Decay closes in on Papa's refuge
Hot sun, salt air, hurricanes take toll on Finca Vigía Plans afoot to save Hemingway house and '50s artefacts
The Toronto Star
June 6, 2004
Finca Vigía—The venerable typewriter is gone from the small, sunlit study where Ernest Hemingway composed his masterpiece, The Old Man And The Sea.
In fact, the entire room is empty now and it isn't difficult to see why.
Just look up.
Waterlogged and discoloured, the plaster ceiling appears as if it might cave in at any moment — and so it might.
Mercedes Rancel, an amiable Cuban woman in an orange knit dress, frowns at the thought and shakes her head with its crop of straight, fair hair.
"They're going to have to replace the entire roof," she says.
So they are, and they are going to have to do a lot else besides — and soon — if the residence in Cuba that Ernest Hemingway once called home is going to survive long into the third century of its existence.
In the meantime, as a precaution, workers have removed all the furniture and other contents from the author's writing room — the sanctum sanctorum of an airy, hilltop house at the centre of a small but lush estate called Finca Vigía, a half-hour's drive east of Havana.
Surrounded by royal palms, frangipani blossoms and mango trees, the house at Finca Vigía was Hemingway's home from 1939 until he reluctantly left the island in failing health in 1960, not long before his death, in Idaho on July 2, 1961, from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head.
More than four decades have swirled past since Hemingway's final Cuban adios, but the writer's house seems becalmed upon an island of its own, appearing much as it did when he last strode through its bright, lofty rooms — right down to such Hemingwayesque details as the huge Cuban frog preserved in formaldehyde upon a bookshelf, the mounted trophies of African antelope in the dining room, the Roberto Domingo paintings of bullfighters, the ceramic bowl fashioned by Pablo Picasso and the copies of The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Reader's Digest from 1959 and 1960.
There are just two crucial differences between then and now.
Hemingway is dead.
And his long-time Cuban home is sinking into serious and general decline — along with its priceless contents, which include some 9,000 books, thousands of long-playing records, more than 3,000 photographs and 2,000 documents, including hundreds of letters and at least a few manuscripts, whose contents are largely unknown.
Most of the papers are stored in the house's basement.
"I don't think there are any hidden books there," says Scott Schwar, a director of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, based in Oak Park, Ill., where the writer was born in 1899.
"Most of Hemingway's papers have been accounted for, but these have been hidden from the American and European public."
A host of American scholars is already tackling the delicate and arduous task of identifying the books and documents, conserving them physically and archiving them digitally — not necessarily in that order.
This project, which may cost upward of $500,000 (U.S.), has been permitted to go ahead by Washington, in spite of the embargo it has imposed on Cuban trade and investment for more than 40 years.
Nonetheless, Americans are still barred from involving themselves in efforts aimed at restoring the house that contains these documents, a house where Hemingway lived for almost the entire last two decades of his life — a house that is starting to fall apart.
"It's hard even to visit there, let alone raise money to help (the Cubans) out," says Schwar. "The embargo is definitely having an impact."
Since 1964, the house at Finca Vigía has operated as a sort of living monument to Hemingway, his works and his love affair with this throbbing Caribbean island, where he lived and wrote and fished and also enjoyed a drink or two over the course of more than 20 years.
Here, Hemingway lived with the last two of his four wives and entertained guests who included Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, Ava Gardner and Spencer Tracy, as well as a certain Italian writing student who became his mistress, while his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, gritted her teeth and looked the other way — off toward the Havana skyline, perhaps, where it shimmers in the distance against the deep blue backdrop of the Strait of Florida.
But now, the house at Finca Vigía is deteriorating almost by the day.
"In the past four years," says Schwar, "it seems to have gone downhill quite fast."
The glaring Caribbean sunlight, the dust and the corrosive salt air have all done their worst, but even those harmful effects pale beside what has always been the greatest natural threat to Cuban real estate — water and lots of it.
The annual rainy season would likely be bad enough on its own, but Cubans — and the roofs they dwell beneath — also have to cope with the regular visitation of furious tropical storms identified by human-sounding names.
"Here, the biggest danger is hurricanes," says Rancel, recently appointed to serve as director of the Museo Ernest Hemingway, which is housed at Finca Vigía.
"His working room is the worst affected."
That is so, but in fact the entire building is deteriorating, along with its contents, and is in need of urgent help.
