When Ernest Hemingway left his large, Spanish-style house on the outskirts of Havana amid rising tensions between Cuba and the United States, he didn’t know he would never again return. But in 1961, just shy of a year since leaving the country suddenly at the urging of the U.S. Embassy, the author committed suicide. Thousands of documents and possessions belonging to Hemingway and his family were still at Finca Vigía, or “Lookout Farm,” as the sprawling Cuban property was known, and many of them remain there to this day. Now, according to the Associated Press reports, a new conservation center on the grounds is working to preserve the relics Hemingway left behind.
The state-of-the-art center, which cost $1.2 million to build, has been under construction since 2016. It is a joint project between Cuba's National Cultural Heritage Council and the Boston-based Finca Vigía Foundation, which works in collaboration with Cuban partners to maintain the Hemingway’s home. The facility will be responsible for handling the mammoth task of cleaning and preserving the author’s papers; when he died, his library alone contained 9,000 books, many of which had Hemingway’s scribbles in the margins. There were also thousands of photographs, letters and telegrams, along with a collection of manuscripts and galley proofs, according to the foundation.
Many of those documents are now held at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. After Hemingway’s suicide, his widow, Mary, received special permission from former President Kennedy to retrieve personal items from their Cuba home at a time when Americans were not allowed to travel there, reports WGBH. After Kennedy was assassinated, Mary donated a trove of her husband’s papers to his library. But other documents remained at Finca Vigía.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the center, Grisell Fraga, director of the Ernest Hemingway Museum in Key West, Florida, praised the faculty. “[I]t will allow us to contribute to safeguarding the legacy of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba,” Fraga said, as the AP reports.
Hemingway moved into Finca Vigía in 1939 and lived there for more than two decades. He spent his days sailing on his beloved fishing boat, Pilar, entertaining friends and writing some of his most lauded works: A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea, for which Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, were all penned during his time there. Following the Pulitzer win, Hemingway was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature, which he donated to the shrine of the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint.
But in 1960, the U.S. ambassador to Cuba came to Finca Vigía to tell the Hemingways that Washington was planning to sever ties with Fidel Castro’s government, Valerie Hemingway, the author’s former secretary and the former wife of his youngest son, Gregory, remembers in a 2007 Smithsonian.com article. The ambassadors suggested that the family leave Cuba; Hemingway resisted, but ultimately relocated to Ketchum, Idaho. It was there that Hemingway, who struggled with depression, took his life on July 2, 1961.
Supporters of the new conservation center see it not only as an important fixture for preserving the legacy of Hemingway’s time in Cuba, but also a symbol of international cooperation. Relations between the United States and Cuba are still strained; according to the AP, the conservation center is “one of the longest-running joint projects between the two countries at a low point in bilateral relations.” Jim McGovern, a U.S. congressman for Massachusetts, was present at the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“When we come together, when we work together,” he said, per Nelson Acosta of Reuters, “we can do positive and amazing things.”