I have always been a Hemingway aficionado, in fact I learned the word aficionado from reading Hemingway’s description of bullfight partisans in Spain, so there was no way I was going to leave Cuba without a visit to the master’s residence, the Finca Vigia in San Francisco de Paulo, a thirty minute taxi ride outside of Havana along the coast road.
My sister Marguerite had finally arrived from snowy Chicago, and we had lunch in the broad green esplanade behind the Nacional Hotel, where we ran into Francesco, the karate student from the day before, and his girlfriend, a Bulgarian journalist named Marina. In another of those “small world” coincidences that seemed quite common here, it turned out that Marina and I had met a few years ago, in Rome, at a terrace party in the palazzo of a Contessa that Cate Blanchett was living in during the filming of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. She was here covering the 22nd International Latin American Film Festival, which this year coincided with the jazz festival and the Art Biennale, making Havana a rich cultural Mecca indeed.
After lunch, we rode out together to the place where Ernesto wrote The Old Man and The Sea and many other books and lived for most of the last 20 years of his life. A white house with an adjoining tower and guardhouse in the driveway, the Finca sits on a large estate, a former plantation, that Hemingway bought from the French owners in 1940, and lived in on and off, mostly with his last wife Mary Walsh Hemingway, until his self-inflicted death in 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho. The house was surrounded by Cuban women standing guard, as tourists are not allowed to enter inside, only to peek in through the windows, and the sight of a camera is greeted with consternation and a warning – it’s five bucks a picture if you want some snaps of the famous man’s digs. We peeked around in the various rooms: at the still half-filled liquor tray in the living room whose walls were covered with paintings and posters advertising long ago bullfights in Spain; the manual typewriter standing waist high and covered with dust in the rear workroom (Hemingway always wrote standing up); at the bedroom with its mounted heads of kudu and Oryx and Thompson’s gazelle and other beasts remembered from readings of The Green Hills of Africa; at the closet with racks of loafers and a few old fedoras and a grey military uniform on a hangar.
Marguerite speaks passable Spanish and after touring the emptied out powder blue swimming pool and the makeshift structure that shelters the dry-docked fishing boat with it’s famous name painted on the stern - Pilar, Key West, she befriended one of our watchers, who quietly snuck us up to the tower building, which used to house all of their considerable fishing gear. It is now a small photo room dedicated to The Old Man and The Sea. There is a display case with a signed manuscript, a framed picture from the film of Spencer Tracy as “Santiago” as well as a behind-the-scenes shot of Ernest himself on the set of the movie, and then a more recent picture of the real Old Man that the story is based on. It turns out he is still alive! 103 years old! Incredible.
Upstairs on the top floor was Mary’s own writing room, as far away as possible from the master, with an incredible view over the rolling hills of central Havana and the harbour about 30 kilometres away. A writing desk sits on top of a rug made from the skin of a lioness, and an art deco divan next to it looked like a great place to read or snooze or otherwise enjoy life’s moveable feast.
Our visit was cut short by the arrival of the director of the museum, accompanied by a coterie of men in business suits, and a few in military uniform. The Cuban women working there grew tense and asked us to skeedaddle, and the friendly one informed my sister that this was an advance team of Russian men and Cuban military advisors who were scouting and preparing for the imminent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin with Fidel Castro that evening. There is a big picture of Ernest Hemingway shaking hands with Fidel on the wall next to the bar at the Floridita, known as the “home of the daiquiri”, but I wondered what the great writer, traveller, hunter, fisherman, boxer, adventurer, womaniser, boozer and raconteur would have had to say about this house call, and the about the new political order at the end of the twentieth century.
This photo and the one at the top of the diary, of Hemingway aboard his yacht, the Pilar, were taken by the famous Cuban photographer Raul Corrales and bought as a series of postcards from the "shop" at the Riviera Hotel when I was there.
My Havana Diary continues TOMORROW!!