A look inside Ernest Hemingway’s estate near Havana, Finca Vigia

Finca Vigia, front entry plaza
Finca Vigia, front entry plaza

When he was not writing letters or working on the books that earned him the Nobel Prize, Ernest Hemingway wrote notes, in pencil, on his walls and in the margins of many of the 8,000 books in his library. At his estate near Havana, Finca Vigia, known as Muséo Hemingway since 1962, Hemingway wrote margin notes in “thousands of books,” according to museum officials. In June, for the first time, the museum revealed a small sample of the many margin notes that have tantalized scholars and fans of the exile American author who adopted Cuba as his home.

Days before the biennial Hemingway Colloquium in June, Muséo directors allowed this journalist to take photos of several books with notes. They also provided answers to questions about the conditions and restorations of his wooden fishing boat Pilar and his one-story manor house, or villa, with emphasis on the selection of authentic interior and exterior paint colors.

During the June meeting, the director introduced two specialists who have spent years working on the preservation and restoration of Hemingway’s Cuba legacy: a professor of literature from Japan and a restauradora, a fresco and color specialist, from Havana. Questions about Pilar were answered on board the boat, on display on the tennis court.

Most notations are on the flyleaves. Others are typical editing marks in the main text such as Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night, noting typos with question marks. He circled “clapping his face” and penciled in “slapping”? He circled “dinghies” and added “!” Was he teasing his friend, famous for his “boats against the current” phrase, about his nautical vocabulary? Such topics will keep Hemingway scholars busy for years after the full archive is made available late next year.

Professionals with advanced degrees and special expertise are expected in restorations of art and historic buildings in cultural centers such as Florence, Italy. That same level of expertise is mandatory in the ongoing work by the Office of the City Historian of Havana, and the Ministry of Culture, the organization in charge of the Finca.

Selection of the specialist to assist in digitizing books with margin notes came about by chance: A professor of literature from Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan, visited Finca Vigia several years ago. Upon seeing the estate for the first time, Hideo Yanagisawa caught “Hemingway fever” as he discovered a new mission in his academic life.

Overwhelmed by the holdings of the Finca, particularly the library, he consulted with the Muséo staff and got a grant to fund his trips and purchase scanning equipment. Returning for months at a time over two years, Yanagisawa completed his work in a lab set up in the kitchen. This fellow traveler from Japan was honored with giving the last presentation on the last day of the conference, just before the party at the Finca. The scans will be searchable only at the new archive and research facility on the 11-acre Finca campus, a building under construction with support from the Boston-based Finca Vigia foundation.

The Finca’s main house, a one-story villa, would be a significant historic home even if Hemingway never lived there. With its much larger land area and status as a base of tranquility, it doesn’t compare to the corner house in Key West that Hemingway moved from in 1939. Finca Vigia is a wooded estate, a villa on a landscaped site designed by architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer as his personal home. Low to the ground in defiance of hurricanes, the rectilinear plan’s main rooms span the width of the house and have large windows at both ends. Concrete walkways around the house connect to a broad, trellis-shaded patio at the front.

On the west/back side, where a panoramic view presents the north shore and the domes of Havana in the distance, stepped terraces with stone retaining walls have endured torrential rains for more than 130 years.

On the initial visit in 1992, the condition of the Finca’s villa inside and out appeared to be very good. The smooth interior’s glossy enamel surfaces were in excellent condition; no evidence of mold on books. The exterior was chalk white. During the restoration of the house in 2006, a light yellow exterior paint was chosen in keeping with the mandate by officials in charge of the Finca: Hemingway’s house and Pilar must appear as they did when their owner last saw them in 1960. To accomplish that, a restauradora was enlisted.

After graduating from the University of Havana in Fine Arts in 1968, restauradora Elisa Serrano Gonzalez did her postgraduate work at the Museo de Artes Decorativos, a museum in Vedado known for its Lalique crystal, Japanese lacquered screens and Tiffany lamps. A specialist in conservation and restoration of paintings on wood, cloth, plaster and stone, Serrano studied mural restoration at the Opificcio delle Pietre Dure center in Florence. She has worked with the Getty Conservation Institute and is a member of UNESCO’s International Council on Monuments and Sites as a mural specialist.

Serrano’s handiwork, described by her as “archaeological investigation,” has been left in place at the front entry. By setting up a grid and removing postage stamp-size layers, she has displayed the numbered layers of paint down to the base terra-cotta. Using records and photos from the Muséo along with her findings, the decision was made to apply the current light yellow, oil-based paint as the permanent exterior color.

Color “excavation” patches are also found in the interior, and in Hemingway’s bathroom, where a wall of notes on weight and blood pressure dating from 1955-1960 have been on display. The assistant director said that during the restoration in 2005-2006, she noticed a pencil line leading to the adjacent wall. With Serrano engaged, a new patch of notes from 1942-1953 was uncovered. The project took nine months of “uninterrupted time” using “chemical and mechanical means, and a microscope.” The new panel shows confirmation that Hemingway’s friend, Gianfranco Ivancich, had been weighed in 1952.

Hemingway noted his own weight gain of 11/4 pounds happened “(after trip drinking lots of beer).”

Pilar: One Engine or Two?

The boat on display in Cuba is the actual boat owned by Hemingway. This conclusion is based on the boat’s details matching archive photos and interviews with people with direct knowledge that the boat was in Cojimar until it was sent to Finca Vigia. Former first mate Gregorio Fuentes and photographer Raul Corrales said in 1992 that the boat at the Finca is the Pilar.

A “replica” described by Cuban author Norberto Fuentes in Hemingway In Cuba has confused some researchers. Hemingway described the boat in Islands In The Stream with two engines and two propellers. Per the work order from Wheeler Shipyards in Brooklyn, the 38-foot Playmate Cruiser came with a centrally mounted Chrysler marine engine and an auxiliary Lycoming on the starboard side. Both engines drove the single propeller.

The Chrysler main is still there, but nobody knows what happened to the Lycoming. Mystic Seaport’s Dana Hewson was quoted in a book about Pilar as confirming the second engine in the boat. During a phone call this July, Hewson said that during his quick look at the boat it was hard to see where the second engine was. He’s right; it is like a cave under the deck, but the news of the second engine puzzled the Finca staff.

Otherwise, Pilar looks like what it is: a work boat, a fishing boat for rough use in the Gulf Stream, and a work of art. The restoration is inconspicuous: That was the point. Photos from the museum show the entire hull stripped of paint and hardware, several hull planks replaced, interior paneling removed and replaced before a full repainting and installation of correct hardware and new outriggers that match the missing originals.

Museum officials restored the boat in-place to avoid damage in transit. After an earlier preservation effort during the tenure of director Gladys Rodriguez Ferrero, she said she learned of the coral bottom color from Gregorio Fuentes. It turns out that Gregorio’s memory at the time (’93) was spot-on. The coral bottom paint was determined as the correct color from investigation by Serrano. Her analysis determined the accurate colors on the bottom and transom and the correct lettering size and style for “PILAR - KEY WEST” seen on the finished boat’s transom.

Visitors can see that Pilar’s varnish needs a light sanding and recoating. That’s routine upkeep on any boat in the tropics, even under cover. The clear coat is not polyurethane, which would last longer. When Hemingway last stepped aboard, it likely needed a slap coat of varnish, the decks mopped and a bucket rinse before the ice and bait came on board. From a few feet away, it probably looks like it did the first time he saw it in 1934.