Havana, Cuba

Young Irish reporter Valerie Danby-Smith, first met Hemingway in 1959, when interviewing him for the Belgian News Service. Thereafter, Valerie devoted her life to Hemingway and his wife, Mary, travelling with them throughout Spain and France and living with them during their final years in Cuba.

Valerie will accompany our Cuba group tour in Havana, spending an afternoon with the group, visiting Hemingway’s house, where she will share stories of Ernest’s life there.

We asked Valerie to share her memories of her time with Ernest and Mary, her thoughts on who has inspired her, her best travel advice and more.

Valerie Hemingway ©Lynn Donaldson
How did you first meet Ernest Hemingway?

I met Ernest Hemingway in May 1959 at the Suecia Hotel in Madrid where I interviewed him for the Belgian news service that hired me to do English language interviews.  During the interview Hemingway told me that I should go to Pamplona in July for San Fermin, their annual festival.  I agreed to go and at the end of the week in Pamplona he hired me as a temporary secretary for the summer.  The job lasted until his final illness in 1961. 

What is your favourite memory of your time with him?

I have so many wonderful memories.  One of my favorite is my 20th birthday dinner at the Floridita in Havana where, after a day’s fishing in Pilar, we celebrated with a memorable meal and music.  Ernest and Mary sang “Happy Birthday” to me as we ate our coco glacé ice-creams in the coconut shell.  Mine had a candle in the middle.  Then they sang in harmony from their repertory of contemporary and Latino songs.  It was a sweet and low-key moment amid a very high profile and hectic life.

Tour of Hemingways House
Do you have a favourite Hemingway novel?

My favourite book is A Moveable Feast because I read the manuscript, typed up a good part of it, and spent several days in Paris with Ernest while he was putting the finishing touches on the book.  My favourite novel is For Whom the Bell Tolls.  This is possibly because of my interest in Spain and things Hispanic and because Hemingway gave me an intimate tour of the area in Spain where most of the novel takes place while he explained how he came to devise the story. 

Who has inspired you?

Certainly James Joyce, the writer, inspired me with his innovative use of language.  Hemingway’s life style example has inspired me.  I have never known anyone who has such an ability to enjoy life in all its aspects, conviviality, food, sports, a deep and abiding interest in literature, painting, history, geography, science and music.  I cannot think of any aspect of life, physical or intellectual, that he did not embrace.  Mary Lovell, English biographer, has also inspired me.  Mid-life, after her first trip to East Africa where she met Beryl Markham, she left her job in accountancy and wrote Beryl’s life: Straight on till Morning, which is still in print.  She never looked back.  Twenty-five or so years on she has published ten biographies, all to critical acclaim.  I first met Mary when I interviewed her in 1995.

Havana, Cuba
How has Cuba changed over the years?

I first went to Cuba in 1960 and stayed for seven months.  Castro was already in power, so I missed the great period of wealth and gambling when Havana was filled with playboys and beautiful people.  Life with the Hemingway’s at the Finca was incredibly luxurious nonetheless.  Their American friends had all fled but there were many wealthy or interesting Cubans in their circle and also the English Ambassador and his family.  His daughter became a good friend of mine and we are in touch to this day.  The years have not been kind to the Cuban cities, but the wild life and countryside is as beautiful as ever.  After the deprivation of the ’90s when the Soviet Union broke up and Cuba was without sponsorship, and in dire poverty for a number of years, the country has gradually improved.  In fact, it has really turned the corner and a new and brighter era has begun.  The new restaurants are excellent.  The music, ballet and art are amazing.  The people have never lost spirit and are more innovative than ever.  Havana still needs much renovation and reconstruction, but it is one of the world’s most delightful cities both to look at and as a centre of activity.  Each time I return there are great improvements. 

Havana, Cuba
How often do you travel?

I travel about six months of every year.  Much of my work, giving lectures and writing articles requires travel.  I have been going to Cuba about twice a year for the past four years, but I also go to Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

What is your most amusing travel story? 

In 2007 when I was in Havana on assignment for Smithsonian Magazine I met theatre impresario Toby Gough on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional.  We talked about Havana in the 1950s and how it was during Hemingway’s time.  He said that he intended to put on a show at the Edinburgh Festival about pre-Castro days.  My brother Michael was with me on that trip.  Toby took us around Havana off the beaten path.  We went to the Callejon de Hamel and saw the Santería worshipers in full swing.  This would have been very much underground during the Hemingway days.  One day, a year later, I had a telephone cal in Montanal from Toby in Cuba asking me to perform at the Edinburgh Festival in his forthcoming show about Havana in the 1950s.  If I came he would call it Hemingway’s Havana.  Why not? I replied.  Three months later I found myself on stage with fourteen superb Cuban musicians, dancers and singers at the Edinburgh Festival.  It was one of the most exciting months of my entire life.  Our show won “The Spirit of the Festival” award.    It is a perfect example of how travel can lead to amazing and amusing adventures. 

Havana Black History walking tour
What is your best piece of travel advice?

My best piece of travel advice is to travel light.  It is surprising how much better one can get along with fewer items to keep track of, fewer things to lose or worry about.  Bring only the essentials in their most compact form.  Another piece of advice I have found most useful is to be prepared.  Learn as much as you can before traveling about where you are going and its special features.  If you are in a country where a foreign language is spoken, make sure to learn a dozen or so words: Hello, goodbye, thank you, for instance.  In most countries it is easy to connect with the people (and get much better service), if you can speak a few basic words.

To learn more about our group tour to Cuba where Valerie will join the group, click here.