– By J.S. Porter; Photographs by Cheryl Porter
For Daniel and Rachel
Fourteen miles east of Havana is Hemingway’s Cuban home—Finca Vigía, “lookout house” – now Museo Hemingway. It’s located in the small, but growing, town of San Francisco de Paula.
Built in 1886 by the Catalan architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer, Finca Vigia was purchased by Hemingway in 1940 for a cost of $12,500. Consisting of four hectares, the lookout farm offers you a panoramic view of Havana. You can see the city all the way down to the harbour. Hemingway lived there with his wife Mary for 20 years, the longest time he ever lived in one place.
On the lush-green property, Hemingway had a swimming pool, a tennis court, a makeshift baseball diamond, a burial site for dogs, unmarked graves of numerous cats, a guest house, a cockfighting space, animal heads on the walls, and books in every room. He had a tower built to write in that became a sanctuary for his cats.
Hemingway’s three-storey tower had what seemed to be a perfect space for writing. But was it too distracting, the view too beautiful? Or, had the daily barrel of booze, depression and the nine concussions, including two from airplane crashes, taken their toll on his discipline and concentration in the final years?
Whatever the reason, the Tower was not a place where Hemingway wrote; it was a place where his cats played. In Finca Vigía, Hemingway had the perfect place to live but maybe not to write. The beauty is overwhelming and perhaps paralyzing.
His famous boat Pilar is also now on the property. Vines and flowering trees and an ancient Ceiba tree at the front entrance, stray dogs sprawled languidly on the front steps, and windows you can open to let life in, make Finca Vigía a light-filled place you’d like to spend your own days.
On Wednesday, February 28, 2018, Cheryl and I visited Finca Vigía as soon as it opened at 10 am. We arrived in our driver Odeitty Sosa Prado’s 1954 kiwi-green Chevrolet Station Wagon. Odeitty has a daughter in Oshawa and a son living with him in Santa Cruz who dreams of baseball. Odeitty refers to his car as his second son.
We peered through the windows of “la casa de Hemingway” at the life that was once there. Outside the gate there were a dozen parked tour buses. From a distance, you could hear a chorus of voices in Dutch, German, French, Spanish and Chinese with the one recognizable word— “Hemingway.”
I was particularly moved by the marked grave for Black, his canine companion but was surprised not to see a similar grave for Boise, his feline companion. About Black, he once said, “I miss Black Dog as much as I miss any friend I ever lost…” When both animals were alive, he had said in an interview, “I do not know what I will do if anything happens to Black Dog or Boise, just go on working I suppose.”
I found myself day-dreaming as I walked through the trees along stone paths. This is the place where Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea and many failed books, bloated efforts that wouldn’t succumb to form. This is the place that he worked on A Moveable Feast and The Garden of Eden. He nearly finished the first but left the second in an unruly mess. For me, there are his greatest books, as much for the bravery of the attempt as the near-beauty of the accomplishment.
Prophetically the young Hemingway had written in the story-fragment “On Writing” in The Nick Adams Stories that “he wanted to be a great writer. He was pretty sure he would be…It was hard to be a great writer if you loved the world and living in it and special people. It was hard when you loved so many places.”
By the 1950s Hemingway’s love of many places had perhaps narrowed to one place, to Cuba, Havana, and Finca Vigía, the place he regarded as home. Privacy and solitude were no longer possible after his winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. Constant visitors, hangers-on, requests in the mail, a coterie of sycophants: these things were not conducive to work. Even his two successive live-in muses, Adriana Ivancich and Valery Danby-Smith, may have been a little distracting.
Referring to himself as “the first Cuban sato” (slang for a mixed breed dog), Hemingway wrote this about his adopted home: “I love this country and I feel like home.” He had loved other places. Michigan, streams, and woods. Paris. Venice. Key West. Spain. East Africa. But surely, he loved no place as long, or as deeply, as he loved Cuba and his tropical paradise on a hill overlooking Havana.