Sunday 26 February 2012

Photo Essay: Hemingway in Cuba - Ambos Mundos & Finca Vigia

I've been to a fair number of author's homes over the years, but none has had quite the impact on me as Ernest Hemingway's house in Cuba. Perhaps it's because the place is so much more contemporary in style and fittings than the likes of Charles Dickens' and Jane Austen's nineteenth-century homes. Even though the house is clean and tidy - everything in its place - it really has a lived-in feel. It's easy to imagine Papa Hemingway emerging from a back room to greet you at the front door.

Here are some of the photographs I took in Cuba back in March, 2010: pictures of the Ambos Mundos Hotel in the old part of Havana; and pictures of Hemingway's house - Finca Vigia - on the south-east outskirts of the city.

The view looking north from the Ambos Mundos Hotel in the old section of Havana

Ernest Hemingway’s first extended visit to Cuba happened in April, 1932. At that time he was living in a large house on Whitehead Street in Key West, Florida with his second wife Pauline. It was in Key West that Hemingway discovered the joys of deep-sea sport fishing, thanks to his friend Charles Thompson. He began fishing around the Keys with Thompson and several other like-minded friends, and they made trips over to Bimini Island in the east, and the Dry Tortugas to the west.  

View from Room 511 - Hemingway's room in the Ambos Mundos Hotel

Hemingway made the trip over to Havana in Cuba with his friend Joe Russell, who owned Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West. Russell also owned a 32-foot cabin cruiser called Anita. He charged Hemingway $10 a day to help defray the costs of their marine trip - spent fishing in the Gulf Stream off the northern coast of Cuba. It was originally planned as a two-week holiday, but once they discovered the thrill of fishing for giant marlin, the trip went on for 65 days!

Room 511 of the Ambos Mundos - Hemingway wrote some of For Whom The Bell Tolls here

Room 511 is now a Hemingway shrine 

When his wife Pauline came over to visit from Florida a couple of times, they stayed at the Ambos Mundos Hotel in central Havana. And when Pauline wasn’t around, Hemingway spent a lot of time here with Jane Mason, the young wife of the head of Pan American Airways in Cuba. The Ambos Mundos became a regular haunt of Hemingway’s. He always stayed in Room 511; it was cooler five storeys up, and the room was on the corner of the building, so he got views from his windows in two directions. It was $2 a night there. Even after he had his own house on the island, Hemingway would come into town and stay for a few days at the hotel – sometimes he needed to get away to concentrate on a spell of writing; sometimes he would engage in discreet liaisons with Jane Mason. Cost to get into Room 511 now in order to view the Hemingway memorabilia is $2!

Looking through the front door of Finca Vigia: dining room in the back; magazine stand to the right

By 1939, Hemingway’s relationship with Pauline was almost over.  That spring he crossed over to Cuba in his own boat, the Pilar, which he had had built to his own specifications back in 1934. He took up residence, as usual, at the Ambos Mundos  Hotel. He was joined in Cuba by the new woman in his life, the journalist Martha Gellhorn, who would soon become his third wife. Gellhorn didn't like living in the cramped quarters of the hotel; she was keen to find a house for them on the island, so she began a diligent search. Eventually she found a listing in a local newspaper of a house for sale

An avenue of trees borders a path on the Finca Vigia property.

It was a large, Spanish-style, one-storey farmhouse located 24 kilometres south-east of Havana in a small village called San Francesco de Paula. The house was called Finca Vigia – Spanish for “Lookout Farm” – and it sat on a hill surrounded by a fifteen-acre property. Finca Vigia had been built in 1886 by the Catalan architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer. Martha arranged to rent the place for the bargain rent of $100 a month. When Hemingway first saw the place, he was not impressed; he thought it was a hopeless mess and needed more work done to it than he deemed worth their consideration. Gellhorn disagreed and set about cleaning up and renovating the place: the furniture was slowly replaced; the rooms fixed up and re-painted; and the pool was drained and cleaned out. Once the place became more presentable, and more comfortable to live in, Hemingway revised his opinion and came to realise that they had found a good home close to the capital.

 The huge living room at Finca Vigia - hunting trophy and bullfight poster on the wall

The following year - in December 1940 - Hemingway bought Finca Vigia for $12,500. He paid for it with part of the royalties accrued for his recent best-selling novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. The marriage with Gellhorn did not last long. And then Hemingway took up with Mary Welsh, who became the fourth, and final, Mrs. Hemingway. They lived in the Cuban house until 1960. So it would serve as home for Hemingway from 1939-1960, one-third of his life. He would write half-a-dozen, or so, books there – For Whom the Bell Tolls, Across the River and Into the Trees, The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, and Islands in the Stream (the last two published after his death). His sons spent extended summer holidays at the house. Many of Hemingway’s friends were invited to stay – most of them encouraged to participate in his pet pursuits: fishing for large fish in the Gulf Stream, shooting gamebirds at a nearby gun-club, and drinking daiquiris at the Floridita, his favourite watering-hole in Havana.

Hemingway's record collection at Finca Vigia
With the political complications that emerged after the Cuban revolution, and the physical and mental decline that hit Hemingway in the late-fifties, he and his wife abandoned the house in July, 1960 and moved to Ketchum, Idaho. After Ernest’s suicide in 1961, Mary Welsh Hemingway negotiated with the Cuban government about the Finca Vigia property. They had been threatening expropriation, anyway, but Mary gave the house and land to the Cuban people, with the understanding that it would be set up as a museum devoted to her husband. She was allowed to remove a certain amount of personal property – paintings, books and jewelry from the house, and a substantial horde of manuscripts which had been deposited over the years in a vault in Havana. Most of those documents are now housed in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston.

