The Havana of Hemingway
By Ciro Bianchi Photos: Prensa Latina
Ernest Hemingway had a special relationship with Cuba that stretched over many decades. He settled in Finca Vigia - his "outlook farm," a thirty minute drive from downtown Havana - for the last 22 years of his life. He was shortly to finish the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls and soon after was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Wooden African sculptures, a piece of white ceramic from Picasso's workshop, wooden African sculptures, the skull bones of lions, many cats, and 9,000 books he treasured in his life made Gabriel Garcia Marquez exclaim after many years: "What a peculiar library this man possessed!"
Hemingway first arrived in Cuba in April of 1928. He was accompanied by his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and later traveled from Havana to Key West where he finished writing A Farewell to Arms. He returned in 1932 for marlin fishing in Cuban waters and wrote his first chronicle about Cuba in 1933. Henceforth, he would never dissociate again from "this large, beautiful and unhappy island," as he described it in "Green Hills of Africa."
The Old Man and The Sea is Hemingway's big "Cuban" novel par excellence. Parts of Islands in the Stream are located in Cuba. He also mentions the small Caribbean island in many stories and newspaper articles. The location of To Have and Have Not is to a great extent also Cuban.
He said once about Cuba that he loved this nation and it felt like home, the place he was destined for.
On Obispo Street His fIrst home in Havana was the Ambos Mundos Hotel on Obispo Street where he always stayed in room 511. At 5:00 p.m., after a day of fishing, Hemingway would lock himself in his room, order some food and start writing. He did it, handwritten, on his bed and later typed it up almost without corrections. In his interview with George Plimpton in 1958, he said that the Ambos Mundos was a nice place to work.
He would walk down Obispo Street wearing Bermuda shorts and Basque sneakers, usually without socks, and a light shirt. He later brought to mind the characteristic smells of that street in Islands in the Stream.
The bustling downtown areas and the proximity to the port where he kept his yacht, Pilar, made him feel at ease at the Ambos Mundos.
But that "anonymous and depersonalised" room, as he said, and the lack of privacy given continuous visits by Hemingway's friends made his third wife, Martha Gelhorn, uncomfortable. It was Marty who found Finca Vigia and fixed up the little house but Hemingway initially found it unpleasant; it was too far from El Floridita.
A Swig of Shallow Waters El Floridita bar and restaurant is depicted in many chapters of Islands in the Stream. While reading those chapters, the reader meets a character dubbed "Honest Liliana." Actually, her real name was Leopoldina, a Cuban prostitute who "made a living" at El Floridita and was Hemingway's great love. The birthplace of the Daiquiri is El Floridita where the prominent novelist created a special Daiquiri he named after himself. He would usually sit on the fIrst stool at the left of the bar where a monument to him now stands.
La Terraza is a restaurant in the sea town of Cojimar near to Havana and one of Hemingway's favourite places. Like in El Floridita, he favoured the left corner, next to the window.
"It is a great pleasure to be here," said the author of Islands in the Stream referring to La Terraza. The flavour and colour of the Daiquiri is accurately depicted in that novel - a swig of shallow waters.
One Lives On This Island Hemingway wrote a chronicle in 1949 in which he gives his reasons for staying so long in Cuba. Of course he mentioned the Gulf Stream, a site he thought was one of the best and most abundant fishing waters he ever saw in his life, the eighteen types of fruit he harvested, and his coop of fighting cocks. He said many times that he liked to live on this island because the fresh morning air allowed him to work better and more comfortably than in any other place.
He would write standing up during his last years because that was how "he thought with more clarity." He used to wake up early and stopped writing only when he was sure what he would write next. Having 500 "clean" words in a day satisfied him.
Garcia Marquez stated that Finca Vigia was the only house in which Hemingway lived with stability. Mary Welsh, his fourth and last wife, did her best to organize the farm and her husband's life. She complained about the constant visits they had and ordered a three-story tower to be build near the house. The top floor would be Hemingway's work room. He went up once and stayed for fifteen minutes and tried, uselessly, to write a phrase. He came down and never returned to that place to write, saying that he couldn't stand the loneliness.
Hara-kiri with a Gun "Look how I will kill myself," he used to tell his friends at the Finca Vigia. He would place the butt of his Mannlicher Schoenauer 265 shotgun on the floor and the barrel in his mouth. Then he used a big toe to pull the trigger. One would hear a click and he would exclaim with a smile, "this is the hara-kiri rifle technique." Unfortunately, this is how he ended his life.
When Hemingway died, his will was read out in Havana. He transferred his properties, including Finca Vigia, to the Cuban State. The old writer, who reluctantly refused to receive colleagues at his house, wanted the farm to be turned into a place where young intellectuals and artists could meet and for a botany research centre to be built. Fidel Castro admired Hemingway but only met him once at a marlin fishing tournaments that the novelist had organized. President Castro suggested to Hemingway's widow that the site be turned into a museum and the offer was accepted.
Rather than being just a museum, Finca Vigia is still Hemingwayrs home. It may seem empty but it is full of life. It is as if Hemingway wasn't dead but absent for a while and he could be back from El Floridita or hunting at any time. Then, he would put down his carbine and glance over his mail; normally not answered as evidenced by a rubber stamp in his library that read: "I never write letters." He would have a drink: "A good whiskey will be fine; it is one of the nicest things in life," he once said. Then he would sit in front of his Royal portable typewriter to continue writing the strange and ambitious novel he never finished.