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

Ernest Hemingway's former estate near Havana features mounted animal heads, trophies from hunts in Africa and the American West.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“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. A visitor today might expect “Papa” to return any moment to the one-story house for a drink, literary gossip, musings on baseball or a fish story — or perhaps a run down to the pool (alas, now empty), where Ava Gardner is said to have skinny-dipped.

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, including the loo. Penciled notations on the bathroom wall next to a scale mark where he daily noted his weight.

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.

He “never discarded anything but magazine wrappers and three-year-old newspapers,” wrote his fourth and final wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway. He “had managed to stuff to its brim almost every little drawer of the Finca.”

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, which was made into a classic film starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Cooper, a Hemingway confidant, was among the long roster of celebrities to make the trek to the finca in the coming years.

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

“The house seemed to have grown gradually out of its hilltop,” she recalled in her memoir, “How It Was,” remembering her initial visit, in 1945. “Its roof and a projecting terrace were laden with flowers and the air smelled of plants growing. I thought of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott and country vicars’ manses and fell instantly in love.”

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. The preserved papers include a fragment from an alternate (but ultimately rejected) epilogue to “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” in which comrades-in-arms bemoan the death of Robert Jordan, the American volunteer and Hemingway alter-ego.

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 recounts in her memoir, Castro personally came to the finca and vowed to help. He toured the residence and even ascended to the top of the four-story tower that she had commissioned as a writing enclave, though it had also become a lair for dozens of cats.

“I imagine Señor Hemingway enjoyed this view,” Castro remarked.

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, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. Phillips and others sought allies in both the U.S. and Cuba.

“The Cubans were a total pleasure to work with,” Phillips recalled. “The Americans were always suspicious.”

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 fact, there’s no clear no evidence that Hemingway was a Castro enthusiast, or critic, says Sandra Spanier, an English professor at Penn State University who is the editor of the Hemingway Letters Project. “He felt that it was important, as a guest living in another country, that he be apolitical,” Spanier said in an interview.

Hemingway did, however, later write to a friend from Idaho stating his belief in the “historical necessity” of the Cuban Revolution.

Fidel Castro, left, holds a trophy that he won in a fishing tournament sponsored by Ernest Hemingway in Cuba in 1960.
(Associated Press )

Castro was an unabashed Hemingway fan, especially of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” with its unapologetic sympathy for the doomed Republican loyalists resisting the fascist onslaught. The only publicly known encounter between the two was in May 1960, when Castro scored first prize, a silver trophy cup, at Hemingway’s annual marlin fishing contest.

Pilar, Hemingway’s beloved fishing boat, thoroughly refurbished and spiffy, is permanently dry-docked on the finca tennis court, cutting an elegant but forlorn figure, its swashbuckling days of deep-sea trolling and hunting Nazi subs long gone.

The aging Castro showed up at Finca Vigia for the 2002 kickoff ceremony for the restoration project and signed the papers launching the binational collaboration.

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.

“It is an honor that this great man, this artist, chose to make his home here among us,” said Liliam Pedroza, 42, who is among the local residents serving as guides at Hemingway’s former home. “He was American, yes, it is true. But he was also Cuban in his heart.”

Twitter: @PmcdonnellLAT