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Preservation effort makes Hemingway’s Cuba home look like he never left

By Patrick J. Mcdonnell Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO DE PAULA, Cuba – “Did you see the war correspondent’s uniform?” a dazzled visitor asks a companion, as both peer at a musty closet housing vintage garb, much of it martial in nature.

“And the white shoes!” he adds, alluding to the jaunty footwear invoking Gatsby revelry amid the khaki attire and lace-up boots.

Such scenes unfold daily at one of Cuba’s most popular tourist destinations – Finca Vigia (Lookout Estate), the 12-acre villa that was the longtime residence of Ernest Hemingway. It’s the place that the restless ex-pat author called home longer than any other, for the better part of two decades.

Twelve miles east of downtown Havana, Finca Vigia now houses the government-run Hemingway Museum, drawing “Papa” aficionados from across the globe.

There’s no politics here. The conservation project – including the grounds and, crucially, thousands of Hemingway papers – stands out as a singular example of cooperation between longtime adversaries, the United States and Cuba.

The museum is also the centerpiece of Cuba’s lucrative Hemingway industry. In an odd paradox, the image of Hemingway, widely admired here, continues to play an outsized role on the communist-run island long at odds with Washington.

A little more than a decade ago, the finca was in disarray – the roof sagging, mold and decay advancing, thousands of documents languishing in basement storage – but the place has been painstakingly restored to 1950s period glory.

His spectacles sit on a bedside table, while Cinzano, Bacardi and other bottles line a tray next to his favorite chair. Animal heads, trophies of hunts in Africa and the American West, stare down from walls also adorned with bullfight posters and a ceramic plate bearing a glazed bovine likeness, courtesy of the writer’s onetime Paris pal Pablo Picasso.

The novelist’s Royal typewriter rests atop a bedroom bookcase, seemingly primed for the imminent touch of an author who famously found inspiration while standing up. Then there are the books: some 9,000 – almost one-fifth with Hemingway’s personal scribblings – line shelves found in most every room.

Not visible, however, is the preservation effort’s core: now-safeguarded manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and other memorabilia. By all accounts, Hemingway – trailblazer of the spare prose style – was a pack rat.

Hemingway initially moved here in 1939 with Martha Gellhorn, an acclaimed war correspondent who would become his third wife. Gellhorn tired of Hemingway’s footloose, bar-hopping lifestyle based in Old Havana hotels. She apparently responded to a classified ad for rental of the then-ramshackle estate in the outskirts of San Francisco de Paula, a tranquil Havana suburb.

Hemingway later bought the place with proceeds from the Hollywood sale of the rights to “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” his signature Spanish Civil War novel.

Hemingway spent much of the 1940s and 1950s at the estate with Mary Welsh Hemingway, a former Time magazine correspondent and his fourth, and final, wife.

Hemingway would be done with his 500 words or so a day by late morning, when many guests were just getting up, and already planning a fishing expedition or a jaunt into town, or other activity.

“For many of the years that I visited Havana, I never thought of my father as a working writer,” observed his youngest son, Gregory, in his memoir, “Papa.” “By the time I made it up to the big house around ten (a.m.), there was papa, a scotch and soda in his hand, bidding me a cheerful good morning.”

Yet write the man did, prodigiously.

At the finca, scholars say, Hemingway put final touches on “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and penned his comeback, Pulitzer-winning and Nobel-clinching Cuban fisherman’s saga, “The Old Man and the Sea,” among other works.

Ernest and Mary Hemingway decamped from Cuba in July 1960, in the aftermath of the Fidel Castro-led revolution, but fully intended to return. After his suicide in Idaho in 1961, a distraught but determined Mary went back to retrieve the couple’s possessions, securing special permission from the Kennedy administration following Washington’s cutoff of ties with Havana.

As Mary Hemingway recounts in her memoir, Castro personally came to the finca and vowed to help.

Mary Hemingway left Cuba for good with as much documentation, artwork and ephemera that she could stuff into a Florida-bound shrimp boat.

The finca, which became the property of the Cuban government, soon fell into disrepair. Preservationists pushed for a binational rescue operation. But they faced resistance on two fronts: U.S. hostility toward Havana, and Cuban worries about appropriation of a part of the island’s cultural heritage.

“The Cubans’ fear was that the Americans were going to take things away from them,” recalled Jenny Phillips, a cultural anthropologist who helped spearhead the preservation project in 2001-02.

She brought impeccable pedigree: Phillips is the granddaughter of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who worked closely with Hemingway and contemporaries.

Today, Phillips is co-president of the Finca Vigia Foundation, a Boston-based nonprofit that has used about $2 million in donations for preservation efforts. The group has won U.S. permission to bring in experts and materials from the United States, despite the ongoing trade embargo, and also helped train Cuban conservators.

More than 10,000 documents have been preserved, along with 4,500 photographs and five Hemingway scrapbooks.

The now-protected originals remain in Cuba, while digital copies are collected at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, available to the public and to researchers.

For the Cuban government, the Hemingway enterprise is both a cash cow and, in a subtle way, a kind of affirmation of the revolution – which played out practically at his doorstep. The celebrated chronicler of war maintained his distance, but an unofficial campaign has sought to transform him retroactively into a Castro aficionado.

In truth, apart from the sometimes crass commercialization – a gift shop at the finca hawks mugs, T-shirts and even snow-globes – many Cubans seem genuinely proud of the author’s undisputed affection for the island. He sometimes called himself a “plain” Cuban. His gold Nobel medallion remains in the safekeeping of a Cuban Catholic shrine, a gift from the writer to the people of Cuba.

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