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12/05/13 - Wall Street Journal - Ernest Hemingway's Havana Retreat 


TWO BOYS IN FADED red shorts are darting around an older man fishing with a
homemade bamboo pole, all balanced atop the sea-drenched concrete wall of
Havana's Malecón-a coastal drive connecting a strip of weathered Beaux Arts
buildings to the narrow streets of Old Havana, where paint peels off
gorgeously tattered neo-baroque façades and canopies of laundry shade women
selling fruit, old shoes or themselves. My cabbie drives inland, past the
end of a strangely empty harbor, until smoky tropical scents replace the
sea air and we arrive at the shack-lined main village of San Francisco de
Paula, nine miles south of Havana. Suddenly he makes a hard right onto
Hemingway's driveway winding up his verdant little hill-a pocket of
lushness amid the cinder-block landscape.

I feel the eerie familiarity of arriving for the first time at a place
often visited in one's mind. My father had been a Hemingway scholar and
passionate collector of all things Hemingway: The author's skis hung in the
rafters of our garage next to mine, and his other possessions-house keys,
letters, books, even his cancelled checks-were sprawled around our house.
I'd visited all of Hemingway's homes with my father, save for this, perhaps
his most important one. Now, thanks to a journalism visa, I was able to
break through the U.S. embargo to visit Hemingway's Cuba-the place his
presence is most palpable.

"That's my old schoolteacher," my driver notes as we see a formidable woman
smoking outside Hemingway's former garage-now converted to museum
offices-as we roll up to Finca Vigía, a one-story eggshell-colored mass of
arched masonry set like a sculpture atop a broken stone terrace among
mangos, palms, vines and a riot of flowering bushes. "Did she make you read
a lot of Hemingway?" I ask. "Yes, she was very passionate about him."  He
winces in a way that makes me think of a ruler across his knuckles
delivered by the chain-smoking woman who awaits us at the driveway's
summit. "It is too complicated to explain about the early morning in the
hills above Havana," Hemingway had written about this spot. "I work as well
there in those cool early mornings as I ever have worked anywhere in the

Now, the place is dominated by Ada Rosa Alfonso Rosales, the director of
the Finca Vigía museum who laughs easily, barks commands to her many
minions and is indeed very passionate about Hemingway. "Everyone in Cuba
knows him," she tells me. "He was everywhere, and maybe after José Martí,
he is the most popular of our writers." writer. The French, Americans,
Spanish and Italians all claim some ownership of Hemingway, but no place
lays a greater claim to him than Cuba, where he lived and wrote for 22

Hemingway's most enduring fictional characters were foreigners in their
adopted countries: Robert Jordan from Montana, waiting with Spanish
partisans to blow up a bridge outside Madrid in ; Frederic Henry, the
wounded American deserter from the Italian army in , rowing his pregnant
English girlfriend into Switzerland; even Santiago from was a native
Spaniard, a loner amidst a close-knit community of fishermen in Cuba's
north coast.

And so it was with Hemingway himself. A native of Oak Park, Illinois, who
couldn't wait to escape its "wide lawns and narrow minds," Hemingway spent
most of his subsequent life in nomadic exile conjuring forceful, alienated
characters transcending borders through love, war and sport. He found all
three in inspiring abundance in Cuba. Here he could fish in the Gulf
Stream, his "great blue river," make love to unnumbered women and write
seven books "one true sentence" at a time, living apart from his
compatriots as he became one of the most lionized literary names in the
world. The Finca offered splendid isolation where he could be left alone to
do as he pleased.

When he was exhausted or hurt from his rough adventures around the world,
this is where he came to recover in its tranquility. When he got news that
he'd won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, he stood on the rattan rug
of this living room and announced to the small gathering clutching
celebratory cocktails: "This is one prize that belongs to Cuba, because my
work was conceived and created in Cuba. Throughout all the translations,
this, my adopted country, is present."

"A lot of writers-like his friend James Joyce-lived outside the country
where they were born, and it helped their writing," notes Patrick
Hemingway, 85, the last surviving of Hemingway's three sons. "He was at
home in Cuba, and we all moved in gratefully."

In 1939, at the age of 40, fleeing his Key West home and marriage to his
second wife, Pauline, for the decade-younger war journalist Martha
Gellhorn, Hemingway moved to Cuba. The Finca was selected by Gellhorn over
Hemingway's initial objection, ostensibly to find somewhere more spacious
for the both of them and to lure him from the city's temptations. Before
that, he'd lived in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he'd written much of .
The hotel still dominates the top end of Obispo Street, a great walking
thoroughfare through the old part of Havana, where, even today, everyone
seems to sway to the same mambo beat pulsating from almost every open
window and doorway. But the Finca, although just a 30-minute ride away, was
a world apart from Havana's raucousness. "In the 1940s, it was still in the
countryside," says Patrick. "Back then we'd walk out the gate and shoot
guinea fowl."

