A trip to Ernest Hemingway’s island sanctuary provides visitors intimate insights into the daily life and creative processes of this literary genius. The restless author left his Cuba home in 1960, unknowingly to never return, and as a result it appears as if he never left. Surrounded by prosaic remnants, like the jazz record cued on the turnstile, or the pair of wire-rimmed spectacles resting atop a side table, visitors can almost hear the ghostly tinkling of ice against glass that no-doubt resonated frequently when Hemingway sauntered through his villa.
In every room in the house, large windows welcome beams of sunlight that bounce across shelves packed with the multicolored spines of weathered books. Dark-polished wooden tables laden with various hunting daggers and taxidermied trophies serve as reminders of the adventurous author’s deep fascination with the natural world. On the bathroom wall beside the scale, visitors can spot columns of numbers hastily scrawled by Hemingway himself; he was fastidious and self-conscious about his weight in addition to his writing.
Hemingway, no stranger to life’s indulgences, preferred to rise early and finish his daily writing by mid-morning. He believed his ideas flowed most freely when he wrote standing up, and his prolific typewriter sits atop a waist-high shelf beside his bed. However, his more iconic creative space was behind the 10-foot long, curved wooden desk in the house’s library. Sitting at its crest, surrounded by floor-to ceiling bookcases and international artwork, with a view of the lush gardens beyond, Hemingway authored The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Just beyond the library lies the sala, where Hemingway’s fourth and final wife, former Times correspondent Mary Welsh, transformed the house into a home. Mounted antelope heads dot the walls; their elegant horns and watchful gaze contribute to the rustic tranquility of Hemingway’s enclave. Flowered upholstery is arranged in inviting circles, ashtrays dot the surface of tables, and a bar cart stands in the center of the room, adorned with still-unopened rum bottles from a bygone-era. Though artfully decorated, the room portrays a sense of relaxed familiarity, and it is easy to imagine the couple’s many upper-echelon guests lounging in the heat on a tropical getaway.
With an abundance of windows, high ceilings, tiled floors, and a relatively open floor-plan, the inside of the home is well-suited for Cuba’s heat and humidity, yet the surrounding grounds were no-doubt the main draw for friends on vacation. Hemingway’s house, the estate known as Finca Vigía, or lookout house, sits atop a verdant crest, and a curving, tree-lined driveway cuts through the lush foliage shrouding the writer’s haven. To the left of the arched entryway lies a large porch with a flower-laden trellis whose vines cast whimsical shadows on mosaic countertops.
The grounds, littered with emerald palm fronds and towering bamboo shoots, hosted a tennis court, guest house, pool, and bustled with a fleet of well-trained staff. Ava Gardner once skinny-dipped in the turquoise waters of the inviting pool. It is the only part of the house yet to undergo restoration. The tennis court, once playground to the likes of Clark Gable, today serves as the dry-dock for Hemingway’s beloved marlin-fishing boat, the Pilar, built by Wheeler Shipyard, Inc. in Brooklyn, NY. Although pristinely refurbished, the long shadows produced by the vessel in the evening light portray a sense of abandonment and nostalgia echoed throughout the finca.
When the couple left Cuba in 1960 after the Cuban Revolution, they had every intention of returning the following winter, as they had for the previous 15 years. This was never the case; Hemingway shot himself in their Idaho summer home the following year. Informed that all of her late husband’s belongings had been confiscated by the nation of Cuba, a desperate Mary called on her good friend Jackie Kennedy for diplomatic help. They arranged a one-time recon mission, and Mary traveled to Cuba herself, to stuff as many of Hemingway’s manuscripts and personal possessions into a small shrimp boat back to Florida.
For decades, the finca was left to decay in the elements, and when restoration began in 2005 the roof was sagging and the walls were covered in mold. However, through a dedicated collaboration between the US and Cuba, the home has been restored to its 1950s glory. Over 10,000 photos and manuscripts have been preserved; the originals remain in Cuba while digital copies have been stored in the JFK Library in Boston. Before his death, Hemingway dedicated his Nobel medal to the people of Cuba, and in return, the people of Cuba have preserved his legacy.