Hemingway, Cuba and the Great Blue River
By J. Chambless
The entranceway to Hemingway's home, the Finca Vigia.
By Gene Pisasale
This is the second in a three-part series inspired by a Smithsonian Tour of Cuba my wife and I took in April 2017, where we visited Ernest Hemingway’s home, his favorite bars, the quaint fishing village of Cojimar and other sites.
The Finca Vigia
Meaning “Lookout Farm” in Spanish, the Finca Vigia, on the outskirts of Havana, is where Ernest Hemingway lived longer and was more productive than any other setting in the world.
Walking toward the cream-colored, one-story dwelling (flanked by a tower), you get a sense of peacefulness, the soft hues of the structure providing a calm over the setting. The house contains well over a dozen mounted specimens of exotic animals caught on safari, more than 8,000 books, artwork, bullfighting posters and hundreds of items from the 1940s and 1950s. As you look around, you get the feeling you’re just waiting for Hemingway to arrive back home after a day of fishing. The house is in the village of San Francisco de Paula, roughly 12 miles southeast of downtown. His home is now a tourist attraction, the Museo Ernest Hemingway, which receives thousands of visitors every year.
The first things you see are a multi-tiered white magazine rack holding copies of Esquire, Look, The New Yorker and other magazines from the 1950s, flanked by a bullfighting painting and two preserved heads of animals taken on safari. The animals seem to follow you with their eyes, perhaps acting as Hemingway’s silent attendants, protecting his home while he is away.
Despite having numerous trophies proving his infatuation with hunting, the house lacks much evidence of a pursuit which engaged him for almost half his life – deep-sea fishing. It is a bit strange that after having spent nearly 30 years chasing marlin, there is not a single one of them anywhere at the Finca. One possible explanation is that deep-sea fish are preserved with mostly synthetic materials, and Hemingway valued realism in all his works. Another curious absence comes to light when you stroll around the house – there are absolutely no cats. Not a single one roaming the property, where he once owned at least 20 of them. Hemingway loved cats and named them all, including his favorite, Boise. Where are all the felines? It is likely the Cuban government, which owns the property, has never had enough money to feed the cats, so they all probably wandered away over the years to more hospitable surroundings.
This contrasts with Hemingway’s home in Key West, where there are now well over 50 cats in residence, many of them the curious six-toed variety.
No visit to Hemingway’s Cuban home would be complete without a stop to see his beloved boat Pilar, which sits in dry dock on the property. Abandoned for many years, Pilar is now restored to its 1950s splendor. The vessel was Hemingway’s “home on the sea” for almost three decades, helping him to create some of his finest works. Anyone who has used a typewriter knows how much effort it takes to hammer out a long text. An early vintage Corona typewriter sitting on his desk helped Hemingway create his many stories. Encounters with danger are chronicled in a newspaper lying on his bed, its bold headline proclaiming, “Hemingway, Wife Killed in Air Crash.” He and Mary experienced two near-fatal plane crashes near the end of their 1953-1954 African safari. When news of the accidents reached the press, announcements of his “death” flooded the airwaves and print media. Hemingway was seriously injured in the second crash, using his head as a battering ram to break through the door of the mangled airplane -- a possible factor in his physical deterioration that was so notable beginning in the late 1950s.
Hemingway left Cuba in July 1960 and never returned. By the 1980s, the house was badly deteriorating. The Finca Vigia Foundation was founded to restore and preserve Hemingway’s home and its contents. Beginning in 2005, a team of preservation experts visited Cuba to work at the house. Mary DeNadai, a principal in the firm of John Milner Architects in Chadds Ford, was chosen as part of the restoration team. Over the last several years, the group restored the Finca to its former glory.
Hemingway’s favorite bar, El Floridita, hails itself as La Cuna del Daiquiri (“The Cradle of the Daiquiri”). The author sometimes ordered a dozen or more of them at a sitting, so they named one for him: the Papa Doble (“Papa Double”).
Hemingway is a permanent fixture here. You cannot miss the life-sized bronze sculpture of him standing at the corner of the bar. On almost any given night, El Floridita is packed with people from all over the world who want to savor a brief connection with the man they came to know through his many novels.
Hemingway loved the Floridita, entertaining numerous celebrities there over the years, including Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy, who would later star as Santiago in the film version of “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Cojimar and La Terraza
Cojimar is a quaint fishing village that's only a 20-minute drive from downtown Havana, and it helped spawn the greatest tale of man against marlin ever written. It gained its place in history as the setting for “The Old Man and the Sea.”
The most popular restaurant in Cojimar is La Terraza, a bar and seafood establishment which Hemingway visited numerous times. Inside its doors, you are enveloped in a Hemingway cocoon, the atmosphere of a previous era captured in dozens of images of him, his first mate Gregorio Fuentes, Pilar and the bay where they docked for fishing.
The Hemingway memorial gazebo, just up the road from La Terraza, has six Greek columns surrounding a bust of the author created by Cuban sculptor Fernando Boada Marten. The setting is serene. Hemingway is smiling, looking out to his home, the ocean.
In Cojimar and La Terraza, Hemingway “comes alive” more than at any other Cuban site he frequented. You can feel his presence here, in the setting he made immortal. All these locations bring visitors in touch with the author who thrilled readers for decades with his many novels and short stories, works created with the inspiration he gained from places he loved in Cuba and around the globe.
Gene Pisasale is a historian, author
and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His new book, “Hemingway,
Cuba and the Great Blue River,” takes readers on a trip to the many
places Hemingway loved. His books are available at www.Amazon.com.
For more information, visit www.GenePisasale.com. He can be reached