The bell tolls for Hemingway home

The Boston Globe
November 9, 2004

By Thomas D. Herman

ONE DAY in February 1926 an unknown American expatriate writer walked out of a New York snowstorm and into history. An important piece of that history is now in danger of being lost forever, caught in the controversy over the US trade embargo against Cuba.

The unknown writer was Ernest Hemingway, and the New York office he walked into was that of Scribners Sons' Maxwell Perkins, the most famous American literary editor of his day.

It is difficult to conceive -- 80 years and an incandescent literary career later -- but when Hemingway met Max Perkins that day, hoping that Scribner's might be interested in taking him on, the idea of publishing the 26-year-old Hemingway was a big risk. Hemingway had not yet published a novel. Indeed, his only published fiction consisted of a few short stories and poems, mostly in obscure Paris literary journals.

Yet Mr. Perkins, as Hemingway was to call him for years afterwards, even after they had become close friends, took the risk. On the spot, he offered Hemingway a two-book deal with Scribner's that included a generous $1,500 advance on an unfinished, unnamed novel that Perkins had not even seen. Hemingway eventually decided to call it "The Sun Also Rises."

Hemingway and Perkins began a correspondence that lasted for 21 years, until Perkins's death in 1947. A number of those letters are now housed in Cuba, at Finca Vigía, where Hemingway lived longer than anywhere else. It was at Finca Vigía that he wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Old Man and The Sea."

Thanks to the generosity of the Rockefeller Foundation and the leadership of Massachusetts congressman James McGovern and others, many letters and original manuscripts and thousands of photographs, all in precarious condition due to age and tropical climate, are now being conserved in Cuba. Copies will be sent to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

But the house, a rambling Spanish colonial villa given to the Cuban people by Hemingway's widow, is in danger of collapse. Now a museum, it will store the documents, along with Hemingway's 9,000-volume library (which includes many first editions of Hemingway's books and those of other famous writers), his fishing tackle, his boat Pilar, and other personal belongings. Finca Vigía has been called a preservation emergency by experts: It is in such bad shape that the next hurricane could blow it away.

A group of Americans, including Hemingway's grandson Sean, Perkins's granddaughter Jenny Phillips, Lauren Bacall (whose acting debut was in a film based on a Hemingway novel), and James Gandolfini (who is playing Hemingway in a new film), is trying to save the house and its contents. Yet the US government won't let them.

The Treasury Department recently turned down the Hemingway Preservation Foundation's application for a license to permit its architects, engineers, and consultants to travel to Cuba to research a feasibility study to help the Cubans save Finca Vigía. This denial, which is contrary to the letter and spirit of the law, is being appealed.

In the eyes of the Treasury and State departments, saving Ernest Hemingway's home is against the foreign policy of the United States because it might encourage tourism to Castro's Cuba. This is ironic, not the least because Finca Vigía is the home of an American literary giant who wrote harshly critical eyewitness accounts of the dictatorships that enslaved much of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s and whose writings championed democracy. Finca Vigía is a Cuban-American landmark where democratic values are celebrated. The home's literary significance and value to scholars is enormous.

Under this kind of policy, if our relations with, for example, France deteriorate further, Americans may find that preserving the cemetery and monuments at Omaha and Utah Beaches may someday be prohibited? And what if the monument to Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders at San Juan Hill in Cuba is endangered?

Max Perkins and Scribner's took the risk of publishing Hemingway in 1926. One might hope that the Treasury Department will reconsider and allow Ernest Hemingway's legacy in Cuba to be saved.

Thomas D. Herman, an international lawyer, is counsel to the Hemingway Preservation Foundation.




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