I’m remembering some collages that my late mother-in-law made after a trip to Cuba in September 1941. She spoke of the trip frequently over the fifteen years I knew her. There was never anything linear or even particularly narrative about her conversational recollections, just bits and pieces. I learned early in our relationship not to ask too many questions—she never responded as I might hope but would lose her train of thought or take offense or jump past the subject altogether. Instead, I learned to listen, nod, and smile over the scotch and sodas she insisted upon. We were collaborators in a strange dance, at once mysterious and meaningful. In part, I was her best connection to a son she adored but who came so late into her life that she often found him difficult to comprehend. At times I think I was the reflection of her idiosyncratic self. Always, though, I was her friend, one more, even one last, in a long line of female friends she had collected over her eighty-plus years. She was eager to share her loves with me: son, books (especially poetry, large runs of which she knew by heart), art and theater, family lineages, and collages of her life before WWII and her marriage. She applauded all things modern and denigrated all things old-fashioned (especially my father-in-law). In return for my receptive smiles and nods, my nonjudgmental sips of scotch, she gave me unconditional approval. When I gave her a story or essay of mine newly published, she would stop everything, make a fresh drink, and read the piece with intense dedication. The final sentence would be punctuated with an explosive “Wonderful. Damn good.” And we would then make fresh drinks and meander from the center of my writing out to the periphery of her own prescribed history, back to the time before WWII, marriage, the rush and then gel of her settled, successful, suburban life. She always returned to her heady, salad days in Chicago as a single, working woman. I’ve seen pictures of her in dark, gleaming, Chicago restaurants and nightclubs, often as not wearing gloves and saucy little hats, a demure smile, and surrounded by friends. As the grand epilogue to this period of her life (or so it would consistently play in her retelling), she went on a long vacation with friends to Cuba in September 1941.
        It was impossible for either of us not to view that trip in relation to the war moving her way. The ship she and her friends sailed on was one of the last to make the trip until after the war. Even though the United States’ entry into the war was three months away, the U-boat threat was real enough. Merchant ships would get congressional approval to bear arms in November, just weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Memories, events, identity, and war must have often felt like a cut and paste collage for her generation, things gaining ground in retrospect, future and past in pieces, the present at once a whirl and a waiting. Perhaps that is why the collages she made of that trip seemed so evocative for her and became the same for me.

Collage: Hotel Lincoln

My mother-in-law’s maiden name was Marion Hildegarde Sharp. She would be Marion Hildegarde Sharp Resetarits by August 1942. Did she imagine that outcome when she made the trip to Havana? I doubt it. She never gave any hint that she was serious then about my father-in-law. He was just one of her suitors, an old friend from St. Louis. They had been on the same champion Turner gymnastic team in their teens. They were both part of the extensive German-speaking (that is, Austro-Hungarian) immigrant community of St. Louis, only she was from an established second-generation Viennese family already more American, entrenched, and affluent than my father-in-law’s family of first-generation, village craftsmen. That September, I don’t believe she was thinking about marriage or children or the life she would take on with the war. Or, at least, she tried to give that impression sixty years later. When she spoke of her time in Chicago or in Cuba, her emphasis was always on its singular delights and freedoms: her love of travel and friends, horse or bicycle rides round the edges of big cities, night light on the waters of Lake Michigan or the Bay of Havana.
        There’s one collage she made from this trip that begins with a drawing of Morro Castle, the impressive fortification system that guards the bay, the harbor, and the city of Havana. She cut the lines of the castle from red construction paper and mounted the image on black creating a dimensional effect. Then she cut out photographs of herself and a cousin dressed up as characters from Alice in Wonderland and pasted them standing along the walls of the castle. These are not shabby costumes, mind you. The Germanic families of St. Louis in the first half of the century had retained the social clubs and drama clubs and gymnasium culture of the old country. In other words, they took their play very, very seriously. Maybe that collage had something to do with Marion’s feeling like Alice in Wonderland. Maybe that same feeling is why she never told me a narrative of the trip start to finish: because she was Alice and everything was curiouser and curiouser and if you looked too deeply for logic you might, unfortunately, find it. Better to retain the whirl of first falling down the well. The Morro Castle collage strikes me as Marion’s emotional Venn diagram of connecting spheres: St. Louis, Chicago, Cuba; child, woman, wife; before, during, and after war.

