Ernest Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea, first filmed in 1958 staring Spencer Tracey, was filmed again in 1969 staring Anthony Quinn as Santonio. The second time around, most of the film was shot here in Tortola—in Smugglers Cove—right below where we are staying.
I remember visiting here in the mid 90’s and meeting Nell Deniston. She and her husband, Bob, owned the beach property where the film was shot. At the time, part of the set was still standing. It was one large open shell on a cement slab and had a makeshift “honor bar” on the side. There was a fridge in back room where you simply helped yourself and left money in a cigar box on the counter. A huge stuffed shark (prop) still hung in one corner and a couple of dilapidated tables and chairs were strewn about.
Now picture this: in the centre of this space was a long, white
Lincoln Continental convertible—the one in which Queen Elizabeth II toured Tortola in 1967 when visiting here to dedicate the newly constructed bridge connecting Tortola with Beef Island and the airport. The car happened to be Bob and Nell’s, which they had painted especially for the Queen’s visit. There’s a great back story about the visit and a photo of the car.
But what I remember most is meeting Nell. I always thought of her as a shipwreck in human form; keeper of the lagoon and lost dreams. I guessed her to be 80 but a local who dropped by for a swim and a beer said she had yet to flirt with 60. Her eyes were rheumy, the left one in a permanent droop; her salt and peppered hair was matted, strewn and straggly. Yet she had a quiet, regal presence. I felt she was knowing and kind.
When there was a squall, the bar filled with beach people looking for shelter; chatter sometimes turned back to the days of making the movie. I imagined studs and starlets, salty love and hurricane-dashed hopes.
Today, the shell remains but it’s a sorry sight. The white convertible is to the side in the bushes, a heap of rusted metal overcome by litter and tropical plants. Most people don’t know the remnants of the old set even exist as you can no longer see it from the beach. But I can’t help but think of Nell every time I visit Smugglers. When I last saw her years ago, someone happened to mention Anthony Quinn and a tear slipped slowly from her right eye. Nell died in 2000. I wish I had spent more time with her.
Have you ever met someone in passing and, later, wished you’d taken the opportunity to get to know them better?
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