The open windows and doorways afford cross views through the Finca-the
interior is off-limits to visitors-and as I stand here, it appears the
writer has just stepped away on a fishing trip. His mail is spread out on
his bed. His third-filled liquor bottles crowd the side table nudging his
favorite armchair in the living room. His clothes are still neatly arranged
on hangers in the closet above rows of boots and shoes. Next door, a square
four-story tower rises from the lawn-the only building ever constructed by
Hemingway-where he occasionally worked while Havana woke up in the
distance. But otherwise he typed standing up at the Royal on top of his
office bookcase in the main house. Even his original number 3 pencils are
still sharpened.

The African game trophies, the nine thousand books in dozens of languages,
the plate molded by Picasso hanging alongside copies of paintings by Gris,
Braque and Miró-the originals were among the few valuables Castro's
government allowed Hemingway's widow to take back to the U.S.-attest to the
worldliness of its former occupant. You can still see the columns of
writing on the walls in the bathroom where Hemingway had scribbled his
weight and blood pressure, which he battled during his later years-in the
late 1950s, he ranged from 190½ to 242 pounds ("Chinese meal" he wrote next
to one jump in weight).

The Finca's current pristine condition is a testament to Hemingway's
continual hold even now among the most divergent of readers. The author who
in life provoked three divorces, international controversies and a few
memorable punch-outs, has, in death, created an unlikely alliance between
two belligerent nations. Since 2005, a team of U.S. engineers,
conservationists and architects under the auspices of the Boston-based
Finca Vigía Foundation has been working with Ms. Rosale's team to restore
the 19th-century building, replacing the sagging roof, installing a new
drainage system and rebuilding interior walls. They've also sorted,
preserved and cataloged some 3,000 original documents moldering in the
tropical humidity. They are in the midst of digitizing the archives so they
can be seen for the first time outside of Cuba.

"This is a labor of love for us," says Mary-Jo Adams, the foundation's
director. "Most of the consultants have been doing this pro bono, and we
can't import construction materials. But we have the longest-running
cross-cultural program in Cuba. U.S. politicians from both sides of the
political aisle-such as Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic
Congressman Jim McGovern-have supported us. Hemingway unites a lot of

He is also beloved by the handful of living Cubans who knew "Papa" as
children, some of whom still live nearby. "When he had just moved here he
stopped his convertible to buy plants from my father," recalls Alberto
"Fico" Ramos, when I caught up with him at his hilltop hut above
Hemingway's home. "I was 7 or 8, the same age as Gigi [Hemingway's youngest
son], and he asked if I knew any other neighborhood kids who could play
baseball with him." Later, Ramos worked as an assistant cook at the Finca.

"I and everyone I knew, young and old, called him Papa," says Oscar Blas
Fernández, another member of Gigi's baseball team. "I'm 82, and I'd
probably still call him that were he to walk in here now," he adds,
watching hummingbirds peck the hibiscus dotting the Finca's terrace.

Fernández recalls the author leading his sons and packs of local kids on
bottle rocket and stink-bomb attacks against Finca garden parties and the
neighbor's estate. But there was always an intense consciousness of nature,
with local hunting trips and meticulous study of the tropical birds, beasts
and plants that surrounded them. "Those trees were in the way of the bases,
but he never allowed us to cut the branches," says Fernández, who laughs as
he points out their former baseball field near the Finca's gate house.

Despite "living rough" on the African veld, on European battlefields and in
Midwestern forests, Hemingway was also fond of the good life. Ramos
remembers seven servants constantly on staff at the Finca, where a
generously stocked kitchen enabled him to host family and friends in grand
style. For relatively little, he lived majestically in Cuba. Even during
grandiose evenings with the likes of Gary Cooper, Hemingway always kept
things informal with his servants. He even maintained a household betting
pool for boxing matches watched together on the kitchen's black-and-white

And he was always a short, often daily drive in his red convertible from
the neon-signed El Floridita bar, his downtown headquarters. Giant shutters
had opened the Floridita to the street when Hemingway first became enamored
by the place. Now it's been walled in and fancied up with red velvet
curtains and a giant marine painting replacing the mirror behind the bar.
An indiscreet life-size bronze statue of Hemingway leans over his favorite
stool at the discreet end of the bar where he could quietly drink after his
fame made that almost impossible anywhere else.  Here he drank a heroic
number of "double frozen daiquiris, the great ones. that had no taste of
alcohol and felt, as you drank them, the way downhill glacier skiing feels
running through powder snow."

Today, daiquiris are poured out a dozen at a time from blenders by elegant
red-coated barkeeps. And instead of the "fine old whores that every
resident drinker at the Floridita had slept with sometime," there are
younger -hustlers-in barely there shorts flirting with the older Canadian
and European tourists who flock to the place, many to be photographed
toasting the garish statue. Here, Papa has become the spiritual drinking
buddy to the world.

Apart from the epic benders at the Floridita, Hemingway suffered deep
wounds both psychological and physical from elements that pummeled him
prematurely into old age. There were two plane crashes in Africa; the
divorce from Gellhorn ("Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?"
he'd written her, exasperated by his loneliness in her absence) before his
fourth and final marriage to another journalist, Mary Welsh; love affairs,
real and imagined ("Gentlemen, please remove your shoes and dip your feet
reverently in the water of this pool, where Ava Gardner swam naked this
morning," Hemingway bragged to his friends at the Finca). And there was a
yearning for his distancing youth, which might explain his infatuation with
the delicate Venetian aristocrat Adriana Ivancich, 30 years his junior-the
inspiration for Renata, the dying Colonel's teenage lover in the 1950 novel
-whose visit triggered outbursts of jealousy in the Hemingway household.
("I never even saw them holding hands," notes Ramos.)

