Sea of tension cuts off a trove
Hemingway's Cuban home remains off-limits to U.S. fans and preservationists.
By DAVID ADAMS, Latin American Correspondent
Published October 8, 2007
HAVANA - The July 5, 1960, edition of Newsweek magazine sits on a low table near the favorite chair of one of America's literary greats.
"Can Anybody Stop Kennedy?" the cover reads.
The magazine is like everything else in this house that was Ernest Hemingway's residence for 21 years - almost exactly as the author left it.
It was here between 1939 and 1960 that Hemingway wrote some of his most famous works, including For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.
Yet it remains off-limits to American tourists due to the four-decades-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba's communist government.
"It's the most amazing place. It's as if Hemingway just walked out of the house to go down the street for a case of cold beer for the evening's visitors," said Thomas Herman, a Boston attorney for the Hemingway Preservation Foundation, which is seeking permission from the U.S. government to help Cuba preserve the property and its contents.
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Hemingway never lived anywhere longer than this hilltop villa overlooking Havana, known as Finca Vigia, or Lookout Farm.
For years, the house was virtually forgotten, except by Cuba's cultural authorities who diligently protected it. A joint U.S.-Cuba restoration effort was launched in 2002 and is now backed by a growing group of Hemingway devotees, including Republican presidential candidate John McCain, writer Norman Mailer and Sopranos star James Gandolfini.
Restoration work began in February 2005 after the U.S. Treasury Department granted a two-year license, allowing U.S. conservation experts to visit Cuba.
But the travel license ran out, leaving the project only partially completed. In August, the foundation submitted a request for a new license, which the Treasury Department appears unwilling to grant.
"Under the Cuba sanctions program, we are prohibited from licensing anything that promotes tourism in Cuba," said Candice Pratsch, Treasury Department spokesperson for the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, which covers embargo issues.
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Hemingway enthusiasts say it would be a tragedy to allow politics to undermine the preservation of his colorful Cuban legacy.
"It has been fascinating to watch the collaborative efforts of the Cuban and American technical experts over the past couple of years - from initial skepticism, to a very close and fruitful professional relationship," Herman said.
"I don't know of a similar Cuban-American collaboration at this high level that currently exists. It really transcends the difficult politics of the moment."
Cubans feel a strong affinity for Hemingway. Choosing to live outside the city away from Havana's social elite, made him a man of the people in their eyes.
"There are still old people who remember seeing him walking in the streets around here. Cubans identify Hemingway with Cuba," said the museum's director, Ada Rosa Alfonso.
The modest but elegant one-story bungalow sits on 21 acres overgrown with mango and guava trees about 10 miles outside Havana. Hemingway's famous 40-foot fishing boat, the Pilar, rests in dry dock in a garden by the pool. The house contains most of its original furniture and decorations, as well as Hemingway's personal library of 9,000 books, magazines, manuscripts and letters.
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The campaign to save the house began when U.S. anthropologist Jenny Phillips visited the house in 2001. The building she found had a leaky roof and mold throughout the walls.
She also found a literary treasure, unavailable to scholars outside Cuba.
She created the Hemingway Preservation Foundation and in 2002 Cuba agreed to allow U.S. experts to help restore and digitally copy the author's papers.
But the Treasury Department refused to issue a license permitting financial collaboration. A narrow permit, for technical assistance only, was eventually granted.
"It was a very specific project to conserve and digitize the documents," said Walter Newman, director of Paper Conservation at the nonprofit Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass. Newman made several trips to the island, providing advice on treating the documents with de-acidifying agents.
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Today, the house is almost fully restored, paid for entirely by the Cuban government, and the manuscripts and letters are conserved and copied. But much more work remains to be done, said Herman, including preserving Hemingway's heavily annotated books, magazines, photos and scrapbooks.
The Pilar still needs work, as does the pool area. Most in need of repair is the termite-infested guesthouse and garage, which currently houses the museum's stiflingly hot office.
The foundation has raised about $350,000, including grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, to fund travel and the professional services of experts.
Cubans still have a hard time understanding how the American government can stand in the way.
"It's absurd, illogical and stupid," said Alfonso, the museum's curator. "This isn't a question of politics. It's about a literary figure who left his footprints here."
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.
A peek inside
-While the interior of Finca Vigia is closed to the public, visitors can peer through open windows into the rooms via a walkway that wraps around the outside.
-A large bullfighting poster hangs on one wall in the living room, alongside stuffed animal heads from hunting trips to Africa. Original bottles of Old Forester bourbon and Cinzano vermouth stand at arm's length from Hemingway's chair.
-Books line shelves in most of the rooms, including the bathroom. At one end of the main room is Hemingway's old RCA record player still in working order, next to a large collection of LPs, from Bessie Smith to Bach.
-Hemingway liked to entertain. Errol Flynn dined at his table. Cary Grant slept on the sofa, and Ava Gardner famously skinny-dipped in the pool.
-Hemingway wrote his books standing up in his bedroom, the only air-conditioned room in the house. His Royal typewriter is there. Materials for his research lie strewn over the bed.
-One room is reserved for cats. There were 60 of them in and around the house. Hemingway kept four cows to provide milk for them. Hemingway also had four dogs, Black, Negrita, Linda and Neron, who are all buried in marked graves in the garden.
-In the bathroom, Hemingway scribbled his weight every day on the wall. By the time he left Cuba for medical treatment in 1960, the wall shows he had lost almost 50 pounds. He committed suicide a few months later in his house in Idaho.
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