan, who brought Williams and Hemingway together…
In April 1959, Tynan was travelling to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro, who’d recently chased Batista off the island, and called in to see Tennessee Williams — who was living in Key West at the time — suggesting the playwright might like to come along.
“ I’ve arranged to have lunch with Hemingway at the Floridita tomorrow, “ said Tynan, “ why not join us?”
“ Hemingway? You are joking, right? I’ve heard he kicks people like me in the crotch.”
“ Nonsense. But if he does I shall kick him back.”
In the end curiosity got the better of Williams, and the two writers headed off to Cuba.
Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III, was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911. His first great theatrical hit, The Glass Menagerie, was staged in 1944. From that moment on he never looked back as a playwright. By the time of the lunch with Hemingway, Sweet Bird of Youth had been doing good business on Broadway for a month, and he was now considered, along with Miller and O’Neill, to be one of America’s greatest playwrights.
The young Kenneth Tynan, in just a handful of years, had changed the way theatre critics wrote, creating a style that was to be taken up by just about every young reviewer thereafter: stylish, Hemingwayesque, no holds barred stuff that gave moulding old British newspaers a new lease of life.
Tynan supported, and championed, almost single-handedly, the rise of the so called ‘angry young men’ of literature and the theatre, most notably John Osborne and his play, Look Back in Anger, the success of which, sadly, destroyed the career of Terence Rattigan.
Tynan was a rising star.
Hemingway was on his last legs with only one more book left in him, and suicide just around the corner.
But Williams, who admired Hemingway’s work, still feared the tall and big chested novelist who greeted him and Tynan with handshakes and hugs, as they walked into the famous Floridita bar and restaurant.
Hemingway ordered Papa Doble (double frozen daiquiris) all round, signed a few autographs, and then had to listen to a trio of singers salute Hemingway with a new song they’d written about a local lesbian who could not, no matter how much she tried “…change her appetites to suit papa.” Hemingway laughed and hugged the singers, tipping them well, before explaining, to Williams and Tynan, that the bronze bust of himself on the bar in the corner was always covered up for Lent.
Hemingway then ordered lunch, lobster with a salad, and white wine.
The group were then joined by another journalist, and sometime friend of Hemingway’s, George Plimpton, who spotted that Tennessee looked slightly terrified, and as Plimpton put it “…Tennessee Williams’ tendencies were perfectly visible and I never saw anything but the greatest respect Hemingway had for him.”
Williams then told Hemingway he’d met the bullfighter Ordóñez in Spain, describing him as “…a lovely boy, very friendly, very accessible.” Hemingway said nothing. Williams then said:
“ I was introduced to Pauline back in Key West. I was very sorry to hear of her death, what…?”
“ She died like everybody else,” said Ernest, “and after that she was dead.”
There was something of a pause then:
The conversation moved on to the air crashes Hemingway and Mary had suffered in Africa, with Hemingway giving detailed descriptions, and how close they came to death, with Hemingway adding:
“ You can survive on one kidney, but if your liver gives out, you’re through.”
He then made his goodbyes and said what a pleasure it had been:
“ To meet you Tennessee, and can I say how much I enjoy your work, although I’ve never seen any of your plays I do enjoy reading them. Take care of yourself…”
“ Thank you, I will, and you.”
They both ignored the advice.
In the summer of 1959 Ernest travelled to Spain to cover the bullfights. He was supposed to write a series of short articles, in the end they turned into a very good book, The Dangerous Summer. Kenneth Tynan turned up in Spain at the same time, gate-crashing Hemingway’s lunches. I think it can be assumed Hemingway had rather gone off the young man who would be the first to use the ‘f’ word on British TV.
Tennessee Williams died in 1983, Kenneth Tynan in 1980.
Hemingway met Fidel Castro in May 1960, and was told by the new Cuban President that when they were fighting in the mountains they used For Whom the Bell Tolls as a guerrilla manual. That would have pleased Hemingway.
Note: Although based on fact I have used some creative licence with regard some of the dialogue.