With Cuban help, Kennedy library gets Hemingway trove
Papers flesh out novelist’s villa life
WASHINGTON — He may be the only icon that the United States and Cuba, longtime nemeses, both claim as their own. When he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, many Cubans felt the honor was bestowed upon one of their countrymen, not a native of suburban Chicago.
Now, Ernest Hemingway’s life in Cuba, much of it obscured during years of distrust between Washington and the communist regime in Havana, is being illuminated in hundreds of previously unavailable letters, telegrams, travel documents, and even the liquor and grocery bills that Hemingway left in the rustic Cuban villa known as Finca Vigia where he lived for more than two decades.
The materials, preserved and digitized by the Boston-based Finca Vigia Foundation through an unprecedented agreement with the Cuban Council of National Heritage, offer a new window into the daily existence of a man widely regarded as the greatest American novelist of the 20th century, and one of the world’s most revered personalities, a larger-than-life, even mythical figure of adventure, appetites, and literary achievement.
The 2,000 digitized images will be donated Monday — on the 60th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize for “The Old Man and the Sea’’ — to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester. Hemingway’s official papers are already there, bequeathed by his widow in gratitude to President Kennedy for assisting her, at the nadir of US-Cuba relations, to get some of Hemingway’s things out of Cuba following his death.
“Because of Hemingway’s stature in American literature and popular culture, there is immense interest,” said Sandra Spanier, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. “These fill in the blanks of what daily life was like.”
The Finca Vigia Foundation was founded in Boston in 2002 by Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Max Perkins, Hemingway’s editor at Scribner’s.
Spanier, who is also general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, is working with the foundation to make available the multitude of personal items Hemingway left in the one-story stucco villa where he lived between 1939 and 1960 and wrote some of his most famous works — including “For Whom The Bell Tolls,’’ “The Old Man and the Sea,’’ and “A Moveable Feast.’’
Parts of the collection resonate with history, such as Hemingway’s tattered passports, filled with immigration stamps from his many travels to hunt big game, cover the Spanish Civil War, and lead a band of French partisans in World War II.
But there are also reminders of the minutae of everyday life, for example, what Hemingway selected while perusing La Bohemia book store on Neptuno Street in Havana one day in 1944: the newly published novel “Bell for Adano,’’ by John Hersey, according to the newly digitized receipt.
He also added a Spanish-language military dictionary to what eventually grew to a collection of 9,000 titles that are still lining the walls of “Lookout Farm,” many with his handwritten notes in the margins. The tome was a timely wartime addition, in between Hemingway’s patrols in his beloved fishing boat Pilar looking for signs of German submarines, a hobby that according to the newly obtained documents was sanctioned at the time by both the commander of the Cuban Navy and the US ambassador in Havana.
The new donation is part of a continuing effort, dating to 2008, to preserve and share the bounty of Hemingway materials remaining at Finca Vigia, but shielded from most scholars since his suicide in 1961.
There is a letter Hemingway wrote to the actress Ingrid Bergman telling her he hoped she would be cast opposite Gary Cooper — a one-time dinner guest at Finca Vigia — in the film version of his novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls.’’ There are also letters he received from actor Don Ameche; the poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish; and literary critic Malcolm Cowley.
There is also a hotel bill from a trip he took to Austria in 1925. A speech he wrote in Spanish. A love letter to his fourth and final wife, Mary, from a former lover. And the more mundane, like his instructions to the household staff, including how to prepare his hamburgers: ground beef, onions, garlic, India relish, and capers, cooked so the edges were crispy but the center red and juicy.
“He was a pack rat,” Walter Houk, a diplomat at the US embassy in Havana from 1949 to 1952 whose wedding reception was hosted by Hemingway at Finca Vigia, where Houk’s wife worked as a part-time secretary, said in an interview. “That was his home base. The Cuban years are not well known because the great biographers didn’t go there.”
But beyond the inherent historical value of the artifacts, the joint effort of cultural preservation is seen by some as a small but significant step in the painstaking process of reconciliation between Cold War-era enemies. The United States and Cuba have not had diplomatic relations or trade ties since soon after the island’s Communist revolution in 1959.
“Hemingway was an incredible figure who has brought our countries together,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Worcester Democrat who wrote the original agreement in 2002 with then-Cuban president Fidel Castro to allow the Hemingway project to go forward. “This is significant. Cubans and Americans have collaborated on this for a decade.”
Those who knew Hemingway, or “Papa” as he was affectionately known, say his work cannot be fully appreciated without a better understanding of the role that Finca Vigia — what he referred to as his “Cuban Paradise” — played in his life.
“Papa Hemingway was able to work undisturbed for six hours a day from 6 a.m. until noon and then after a day’s work enjoy a refreshing swim in the Finca’s pool and his first cocktail of the day,” recalled Rene Villarreal, who joined Hemingway’s household staff at age 17 in 1946. “The rest of the day was spent either leisurely reading by the pool or planning fishing excursions. From his first visit to Cuba to the 21 years he spent as a permanent resident, Hemingway studied and gathered much material for his writing.”
Villarreal, who following Hemingway’s suicide in 1961 was appointed by the Cuban government to preserve the contents of Finca Vigia, said that during his lifetime Hemingway took pains to preserve his personal effects.
For the countless Hemingway enthusiasts, the materials are sure to unlock new mysteries about the man.
“I’d be interested to see what else he bought or any other recipes within those materials,” said Philip Greene, author of “To Have and Have Another - A Hemingway Cocktail Companion.” “He did like to drink and he drank a lot, but he generally did not drink when he wrote. Writing took so much out of him it left him like a old dish rag, he said.”
For those like Villarreal who knew Hemingway personally, the joint US-Cuba project marks a rare opportunity to reintroduce one of the world’s best known artists.
“His legacy stands in the works he wrote,” Villarreal said, “but also in the way and manner he lived and where he chose to live.”
Corrections: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for Philip Greene’s book. The name is “To Have and Have Another - A Hemingway Cocktail Companion.” The earlier version of the story also listed the wrong novel for Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize. Hemingway received the award for “The Old Man and the Sea” in 1953.