The Finca Vígia was Ernest Hemingway’s residence in Cuba for the final 20 years or so of his life.
by Simons Chase
SAN FRANCISCO DE PAULA, CUBA – The Finca Vígia is a sun drenched, breezy estate perched high on a hill overlooking the capital city of Havana in the forbidden distance. The sea, several miles from the Finca, makes her presence know by weathering the place in a relentless invasion of corrosive salt air that pries at every crack. The sun is the dominating aspect of the house, and its light shines like a loud ringing bell that envelops the entire structure.
Over a period of several days in October, I had come to the Finca to find a person whose size and romanticized public character is too often excessively shaped in the media by a storyteller’s own narrative (hint). I was looking forward to the pleasure of identifying with a strong character in American history and removing the veil of mist around a legend.
The weather’s moods have taken a toll on the estate’s various structures. It was hard to believe the treasure of papers and books (9,000 in total) that are scattered in a mildly disorganized fashion around the house since so few of the world’s greatest artists leave behind an entire home. About a quarter of the books are believed to be inscribed with marginalia in Hemingway’s own handwriting. Cluttered is the way Hemingway maintained the house while he lived there, and luckily the museum’s curators have preserved this quality.
What’s apparent from the first view inside the main house is that the Finca chronicles Hemingway’s life in a way that only a private home can. Its contents are not symbolic of Hemingway; instead, he himself arranged and displayed the contents, and they leave clues about his life – his music, passion for art and evidence from his daily writing habits are accessible to visitors who can pay $10 to enter the estate. Even the trees surrounding the house are mostly the same.
The large oil painting on the east wall of the living room was painted by Roberto Domingo, a French artist of Spanish descent whose work was strictly on or about bullfighting. It was used on the cover of an edition of his book, “Death in the Afternoon”. The head of an impala gazelle hangs on a nearby wall, a trophy from Hemingway’s 1934 African safari. Other items include a small burlap bag full of carnivore teeth, and woodcarvings of a lion, a rhino, several zebras, and a wart hog. The stuffed heads of zebra and oryx are Kenya safari trophies.
The Cuban government officially maintains the estate as a museum. Fidel Castro endorsed this policy after Hemingway’s death in 1961, and the Cuba government has worked with U.S. preservation experts over the years despite the political estrangement between Cuba and the U.S.. It is one of the few examples in recent decades of bi-lateral cooperation between the two nations. Needless to say, Fidel is a huge Hemingway fan. Today, a signed picture of Fidel and Hemingway together at a fishing tournament hangs on Fidel’s office wall.
Like his writing, the house and its eclectic contents could only have been owned by Hemingway. Its style and uniqueness reveal a person whose life intersected with art in an unblunted expression of a world absent of timidity and convention. A ceramic bowl fashioned by Pablo Picasso sits next to a lizard preserved in formaldehyde. Hemingway was superstitious, and it is rumored that the lizard displayed some form of heroism in a battle with one of his cats and was therefore worthy of preservation. Most things in the Finca were kept for reasons known only to Hemingway and for reasons connected to a mostly unspoken, mercurial significance.
Lucky charms of various shapes remain scattered around the house. Hemingway’s superstitious tendency caused him to carry these amulets around in his pocket. I had learned that he felt unprotected when his charms were not present on his physical person. Hemingway’s unusual practice of emotional hygiene stems from a lifelong struggle with depression. It seems at odds with the Finca’s masculinity and sunny disposition.
In a 1958 interview with George Plimpton of the Paris Review, Hemingway said of luck, “The luck was that I had a good man and a good boy [characters in The Old Man and the Sea] and lately writers have forgotten there still are such things. Then the ocean is worth writing about just as man is. So I was lucky there.”
I sat on the Finca’s front porch sipping a tropical cocktail prepared by Raul, a slightly built man in his early thirties, who had planted a makeshift bar on the boundary of the estate’s parking lot. The thatched-roof, open-air enterprise employs a large spinning wheel sugar cane juicer that extracts nectar directly from the plant. Luckily, there had been no recent arrivals of tour buses, so I sat quietly in the shade and pondered the impossible circumstance that my view of the estate was almost identical to the way Hemingway had left it in 1960. Nothing in America stays the same for so long, especially when living things are involved.
Raul smiles excessively during order preparation, and he enjoys engaging with customers despite a language barrier that can range from Chinese to Russian on any given day. His team of assistants whirls into action upon his rapid-fire commands for fresh ingredients. He knows his market and he aims to please. Raul is a reward-sensitive extrovert, promptly seizing an opportunity in front of him. Such a cocktail of personality traits would likely have propelled him into jail just a few years ago before Cuba relaxed rules for small, private businesses. Cuba is gaining more actors like Raul.
Hemingway bought Finca Vígia in 1939 for about $18,500. A Spanish architect built it in the late 1800’s. His preferred place to write was in a small bedroom adjoining the living room on the main floor. In the morning, he would stand in his leather moccasins and work in quiet solitude until about noon. At the Finca, he produced Old Man and the Sea and manuscripts that would be published posthumously, including A Moveable Feast and Islands in the Stream.
Hemingway won the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature mostly for The Old Man and the Sea, a story loosely based on a mythical Cuban fisherman who was close to the sea and courageous – and who was based on Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway’s real life fishing companion and confidant. Hemingway gave the Prize to the Cuban people. Today, it is kept at the El Cobre Sanctuary, located just outside Santiago de Cuba, as he wanted.
Hemingway did not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall that year. Instead, he wrote a message to be read by John C. Cabot, the United States Ambassador to Sweden at the time. A recording of Hemingway reading the message exists today as one of the few recordings in his own voice. On being a writer, Hemingway says, “For he does his work alone, and if he is a good enough writer, he must face eternity – or the lack of it – each day….Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”
The recording is only two minutes long, but it offers another clue about the inner workings of Hemingway’s psychological meridians. He says, “It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go. Out to where no one can help him.” He 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.
The Finca is part of the immortality of Hemingway’s character. To wander the grounds, peek inside the open windows and doors of the main house and sit on the various porches draws a visitor into an active relationship with this character. I found myself impatiently trying to recall Hemingway the writer I had studied in high school and college. Could I find an inner truth about Hemingway through his writing by melding it with the outward detail of my surroundings at the Finca? After all, such a task was best accomplished with the lubrication of rum and sunshine. At least, I thought, Hemingway would have approved.
I wandered eastward down a modestly sloping brick walkway towards the pool area and related structures. Looming just beyond the patio and pool house was the resting spot of Hemingway’s fishing boat, the Pilar. In 1934, Hemingway used an advance from Esquire Magazine to buy the Pilar for $7,455 from Brooklyn’s Wheeler Yacht Company. Today, she sits on the hard and is watched over by a security guard who spends most of his time slumped back in his chair, eyes closed. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was reward sensitive like Raul and open to suggestions about a private peek inside the galley and stateroom of the Pilar.
Having been recently restored, I was seeing her in perfect condition, at least from my exterior inspection. When Hemingway was alive, the Pilar was moored in the nearby port town of Cojimar. Her near perfect condition today is a testament to Gregorio’s discipline for maintaining the Pilar. Only passion for fishing and friendship could protect a wooden boat like the Pilar from the sea’s relentless assault.
My time ran out that day without much of a warning. I was due back in Havana, and I preferred not to travel in rural Cuba in the dark even when I trusted my driver’s abilities. As we pulled out of the main entrance of the Finca and into the bucolic village of San Francisco de Paula, I knew my time at the Finca was not over. I decided then to return the next day after refreshing myself with Hemingway’s writing via a creaky Internet connection. I was sure with enough homework I could channel a new, ambient sense of Hemingway that was not open to a young student in rural Maryland, which is where we were first introduced, but now, possibly, available to me as a visitor at his shrine.
The next day, I planned to travel to Veradero from Havana, a journey that passes by the Finca. Frank, my driver from the previous day, is a neatly dressed man in his fifties who speaks German, French and English – in addition to his native Spanish. I asked Frank to make a stop at the Finca on our way to Veradero and also how long the extra stop would take. He said an additional hour depending on the length of the stop. I did not realize the meaning behind the scene that was to follow until much later.
Frank’s well-kept, late-model Audi purred down the highway maintaining what appeared to be a strict adherence to an excessively slow speed. A fork in the road emerged in the distance. I had remembered from the previous day that we had taken the fork to the right to get to the Finca, while the fork to the left was marked as the road to Veradero. Frank veered left to Veradero.
My unease with our direction mingled with an anxiety that I had misdiagnosed his character. I pulled myself forward by grabbing the front passenger seat and, leaning into his peripheral view, asked Frank whether this is the way to the Finca. He simply said no. I settled back into my seat and wondered about the source of the confusion. That day I had noticed he seemed less eager to smile beyond the minimum necessary to establish a relationship with a tip at the end of the day. Later we stopped at a scenic overlook so I could enjoy another fresh tropical-style cocktail at a bar he suggested. Frank remained polite and reserved, and I wondered suspiciously whether Frank’s friend behind the bar was in partnership with the redirection that had occurred earlier.
We got underway again with nary a word from Frank about my previous instructions to stop at the Finca. The Audi wound through the coastal roads and small villages at a speed that was both unusually slow yet assertive enough to indicate our destination was approaching. I think Frank was not sure which master to serve – truth is many-sided – and I was expected to accept the road ahead as gospel.
On the return from Veradero the next day, my new driver, a younger Cuban who too frequently shared stories in a Spanglish, hip-motion manner about his passion for the opposite sex, followed my request for another stop at the Finca. I liked the new driver’s speed and assertiveness. When we arrived at the entrance gate, I saw a huddle of kids holding baseball gloves in the lawn of the Finca. The property’s southern corner where the entrance is located slopes down and opens into an unshaded triangle ideal for baseball playing.
Several tour buses occupied the parking lot like whales. Tourists were scattered all over the estate, and one group clutched together as a Japanese language tour guide squeezed out the English words, “Old Man and the Sea” distorted by the gravity of a heavy, exotic accent. I wondered if the logographic system for his written language could convey Hemingway’s simple text and use of verbs as forces of nature.
Raul immediately recognized me and without hesitation got the wheel spinning. I knew my visit was going to be short. Now that we were friends, I didn’t want to share Hemingway’s house with anyone else. Next to the main house sits the guesthouse that now serves as the office of the museum’s curators. When Hemingway was alive, Eva Gardner and Errol Flynn were among the many sparkly visitors to stay in the guesthouse – and skinny-dip in the Finca’s pool.
The door to the guesthouse was slightly open so I knocked and poked my head in to get the attention of the woman sitting behind a desk just inside the door. Piles of files were strewn around the room, and the wainscot ceiling bowed downward under the weight of files and neglect. The clutter lacked the symmetry of Hemingway’s artistic curiosity. The curator greeted me with kind, Cuban eyes and broken English. Since it was obvious I was not with a tour, she must have known I had a special reason to journey all the way out to the Finca. We talked a bit and she asked if I’d like to meet Hemingway’s chef who lives in the village.
We found Fico 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 sits on a small hill that opens up to a view of the surrounding trees and structures that bear the imperfections of being handmade from parts that are available and not manufactured for that purpose. 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 Hemingway’s activities during Cuba’s pre-revolutionary period. Fico shared images he kept from the time he played and then worked for the Hemingways at the Finca.
From Fico’s porch, I could see the afternoon sunlight toasting the treetops with a buttery glow. It was time to return to Havana. My interaction with Fico had edited my experience with Hemingway’s character and restored to view that he was a living person who probably experienced Cuba much like I was on my trip.
Back in my hotel room I researched why Hemingway didn’t live in Havana for more than the few years of his early days in Cuba. He spent much time there in now familiar bars and restaurants – even after his move to the Finca – yet I could not imagine how he resisted living among Old Havana’s beauty and charm. Apparently, his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, urged Hemingway to purchase the country estate in an attempt to keep him away from the temptations of the city. And so I realized Havana was a forbidden, fleshy amulet unavailable for his nightly safaris.
At night, Old Havana is indistinguishable from the Old Havana that Hemingway must have been seduced by more than 50 years ago. By day, the city’s lack of aesthetic pollution from the invasive scars of advertising give the urban environment a serenity even during the bustling day. Marx’s scars are like mushrooms thriving from decay, without sunlight, in a strange noir reality. Yet at night, the loneliness of darkness reinforces the humanity that can be found in the streets. The crumbling majesty of the city’s architecture contrasts with the West’s dogma that the most recent is the most important. And so for a lucky moment I felt like a writer far out from anywhere I had ever been before. I found a dog, a moon, a staircase, men at cards in an unadorned, simpler form – closer to the truth. I’m not sure if I touched anything Hemingway the person felt – I indeed felt superstitious. And the truth is that Hemingway hemorrhaged prestige on this trip. But my experience of finding Hemingway in Havana changed me like no artifacts in a museum in the country ever could.