On October 14, The Washington Post published a feature article in its Sunday Style section on the restoration of Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Vigia, just south of Havana. During the next two days, A+A will post segments of the story with permission from the Post. Special thanks go to Michael Connors, Brent Winebrenner and Rizzoli New York for “The Splendor of Cuba,” published in hardcover last month.
By J. Michael Welton
“Papa used to hide manuscripts in a valise on the top shelf of the closet in the study. The manuscripts were first wrapped in brown paper, then a towel and then stuffed in a valise. It was a way to assure that little humidity would get to them,” Villarreal said in a recent e-mail, interpreted by his son. “Hemingway also hid letters he received from his friend Marlene Dietrich and other women behind the bookcases in his workroom.” The others included Adriana Ivancich, a 19-year-old Venetian beauty who visited Finca Vigia in 1950, and who served as inspiration for Renata, the female protagonist in “Across the River and into the Trees.”
A year after the author’s death, Villarreal gave a tour of the house to Fidel Castro, who would turn it into a museum and hire him as its director. From 1962 to 1964, Villarreal restored the house, which had been occupied by Cuban soldiers after Hemingway left. In 1968, he resigned, deciding to leave Cuba. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of its financial support, the Cubans maintained the museum, although water damage did begin to take its toll inside..
The story of the house’s recent rebirth is something of an unlikely miracle — a celebration of a shared icon that the people of two nations can claim as their own. It begins with Max Perkins, Hemingway’s editor at Scribner’s in New York — or more specifically, Perkins’s granddaughter, Jenny Phillips.
She was touring Cuba on a cultural trip in 2001 when she decided on a whim to visit Finca Vigia, thinking some of her grandfather’s papers might be there.
“We went out, and I introduced myself to one of the guards, who got very excited,” Phillips says. “He said: ‘Come back tomorrow, and you can go inside.’ ”
She returned, only to be denied access to the basement where most of Hemingway’s documents were stored. The refusal spurred her to action.
“It became a mystery and an energizer,” she says.
Back in the States, her husband, a political reporter for the Boston Globe, touched base with the John F. Kennedy Library in Cambridge, Mass., which houses Hemingway’s papers. “Someone there told him that the basement was full of things they’d been trying to see forever, but the Cubans wouldn’t let them,” she says. “Scholars had been trying on their own, too.”
He also contacted Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who, because of his favorable relations with the Cuban government, got the ball rolling on the preservation of the documents and books inside. McGovern “wanted to see the cultural legacy preserved and said it could be done by collaborating with the Cubans,” she said.
In March 2002, Phillips was back in Havana, signing an accord with the Office of Cultural Patrimony. By 2008, three sets of 3,000 of documents were digitized and microfilmed — one for the Kennedy Library, one for a Chicago vault for safekeeping and one for Finca Vigia. The originals never left the house, which was suffering from a leaking roof, with rampant mold and fungus.
“We were going to preserve the documents — preserve them like Twain’s or Faulkner’s,” Adams says. “But the house had moisture, and no temperature or humidity control.”
Tomorrow: Preserving the House