Collage: Morro Castle, Alice in Wonderland

There’s a concept in ecology called patch dynamics. Part of the idea is that when large spaces are broken up into smaller patches things often get more complex. This complexity can be good and bad, benefiting some species, harming others, making everything more complicated as new edges meet and centers multiply, disappear, shift. I think that’s how collages work too: they multiply edges, shift centers, break and reassemble intent.
        Not long after Marion’s death, while rummaging through the notebooks and scrapbooks she made before the war (but was never inclined to make after), I put together a collage of her that was all about creating a new center, a special, not-before-seen center out of a whirl of falling, fractured pieces. The collage is built on two remnants. One is a drawing I have of Marion from that Cuban vacation. It’s so perfectly her in a number of ways. She was never a beauty but she was pretty, always perfectly coiffured and polished. “All put together” would be the phrase. She was small and slim but very athletic after years of competitive gymnastics. She had chosen to go to a secretarial school for women instead of college (because she thought it the quicker, more modern avenue) and was well-spoken, well-read, quick-witted, social, and fearless. The other element in my collage is a sketch she made of the bar at Sloppy Joe’s in Havana. I wanted to center young Marion back in the world—part imagination, part real—that she had captured and kept so fondly. It’s my favorite of her many sketches, drawn on black paper, with blue and white pastels and red rickrack borders. It’s wonderfully staged with the effect of smoky nightclub hues, but it’s also very simple, with plenty of room for reading between the lines. Marion’s sketch has a young, handsome man looking up to the space above the bar, a general looking-up, but in the direction of a young, trim, well-dressed woman just down from him. The woman is alone but perfectly relaxed, self-contained; facing squarely, her attractive hourglass back suggests a calm urbanity. I like to think that the man at the bar might have been Hemingway and the woman Marion. Marion would have liked that too.

Collage created by C. R.

It might well have been Hemingway at the bar. He might have stopped first at La Bodeguita for a mojitos or La Floridita for a daiquiri. His nostalgia for old haunts was sharp that year: missing his second ex-wife Pauline a little and their boys, but also missing his new bride Martha Gellhorn, who was covering the war in Europe. And then there was the death earlier that year of Joe Russell, his Key West fishing buddy. Hemingway might have stopped by Sloppy Joe’s with his friend Robert Joyce, a Foreign Service Officer at the American Embassy in Cuba, and Joyce’s wife Jane. The Joyces made a habit that summer of checking in on Hemingway at his home, Finca Vigia, outside of Havana in San Francisco de Paula. And maybe Martha Gellhorn was just back from England, and she was there as well. Perhaps Marion noted the two couples sitting at a particularly well-placed table. She would recognize Hemingway, of course, but she would recognize Martha Gellhorn too. Gellhorn—war correspondent, novelist, travel writer, and Hemingway’s third wife—was also from St. Louis, also of Germanic-Jewish background, like my mother-in-law. In 1941, Martha Gellhorn was all that Marion would have wanted to be herself. Gellhorn once referred to St. Louis as the place that everyone flees from. Marion would have agreed in 1941 when she had fled to Chicago. War and marriage, however, sent her back to the St. Louis of her youth and family ties. Martha Gellhorn may have been able to visit over the years and flee again, but once back, Marion stayed.
        Perhaps, then, in retrospect, in perpetuity, Martha Gellhorn, not Marion Resetarits, is the woman at the bar in Sloppy Joe’s.

