An Unmoveable Feast of Hemingway History Struggles to Survive
The New York Times
October 14, 2004
SAN FRANCISCO DE PAULA, Cuba - Ernest Hemingway's work made him a citizen
of the world. But he made this tiny community of artisans on the
outskirts of Havana his only real home. Now caretakers are fighting to
keep his country villa, set high on a hill looking out to the sea, just
the way he left it four decades ago.
It is, as expected, a decidedly masculine place, cluttered with
books about war and hunting - the library contains about 9,000 volumes
- and decorated with African animal trophies and bullfight posters. The
bar is stocked with rum and Cinzano bottles. There's a Glenn Miller
album on the record player. The table is set for guests.
But in what architects describe as a preservation emergency, the
house, known as Finca VigiLa or Lookout Farm, is tumbling down. An
effort to save the finca, an American cultural treasure and an
important Cuban tourist attraction, seems threatened by a storm of
Nature has been hostile to the house over the years, experts say,
with rain and creeping vegetation penetrating the walls and the
foundation. The roof leaks, the walls are turning green with mold, the
floors are buckling and termites are devouring the wooden frame. The
bedroom where Hemingway wrote some of his greatest works, including
"The Old Man and the Sea," is so close to collapsing that its furniture
has been moved into storage.
"We have cared for this house with great affection for many years,
because we Cubans consider Hemingway one of ours," said Gladys
Rodriguez, president of the Hemingway International Institute of
Journalism in Havana and one of the principal caretakers of the
author's legacy in Cuba.
"We will keep doing all that we can," she said. "But we cannot deny
that we need help. This museum legally belongs to Cuba, but morally it
pertains to the United States."
A group of American preservationists, architects and Hemingway
biographers offered to come to the rescue earlier this year. The
Hemingway Preservation Foundation applied for a license that would
exempt it from the United States' 40-year-old economic embargo against
Cuba and allow it to provide money and expertise to help restore the
finca. The foundation, led by Frank and Jenny Phillips, estimates that
the project would cost $2 million to $3 million.
The Bush administration denied the foundation's request in June,
saying its project would support tourism and thus help the economy of
the hemisphere's last Communist outpost. The request came at a time of
increasing tension between the two countries. In March 2003 the Bush
administration announced new restrictions on travel and cash transfers
to Cuba, saying that the measures were aimed at weakening Fidel
Castro's 45-year grip on the island and at opening the way for
Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the Office of Foreign Assets
Control at the Treasury Department, which administers the embargo
against Cuba, said, "We do not want to facilitate something that puts
dollars into Castro's hands."
Ms. Millerwise said she could not discuss the details of individual
licensing decisions. But broadly, she said, Assets Control has licensed
numerous projects that provide humanitarian assistance, including food
and medicine, and that support religious outreach, and academic and
In fact, two years ago, it approved a license request by the
Hemingway Preservation Foundation to save a trove of papers and
photographs stored in Hemingway's basement at the finca. Hemingway
biographers say the papers - including early drafts of major works, a
copy of the screenplay for "The Old Man and the Sea" with notes
scribbled in the margins, letters from people including Ingrid Bergman
and the editor Maxwell Perkins, and recipes - promise to shed light on
a part of the author's life that Cuba has kept locked away like a state
Under the agreement between the United States and Cuba, the
documents are being repaired and preserved, and copies will be sent to
the Hemingway collection in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. But
sending American money to help save Hemingway's house, Ms. Millerwise
said, is a different matter. She said the embargo expressly prohibits
the United States from supporting "travel-related or tourism-related
projects that generate money for the Cuban economy." Saving precious
documents is legal, she says. Saving a tourist attraction is not.
Thomas D. Herman, a specialist in international law who represents
the Hemingway Preservation Foundation, said the government's denial
reflects a "narrow interpretation of the law." The finca is much more
than a tourist attraction, he said. It is an invaluable part of
America's heritage. The foundation plans to appeal the Treasury
Department's decision later this month, though it may not receive a
ruling before next month's presidential elections, Mr. Herman said. But
the finca cannot wait. "The next hurricane could do irreparable
damage," he said. "Time is of the essence to save Finca Viga."
Leland D. Cott, the chief architect on the project, agreed. "I am
not going to make any judgments about whether Castro is good or bad,"
said Mr. Cott, of Bruner-Cott & Associates in Boston. "My concern
is that there is an important artifact rotting in the jungle, and it
needs to be saved."
"The Cuban government is not going to last forever, and we need to
look at the long-term," he added. "We could look back on this 20 years
from now and realize we lost a important part of our heritage because
of some political fight."
Finca Viga, a breezy country house set on 15 sloping acres of
mango, avocado and ceiba trees, is widely considered the place where
Hemingway put down the deepest roots. The biographer A. E. Hotchner
said Hemingway had no spiritual connection to the house in Ketchum,
Idaho, where he spent the last two years of his life struggling against
depression. And the house where he lived in Key West, Fla., contains
only a few of his belongings and little of his history.
Cubans have kept Hemingway's memory alive. Four decades after he
left Cuba, there are still people who can remember him sitting in their
kitchens for coffee, dancing at their weddings. They have made small
shrines of his favorite room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel, his favorite
bar stool at La Floridita and his favorite table at La Terraza. And the
Cuban government gave Hemingway's first mate, Gregorio Fuentes, a free
meal at La Terraza every day until he died in 2002, at 104.
Hemingway bought Finca Viga, built by a Spanish architect in the
late 1800's, in 1939 for about $18,500. In the cool early mornings,
writing while standing in his leather moccasins, he produced "For Whom
the Bell Tolls" and manuscripts that would be published posthumously,
including "A Moveable Feast" and "Islands in the Stream."
Keepsakes scattered through the big, airy rooms tell stories that
seem larger than life. The war correspondent uniforms in the closet
recall Hemingway's coverage of World War II. There's a sculpture by
Picasso and an engraved bowl from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
There are copies of photographs of triumphant deep-sea fishing
expeditions and of drunken pool parties with Ava Gardner and Errol
Flynn. There is a photograph from the day he won the Nobel Prize.
There are also rare glimpses of the private obsessions of a literary
celebrity. Hemingway's bathroom seems like some jungle laboratory, with
a jar of lion lard for soothing sunburned skin next to a lizard that he
preserved in a jar of formaldehyde because of its brave, although
suicidal, fight against one of the author's more than 50 cats. And on
the walls, there are his daily notes recording his weight and blood
pressure. The last scribble, Ms. Rodriguez says, is from March 6, 1960.
Hemingway left Cuba around then, and after stops in New York and
Madrid, he bought the house in Ketchum. Relatives have said he was
shattered by the American-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961,
because it meant that he could not go back to the home he loved. He
committed suicide almost three months later.
His Cuban house stands as a kind of undisturbed tomb. Most visitors
are allowed only to peek through the doors and windows. Ms. Rodriguez
allowed a rare walk inside. "We want visitors to feel like the owner of
the house could walk in at any moment and offer them a drink," she
said. "It is not only his writing that makes Hemingway immortal. So
does this house."