George Plimpton and Ernest Hemingway in Cuba

American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

In “George Plimpton and Papa in Cuba,” Joel Whitney offers a fascinating account of how George Plimpton befriended Ernest Hemingway in Spain, and how their subsequent collaboration had serious political implications and complicated, tragic results. According to Whitney, “when Ernest Hemingway agreed to his famous Paris Review interview, he had no idea he’d be helping the CIA.” Here are Whitney’s introductory paragraphs (the full article, in Guernica, is simply enthralling):

In early 1959, George Plimpton was preparing to watch an execution in Cuba. The Cuban revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, had just marched on Havana and ousted the US-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista. The young Paris Review editor and other New York literary figures arrived during a period marked by hope for a democratic Cuba. They were there, too, as witnesses. Wary of US media distorting events, the revolutionaries had called in writers and intellectuals to witness the changing of the guard.

The changeover involved infamous trials—and even more infamous executions—that had become increasingly controversial. Guevara had witnessed an earlier coup in the region, in Guatemala, and calculated that it had been possible only because the country’s new leader allowed military officers loyal to the imperialists to remain in their posts after the election. Fearing a similar US-supported rollback, Guevara insisted the war criminals who had done the dictator’s bidding must be tried, read an accounting of their crimes, and summarily executed.

In some versions of what happened next, it was Hemingway who, leisurely sipping tequila sunrises, took Plimpton to watch the prisoners offloaded from trucks and shot. In other versions, Hemingway stayed home and it was Plimpton and the other visitors from New York who viewed the shootings as entertainment. Regardless, the event marked a high point in Plimpton’s long cultivation of a friendship with Hemingway, which he had initiated with an interview request—the acclaimed author declined, cursing wildly—six years before. The interview nevertheless appeared in the famously apolitical Paris Review, which syndicated it around the world to literary magazines funded by the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom. The Paris Review offered it to the CIA’s literary family without Hemingway ever being told, and Plimpton quietly joined, however indirectly, the chorus of pundits, bureaucrats, and friends who politicized Hemingway’s home in Cuba when it had become politically taboo to live there. Not long after Hemingway returned from the island, his discomfort living in the nation of his birth, and the government’s relentless surveillance of him there, would lead to his suicide. [. . .]

Joel Whitney, a co-founder of Guernica, is the author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers. A 2003 winner of the Discovery Prize, his work has appeared in the New York TimesThe New Republic, the Wall Street JournalThe Paris Review, and elsewhere. His essays have twice been notables in Best American Essays.

[Photo above: George Plimpton and Ernest Hemingway bullfighting, as seen in “American Masters: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself.” Photo: Courtesy of the Plimpton Estate.]

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