A Peek Inside the Cuban Home of Ernest Hemingway
Located 10 miles south east of Havana in the small town of San Francisco de Paula is Finca Vigia (‘the lookout farm’) and former home of American novelist, short story writer, and journalist, Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway lived here from 1939-1960 and is where he wrote several books, including The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast and Islands in the Stream. When the US cut all diplomatic ties with Castro’s government, Hemingway was reluctant to leave his home. Suffering from depression, he committed suicide the following year in Idaho.
Also known as El Museo de Ernesto Hemingway, the house remains just as the writer left it. We stopped by on our way back from Trinidad to take a look and it proved to be a fun place to go with children too.
The fact that nothing has changed in Hemingway’s house is fascinating and it gave us all – the children included – an interesting insight into how he lived.
Sadly you can’t actually wander around the rooms themselves (a rule put in place to prevent objects getting stolen, apparently), which was something of a disappointment. However, it also meant that we didn’t have to worry about the children jumping on Hemingway’s sofa or “testing” out his typewriter! Instead, we were content to peek through the open windows.
The house is full of books, photographs, paintings, magazines, hunting trophies from his African safaris and curious little objects such as driftwood and pickled reptiles in jam jars, which of course the children were the first to spot. Obsessed with keeping fit, you can even see where he jotted his weight on the bathroom walls. ‘Naughty Mr Hemingway!’ my kids remarked.
It’s hard not to daydream when wandering around the house. In my head I poured myself a gin and tonic from the bar in his sitting room and lowered the needle onto a record (perhaps this one by Edith Piaf). With glass-in-hand I browsed the bookshelves and examined the paintings on the wall as I waited for Ernest to come back from a fishing trip (because he’d be a close friend of course!). Was that a real Miró? I wondered as he entered the room with his devoted dog, Black at his heel (at least 4 dogs and 57 cats shared Finja Vigia with Hemingway during his time there). ‘Ah, Victoria’ he would say, ‘Thanks for dropping in. How’s that blog of yours coming along? Can you join us for dinner? We have Gary Cooper staying’.
For a (more authentic!) insight, you should read this intriguing article by Valerie Hemingway, Ernest’s personal secretary at the time and future daughter-in-law who returned to Havana in 1999 to find Hemingway’s home “as Mary [Hemingway’s third wife] and I had left it almost 40 years before”
“Inside, I felt distracted, not by the objects I was trying to identify, for I had taken little notice of them when I lived there, but by my memories. My Finca Vigía is not a museum but a home. Looking at the chintz-covered chair in the living room, I saw Hemingway’s ample figure as he sat holding a glass of scotch in one hand, his head slightly nodding to a George Gershwin tune coming from the record player. In the dining room, I saw not the heavy oblong wooden table with its sampling of china place settings, but a spread of food and wine and a meal in progress, with conversation and laughter and Ernest and Mary occasionally calling each other “kitten” and “lamb.” In the pantry, where the seven servants ate and relaxed, I recalled watching Friday-night boxing broadcasts from Madison Square Garden. For these matches, every household member was invited, and Ernest presided, setting the odds, monitoring the kitty, giving blow-by-blow accounts of the action”.
Today, as in the past, old magazines were strewn on the bed in the large room at the south end of the house, where Ernest worked every morning, standing at a typewriter or writing in longhand, using a bookshelf as his desk. In the library next door each weekday afternoon, I transcribed as Ernest dictated answers to his business and personal letters. (He told me to take care of the fan mail as I pleased.) He would tell me about what he had written that morning or, on days of lesser inspiration, curtly report nothing more than a word count. The early months of 1960 were lighthearted and hopeful, but as spring turned to summer he became increasingly depressed by Cuba’s political situation, his failing health and his growing inability to work.
Now, the house, which was once so well worn and lived in—even a bit shabby in places—seemed crisp and pristine and crystallised in time.”
Hemingway’s home also has a shady garden and the children, happy to be out of the car, went off to explore. At the far end is the now-empty swimming pool where Ava Gardner is said to have swam naked, the graves of his beloved dogs and his beautifully preserved, walnut-hulled fishing boat, Pilar. It’s thought he may have based Santiago – the main character in The Old Man and the Sea (which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for in 1953, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954) – on Pilar’s skipper, Gregorio Fuentes. I recently discovered that one of our favourite bloggers, Vanessa of Bozaround, had the honour of meeting Gregorio Fuentes. She recalls her encounter in this post, ‘I wonder what Hemingway would say about Cuba today‘.
