William Kennedy, a Miami Book Fair standout
The caller to the Miami Herald newsroom had a blockbuster tip: Ernest Hemingway was holed up in a North Miami saloon. "You should go talk to him," the man told a young reporter.
William Kennedy, then 29 years old, slammed down the phone and sprinted toward a crusty city editor, John McMullan. "A big story?" Kennedy asked.
"Not likely," replied the newsroom nabob. The author of The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea was yesterday's news. "I'm tired of reading about him."
That was 1957. Four years later, Hemingway made a bloody mess of his legacy with two shotgun shells in Idaho.
"One of the great regrets of my life is that I didn't go up there," says Kennedy, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature and become one of the most eminent American novelists of the late 20th Century. "The fact that I didn't has haunted me all of my life."
That memory helped spark Kennedy, now 83 years old, to write his ninth novel, Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. He'll describe it at Miami Book Fair International this Sunday. Also here this week are dozens of other important American writers, from John Barth to John Sayles, Chuck Palahniuk to Calvin Trillin, and Harry Belafonte, Jim Lehrer, and Michael Moore.
Though Kennedy isn't the biggest name, his story is among the most intertwined with South Florida. (For more author interviews, click here.) Not only does his tale wend through the Cuban revolution, which shaped Miami, but also it invokes Santería, our Afro-Cuban soul, and the Fontainebleau Hotel of the stylish '50s. Fidel Castro, once a William Kennedy fan, and Bing Crosby make cameos. Hemingway plays a pivotal role too, decking one tourist "with a right and then a looping left" before mixing it up in a duel.
Kennedy is a hero of mine. He grew up in Albany — a Northern capital much like my native Saint Paul — and then traveled the Caribbean, working at newspapers in Puerto Rico before and after a nine-month stint at the Miami Herald. His godson is veteran Herald reporter Andrés Viglucci. Kennedy's novel Ironweed won the Pulitzer in 1984 and later became a film starring Jack Nicholson. He's even part of the new Johnny Depp film, The Rum Diary — as managing editor of the San Juan Star, he met Hunter Thompson, author of the book on which the film is based. In an interview before his death, Thompson said of Kennedy: "He refused to hire me, called me swine, fool, beatnik... We go way back."
When we spoke recently, Kennedy recalled the nine months he spent at the Herald as one of the most interesting times in his long life. Al Neuharth, who would later found USA Today, was executive editor back then. McMullan, who would later become newsroom chief, ran metro coverage. "Those were heady times," he says, "and the Herald was a fast-moving place."
Kennedy was hired to report on Cuba, a challenge because of the brewing revolution. The novel's first key moment is based on reality — the storming of the presidential palace on March 13, 1957, when many rebels were killed. As a reporter, Kennedy was the first to describe that failed attack.
In those years, the rebels used Miami as a place to regroup and raise money, Kennedy recalls. They'd call him at odd hours to meet and write stories about their cause. During one of those encounters, he interviewed Faure Chomón, who barely survived the palace onslaught and went on to play a prominent role both in the fight against Batista and in Castro's government. "I didn't even know who he was at first," Kennedy recalls. "But he told me about the attack. He was one of the few who escaped and could move. He was badly wounded. That is one of the reasons I wrote the book. I had such an inside track on what was happening in those years."
At its midpoint, the novel exits Cuba and returns to Albany, where the civil rights movement, Bobby Kennedy (no relation), an old man's senility, and Oshun, a Santería deity, take over. That's a world Kennedy lived through too — and one that is well documented in his other novels, such as Legs and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, which he began writing shortly after leaving Miami.
There was another Hispanic chapter in Kennedy's life, one that began in Barcelona when he interviewed the writer Gabriel García Márquez, a close friend of Castro's. Kennedy would later meet both men in Havana, where he would also get to know Miamian and onetime Fidel consort Norberto Fuentes.
Indeed, Fuentes credits Kennedy more than anyone else with engineering his release from Cuban captivity in 1994. The jolly, excitable writer who penned The Autobiography of Fidel Castro a few years ago was once among the island's most celebrated literary men. He recalls meeting Kennedy in 1985: "He didn't know the difference between tu and usted in Spanish."
In 1985, Fuentes and Kennedy forged a fast friendship, and the Cuban writer says he introduced Kennedy to Castro a few years later. Of Kennedy's masterpiece, Ironweed, Fuentes recalls, the dictator said, "That book has personality." When Fuentes was jailed after falling out with Castro in 1993, he declared a hunger strike and García Márquez and Kennedy mounted a campaign to free him. "It was Bill who got me released, not Gabo," Fuentes says. "Bill is my savior."
Kennedy's most recent book required ten years to pen, mostly because of the heavy research involved, the writer says. "It took so long because I had to steep myself in all things Cuban," Kennedy says. "This has a way of taking over your imagination and telling you that you have to write... The Caribbean was a very magical place for me."
Kennedy speaks at 10 a.m. Sunday, November 20, at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., Chapman Conference Center, Building 3, Second Floor, Room 3210.