Four dog graves in the garden are all that remain of the 57 cats and half a
dozen dogs that also shared the Finca with Hemingway and padded their way
throughout his novels. Behind the graves, an even ghostlier presence: ,
Hemingway's 38-foot walnut-hulled fishing boat, also recently restored with
help from the Finca Vigía Foundation, rests above the former tennis court.
Ironically, it was the most seaworthy vessel I saw in Cuba where I counted
only five flimsy don't-sail-to-Miami fishing boats dwarfed by Havana's
once-bustling harbor. Hemingway first took the helm of this boat in 1934
after commissioning it from New York's Wheeler Shipyard. It became his
floating man cave on which he brought his wives and girlfriends for
skinny-dips and picnics on the nearby keys, searched for German subs with
crates of booze and grenades during World War II, staged prolonged stag
trips with his hard-drinking entourage and played Fats Waller from a record
player while "bringing up the monsters" from the sea.

was originally moored off the concrete dock that still juts out below the
old Spanish fort in the tiny fishing village of Cojimar, six miles east of
Havana. La Terraza, a restaurant teetering along the rocky shore, was
another favorite drinking spot, where he traded sea tales with the locals
and gave away fish after his odysseys.

Wandering into La Terraza, I find wooden tables overlooking the bay filled
with stylish Italian tourists munching lobster salad. Their bus driver sips
an espresso and gossips with the bartender at the counter where Santiago
from got a beer before embarking on his adventure, and where 's Thomas
Hudson adopted a cat. Hudson observed that this is where drunk fisherman
who never "went to church" and "wore old straw hats" and old clothes and
"were the most unfishermanlike fishermen he had ever known."

FIVE MINUTES' STROLL down the shore from La Terraza is a narrow beach
cluttered with driftwood, plastic bottles and other flotsam brought in by
the tide, and where the fictional Santiago dragged the sad remains of his
once-majestic shark-chewed marlin. Cojimar's fishermen dock their creaky
wooden boats in an inlet just beyond the beach. Three men just back from
the sea, stripped to the waist and smoking cigars, are merrily fixing their
ancient engine beneath the open deck when I come across them. "Any
swordfish?" I ask the skipper. "Lots," he responds, with the confident
laugh sports fishermen always seem to have but which I don't often notice
among professional ones. "We caught six in 24 hours. The Gulf Stream is
always easy," he adds, puffing on his stogie.

Fishing provided the only occasion for Hemingway to meet Fidel Castro. In
1960, Cuba's new leader entered a fishing contest sponsored by the author.
Off a harbor west of Havana, where sailboats from all over the world
(including a few illicitly from Florida) now dock at the renamed Marina
Hemingway, Castro caught a 54-pound marlin, winning the competition.
Afterward, Hemingway himself presented Castro with his trophy. Castro
claimed to have kept a copy of in his backpack while engaged in guerilla
fighting in the Sierra Maestra mountains. But the conversation didn't go

"I've always regretted the fact that I didn't. talk to him about everything
under the sun," Castro said later. "We only talked about the fish." As
relations between Cuba and the U.S. became increasingly strained, Hemingway
was encouraged by American officials to leave lest he be seen as a Castro
supporter. "He was very sympathetic to the revolution in Cuba until things
got too difficult," recounts Patrick. "I don't think he had much respect
for Castro. When he left, he knew he would never be returning. And that
depressed him greatly."

He never quite felt at home when he returned to the U.S. In late 1960,
battling writer's block, alcoholism, deteriorating physical health and his
inner demons, he checked himself into Minnesota's Mayo Clinic, where he got
electroshock treatment. During a layover in Casper, Wyoming, he tried to
step into a moving propeller. He finally managed to end his suffering less
than a year after leaving Cuba by shooting himself in the entry foyer to
his strikingly banal ranch-style home in Ketchum, Idaho, a setting
unimaginably far from the Finca. His suicide shotgun was dismantled and
buried in a local field. His wife, Mary, planned a similar ceremony for ,
and for a while his boat was destined to be scuttled in the waters he'd
fished and written so much about.

Instead, the boat now hovers phantomlike above Hemingway's lawns, just as
his legend and very possessions hover above Cuba's shifting sensibilities.
Somewhere amid Havana's rutted streets plied by desperately maintained
vintage cars, someone is even tooling around in Hemingway's 1955 red
Chrysler convertible, which the author had left to his doctor. Ms.
Rosales-of course-has located it.

"I've been looking for it for years and finally tracked it down through the
registration office," she says. "I'm trying to get the owner to sell the
car to the museum." She sighs. "Hemingway also had two others that I'm
still trying to find." And so Hemingway's Cuban heritage rolls on,
sometimes literally, waiting to be rediscovered by compatriots who are so
close, but still an embargo away.

Original Source / Fuente Original:


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