The Finca Vigia Archives: A joint Cuban-American project to preserve Hemingway’s papers

The Finca Vigia Archives: A joint Cuban-American project to preserve Hemingway’s papers

Phillips, Jenny

THE WOODEN CELLAR DOOR SLID OPEN with a creak and a groan. We picked our way down the steep steps and bent to avoid hitting our heads on the low ceiling. After a year of delicate negotiations, we were inside the basement of Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban villa, Finca Vigia.

This dank, low room, dug out of the underside of the guest house, contains thousands of Hemingway’s last remaining unexamined papers, letters, personal photographs, and manuscript documents. The Cubans are immensely proud of their efforts to preserve Hemingway’s legacy, which has always served as a potentially strong cultural bond between the American and Cuban peoples. But the U.S. embargo of Cuba, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the years of Cold War relations had kept the materials-and his 9,000 book, library-out of the reach of American scholars.

Relations between the Cuban curators of the documents and the North American academics and scholars who had over the years sought. these materials had become strained.

Now, a trust has been forged. A unique joint Cuban/American cultural project has been launched. As part of that, we were about to see what was in the boxes and files in the basement, a treasure trove that has been out of sight and inaccessible for decades. The moment was replete with suspense.

This was also the culmination of a personal odyssey that stretched back over sixty years. My grandfather, Maxwell Perkins, was Ernest Hemingway’s editor and one of his closest friends. The initial quest began with my hope that some of my grandfather’s letters to Hemingway would be contained in the basement. Much of their correspondence had already appeared in various publications, but I wanted to see if there would be some as yet undiscovered letters. What I found was even better-a discarded manuscript document that connected, in a small but significant way, my mother, then a young woman, to the shaping of one of America’s great novels.

Gladys Rodriguez Ferrero, the curator at Finca Vigia for seventeen years and the intrepid guardian of Hemingway’s papers and books, led us through the narrow passage amid the stuffed heads of African game and rifles wrapped in parcel paper and masking tape. In one corner, 4n air conditioner and a de-humidifier raggedly chugged and rattled in a losing battle to protect the contents of the basement from the relentless effects of tropical heat and humidity. Raul Chagoyen, assistant curator, wearing white gloves to protect the documents, unlocked a file drawer and slid out some documents wrapped in paper and stored in file folders.

We stood in awe as we were shown a pastiche of manuscript fragments and letters which could provide clues to missing pieces of Hemingway’s personal life and to the process and stages of his writing that led to the finished books.

In one folder, there were five typed pages of the final version of chapter one of Death in the Afternoon. There was a letter from Ingrid Bergman dated 1941. We saw what appeared to be a note written by Hemingway to himself with a raw fragment of an idea for a story tucked away to be drawn on in the future. There were galleys of Across the River and Into the Trees showing Hemingway’s final, last chance changes on his manuscripts before publication. There was a scathing note to Mary, his fourth and last wife, dated i June 1953, asking her to admit that she “has been scolding very much lately and very violently.” In a note to himself, he fretted about whether “to accept Mary as a scold and give up an illusion or whether I should ride along and learn not to give a damn.”

Another folder contained a long letter for Mary to refer to when instructing the cook on how to prepare meals for and how to approach Senor Hemingway. The letter outlined in detail his favorite foods, their correct preparation, and preferred order of presentation. It also urged that the cook be informed that Hemingway not be disturbed while he was writing. Of special significance to scholars were letters of passion and longing written to Mary before they were married, while Hemingway was on the front in Germany for Collier’s during the second World War, as well as twenty-six letters, written in Italian, from Contessa Adriana Ivancich, his last great love who became the model for Renata in Across the River and Into the Trees.

Suddenly, I saw something that connected all this back to my grandfather. We watched as Raul slipped out of a folder a pile of twelve pages labeled “inserts” to For Whom the Bell Tolls. Like many writers, Hemingway wrote in stages, moving from the raw, unpolished earlier versions to the polished and smooth final version. Access to earlier manuscript fragments offers a window into the pathways and methods of the writer’s creative process. What we were now looking at in these twelve pages appeared to be earlier stages in the writing of this great novel. But we did not yet know whether these inserts were simply paragraphs that appear in the finished book or were as yet undiscovered steps in writing toward the final draft.

Lying behind the twelve inserts was a single page titled Epilogue, The words in brackets were crossed out by Hemingway as he wrote and re-wrote the possible ending to For Whom the Bell Tolls. “It was night [on the road] when Golz rode [back] in a staff car [down from the pass] on the road down from the pass to El Escorial.” Could this be the missing epilogue- or at least the beginning of one-that he discarded many years ago?

