In October, the Cuba Journal traveled to Cuba to explore Ernest Hemingway’s history there. On this trip we concentrated our efforts on Ernest’s residence in Cuba, the Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm).
On a bright day in early October we found Fico, Ernest’s chef in Cuba, relaxing on his front porch with his wife. Like the rest of Cuba, Fico’s bucolic village where the Finca is located is much like it was in the 1950s. Lush tropical foliage invades everything not cultivated for agriculture or otherwise not constantly suppressed by hammer and saw.
We were warmly greeted by Fico’s wife and invited into their modest concrete and cinder block home. It is situated on a small hill that opens up to a view of the surrounding trees and structures. Inside, our first priority was to view pictures of Fico’s children who are living in the United States. Fico’s octogenarian eye sparkled as he described his children’s successful transplantation from Cuba to Hialeah, Florida.
After several minutes of talking, it was apparent we would not all fit on the sofa in the living room. Fico’s wife led us through the frameless front doorway to the front porch and graciously arranged the faded plastic chairs in a semi-circle. There were not enough seats for her except to sit on the wall that separated the yard from the porch. She was content. Few homes in Cuba possess a spacious front porch like the one at Fico’s house.
Fico settled in with polite familiarity to share his knowledge of life around the Finca and Ernest’s activities during Cuba’s pre-revolutionary period.
The Finca Vigía
The Cuban government has maintained the Finca and its contents exactly as Ernest left it in 1960 after 20 years of residence – his final 20 years. Even the half-full bottle of Bacardi sits on a table next to Ernest’s favorite living room chair.
Ernest left the troubled island nation in failing health in 1960, not long before his death, in Idaho on July 2, 1961, from suicide by a shotgun blast to the head.
Ernest won the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature based mainly on his book, The Old Man and the Sea, written entirely at the Finca. I am certain he reviewed drafts of this short novel while sitting in his favorite chair sipping on rum.
In her book, Running with the Bulls: My Years with Years with the Hemingways, Valerie Hemingway describes her travels and interaction with Ernest while working as his personal secretary and confidante in the 1950s – and also her time with the Hemingway’s in Cuba.
Together with a troupe of writers, bullfighters and movie stars, the two (usually with Ernest’s wife, Mary) traveled through Spain and France in search of libation and distraction. By summer’s end, Ernest would exhaust his patience with constant partying and retreat to the Finca for the winter.
On her first trip to Cuba, Valerie describes the Finca as, “No swagger, no pretense – this was a house well lived in, a writer’s house. René, the butler, just a few years older than myself, gathered my bags and showed me to the little casita above the double garage at the bottom of the steps.”
According to Valerie, US Ambassador Phil Bonsall was a regular at the Finca every Thursday night, and it was during these weekly visits over dinner, prepared by chef Fico, that Ernest first learned of Cuba’s deteriorating situation following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.
Residents at the Finca consumed a variety of foods many of which were imported from Europe and the United States. Breakfast at the Finca Vigía was served at 9am every morning.
Valerie says, “René or Marta, Mary’s maid, brought my breakfast of fruit juice, black Bustelo espresso with a jug of steaming hot milk, and thick toasted bread with butter and guava jam.”
Gary Cooper and Eva Gardner were also guests at the Finca and stayed in the same room as Valerie.
Pictured below is Fico playing with Popito in front of the Finca’s main entrance. Popito was the brother of René Villareal, the man who eventually became Ernest’s butler at the Finca. When Popito died in a tragic accident, Ernest took interest because Popito was a regular visitor at the Finca and an occasional playmate of Ernest’s sons who visited during the summer.
According to an account published in René’s memoir, Hemingway’s Cuban Son, Ernest paid condolences by personally visiting Popito’s nearby family home. There, he asked the parents if René could work at the Finca as butler or steward. Such an offer was considered a much valued opportunity for the residents of the remote village of San Francisco de Paula where the Finca is located.
Ernest frequently took interest in the Cubans who made up so much of his life in Cuba. It was common for Ernest to support and empathize with local Cubans experiencing difficulty.
Fico took over as chef under the direction of Mrs. Mary Hemingway after Ramon, the previous chef, died.
Fico shared these weathered images with the Cuba Journal.
After Ernest’s death and by request from Fidel Castro, René Villarreal returned to the Finca to oversee the restoration of the property.
At Ernest’s funeral, Valerie met Ernest’s son, Gregory. Valerie eventually married Gregory and acquired the Hemingway name.