Cuba has dusted off Ernest Hemingway’s books, records and stag heads, cleaned out his pool and weeded his dogs’ graves, hoping to attract more visitors to his cherished hilltop home overlooking Havana.
Yet the restoration of the American writer’s retreat and its contents—including mildewed rum bottles, a pickled bat in a jar and the typewriter he used to write The Old Man and the Sea —could take the cash-strapped communist island two more years to complete, officials say.
“It’s a process that requires dedication and time. I predict (a finish date) perhaps at the end of 2009,” said Ada Rosa Alfonso, director of Finca Vigia, the Spanish colonial house-turned-museum where Hemingway lived from 1939 to 1960.
Hemingway’s widow, Mary Welsh, turned the property over to the Cuban government after the writer committed suicide in 1961, and much of it remains as Hemingway left it.
Work to renovate the termite-ravaged house and fix the effects of years of humidity on its contents was begun in 2005, when the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the estate on a list of endangered sites.
The trust has sent restoration experts to Cuba but, slowing up the project, the decades-old U.S. trade embargo has barred it and other heritage groups from sending funds or materials. “The U.S. government doesn’t want to,” Alfonso said, after announcing a series of celebrations planned from April to mark the 45th anniversary of Finca Vigia, now repainted its original cream color, being opened to the public.
“There are many North Americans who are really interested in protecting and preserving Hemingway’s heritage. The government does not permit them to,” she said.
The parlor of the Finca Vigia colonial residence where US writer Ernest Hemingway lived for 21 years. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
The restoration, including work on “Pilar,” the 40-foot fishing boat Hemingway used to fish marlin and track German submarines, is seen costing at least $1 million.
A peep through the windows of the airy house, whose name means “Lookout Farm,” conjures up a forgotten world where 1950s writers and film stars sipped rum cocktails to the sound of scratchy Glenn Miller records.
The Nobel Prize-winning writer entertained a host of glamorous friends here, including actress Ava Gardner, who famously swam naked in his cavernous tree-shaded pool. He also befriended locals, creating a bond that has endured in spite of the bitter divide between Cuba and the United States.
“I used to ride in his car. I spent a lot of time here learning to swim in this pool,” said Antonio Elizondo, 67, who as the young son of Hemingway’s chauffeur met movie stars like Errol Flynn and Spencer Tracy.
“Hemingway was a marvelous person. Very human, very thoughtful, very simple. We Cubans have a lot of respect for the American people and especially for him,” he said.
Hemingway left for the United States around 1960 and was devastated when the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 meant he could not return.
The house, where he also kept 60 cats, is cluttered with books, stuffed animal trophies and family photos. A radio and record player are back in working order, and the bathroom wall is marked with scribbles where he recorded his weight.
On his desk is a rubber stamp he liked to mark letters with before returning them unopened. It reads: “I never write letters. Ernest Hemingway.”