Papa's Place

The Sun Rises Again on Hemingway's Cuban Retreat


A portrait of Ernest Hemingway with
one of his cats.

Credit: Paul Edmondson

When Ernest Hemingway traveled to Cuba in early 1939, he rented a corner room at Havana's Ambos Mundos hotel, and with a view of old Havana and the harbor began writing the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. But the woman with whom Hemingway was intimately involved at the time, journalist Martha Gellhorn, disliked the hotel and discovered something that better suited her: a 15-acre farmstead southeast of Havana, in San Francisco de Paula, with a one-story masonry structure that had been built in 1886. The house was called Finca Vigía, or "Lookout Farm." When Hemingway saw it, "he was immediately scornful," wrote Carlos Baker in Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. Finca Vigía "had fallen into disrepair, smelt of drains, and could be rented entire for a hundred a month. … It was too far gone, too far from Havana, and too expensive." Hemingway promptly left to go fishing.

Gellhorn, the most assertive of his liaisons and his soon-to-be third wife, had artisans and servants spruce it up; soon after, "the Pig"—her affectionate nickname for Papa Hemingway—returned and agreed to move in.  Hemingway's scorn had apparently subsided. A month later, in letters to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, he was referring to the house as "a 'joint on the top of a hill' where there was always a breeze." In 1940, as a Christmas gift for Gellhorn and himself, Hemingway bought Finca Vigía.

He lived there until 1960,when he left in part to follow the bullfights in Spain, fully expecting to return to Cuba. But his declining health and deteriorating U.S.-Cuba relations following Fidel Castro's rise to power ensured that he never did. After Hemingway's death in 1961, the Cuban government turned Finca Vigía into a museum. But the house gradually became compromised because of a leaky roof and foundation problems, and its decay was hastened by mold, fungus, and termites. Artifacts and some of the thousands of documents—including Hemingway's manuscripts, letters, and photographs—were at risk and in need of conservation.

In 2005, at the urging of the Winchester, Mass.-based Hemingway Preservation Foundation, the National Trust placed Finca Vigía on its list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Meanwhile, Cuban architects and restoration specialists began to restore Finca Vigía, with additional technical advice provided by a U.S. team assembled by the Trust and the foundation. I traveled to Havana soon after the house reopened to the public, to see the restoration firsthand and to gain insight into the man who made the house famous—to discover how the life lived at Finca Vigía might have informed what was written there.

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