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Cuba opens door to Hemingway secrets

Tourists are allowed to visit his island home, and scholars hope to see his books soon.

May 28, 2003|Anthony Boadle | Reuters

HAVANA — The pool where Ava Gardner swam naked and the half-empty bottles of gin, rum and bourbon remain exactly where he left them, along with the antelope heads from African safaris and 9,000 books.

The worn-out kudu hide where he stood barefoot to work is in its place in front of his portable typewriter 43 years after Ernest Hemingway departed his beloved Cuban house, leaving behind letters, photographs, manuscripts and clothes.

On the bathroom wall, the writer meticulously noted his weight every day from 1955 to 1960 when his health was failing because of diabetes, cirrhosis and high blood pressure.

Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), a 9-acre estate on a hill just east of Havana, is where he lived from 1940 to 1960 and hosted such friends as Gardner, Gary Cooper, Esther Williams, Ingrid Bergman and rival Spanish bullfighters Dominguin and Ordonez. Today it is a museum offering insights into the personality, lifestyle and final years of the American writer.

In recent years, increasing numbers of Americans have traveled to Cuba -- many defying a U.S. travel ban -- and visited the property where Hemingway wrote "The Old Man and the Sea," the story of a futile struggle between a fisherman and a giant marlin that won a Pulitzer Prize and the 1954 Nobel Prize for literature.

"Americans have always been fascinated with Ernest because he exudes a certain machismo. They think of him as the great womanizer, the great drinker, the great fisherman, the great hunter, the great lover of life," said niece Hilary Hemingway.

Cuba, home to the writer for a third of his life, is now at the forefront of Hemingway research. Cuban and American scholars began holding conferences on his work in 1997. Overcoming four decades of Cold War hostility with the United States, Cuba last year opened his house and documents to American scholars and a U.S.-funded restoration project. Tourists are allowed only to peep through the windows.

"The unique thing about Finca Vigia is that it was closed up as soon as he passed away and kept like the day he left," said Hemingway, daughter of the writer's younger brother Leicester and author of "Hemingway in Cuba."

"There is a sense of his presence here. You have his liquor cabinet, all of his records, what the man was thinking, feeling, breathing, eating ... how he felt about life," she said.

Decaying documents will be microfilmed and copies stored at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. They include a rejected epilogue of Hemingway's classic "For Whom the Bell Tolls," 3,000 photographs and letters from Adriana Ivancich, the 19-year-old Italian countess whom he fell madly in love with.

Hemingway scholars are particularly eager to get access to the collection of 9,000 books, many of them annotated in the margins, to better understand the man and his mind.

"His marginalia is of incredible value. There are books everywhere. He has just got books stashed willy-nilly," said Linda Miller, English professor at Penn State University and one of 65 experts at this year's colloquium on the author. "He changed the way Americans wrote. Any writer after him, whether he or she likes his art, has to deal with Hemingway."

The daily weight log is "quintessential" Hemingway because he was so concerned with exactitude and detail in his craft, Miller said.

While many see Hemingway as a simplistic writer, he did try to innovate by moving beyond the stereotypical short sentences in later works, she said. "Ultimately, he felt totally trapped," she said.

Hemingway said diabetes caused her uncle's bouts of depression, leading the writer to commit suicide in 1961 at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, using his favorite shotgun. He had intended to return to Cuba, but his health failed him, she said.

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