Cuba’s emergence from isolation is stirring up excitement about its colorful past as well as its shiny future. One relatively obscured aspect of Cuba’s renewed engagement with the rest of the world is the role the island nation played in shaping the life and writing of one of America’s most important authors, Ernest Hemingway.
Central to this story is Hemingway’s Cuban home, Finca Vigía. The house was built in 1886 by Catalan architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer and is about fifteen miles east of Havana. It was while at Finca Vigía that Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. He would later buy the property out of some of the first royalties from the book, published in 1940.
Hemingway lived in Cuba from 1939 until 1960. While a resident, he also wrote the Nobel Prize-winning book, The Old Man and the Sea. The story, inspired by an old Cuban myth, is of a battle between an old, experienced fisherman, Santiago, and a large marlin. Hemingway was an avid fisherman and seaward adventurer having voluntarily deployed his boat, Pilar, in hunting expeditions against German submarines during World War II. In 1954, Hemingway donated his Nobel Prize gold medal to the Cuban image of Our Lady of Charity. The Swedish medal was stolen in 1986, but was returned later after threats by Raul Castro.
According to the Cuban government, after Hemingway’s death, Mary Hemingway deeded the home to the Cuban people, which made it into a museum devoted to the author. Mary has a slightly different story about Finca Vigía, however. She states that after Hemingway’s suicide, the Cuban government contacted her in Idaho and announced that it intended to expropriate the house, along with all real property in Cuba. She negotiated with the Castro government for certain easily movable personal property. Yet most of the property, with no way to move it out of the country at the time, had to be abandoned.
Today, the house enjoys a good state of preservation due to cooperation of the Cuban government and the famous TV home restoration personality, Bob Vila. According to Vila, “We’re the only U.S. cultural group active in Cuba [with] a formal accord with the Cuban Culture Ministry and their institute for the protection of Cultural Heritage.” Vila’s own Cuban heritage deepened his passion for helping restore Hemingway’s home. When asked about the house’s importance to Cuba, Vila states, “Finca Vigia is unique and remains the biggest cultural attraction for international visitors to Cuba.”
On July 18, 1980, Patrick Hemingway, the writer’s son by his second wife Pauline, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis dedicated the Hemingway Room in the newly opened John F. Kennedy Presidential Library on Columbia Point. Many of the primary documents related to Hemingway’s years in Cuba now reside in the library’s Ernest Hemingway Collection.
In 1950, 36 of the best sports yachts of the yacht clubs of Havana sailed through the canal del Castillo del Morro, located at the entrance of Havana Bay, in search of the Gulf Stream. One was Hemingway’s Pilar. He participated in the first tournament representing the International Nautical Club of Havana Tournament. A group of fishermen suggested that the tournament carry his name. Hemingway not only accepted, but donated the cup of the first three tournaments. Today, the Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament remains active in its 65th Year.