The Contradictions of Hemingway’s House in Cuba

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A report by Roxana Robinson for the New Yorker.

When Ernest Hemingway owned Finca Vigía, his house in Cuba, its location was quiet and remote, out in the small hamlet of San Francisco de Paula. Now it’s owned by the Cuban government. It’s situated in a shabby suburb and is one of the most popular tourist sites in the country. I’m here to see it with a group of writers, all of whom have strong opinions about Hemingway. We don’t all like him; I myself am awed by the early stories and novels, but not by the later ones. But this group is self-selected—everyone here admires something about the man and his work.

Writers are curious about where other writers write. We want to see the actual room, the desk, the furniture, the view—the whale-shaped mountain outside Melville’s window, the moors beyond the Brontës’ house, the narrow single bed in Virginia’s room. It’s not exactly clear why we make these earnest pilgrimages. Do we think there’s something charged and magical in the place, that some mysterious transfer will occur, from the writer to ourselves? Maybe we simply want to own this experience. Maybe we need to see the place, as a mountain climber needs to see the summit.

The driveway, lined by thick shrubs, winds uphill, past an administrative building and a two-story guesthouse, before arriving at the house itself, on the crest of a mild rise. The house is flat-roofed, single-story, pale-cream stucco. Stone steps lead up to the neo-classical portico, but we’re not to use them. We are waved on to another stairway, leading to the terrace that surrounds the house.

With its clean lines, low silhouette, and big windows, the house looks modern, but it was built in 1886, by the Catalan architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer. He sold it to a Frenchman, who sold it to Hemingway around 1940. Hemingway bought it because his wife at the time, Pauline, didn’t want to stay in a hotel room in Havana. They split up soon afterward. In 1940, Hemingway married Martha Gellhorn. That marriage was brief, too, and in 1945 he married his last wife, Mary Welsh. She became the doyenne of the house, which was their winter residence for the next fifteen years. Hemingway wrote most of two novels here, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” In 1959, Fidel Castro took over Cuba, and in 1961 Hemingway shot himself.

According to the Cuban government, the Hemingway family graciously donated the house and its contents to Cuba. According to Mary Welsh Hemingway, after Hemingway’s death, the Cuban government informed the family that it had confiscated the property, all of it, and that it now belonged to the nation. Mary called her friend Jackie Kennedy, who helped arrange an emergency mission to retrieve Hemingway’s manuscripts, which are now in the Kennedy Library, in Boston. But all the personal effects—clothes, photographs, the small objects of intimate life—are still in the house. When the Hemingways left, they didn’t know that they’d never return.

We step close to look in the windows. This is all we’re allowed; we can’t go in. Some people are inside, though. Grace, an intrepid journalist, says, “They’re letting people in! Let’s go in!” She rattles the door handle, then knocks on the window. A woman inside gives her a forbidding look and shakes her head. This may be a writers’ shrine, but we’re in a Communist country. They don’t take kindly to smiling American journalists.

We fan out, padding along the terrace, iPhones and notebooks at the ready. We pause at every window to stare. We can see almost everything: the house is only two rooms deep, and all the walls have tall, mullioned windows. What’s surprising is the elegance. The house is simple and spare, but it’s not rustic. It’s actually beautiful, comfortable, orderly. The rooms are open, airy and have high ceilings. The tile floors are soft buff, the walls cream or faded pastels. Much of the furniture is made of dark, polished wood, commissioned by Mary Welsh.

It’s mostly hot-country colonial: planters’ chairs with cane seats and slanting backs. But there are exceptions. In the big sala, or living room, is a set of upholstered furniture, a sofa and two chairs. They’re covered in flowered chintz, and speak of something very different from the life of daring expat. The upholstery makes a nod to another world: upper class and Anglophilic, made up of all the people at the top, from all countries, who all know one another, like those plants that ring the planet above the Arctic circle, appearing on every continent. The down-filled chintz chairs are evidence that, though Hemingway may have thought himself as living one kind of life—that of the hunter, the writer—he was also living another, that of the cocktail party. The brochure boasts of the famous guests who have stayed here: Charlie Chaplin, Juan Ordóñez, Ava Gardner.

