Of all the places Hemingway lived, none had such a hold on the author as his home outside Havana—now being restored through an unlikely alliance. Here, a guided tour of the Cuban haunts that shaped a literary legend from Finn-Olaf Jones for The Wall Street Journal. Here are some excerpts. For the complete reports follow the link below.
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Hemingway’s most enduring fictional characters were foreigners in their adopted countries: Robert Jordan from Montana, waiting with Spanish partisans to blow up a bridge outside Madrid in For Whom the Bell Tolls; Frederic Henry, the wounded American deserter from the Italian army in A Farewell to Arms, rowing his pregnant English girlfriend into Switzerland; even Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea was a native Spaniard, a loner amidst a close-knit community of fishermen in Cuba’s north coast.
And so it was with Hemingway himself. A native of Oak Park, Illinois, who couldn’t wait to escape its “wide lawns and narrow minds,” Hemingway spent most of his subsequent life in nomadic exile conjuring forceful, alienated characters transcending borders through love, war and sport. He found all three in inspiring abundance in Cuba. Here he could fish in the Gulf Stream, his “great blue river,” make love to unnumbered women and write seven books “one true sentence” at a time, living apart from his compatriots as he became one of the most lionized literary names in the world. The Finca offered splendid isolation where he could be left alone to do as he pleased.
When he was exhausted or hurt from his rough adventures around the world, this is where he came to recover in its tranquility. When he got news that he’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, he stood on the rattan rug of this living room and announced to the small gathering clutching celebratory cocktails: “This is one prize that belongs to Cuba, because my work was conceived and created in Cuba. Throughout all the translations, this, my adopted country, is present.”
“A lot of writers—like his friend James Joyce —lived outside the country where they were born, and it helped their writing,” notes Patrick Hemingway, 85, the last surviving of Hemingway’s three sons. “He was at home in Cuba, and we all moved in gratefully.”
In 1939, at the age of 40, fleeing his Key West home and marriage to his second wife, Pauline, for the decade-younger war journalist Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway moved to Cuba. The Finca was selected by Gellhorn over Hemingway’s initial objection, ostensibly to find somewhere more spacious for the both of them and to lure him from the city’s temptations. Before that, he’d lived in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he’d written much of For Whom the Bell Tolls. The hotel still dominates the top end of Obispo Street, a great walking thoroughfare through the old part of Havana, where, even today, everyone seems to sway to the same mambo beat pulsating from almost every open window and doorway. But the Finca, although just a 30-minute ride away, was a world apart from Havana’s raucousness. “In the 1940s, it was still in the countryside,” says Patrick. “Back then we’d walk out the gate and shoot guinea fowl.”
The open windows and doorways afford cross views through the Finca—the interior is off-limits to visitors—and as I stand here, it appears the writer has just stepped away on a fishing trip. His mail is spread out on his bed. His third-filled liquor bottles crowd the side table nudging his favorite armchair in the living room. His clothes are still neatly arranged on hangers in the closet above rows of boots and shoes. Next door, a square four-story tower rises from the lawn—the only building ever constructed by Hemingway—where he occasionally worked while Havana woke up in the distance. But otherwise he typed standing up at the Royal on top of his office bookcase in the main house. Even his original number 3 pencils are still sharpened.
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The Finca’s current pristine condition is a testament to Hemingway’s continual hold even now among the most divergent of readers. The author who in life provoked three divorces, international controversies and a few memorable punch-outs, has, in death, created an unlikely alliance between two belligerent nations. Since 2005, a team of U.S. engineers, conservationists and architects under the auspices of the Boston-based Finca Vigía Foundation has been working with Ms. Rosale’s team to restore the 19th-century building, replacing the sagging roof, installing a new drainage system and rebuilding interior walls. They’ve also sorted, preserved and cataloged some 3,000 original documents moldering in the tropical humidity. They are in the midst of digitizing the archives so they can be seen for the first time outside of Cuba.
“This is a labor of love for us,” says Mary-Jo Adams, the foundation’s director. “Most of the consultants have been doing this pro bono, and we can’t import construction materials. But we have the longest-running cross-cultural program in Cuba. U.S. politicians from both sides of the political aisle—such as Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern —have supported us. Hemingway unites a lot of people.”
He is also beloved by the handful of living Cubans who knew “Papa” as children, some of whom still live nearby. “When he had just moved here he stopped his convertible to buy plants from my father,” recalls Alberto “Fico” Ramos, when I caught up with him at his hilltop hut above Hemingway’s home. “I was 7 or 8, the same age as Gigi [Hemingway’s youngest son], and he asked if I knew any other neighborhood kids who could play baseball with him.” Later, Ramos worked as an assistant cook at the Finca.
“I and everyone I knew, young and old, called him Papa,” says Oscar Blas Fernández, another member of Gigi’s baseball team. “I’m 82, and I’d probably still call him that were he to walk in here now,” he adds, watching hummingbirds peck the hibiscus dotting the Finca’s terrace.
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