Plimpton, Papa, and Cuba


First Person

George Plimpton (center, top) and Ernest Hemingway (center) at a bullfight.


Castro’s death has renewed an open, vibrant, and sometimes heated debate about his regime and its treatment of Cuban citizens. Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of the Cold War, much less was known in the U.S.—these were not things the American media dwelled upon. An incident while working at The Paris Review with George Plimpton in the early nineties opened my eyes, especially to Che Guevara’s supervision of the detention of political prisoners at La Cabana prison in Havana.

One day, at the office on East Seventy-Second Street, perusing the catalog of Grove Press’s forthcoming books, I spotted a title about which I’d heard nothing—The Motorcycle Diaries, by Che Guevara, which had been published in Cuba in the sixties but had never appeared in English. It seemed a long shot, but from the description of it as a travelogue with an unusual provenance, I thought a piece from it might be something for the Review

The manuscript arrived a good six months before publication. The writing was fine, somewhat conventional but well observed, with vivid tableaux of people and land and cities in the Latin American countries where Guevara had traveled when he was training to become a doctor. I thought it could “work” for the magazine: it would, as the Boss liked to say, “cause a stir.” The Cold War had ended, and with that the conflicts in Latin America had by and large been rolled up, as far as I knew. And it was interesting to watch the unfolding of Guevara’s sensibility during his account. There was a humanist sensitivity, and it seemed devoid of the sub-Marxist dialectics for which, among other reasons, Guevara became known. (There’s since been further debate about whether Guevara himself was the sole author of the book.)

I stitched together an excerpt and called my friend at Grove. There was little advance word on the book, and the people there were happy to the have the interest, as no one else was biting for the serial rights. I took the paper-clipped excerpt upstairs to the Boss, as I called him, and as he in turn jokingly used to call me. I found him at that moment flopped down off to the side from his workspace in his favorite spot, an Eames chair where he liked to watch his “teams”—the Detroit Lions, the Celtics, and the others who’d invited him to step on the field as a participatory journalist. As he looked up from some papers, I said I had something strange and good. As I started to tell him all about it, his smile faded, and then his face sunk.

I stopped my pitch and said, “Boss, what’s the matter?”

“I’m sorry … ”

“For what?”

“I just … No … ”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “It’s not at all … ” He cut me off.

“James, I’m sorry.”

I held it out to him and said, “Okay. Don’t take my word for it.”

A sad look overtook his face, and he began to explain: “Years ago, after we’d done the interview, Papa invited me down again to visit him in Cuba.” (In the fifties, George had interviewed Hemingway for the magazine on the Art of Fiction, and now he always referred to him as Papa, as Hemingway encouraged his young friends to do.) “It was right after the revolution,” George continued. After he arrived in Havana, he settled in at a hotel room above a bar. One afternoon, at the end of the day, Hemingway told him, “There’s something you should see,” and to come by the house.

When he arrived at Hemingway’s house he saw they were preparing for some sort of expedition. Before they ventured forth, the elder writer made shakers of drinks, daiquiris or whatever, and packed them up. This group, including a few others, got in the car and drove for some time to the outside of town. Arriving at their destination, they got out, set up chairs, brought out the drinks, and arranged themselves as if they were going to watch the sunset. Soon enough, a truck came, and that, explained George to me, was what they’d been waiting for. It came, as Hemingway explained to them, the same time each day. The truck stopped and some men with guns got out of it. In back were a couple of dozen others who were tied up. Prisoners. The men with guns hustled the others out of the back of the truck and lined them up. And then they shot them. They put the bodies back in the truck and drove off.

I said to George something to the effect of, Oh my God. Then I said, “I don’t believe you.”

I wasn’t sure why I didn’t. Probably because I’d never read about such events, and their invisibility in the media, to my mind, somehow outweighed George’s account as a firsthand witness. But I knew George had a Forrest Gump-like ability to be on the spot when things happened. (Years into knowing him, I learned that he was among those who, along with an uncle of mine, leaped on and disarmed Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel.) It was perfectly plausible that Hemingway at this time would’ve known about such events going on in the shadows. Given that among his group were young writers in search of a subject, it makes sense that he would’ve taken them to see the executions. (I wonder if the daiquiris, lounge chairs, and festive setup weren’t a kind of investigative subterfuge on Hemingway’s part—if he was only seeming to treat it as a day at the bullfights.) While George loved to play the role of trickster (see: “Finch, Sidd”) I never found him, when pressed, to be less than truthful. I was torn, and unsure.

George shook his head, and said, “James, I’m afraid so. And … well … so you see?”

“Did you ever write about this?”


“Why not?”

He got an uncomfortable look on his face, and shrugged. It was unusual for George to talk about politics, or in this case, since it was more than thirty years later, history—unless it was distant history, the Civil War or whatever.

I held the excerpt out to him one more time. “It’s not what you’d expect. Won’t you at least read this?” He sat unmoving.

“James, I’m sorry, I just can’t.” In the twenty years I knew him, this remained the only time George refused to look at a piece of writing.

James Scott Linville is a former editor of The Paris Review. His journalism has appeared in the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, and Esquire, among others.