This walk-in closet at the back of the house holds mostly clothing Hemingway used when he covered WWII as a 1944.

When I was in Cuba for the first time in 2010, I thought it appropriate to acquaint myself with the work and life of this great American writer. I read A Moveable Feast, his fascinating account of the time in Paris from 1921-1926 [see my previous blog post], and The Old Man and the Sea, the novella which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. And I decided to visit Finca Vigia – now called the Museo Hemingway, the Hemingway Museum. To get there you take a taxi from Havana. It’s about a forty-minute drive along the Carretera Central to the village of San Francisco de Paula. In Hemingway’s time, the place was quite a distance from the outskirts of the city, but now the former village has been swallowed up by the expanding shanty-town development of the large city. Now it’s just an outlying “suburb” of the capital.

Books and bookcases everywhere - this is a library/den with a writing desk Hemingway seldom used


His typewriter set up for work - not on a desk, on a bookcase!
This picture to the left shows the spot where Hemingway usually did his writing. He preferred to write at his typewriter standing up. His back would start to bother him, if he sat at a desk too long. He would pace around the room for a while, looking out the windows - there were two sets in this room - and then pound away at the typewriter on top of the bookcase. Hemingway tried to put a minimum of 500 words to paper each day, although he did not usually write quickly. He was careful and weighed each word and sentence. He would begin mid-morning (around 9:00 or 10:00), and write until early afternoon. He always stopped in the middle of a paragraph, or half-way through an incident in the plot. He thought it better that he was able to come back the next day and start straight into something he already had on the go, rather than starting a brand new section. Hemingway was a heavy drinker, but he never drank before or during his writing work. Once his work was done - then, the bottles came out.

Dogs, now - not cats!

Hemingway loved cats. He had lots of them at his house in Key West, some of them  had six toes! Within a few years of setting up in his Cuban home, he had another menagerie of felines ruling the roost. He would let his favourites flop on his desk or bookcases. Or sit in his lap. When we were at Finca Vigia the cats were gone, but there was a small pack of feral dogs roaming the property. My wife and kids got quickly bored with the Hemingway thing; as I continued to tour around the house and grounds, they turned their attention to playing with the canines.

a museum guide shows a Hemingway typewriter in the tower

After Mary Welsh became the fourth Mrs. Hemingway, and moved into Finca Vigia, she decided to have constructed for Ernest a three-story tower just off the back-left corner of the house. It was going to allow a better view of the far-off city to the north, and provide a quiet retreat for her husband to do his daily writing.The tower was built, but Hemingway didn't take to it as a writing location. He preferred to be in the heart of the house - in familiar surroundings. He felt too isolated at the top of the tower. And it just seemed too out of the way to make him comfortable. The tower became a play-room for many of Hemingway's large menagerie of cats. The museum has set up the room in the middle section of the tower as a repository of some of his fishing paraphernalia - rods, lures, and so on. And copies of some of the books and stories which were focused on fishing, like The Old Man and the Sea. And the room on the top level has a  reading chair, a bookcase crammed with even more of his, a telescope and one of Hemingway's typewriters.

The dining room - the one room which Hemingway insisted should have no bookshelves

One thing that surprises and, even, disappoints some visitors when they get to the Finca Vigia museum is that you are not allowed into the house. All the doors and windows are open, but ropes are set in place across the threshold of the doors to bar entry. It makes sense. The temptation to walk off with a Hemingway memento - a rare first edition of one of his earliest works, for example - would be too strong. And there would inevitably be damage from the large number of visitors going through the place. Funnily enough, though, as the photos here show, if you have a decent camera, you can still get really good photographs of the house interiors just by leaning through the doors and windows. Of course, I would have liked to stand inside the house, but I didn't come away thinking I'd missed anything important.

The main bedroom - note the slide-projector

 In 2002 a small group of concerned Americans established the Finca Vigia Foundation, a non-profit organisation devoted to saving the house from the ravages of time. This bi-national project involves Cubans and Americans in a long-term effort to save the house  and its contents from continuing damage from heat, humidity and pests. Engineering work has been planned to stabilise the house itself; and preservation work has been undertaken to preserve and protect the vast collection (3000+) of photographs, artwork, scrapbooks, travel maps and books. The book collection alone is priceless - 9,000 volumes, many of them rare 1st. editions. Here is a link to the Finca Vigia Foundation.

The library/den at the back of the house - the front door is open at the back of this photo

So, if you have any interest in Ernest Hemingway, and find yourself on holiday in Cuba, I highly recommend a trip to Finca Vigia. Granted, it is a bit out of the way, and takes some time and effort to get to. But I am very glad I visited - it really did inspire me to learn more about Hemingway and, of course, to read more of his work.


  1. Thanks for this, Clive. Cracking photographs and engaging commentary. I'll bet you enjoyed writing it.

  2. great job...thanks

  3. The last photo brings up some memories .... where you see the embalmed head of the black buffalo he killed in Africa Safari Directly opposite the head of the buffalo there is a window where you can see the desktop and above this buffalo head. From the outside looking inside you could touch a few pairs of shoes worn by Hemingway ,in 1975 after someone stole one of the pairs , all the shoes were rearranged away from the window I remember it was colored brown leather sandal tected type number 11".