When Ernest Hemingway moved to Finca Vigía – his farm 30 minutes from central Havana – he was about to finish For Whom the Bell Tolls. When he departed for good, after living there 22 years, he had travelled the road to fame as a writer and earned the well-deserved Nobel Prize.
What remained at the farm was his Royal portable typewriter, the graves of his dogs, some 50 cats and the 9,000 books that he treasured throughout his life and about which, many years later, Gabriel García Márquez would exclaim, “What an unusual library this man had!” Hemingway arrived in Cuba in early April 1928, accompanied by his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. They were in transit to Key West, where he completed A Farewell to Arms. He returned in 1932 to fish for marlin in Cuban waters. He returned again in 1933 and wrote the first of his articles on Cuba. From then on, he was forever linked to this “long, beautiful and ill-fated island,” as he called Cuba in Green Hills of Africa. Part of the plot of Islands in the Stream (1970) takes place in Cuba. Allusions to the Island are also present in some of his stories and in many of his articles. A large part of the setting of To Have and Have Not (1937) is Cuba, but Hemingway’s “Cuban” novel par excellence is The Old Man and the Sea (1952).
About Cuba, he once said: “I love this country and I feel at home here; and the place where a man feels at home, besides the place where he was born, that is the place where he belongs.”
Down Obispo Street
In the 1930s, Hemingway spent the months of May, June and July every year in Cuba, which are the months when marlin run.
His first refuge in Havana was Hotel Ambos Mundos on Obispo Street near the port. His room, at that time without a number, on the fifth floor where he invariably stayed, remains intact. At five in the afternoon, after a day of fishing, Hemingway would lock himself in his room, request his dinner, and begin to write. He wrote by hand, in bed, and later typed the manuscript with barely any editing. In 1958, in his famous interview with George Plimpton, he would reminisce: “Ambos Mundos, in Havana, was a good place to work.”
It was common to see him walking along Obispo Street, sometimes in Bermuda shorts with a light shirt and sockless in Basque slippers. In Islands in the Stream he evoked the characteristic smells of this street: flour stored in sacks and flour dust, recently opened packing cases, the smell of roasted coffee, “which was a sensation stronger than that of a morning drink,” the delicious smell of tobacco….
The writer felt very much at home in Ambos Mundos, in such a central area and near the port where he anchored his yacht. But Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gelhorn, began to feel uncomfortable in the anonymous, impersonal room and the lack of privacy when her husband’s friends visited. It was she who looked for and found Finca Vigía, which Hemingway initially disliked because it was too far from the Floridita bar.
One Lives on this Island
Much of Islands in the Stream takes place in this Havana bar. On the pages of this novel, there is a character wandering about, whom the writer calls Honest Lil. In real life, she was Leopoldina, a mulatto prostitute who “made a living” from the Floridita and who was the novelist’s great Cuban love. He would recall her in Islands in the Stream: “She had a beautiful smile and wonderful dark eyes and lovely black hair…She had a skin that was as smooth as olive-colored ivory, if there were olive-colored ivory, with a slight pink hue….”
Another of Hemingway’s favourite places was La Terraza, a seafood restaurant in the fishing village of Cojímar, in Havana. “It’s so nice to be here,” says the main character of Islands in the Stream, referring to La Terraza. And in the same novel the precise taste and colour of the daiquiri is described. “A shallow water drink,” as Hemingway defined it.
In 1949, Hemingway explained in an article the reasons for his long stay in Cuba. He spoke, of course, about the Gulf Stream, “where there is the best and most abundant fish I have seen in my life;” of the 18 varieties of mango harvested on his property; of his breeding of fighting cocks… and he jotted down as an afterthought, “One lives on this Island…because in the cool of the morning you can work better and more comfortably than in any other place.”
There he finished For Whom the Bell Tolls and wrote Across the River and Into the Trees, The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, and Islands in the Stream, as well as many articles and chronicles for newspaper publications. He also left an unfinished novel, The Garden of Eden. “I always had good luck writing in Cuba,” he wrote in a letter. Shortly after learning that he had won the Nobel, he said in an interview, “This is an award that belongs to Cuba because my work was conceived and created in Cuba, with my people of Cojímar where I am a citizen. In all translations, this adopted country is present, where I have my books and my home.”
He wrote standing, and in the last years, on a Lesser Kudu skin, because this way, “I thought more clearly.” He rose early and only stopped working when he got to a point where he knew exactly what would happen next. To achieve, during a day’s work, some 500 “clean” words was satisfactory for him, and he typed the dialogues directly, but never the most difficult passages.
According to García Márquez, Finca Vigía was the only really stable residence the writer had in his whole life. Mary Welsh, his fourth and last wife, brought order to the farm and to the novelist’s life. Because he complained about how visitors bothered him, Mary arranged for the construction of a three-floor tower adjacent to the house. The top floor was to be Hemingway’studio. He went up the tower once and stayed fifteen minutes, during which he tried in vain to write a sentence. He came down and never again returned to use the site for writing. He said he could not stand the loneliness. More than a museum, Finca Vigía continues to be Hemingway’s home. Though it appears empty, it is full of life. It seems as if its owner isn’t dead, just absent, and that at any moment he will return from the Floridita or from hunting. Then he’ll leave his rifle somewhere and look over the mail. In fact, on the table in the library there’s a rubber stamp that says, “I never write letters.” He’ll have a drink (“A good whiskey is very nice, it is one of the nicest things in life.”) and he’ll set it down by his Royal portable typewriter to continue working on the remarkable and ambitious novel that never ends.