THE Finca Vígia ARCHIVES: A JOINT CUBAN-AMERICAN PROJECT TO PRESERVE HEMINGWAY'S PAPERS
THE HEMINGWAY REVIEW, VOL. 22, NO. 1,
JENNY PHILLIPS, Boston, Massachusetts
The wooden cellar door slid open with a creak and a groan. We picked our way
down the steep steps and bent to avoid hitting our heads on the low ceiling.
After a year of delicate negotiations, we were inside the basement of Ernest
Hemingway’s Cuban villa, Finca Vígia.
This dank, low room, dug out of the underside of the guest house,
contains thousands of Hemingway’s last remaining unexamined papers, letters,
personal photographs, and manuscript documents. The Cubans are immensely
proud of their efforts to preserve Hemingway’s legacy, which has always
served as a potentially strong cultural bond between the American and Cuban
peoples. But the U.S. embargo of Cuba, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the
years of Cold War relations had kept the materials--and his 9,000 book
library--out of the reach of American scholars.
Relations between the Cuban curators of the documents and the North American academics and scholars who had over the years sought these materials had become strained.
Now, a trust has been forged. A unique joint Cuban/American cultural
project has been launched. As part of that, we were about to see what was in
the boxes and files in the basement, a treasure trove that has been out of
sight and inaccessible for decades. The moment was replete with suspense.
This was also the culmination of a personal odyssey that stretched back
over sixty years. My grandfather, Maxwell Perkins, was Ernest Hemingway’s
editor and one of his closest friends. The initial quest began with my hope
that some of my grandfather’s letters to Hemingway would be contained in the
basement. Much of their correspondence had already appeared in various
publications, but I wanted to see if there would be some as yet undiscovered
letters. What I found was even better--a discarded manuscript document that
connected, in a small but significant way, my mother, then a young woman, to
the shaping of one of America’s great novels.
Gladys Rodriguez Ferrero, the curator at Finca Vígia for seventeen years
and the intrepid guardian of Hemingway’s papers and books, led us through the
narrow passage amid the stuffed heads of African game and rifles wrapped in
parcel paper and masking tape. In one corner, an air conditioner and a
de-humidifier raggedly chugged and rattled in a losing battle to protect the
contents of the basement from the relentless effects of tropical heat and
humidity. Raul Chagoyan, assistant curator, wearing white gloves to protect
the documents, unlocked a file drawer and slid out some documents wrapped in
paper and stored in file folders.
We stood in awe as we were shown a pastiche of manuscript fragments and
letters which could provide clues to missing pieces of Hemingway’s personal
life and to the process and stages of his writing that led to the finished
In one folder, there were five typed pages of the final version of
chapter one of Death in the Afternoon. There was a letter from Ingrid Bergman
dated 1941. We saw what appeared to be a note written by Hemingway to himself
with a raw fragment of an idea for a story tucked away to be drawn on in the
future. There were galleys of Across the River and Into the Trees showing
Hemingway’s final, last chance changes on his manuscripts before publication.
There was a scathing note to Mary, his fourth and last wife, dated 1 June
1953, asking her to admit that she "has been scolding very much lately and
very violently." In a note to himself, he fretted about whether "to accept
Mary as a scold and give up an illusion or whether I should ride along and
learn not to give a damn."
Another folder contained a long letter for Mary to refer to when
instructing the cook on how to prepare meals for and how to approach Senor
Hemingway. The letter outlined in detail his favorite foods, their correct
preparation, and preferred order of presentation. It also urged that the cook
be informed that Hemingway not be disturbed while he was writing. Of special
significance to scholars were letters of passion and longing written to Mary
before they were married, while Hemingway was on the front in Germany for
Collier's during the second World War, as well as twenty-six letters, written
in Italian, from Contessa Adriana Ivancich, his last great love who became
the model for Renata in Across the River and Into the Trees.
Suddenly, I saw something that connected all this back to my grandfather.
We watched as Raul slipped out of a folder a pile of twelve pages labeled
"inserts" to For Whom the Bell Tolls. Like many writers, Hemingway wrote in
stages, moving from the raw, unpolished earlier versions to the polished and
smooth final version. Access to earlier manuscript fragments offers a window
into the pathways and methods of the writer’s creative process. What we were
now looking at in these twelve pages appeared to be earlier stages in the
writing of this great novel. But we did not yet know whether these inserts
were simply paragraphs that appear in the finished book or were as yet
undiscovered steps in writing toward the final draft.
Lying behind the twelve inserts was a single page titled Epilogue. The
words in brackets were crossed out by Hemingway as he wrote and re-wrote the
possible ending to For Whom the Bell Tolls. "It was night [on the road] when
Golz rode [back] in a staff car [down from the pass] on the road down from
the pass to El Escorial." Could this be the missing epilogue-- or at least
the beginning of one--that he discarded many years ago?
Almost sixty-two years earlier, Hemingway had been frantic about whether
to add an epilogue. In the galleys he had sent back to Scribner's in August
1940, he ended the novel with its hero, Robert Jordan, facing death, feeling
"his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest" (FWTBT 471).
