Bookshelf of the Week: Finca Vigía – Hemingway’s Cuban home

Finca Vigia . Picture credit: Ulises Juarez Polanco

It’s no coincidence that I’ve chosen to feature Ernest Hemingway’s former Cuban home, Finca Vigía (literally translated as ‘Lookout Farm’ on account of its commanding views over a distant Havana), for this edition of Bookshelf of the Week. I recently picked up A E Hotchner’s most excellent biography Papa Hemingway (Da Capo Press), and devoured it hungrily. It gives a lovely account of one man’s personal relationship with the great writer; a fourteen year friendship in which Hotchner would visit Hemingway at Finca Vigía, on numerous occasions.

Set in the hills in the small town of San Francisco de Paula, Ernest Hemingway moved to Finca Vigía in 1939 with the woman who would become his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. At first Hemingway didn’t think much of the place, but after tidying up Gellhorn encouraged him to return to the villa, where he quickly grew to love it, buying it outright in 1940, and staying there until 1960 when he returned to the US.

Following his suicide in 1961, the Cuban government claimed ownership of Finca Vigía, stating that Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary had deeded the property and its contents to them (a claim that Mary Hemingway denied). The home is now run as a museum, which is fully restored and maintained by the Finca Vigía Foundation (formerly the Hemingway Preservation Foundation, Inc.) with assistance from the Cuban government.

Hotchner in his delightful biography describes the interior of the villa as follows:

The walls of the dining-room and the nearly fifty-foot living room of the main house were populated with splendidly horned animal heads, and there were several well-trod animal skins on the tiled floors. The furniture was old, comfortable and undistinguished. Inside the front door was an enormous magazine rack that held an unceasing deluge of American and foreign-language periodicals. A large library off the living-room was crammed with books that lined the walls from the floor to the high ceiling. Ernest’s bedroom, where he worked, was also walled with books; there were over five thousand volumes on the premises.

The shot I’ve chosen to feature for this edition of Bookshelf of the Week – as captured by Ulises Juárez Polanco – is not of Hemingway’s library or his bedroom as might be expected, but rather one of his study room instead. I simply love this shot, not only because it beautifully illustrates Hemingway’s love of books, but because it also pictures one of his desks.

Of course, as most people know, Hemingway seldom worked at a desk, preferring instead to do most of his work standing up. Hotchner illustrates:

He never worked at the desk. Instead, he used a stand-up work place he had fashioned out of the top of a bookcase near his bed. His portable typewriter was snugged in there and papers were spread along the top of the bookcase on either side of it.

Altogether – and contrary to Hotchner’s guesstimate – there are around 9,000 volumes scattered around Finca Vigía (this virtual tour, although presented in Spanish and with a fiddly interface, gives an impression of the peppering of bookshelves around the villa), with 20% of them containing the marginalia of Hemingway himself.

Of course one has to assume that the Finca Vigía in its museum form is way off the layout as it would have been in Hemingway’s day. Travel writer David Lansing, writing for The Hemingway Project, bemoaned ‘the false way sections of the home are being displayed’. However, he also posts a video on Youtube, in which he juxtaposes old pictures of Hemingway at the villa against video footage of his tour. It shows to some degree at least, that some of the room layouts – including that of the featured study (03:15 approx) – are not all that way off the mark. Well thank heavens for that! 🙂

My thanks again to Ulises for his photo, and for allowing me to share it so openly. And DO go and check out the other photos in Ulises’ Finca Vigía set. You’ll be awfully glad that you did.

Thoughts? Comments? Have you visited Hemingway’s Cuban home and have your own experiences to pass on? Have you read Hotchner’s Hemingway biography? Did you enjoy it? Please pass on anything you want to say, below.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).

Comments

  1. I actually visited the hotel room in Havana where he lived before moving to the house — it’s open to the public. I’ll be posting an account with pictures soon on my blog, the Travelling Boomer — travellingboomer.com. I think this is one of the most interesting aspects of his career.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      How exciting Paul. I shall keep an eye out for your post. Better still, drop me an email on rob [at] robaroundbooks.com when it’s posted and I’ll drop by.
      Thanks for your comment
      Rob

  2. stujallen (Twitter: stujallen)
    says:

    wonderful choice I remember seeing it when it was on Palins hemingway adventures ,I have the book of picture from that series with a similar picture in ,all the best stu

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Ah yes, now you mention it I remember Palin mentioning it. Didn’t we make plans to go to Cuba one day, Stu? We should add a visit to the Finca Vigia to out itinerary.
      Thanks for stopping by, as always.
      Rob