How Papa Got His Name, Speaking with a Bloomsbury Kind of Voice

By Fuentes, Gregorio; Partridge, Frances | Newsweek International, July 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

How Papa Got His Name, Speaking with a Bloomsbury Kind of Voice


Fuentes, Gregorio, Partridge, Frances, Newsweek International


UPON THE SAVAGE SEAS: 101-year-old Gregorio Fuentes was the captain of Ernest Hemingway's fishing boat, the Pilar, from 1935 until 1960, when Hemingway left Cuba. Fuentes is reputed to have been the model for the fisherman in "The Old Man and the Sea."

I was a captain in a Cuban fishing ship, and the Cubans sent me to New Orleans, U.S.A. A tropical storm began. Everyone on the ship was very worried and upset, so I decided to anchor the big ship and head for land in a smaller boat. On the way to the mainland, I saw a man in a small boat struggling in the storm. I quickly went to help him. When I began speaking with him, his Spanish sounded very strange. I tried to explain to him that he should come with me in my boat and we could tug his boat behind ours. He couldn't understand me at all, but he kept saying, "Thank you, thank you." Finally he came aboard, and together we went to the Dry Tortugas, off the coast of Florida.

When we arrived on land, the man looked very surprised because there was no civilization there. He said to me, "No American could imagine how isolated this area is." So I asked him, "Forgive me for asking, but what nationality are you?" He said, "I am American, and I live in Cayo Hueso [Key West]." And I responded, "Very east." The man asked me, "Do you have any idea how I can leave this place?" I said to him, "Don't worry, there's a U.S. Coast Guard boat that passes by every eight hours. I will help you make a signal." And the man said, "Well, let's make a plan that after you finish your voyage, let's meet again to talk. I prefer to meet again in Cuba because I know Cuba."

So I said, "Let me give you my address." But the man responded, "I prefer you meet me at Ambos Mundos Hotel in two weeks."

In two weeks I met him at his hotel. He spoke in very fast and direct Spanish. He said he was building a boat and he needed a captain, but not just anyone. "I want you to be my captain, the guy that saved my life." And I wasn't surprised. I said, "OK, I'm going to be your captain."

This happened in 1935. We worked together for a while, and then World War II began. Hemingway told me he was going to the war, and he wanted me to promise him that I would take care of myself. I said, "Let me tell you something: wherever you go, I'm going with you. And if you die, I die with you. And now there's no more to say."

Hemingway asked me, "What is your idea?" And I told him, "We are going to be together, but we need to change our names, because all the Spaniards and Italians and British know your name and that is going to be a problem. You're going to be 'Papa'." That's how he got that name. And I said, "I'm going to be something Italian, 'Gregorini'." And with these names we went to the war [to hunt German submarines off the Cuban coast]. …

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