Almost sixty-two years earlier, Hemingway had been frantic about whether to add an epilogue. In the galleys he had sent back to Scribner’s in August 1940, he ended the novel with its hero, Robert Jordan, facing death, feeling,”his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest” (FWTBT 471). But Hemingway feared that this would leave the book feeling unfinished and Jordan’s fate unresolved. “What do you think? Is it o.k. as it is?” he wrote in an anguished letter to Perkins. “Please write me air-mail on this the day you get this. Ask everybody if they think it ends all right as it is. Should I put on the epilogue? Is it needed? Or would it just be grand manner writing and take you away from the emotion that the book ends on?” (Bruccoli 291).

My grandfather, as he did with all his authors, provided the soothing, reassuring answers. He had a gentle, self-effacing manner of leading and guiding without getting in the way or taking over. in a wonderfully crafted letter, he calmed Hemingway down, indirectly helping him conclude, seemingly by himself, that the epilogue was not needed. And he artfully used my mother, Peggy, to accomplish that goal. “The night of the day you telephoned, my daughter, Peg, had just finished the book and I asked her what she thought of the ending,” he told Hemingway in a letter dated 30 August. “She thought it was perfect. Then I told her about the possibilities of bringing Andres back and of his feeling of what he found. Then she could see there was a possibility. But at first she said she didn’t see how it could go on further.” With a few more nudges, Perkins concluded, “I therefore thought that if we must decide, we ought to decide to have no epilogue” (Bruccoli 294-295).

That was that. With a delicate non-decision, the decision had been made to have the novel end just as it was. There would be no epilogue. Hemingway felt reassured and was able to let go of the manuscript as it moved into final production.

My mother does not remember this conversation with her father about the epilogue. He apparently never told her the role she played in shaping the ending of what many consider Hemingway’s masterpiece.

The Finca Vigia is a sun-filled villa perched high on a hill overlooking Havana in the distance and several miles from the sea. The windows are thrown open during the day, and tourists can gaze and lean in, looking at Hemingway’s sprawling rooms, preserved exactly as if he had just stepped out for a moment. Sometimes the staff will regale special visitors with Hemingway’s collections of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. The music, wafting from his Victrola through the tropical air, adds to the already strong feeling of Hemingway’s presence in this home he bought in 1940. Hemingway spent his mornings here writing, standing on a kudu skin with his Royal typewriter propped on a Who’s Who in America.

The presence and importance of books is felt throughout his house. There are over 9,000 books in what seems no particular order. They are lovingly stacked and stuck everywhere, and clearly were much read. The walls of the bedrooms, library, and living room are lined with the tools of his trade. The books themselves are a piece of literary history as Hemingway had a habit of underlining favorite passages, railing against pass-ages that he thought were weak or untrue, making notes in the margins, and using pages of manuscripts as book marks. He constantly referred to his books for inspiration and source material for his own writings.

On our initial trip to the Finca Vigia in January 2ooi, my husband, Frank, and I were given a very special tour of the interior of the house. As we wandered through the house and studied its belongings, we never even saw the basement door. In our rambling tour of Hemingway’s clothing, liquor bottles, books and hunting artifacts, we were not yet aware that there even was a cellar.

During this visit, we were told that indeed there were letters from my grandfather still at the house, but our several requests to see them were met with polite dismissal. We were instructed to write the Ministry of Culture for permission. This was the first sign that we had stumbled onto something bigger and more complex than we had been looking for.

One week later, we were looking out over windy, wintry Boston harbor through the imposing floor-to-ceiling picture windows of the John E Kennedy Library. We met with Stephen Plotkin, past curator of the Hemingway Collection at the Library. The room housing Hemingway’s books and papers is comfortably and grandly decorated with his possessions, such as the painting by Waldo Peirce done when Hemingway was twenty-nine years old. The walls are lined with shelves of carefully documented and preserved letters and manuscripts, all stored on computer discs.

This room presents a stark contrast to Finca Vigia. Hemingway’s Cuban home is totally unaltered, even to the last detail. It is open to the weather and sunlight. And perhaps most importantly, it still holds a haunted presence of Hemingway the man, an atmosphere that cannot be captured 2,000 miles north. The cultural contrasts between these two repositories of Hemingway memorabilia left a deep impression, and a commitment to return to Finca Vigia.

But the Kennedy Library does possess the most extensive materials for scholars. Most of Hemingway’s manuscripts and correspondence were moved from the Finca Vigia and became part of the Kennedy Library collection when Hemingway’s widow, Mary, brought over two hundred pounds of his papers out of Cuba in 1961. President Kennedy himself cleared the way for Mary to travel to Cuba during that most tense of times in the Cuban/American relationship. With just a few weeks to collect what she wanted to take, Mary hurriedly cleared out a Havana bank vault and the house, taking favorite papers and paintings. Fidel Castro paid her a visit, lending his official approval to her last visit. In the throes of grief and with a sense of urgency, Mary built a bonfire which burned for three days, destroying old newspapers, magazines and journals. No one knows exactly what she threw into the fire.