According to Jorge Moscoso Chirino, director of Havana's provincial centre of cultural patrimony, authorities here have earmarked funds to cover most of the cost of repairing or preserving the main building, along with a guest house and, not least, Hemingway's famous fishing boat, the Pilar, which is now mounted on blocks and housed under a translucent awning surrounded by creaking green stalks of bamboo, down by the now-empty swimming pool, right where Hemingway's tennis court used to be.
"It's a pretty large budget," says Moscoso. "It could be around a quarter-million dollars."
The money is to come "fundamentally" from the government of Cuba, according to Moscoso, but no firm date has been set for the work to go ahead.
"Our concern has always been that the Cubans haven't had the dollars to devote to the project," says Schwar.
"I know that they're trying to make it happen. The intent is there on both sides."
Unfortunately, Cuba is a poor country with limited financial resources and many pressing needs for what money it does have, while the U.S. government has yet to permit American citizens to contribute financially to the restoration of Finca Vigía, despite the fact that the project directly involves the legacy of a great American writer.
"We've got people raising money for when the time comes," says Schwar.
Normally, visitors to Finca Vigía — who hail mostly from the United States, but also from Europe, Latin America, and as far away as Japan — are barred from entering the main building or the guest house but may merely peer inside from a series of windows or open doors.
In the case of a reporter from the Toronto Star, where Hemingway worked as a journalist for five years during the 1920s, Rancel says she will make an exception.
She and a guide named Veronica Sosa lead the visitor on a rare tour through the interior of the house.
Almost everywhere you look, there are teeming bookshelves, and the titles of many of the volumes seem to evoke the man himself, along with his fascination with traditional "manly" pursuits, such as hunting, fishing and war, and his frenetic but not always happy romantic life.
A sampling of the titles: Modern Gunsmith, The Fisherman's Bedside Book, Hunting Big Game, America And Total War, Traveler's Guide to The Belgian Congo, Sexual Behavior In The Human Male, Sex And Life — and three (that's right, three) copies of The History Of Human Marriage.
Many of the books are in worrisome shape, their spines worn away by the ravages of the weather and their covers held in place by strips of white tape.
"Those are his books," marvels one foreign visitor, as he peers into the living room from outside a pair of french doors.
"It's fun, isn't it, to look into someone's life?" remarks his female companion, speaking with a sharp Australian twang.
According to Sosa, Hemingway first visited Cuba in 1928 and began returning to the country regularly from 1930 onward.
During those initial visits, he installed himself at the Hotel Ambos Mundos (or "Both Worlds") in Old Havana, a hostelry that has recently been renovated and refurbished.
The corner room where Hemingway used to stay, overlooking a pedestrian mall below, has been preserved as a monument to the man and still contains some of his effects.
But Havana then and now abounds with temptations of many kinds, some of them redolent with the scent of perfume, and Hemingway was a man.
"His third wife insisted they live out here, far from the women and the bars," says Sosa, gesturing around at the flowering trellises and casuarina trees, the orchids and bougainvillea.
For the record, Hemingway's third wife was Martha Gelhorn.
Built by a Spanish military officer in 1887, Finca Vigía had been passed down through a succession of owners and in 1939 belonged to a French family resident in Cuba.
It was from that family that Hemingway and Gelhorn undertook to rent the place.
Smitten with their new home, they purchased the estate outright the following year for 18,500 Cuban pesos — which, at today's exchange rate, might cover the cost of an inexpensive fridge.
Whenever he could, Hemingway headed off to the small port town of Cojimar, where he moored the Pilar and headed out to sea in search of sailfish and tuna.
The Pilar's captain, Gregorio Fuentes, became the model for the stoic protagonist of The Old Man And The Sea.
Fuentes died just two years ago, at age 104.
His fishing done for the day, Hemingway would return to the estate, with its gardens and broad front terrace, its record collection and African artefacts.
It was here that Papa Hemingway grew old.
"Cuba ... had that sense of home," says Schwar. "It was really home to him. His son said that, when he had to leave, it really broke his heart."
Gazing around at the house itself, the adjoining village of San Francisco de Paula and the distant prospect of the sea, a visitor can readily understand why Hemingway loved this place so much — and why it's so important to so many people that Finca Vigía be preserved, along with its treasure of papers and books, no matter the cost or political obstacles to be overcome, almost all of them posed by the government in Washington.
"This is the place where the most living memories of Hemingway exist," says Rancel.
"We have his clothing, his drinking glasses, his shoes. The whole world is interested in this."