But Hemingway feared that this would leave the book feeling unfinished and
Jordan's fate unresolved. "What do you think? Is it o.k. as it is?" he wrote
in an anguished letter to Perkins. "Please write me air-mail on this the day
you get this. Ask everybody if they think it ends all right as it is. Should
I put on the epilogue? Is it needed? Or would it just be grand manner writing
and take you away from the emotion that the book ends on?" (Bruccoli 291).
My grandfather, as he did with all his authors, provided the soothing,
reassuring answers. He had a gentle, self-effacing manner of leading and
guiding without getting in the way or taking over. In a wonderfully crafted
letter, he calmed Hemingway down, indirectly helping him conclude, seemingly
by himself, that the epilogue was not needed. And he artfully used my mother,
Peggy, to accomplish that goal. "The night of the day you telephoned, my
daughter, Peg, had just finished the book and I asked her what she thought of
the ending," he told Hemingway in a letter dated 30 August. "She thought it
was perfect. Then I told her about the possibilities of bringing Andres back
and of his feeling of what he found. Then she could see there was a
possibility. But at first she said she didn't see how it could go on
further." With a few more nudges, Perkins concluded, "I therefore thought
that if we must decide, we ought to decide to have no epilogue" (Bruccoli
That was that. With a delicate non-decision, the decision had been made
to have the novel end just as it was. There would be no epilogue. Hemingway
felt reassured and was able to let go of the manuscript as it moved into
final production. My mother does not remember this conversation with her
father about the epilogue. He apparently never told her the role she played
in shaping the ending of what many consider Hemingway's masterpiece.
The Finca Vígia is a sun-filled villa perched high on a hill overlooking
Havana in the distance and several miles from the sea. The windows are thrown
open during the day, and tourists can gaze and lean in, looking at Hemingway’s sprawling rooms, preserved exactly as if he had just stepped out for a moment. Sometimes the staff will regale special visitors with Hemingway’s collections of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. The music, wafting from his Victrola through the tropical air, adds to the already strong feeling of Hemingway’s presence in this home he bought in 1940. Hemingway spent his mornings here writing, standing on a kudu skin with his Royal typewriter propped on a Who’s Who in America.
The presence and importance of books is felt throughout his house. There are over 9,000 books in what seems no particular order. They are lovingly stacked and stuck everywhere, and clearly were much read. The walls of the bedrooms, library, and living room are lined with the tools of his trade. The books themselves are a piece of literary history as Hemingway had a habit of underlining favorite passages, railing against passages that he thought were weak or untrue, making notes in the margins, and using pages of manuscripts as book marks. He constantly referred to his books for inspiration and source material for his own writings.
On our initial trip to the Finca Vígia in January 2001, my husband,
Frank, and I were given a very special tour of the interior of the house. As
we wandered through the house and studied its belongings, we never even saw
the basement door. In our rambling tour of Hemingway’s clothing, liquor
bottles, books and hunting artifacts, we were not yet aware that there even
was a cellar.
During this visit, we were told that indeed there were letters from my
grandfather still at the house, but our several requests to see them were met
with polite dismissal. We were instructed to write the Ministry of Culture
for permission. This was the first sign that we had stumbled onto something
bigger and more complex than we had been looking for.
One week later, we were looking out over windy, wintry Boston harbor
through the imposing floor-to-ceiling picture windows of the John F. Kennedy
Library. We met with Stephen Plotkin, past curator of the Hemingway
Collection at the Library. The room housing Hemingway’s books and papers is
comfortably and grandly decorated with his possessions, such as the painting
by Waldo Peirce done when Hemingway was twenty-nine years old. The walls are
lined with shelves of carefully documented and preserved letters and
manuscripts, all stored on computer discs.
This room presents a stark contrast to Finca Vígia. Hemingway’s Cuban
home is totally unaltered, even to the last detail. It is open to the weather
and sunlight. And perhaps most importantly, it still holds a haunted presence
of Hemingway the man, an atmosphere that cannot be captured 2,000 miles
north. The cultural contrasts between these two repositories of Hemingway
memorabilia left a deep impression, and a commitment to return to Finca Vígia.
But the Kennedy Library does possess the most extensive materials for
scholars. Most of Hemingway’s manuscripts and correspondence were moved from
the Finca Vígia and became part of the Kennedy Library collection when
Hemingway’s widow, Mary, brought over two hundred pounds of his papers out of
Cuba in 1961. President Kennedy himself cleared the way for Mary to travel to
Cuba during that most tense of times in the Cuban/American relationship. With
just a few weeks to collect what she wanted to take, Mary hurriedly cleared
out a Havana bank vault and the house, taking favorite papers and paintings.
Fidel Castro paid her a visit, lending his official approval to her last
visit. In the throes of grief and with a sense of urgency, Mary built a
bonfire which burned for three days, destroying old newspapers, magazines and
journals. No one knows exactly what she threw into the fire.