Look out for Pilar (or rather a replica of the boat) as she will play a starring role in an upcoming movie by Andy Garcia, co-written with Hemingway’s niece Hilary. Another Hemingway film to look out for is Papa. Unlike Pilar, which is being shot in the Dominican Republic, Papa is the first American production to be filmed in Cuba since the trade embargo in 1960. The script was written by a journalist friend of Hemingway and includes scenes that were shot in Finca Vigia. The actors are reported to use real props such as Hemingway’s typewriter. Sounds intriguing but I have yet to find out where to watch it. If anyone knows, please tell me!
After his death Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary gave his house to the Cuban government. In a recently discovered letter she clarifies why this donation is what her husband would have wanted.
“…Whereas – my husband, Ernest Hemingway, was for twenty-five years a friend of the Pueblo of Cuba…he never took part in the politics of Cuba…he never sold any possessions of his, except his words, having given away cars, guns, books and his Nobel Prize Medal to the Virgen del Cobre…I believe that he would be pleased that his property…in Cuba be given to the people of Cuba…as a center for opportunities for wider education…to be maintained in his memory…I hereby give to the people of Cuba this property…”.
Take a Video Tour!
Take our 1 minute tour of Ernest Hemingway’s house in Havana:
Or take a longer look around with Hemingway’s granddaughter, Mariel:
Hemingway for Kids: 5 Fun Facts!
- There is a Hemingway Look-Alike Society! Do you know anyone who looks like him? (Send us a photo if you do!)
- Hemingway’s mum kept him out of school for a year to make him learn the cello! As Hemingway explained to the Paris Review, “She thought I had ability, but I was absolutely without talent. We played chamber music—someone came in to play the violin; my sister played the viola, and mother the piano. That cello—I played it worse than anyone on earth. Of course, that year I was out doing other things too.”
- Hemingway preferred to work standing up (so you can tell your teachers this next time they tell you to sit down!)
- Hemingway had a polydactyl cat (a cat with 6 toes) called Snowball. He became fascinated with this genetic mutation and started breeding them. Polydactyl cats are now sometimes referred to as ‘Hemingway cats’ and can still be seen in Hemingway’s Key West house in Florida where they continue to breed them.
- Hemingway once took the urinal out of his favourite bar in Key West, Sloppy Joe’s, claiming he had ‘pissed away’ enough money in the urinal to call it his own. He converted it into a fountain at the front of his Florida house. [One for teenagers? Or perhaps not!]
Introducing Hemingway to Teenagers
Or …. you can show them this Oscar winning, animated short instead! I couldn’t find a rating for it but as a heads-up, it does get a little gory towards the end when The Old Man is killing the shark. Best for older kids!
Hemingway didn’t just save his best stories for books. His charismatic personality also made him a captivating storyteller at social events too. His tales were often so far fetched that you wonder how anyone ever believed him. But as his friend, and biographer, Hotchner once said, he was so convincing that even his most outrageous adventures seemed possible. The following story is a personal favourite, and one that I think will appeal to kids too!
“Back in the old days this was one of the few good, solid bars, and there was an ex-pug who used to come in with a pet lion. He’d stand at the bar here and the lion would stand here beside him. He was a very nice lion with good manners – no growls or roars – but, as lions will, he occasionally shit on the floor. This, of course, had a rather adverse effect on the trade and, as politely as he could, Harry asked the ex-pug not to bring the lion around anymore. But the next day the pug was back with the lion, lion dropped another load, drinkers dispersed, Harry again made the request. The third day, same thing. Realizing it was do or die for poor Harry’s business, this time when the lion let go, I went over, picked up the pug, who had been a welterweight, carried him outside and threw him in the street. Then I came back and grabbed the lion’s mane and hustled him out of here. Out on the sidewalk, the lion gave me a look, but he went quietly.”
Do you believe him?!
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To view all our blog posts in the Cuba with Kids series see our Family Guide to Cuba.
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