With Jacqueline Kennedy’s help, the collection of documents, manuscripts, and many other personal belongings became a part of the Kennedy Library collection when the library opened in i98o. But what remained behind in Cuba was always a mystery, frozen in the politics of the Cold War.

From bits and pieces gleaned from visits by various academics to the Finca Vigia and from some Cuban writings, it was apparent that significant papers and other materials were still at the house. Plotkin outlined the impasse. We talked to scholars and leaders in the various groups that work to preserve Hemingway’s legacy. They had given up their hopes of seeing these papers. At this point, it became evident to us that the only approach was through political channels.

A breakthrough occurred when we contacted Congressman Jim McGovern, a,Massachusetts Democrat and a leading advocate in Washington for the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. Understanding the importance of the issue and seeing the chance for opening up a cross cultural dialogue, Jim took up the cause.

The Cuban Ministry of Culture responded warmly. Last January, Jim McGovern met in Havana with Abel Prieto, the Minister of Culture, and Marta Arjona Perez, the President of Cuba’s National Council of Cultural Heritage. They embraced our proposal to create a joint project to archive and preserve the documents and books at the Finca Vigia.

Our way was now prepared to visit the Finca Vigia and its cellar in March to assess and make recommendations for the preservation project. We formed a team including two conservators, Susan Wrynn and Mildred O’Connell from the New England Document Conservation Center, and two scholars. Sandra Spanier, from the English Department at Penn State University, is a leading Hemingway scholar who was recently selected by the Hemingway Foundation to become general editor of all of Hemingway’s existing correspondence in a proposed multi-volume publication. Scott Berg, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for his biography, Lindbergh, had published a book in 1978 about my grandfather-Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.

What we found on this journey to Ernest Hemingway’s basement is as much the story of Cuba and its dedication to Hemingway’s writings as it is an appeal for a cataloguing and preserving of Hemingway’s papers.

Hemingway spent the last twenty years of his life in Cuba. Although these were his most prolific years as a writer, the rupture of ties between the U.S. and Cuba created a breakdown in the understanding of Hemingway’s life and work in Cuba. According to Spanier, “This long and productive period of Hemingway’s life is the least known and understood. The papers he left behind at the Finca Vigia contain the keys to this understanding.”

The Hemingway collection at Finca Vigia includes approximately 3,000 documents, 3,000 photographs, and 9,000 books, about 20% of which contain marginalia. More than 20,000 items have been inventoried, including firearms, clothing, paintings, and African wildlife trophies. This fascinating collection of bits and pieces of Hemingway’s life is in great need of resources for its preservation.

During this visit, we only saw the tip of the iceberg. But it was enough to conclude that there is a significant and rare collection of Hemingway papers in Cuba. “This collection has both depth and breadth as it cuts across the decades of the author’s life and career during which he reached the summits of success and fame and also stumbled into his most serious slumps and depressions,’ Berg wrote after examining the material. “All in all, this is a mother lode of material from which scholars, biographers and just plain old Hemingway fans will be able to mine countless theses, books, and revelations about, inarguably, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.”

The Cuban curators, under the leadership of Glady Rodriquez Ferrero, have shown a resourcefulness and dogged determination to protect the legacy of Ernest Hemingway. With scant materials, they have managed to preserve Hemingway’s villa as he left it. Tropical storms and termites, extreme heat, humidity, and sunlight, have all made this preservation dramatically difficult.

Today, with leadership from Congressman McGovern and from Marta Arjona of Cuba’s National Council of Cultural Heritage, a joint preservation project is just being launched that should see Americans and Cubans working side-by-side to bring state-of-the-art preservation technology to the Finca Vigia archives and to make Hemingway’s Cuban papers more accessible to scholars worldwide.

Americans who will be working with the Cuban Ministry of Culture and the curatorial staff of the Finca Vigia include Dr. Stanley N. Katz, professor at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, who has agreed to administer the project through the Social Science Research Council. As chairman of the Council’s Working Group on Cuba, he has done extensive archival work in Cuba. This past summer, the Rockefeller Foundation approved an initial grant for commencing the project at the Finca Vigia. Deborah Leff, Director of the John E Kennedy Library in Boston, has offered the library’s extensive experience with its own Hemingway Collection as a resource.

What began as a casual inquiry is now opening a door to a last significant unexamined area of Hemingway scholarship. Perhaps just as important, this unfolding joint project can serve as a model of success for furthering collaboration and strengthening relationships between Cuba and the United States that are, as Katz wrote in the application to the Rockefeller Foundation, “significant on both a professional and symbolic level.”

Copyright The Hemingway Review Fall 2002

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