With Jacqueline Kennedy’s help, the collection of documents, manuscripts,
and many other personal belongings became a part of the Kennedy Library
collection when the library opened in 1980. But what remained behind in Cuba
was always a mystery, frozen in the politics of the Cold War.
From bits and pieces gleaned from visits by various academics to the
Finca Vígia and from some Cuban writings, it was apparent that significant
papers and other materials were still at the house. Plotkin outlined the
impasse. We talked to scholars and leaders in the various groups that work to
preserve Hemingway’s legacy. They had given up their hopes of seeing these
papers. At this point, it became evident to us that the only approach was
through political channels.
A breakthrough occurred when we contacted Congressman Jim McGovern, a
Massachusetts Democrat and a leading advocate in Washington for the
normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. Understanding
the importance of the issue and seeing the chance for opening up a cross
cultural dialogue, Jim took up the cause.
The Cuban Ministry of Culture responded warmly. Last January, Jim
McGovern met in Havana with Abel Prieto, the Minister of Culture, and Marta
Arjona Perez, the President of Cuba's National Council of Cultural Heritage.
They embraced our proposal to create a joint project to archive and preserve
the documents and books at the Finca Vígia.
Our way was now prepared to visit the Finca Vígia and its cellar in March
to assess and make recommendations for the preservation project. We formed a
team including two conservators, Susan Wrynn and Mildred O’Connell from the
New England Document Conservation Center, and two scholars. Sandra Spanier,
from the English Department at Penn State University, is a leading Hemingway
scholar who was recently selected by the Hemingway Foundation to become
general editor of all of Hemingway’s existing correspondence in a proposed
multi-volume publication. Scott Berg, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in
1999 for his biography, Lindbergh, had published a book in 1978 about my
grandfather-- Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.
What we found on this journey to Ernest Hemingway’s basement is as much
the story of Cuba and its dedication to Hemingway’s writings as it is an
appeal for a cataloguing and preserving of Hemingway’s papers.
Hemingway spent the last twenty years of his life in Cuba. Although these
were his most prolific years as a writer, the rupture of ties between the
U.S. and Cuba has created a breakdown in the understanding of Hemingway’s
life and work in Cuba. According to Spanier, "This long and productive period
of Hemingway’s life is the least known and understood. The papers he left
behind at the Finca Vígia contain the keys to this understanding."
The Hemingway collection at Finca Vígia includes approximately 3,000
documents, 3,000 photographs, and 9,000 books, about 20% of which contain
marginalia. More than 20,000 items have been inventoried, including firearms,
clothing, paintings, and African wildlife trophies. This fascinating
collection of bits and pieces of Hemingway’s life is in great need of
resources for its preservation.
During this visit, we only saw the tip of the iceberg. But it was enough
to conclude that there is a significant and rare collection of Hemingway
papers in Cuba. "This collection has both depth and breadth as it cuts across
the decades of the author’s life and career during which he reached the
summits of success and fame and also stumbled into his most serious slumps
and depressions," Berg wrote after examining the material. "All in all, this
is a mother lode of material from which scholars, biographers and just plain
old Hemingway fans will be able to mine countless theses, books, and
revelations of, inarguably, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth
The Cuban curators, under the leadership of Glady Rodriquez Ferrero, have
shown a resourcefulness and dogged determination to protect the legacy of
Ernest Hemingway. With scant materials, they have managed to preserve
Hemingway’s villa as he left it. Tropical storms and termites, extreme heat,
humidity, and sunlight, have all made this preservation dramatically
difficult. Today, with leadership from Congressman McGovern and from Marta
Arjona of Cuba's National Council of Cultural Heritage, a joint preservation
project is just being launched that should see Americans and Cubans working
side-by-side to bring state-of-the-art preservation technology to the Finca
Vigia archives and to make Hemingway's Cuban papers more accessible to
Americans who will be working with the Cuban Ministry of Culture and the
curatorial staff of the Finca Vígia include Dr. Stanley N. Katz, professor at
the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, who has agreed to
administer the project through the Social Science Research Council. As
chairman of the Council's Working Group on Cuba, he has done extensive
archival work in Cuba. This past summer, the Rockefeller Foundation approved
an initial grant for commencing the project at the Finca Vígia. Deborah Leff,
Director of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, has offered the library's
extensive experience with its own Hemingway Collection as a resource.
What began as a casual inquiry is now opening a door to a last
significant unexamined area of Hemingway scholarship. Perhaps just as
important, this unfolding joint project can serve as a model of success for
furthering collaboration and strengthening relationships between Cuba and the
United States that are, as Katz wrote in the application to the Rockefeller
Foundation, "significant on both a professional and symbolic level."
Photographs illustrating this article were contributed by Sandra Spanier and
Berg, Scott. Letter to the author. March 2002.
Bruccoli, Matthew. Ed. The Only Thing That Counts: The Ernest
Hemingway-Maxwell Perkins Correspondence. Columbia: U of South Carolina P,
Spanier, Sandra. Letter to the author. March 2002.
THE HEMINGWAY REVIEW, VOL. 22, NO. 1, FALL 2002. Copyright 8 The Ernest Hemingway Foundation. Published by the University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho.