Hemingway’s Cuba, Cuba’s Hemingway

His last personal secretary returns to Havana and discovers that the novelist’s mythic presence looms larger than ever

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A norther was raging over havana, bending and twisting the royal palm fronds against a threatening gray sky. My taxi splashed through the puddles along the Malecón, the majestic coastal road that circles half the city, as fierce waves cascaded over the sea wall and sprayed the footpath and street. Nine miles outside the city I arrived at what I had come to see: Finca Vigía, or Lookout Farm, where Ernest Hemingway had made his home from 1939 to 1960, and where he had written seven books, including The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast and Islands in the Stream.

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The Finca Vigía had been my home too. I lived there for six months in 1960 as Hemingway's secretary, having met him on a sojourn to Spain the previous year, and I returned to the finca for five weeks in 1961 as a companion to his widow, Mary. (Later, I married Ernest's youngest son, Gregory; we had three children before we divorced in 1987; he died in 2001.) I well remember the night in 1960 when Philip Bonsall, the U.S. ambassador to Cuba and a frequent visitor, dropped by to say that Washington was planning to cut off relations with Fidel Castro's fledgling government, and that American officials thought it would be best if Hemingway demonstrated his patriotism by giving up his beloved tropical home. He resisted the suggestion, fiercely.

As things turned out, the Hemingways left Cuba that summer so Ernest could tend to some writerly business in Spain and the United States; his suicide, in Idaho on July 2, 1961, made the question of his residency moot. Shortly thereafter, Mary and I returned to Cuba to pack up a mass of letters, manuscripts, books and paintings and ship them to the United States, and she donated the finca to the Cuban people. I visited Cuba briefly in 1999 to celebrate the centennial of Ernest's birth and found his home, by then a museum, essentially as Mary and I had left it almost 40 years before. But recently I heard that the Cuban government had spent a million dollars to restore the villa to its original condition and that work on the grounds, garage and the author's fishing boat was in progress. I was curious to see the results.

Havana, ever a city of contrasts, was showing her age when I visited last spring, yet signs of renewal were faintly evident in the old city, La Habana Vieja, and in the once-fashionable Vedado section. The City Historian's Office has plowed some of the profits from Havana's hotels, bars and restaurants into the restoration of historic buildings.

Surprisingly absent from radio, television and even the lips of the people I talked to was the name of Fidel Castro, who was still recovering from his intestinal surgery of July 2006. But Ernest Hemingway, dead 46 years, was almost as palpable a presence as he was during the two decades he lived and wrote at Finca Vigía. Between these two towering figures of the late 1950s, who met only once and briefly (when Castro won a Hemingway-sponsored fishing tournament in May 1960), Havana seemed to be caught in a time warp, locked into that fevered period of Hemingway's physical decline and Castro's meteoric rise to power.

Except now it was Hemingway who was ascendant, more celebrated than ever. Festivities were in the works not only for the 45th anniversary of the Museo Ernest Hemingway's opening, this past July, but even for the 80th anniversary, next April, of Hemingway's first footfall in Cuba (when the author and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, spent a brief layover in Havana on an ocean liner sailing from Paris to Key West in 1928).

The Hemingway I encountered on my ten-day visit was both more benign and more Cuban than the one I knew, with an accent on his fondness for the island and his kindness to its people. There seemed almost a proprietary interest in him, as if, with the yawning rift between the United States and Cuba, the appropriation of the American author gave his adopted country both solace and a sense of one-upmanship.

The director of the Museo Ernest Hemingway, Ada Rosa Alfonso Rosales, was waiting for me in her office, which had once been Finca Vigía's two-car garage. Surrounded by a staff of about half a dozen, a team of especialistas with pencils poised, tape recorder and video camera rolling, I fielded a barrage of questions about the finca and its former owners. Did I remember the color of the walls? Which important people had I met in the spring and summer of 1960? Those notations on Ernest's bathroom wall—could I identify who wrote the ones that aren't in his handwriting? After a while, I began to wonder whether it was my memory or my imagination that was filling in the gaps.

As we walked over to the main house after the interview, tourist buses were pulling into the parking lot. The visitors, about 80 percent of them foreigners, peered through the house's windows and French doors—their only option, since a special permit is needed to enter the premises. (Even so, I was told this is the most popular museum in Cuba.)

Inside, I felt distracted, not by the objects I was trying to identify, for I had taken little notice of them when I lived there, but by my memories. My Finca Vigía is not a museum but a home. Looking at the chintz-covered chair in the living room, I saw Hemingway's ample figure as he sat holding a glass of scotch in one hand, his head slightly nodding to a George Gershwin tune coming from the record player. In the dining room, I saw not the heavy oblong wooden table with its sampling of china place settings, but a spread of food and wine and a meal in progress, with conversation and laughter and Ernest and Mary occasionally calling each other "kitten" and "lamb." In the pantry, where the seven servants ate and relaxed, I recalled watching Friday-night boxing broadcasts from Madison Square Garden. For these matches, every household member was invited, and Ernest presided, setting the odds, monitoring the kitty, giving blow-by-blow accounts of the action.


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