The bedrooms are simple and spare, sparsely furnished with wooden chairs and low beds. In Hemingway’s closet are shelves of well-worn leather boots, a brown paramilitary jacket. On his bathroom wall are scribbles. Talia, a novelist, peers at these, wondering if these are notes for a story. But they’re numbers: he was worried about his waistline and recorded his weight daily. In every room are wooden bookcases, packed with books. I try to make out titles: “Big Game Fish in the Gulf Stream.” Novels I’ve never heard of. What have I gained? Some tantalizing sense of proximity to Hemingway’s mind. Also, in every room, there are animal heads. Mostly antelope, those graceful, impossibly fleet sprinters of the savannah, but in Hemingway’s office hangs a huge black water buffalo, with enormous swooping horns and a bold, malevolent gaze.

Hunting trophies were seen then as evidence of bravery and skill—proof of a deep love for the natural world and of its splendors. They were evidence of the way the hunter could enter the natural world and seize its essence. Mary went hunting with her husband. The Danish author Isak Dinesen wrote, “If I should wish anything back of my life, it would be to go on safari once again with Bror Blixen.” Hunters were heroes then. They risked their lives and sometimes lost. At that time, it was thought that humans and animals met as equals, in a fair fight on level ground.

Now we see that ground as sadly slanted. Now these animals, hung on the walls as art, seem severed not only from their bodies but from their places, their lives, their own meanings. They no longer seem like proof of valor but like signs of crimes against nature. We now know that nature is far outmatched by man. Public opinion changes, of course; someday, we may see the things we carry, like plastic water bottles, as evidence of a similar crime.

We’re drawn to the library, where Hemingway wrote. This is a long, pleasant, high-ceilinged room, lined with tall bookcases. In front of the windows is The Desk, huge and magisterial, about ten feet long and three feet wide, and curved like a boomerang. It’s made of dark polished wood, with carved supports at each end. Hemingway sat in the center, the ends curving forward. Sometimes he wrote standing up at his typewriter (an Underwood), but in photographs he’s sitting, too. He wears shorts and a loose shirt. Not a T-shirt but an ironed short-sleeved shirt.

Hemingway used the same words we all use, but he used them to make sentences that were utterly new, ones we had never imagined. You could say he created our modern literary style. The short, shocking, brutally ironic pieces in his early collection “In Our Time” changed the way we see and write about war. He wrote those during the early twenties, soon after the First World War, when he lived in Paris. He was married to his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and poor. He rented a room over a sawmill to write in. It was cold and noisy.

John Updike wrote, “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.” By the time Hemingway moved into Finca Vigía, he was trapped by his own reputation. He felt an obligation to produce more of whatever it was the public had so admired. To me, his later writing seems a series of determined attempts to find his earlier unconscious self.

Danger and trauma, violence, harm, and death: Hemingway more or less discovered these for us, writing about them with electrifying clarity. He mined them over and over. At times, they’d been a part of his life, but success changed things. By the time he came to the Finca Vigía, he could choose to seek out danger, but his own life no longer contained it. This lovely, comfortable house, with its pool and tennis court, its guesthouse and well-trained staff, was built for entertaining, not for peril. Not for a monastic commitment to the task. It was not a place in which to find yourself alone on the page. It was a place in which to find famous people at cocktails. It was a place in which to find yourself worried about your weight, your drinking. And about your writing.

By the time he left this house, Hemingway could no longer find himself alone on the page. That was late in his life, and time was running out.

We peer in at these elegant rooms. They seem like evidence of success: Don’t we all know that living well is the best revenge? Yet we all know what happened in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961. Every day, you write. You don’t know how the work will go. You don’t know if you’ll succeed. You may never know. We all understand this. We all know that there is a certain kind of danger you can’t evade, no matter what kind of house you live in.

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