Collage: Sloppy Joe's

Martha Gellhorn first caught Hemingway’s eye in the Key West Sloppy Joe’s while on vacation with her mother in 1936. She and Hemingway reconnected a year or so later when both were covering the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway’s marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer was nearing its end and Martha provided just the reason he needed to move on.
        By September 1941, Hemingway had been stuck in Havana without reprieve all summer in order to finish the six-month non-residency status necessary to lower his tax bracket and save him some much needed money. His recent trip to the Far East with Martha had covered the first three months and so he had been staying in Cuba since June 15th to finish the rest. If Hemingway and Martha and others were at Sloppy Joe’s that September, it might well have been to celebrate the end of his forced residency.
        Martha had spent most of that summer in England working as war correspondent. The year before, though, she’d spent quite a bit of time in Havana with Hemingway. In fact, she found Finca Vigia for him in 1940. It was his main home for the next twenty years, although not very long with Martha. By September 1941, however, Martha was back in Havana to help Hemingway prepare for a trip to Sun Valley. The extended Hemingway family would be in Sun Valley, including his three sons. Rocky and Gary Cooper would join them for a while, as well as Robert Taylor and his wife Barbara Stanwyck.
        What would they have talked about? Art, theater, books? Or only about fishing and hunting? If Marion had been there, she would have loved the former, hated the latter, but if there were horses to ride or a decent scotch and soda, I’m sure she would have found reason enough for another collage. Perhaps cut-out photographs and braids of horse mane and flattened rifle casings composed against the blue and green pastel lines of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. In the evening, she and Martha Gellhorn might sit around the lodge fire, sipping whiskey and talking archly about the provincialism of St. Louis, its transplanted Germanic culture, and their parents’ shared progressive views on the education of women.

*

Marion never made it to Idaho, but on September 15, l941, the date she typed on a bit of hotel stationery used in one of her collages, she was in Havana, as were Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway. Marion and her friends had been there a week already. Up early every morning for sight-seeing, they would rent bicycles to explore sites around the city or hire a car for a drive to the seaside village of Cojimar for lunch at La Terraza, or drive farther east to the beautiful beaches of Varadero. In the afternoon, they would head back to Havana for a swim or a shopping excursion or a long walk in the shade of the Paseo del Prado, and then a late-day siesta. They would awake to the gusting of breezes as the sun sets, pre-dinner cocktails on rooftops, supper out, nightclubbing, then starlit walks through Old Havana back to their hotel.
        I can well imagine Marion taking a bike ride to the village of San Francisco de Paula just outside the city, the road winding up into the hills, through orchards, and then a long driveway of sorts, lined with palms and jacarandas, their leathery seedpods rustling in the higher reaches of just-yellowing foliage. She spots the water tower first and then slowly the large, beautifully proportioned, one-story house, Finca Vigia, newly painted a pale pink. Marion is off her bicycle now, slowly walking it up the lane, too taken by glimpses of the pool and the bougainvillea-draped terrace behind the house to notice the small dog barking bravely at her. And that would probably be when Martha Gellhorn appears at the door. She asks if Marion is lost, and Marion apologizes for the disturbance. They introduce themselves. Marion allows that she knows well who Martha is, that she has followed her career, that she remembers seeing her once at a show in St. Louis. Marion emphatically does not ask after the other resident of Finca Vigia, and maybe because of this, and because they both shared flight from the same hometown, Martha asks Marion up for a drink.
        I can see it quite clearly, really. Martha and Marion out by the pool of Finca Vigia. Martha is doing most of the talking. Caricatures of St. Louis “types” making Marion laugh, reminding her of all the odd corners of their old city, dropping here and there glittering tidbits from a life that was already fascinating and would only continue to be more so. Marion knows to listen, to smile and nod encouragingly over her drink, to marvel in coming up against the breathtaking edges of such another’s life. She will not lose any of it in vain attempts to capture the whole but let the pieces come to her, fall where they might, cherishing the dull black as much as the bright pastel lines. They remain together for quite some time, in that way that familiar strangers sometimes will, through the early evening breezes and on into a memorable but too brief night.

Collage: Drawing of Marion

“Collage Work: Hemingway, Marion, Martha, Me” was published in the 2014 edition of The Labletter.The arrangement of images has been changed in this online presentation.

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