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Core Samples

Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, had kept a place in Havana proper but, upon retuning to Cuba following their coverage of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, began to look outward for more suitable digs. It would be "Marty" who, while perusing the "small ads," first came upon the quite promising piece of property.

Located on the outskirts of town, their new spread would become famous in the lore of literature as La Finca Vigia, "the lookout farm." The main house itself sat on a hill with an unobstructed prospect of Havana and the coastal plain to the north. From this setting, over the 20 years Hemingway would call it home, would emerge some of his most honored work.

Here, in the quiet hamlet of San Francisco de Paula, he wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "A Moveable Feast" and, although not come upon until after his death, the mostly completed manuscript of "Islands in the Stream." The Finca also gave birth to that most acclaimed of his Caribbean tales, "The Old Man and the Sea."

And there were a couple of short stories featuring my favorite Hemingway character, Harry Morgan, which would later be incorporated into the novel "To Have and Have Not." It has been said he spent his mornings "wrestling with his typewriter and his afternoons wrestling with marlins in the Gulf Stream."

The move served to allow him a working environment more suited to his persuasions while, at the same time, not transplanting him too far afield from his favorite haunts in the city. "Papadoble" daiquiris at the Floradita Bar and "mojitos" at La Bodeguita del Medio continued to refuel his muse.

At times, friends would stop by and interrupt his work but, for the most part, he was able to maintain focus — not the easiest of disciplines when one is occupied with Ava Gardner or Errol Flynn. In 1954 he was also interrupted by a missive from the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, alerting him to the fact that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. How tedious the writing life.

Visitors of the time described the Finca, not surprisingly, as decidedly masculine — cluttered with books (some 9,000 volumes), animal trophies, jazz and classical records, and bullfight posters. A Picasso sculpture held forth along with a bar that embraced rum and "Cinzano" and various other succulents with similar mission statements.

It was a setting in which one could indulge passions. And, one could look out to sea if further indulgence was required. Hemingway exuded a deep attachment for open water and spent a great deal of time consummating the relationship aboard his beloved Pilar.

Nearly 40 feet in length and skippered by his dear compadre Gregario Fuentes, the Pilar entered the logbook of maritime history as perhaps the first "sportfishing" boat ever.

In that it could be argued that Hemingway single-handedly invented the sport, designed and retrofitted the first "flying bridge," and installed a fighting chair in the cockpit, the Pilar has become, quite possibly, the most prominent and celebrated privately owned recreational vessel in history.

"He knew things that fish do, so he could catch them," bragged Gregorio of his friend. "We left every day to go fishing at 7 in the morning, and then after we went fishing, he’d write on the boat at night." These were evenings Papa spent channeling an old man in a small boat with a big fish on an eternal sea.

They kept the Pilar near Fuentes’ home in the coastal village of Cojímar, not far from the Finca. And if those now-worn-smooth planks of American black oak could only speak, what tales they could tell. A biographer once described it as a floating bordello and rum factory as well as a fishing boat. How tedious the writing life.

Papa and Gregorio became inseparable during their marlin fishing expeditions and when out on "patrol" for German U-Boats during the war. Loaded with "provisions," the Pilar would set out with machine gun mounted on bridge and poke around the Cuban and Bahamian keys, banks and channels in search of illusive emeny submarines.

Time passed and the Pilar sailed and it became about the love of two men for their boat and the rolling of the swells as they crossed blue water. According to scholars, the two created a pact whereby, following the death of either, the Pilar would never sail again.

Whether it was Papa deeming it so in his will prior to leaving Cuba in 1960 or his fourth wife Mary presenting it as a gift, within six weeks of Hemingway’s subsequent death, the Pilar became the property of Gregorio Fuentes. Adhering to his pact, he donated it to the Finca, which had been converted into a museum in 1962.

The Finca Vigia and the Pilar have become instruments in the chronicles of the world literary landscape. They are icons and relics within the religion of modern literature. They are part of the man and the myth and, over the years, the target of preservationists wishing to restore their past glory.

Sadly, they have also become instruments in the political strategy of the United States as part of its never ending and always tightening embargo with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Dealing with issues more complex than the fractal coastlines involved, attempts on both sides of the channel to both cleanse and cure the material and spiritual aspects of the proposed renovations have been slowed by ideology.

Over the years, nature has been unkind to both house and craft, what with chubasco hurricanes and general jungle rot having their insideous ways. The Cubans, who consider Hemingway as one of theirs, have cared for the house with affection, and are recently completing work sufficient to return furniture from storage.

The Cubans’ mistake, however, was turning the museum that is the Finca into a "tourist attraction." In the eyes of the Bush Administration, this accomplishes little more than putting money into Castro’s hands — which reportedly are currently having difficulty holding up his pants — and further postponing the arrival upon his shores of the inevitable "democracy."

No U.S. currency is being allowed to assist in either endeavor. Technical advice, however, has seeped through and has proved invaluable in the preservation of documents. What a gift it would be for future generations of American youth if only their country could see the larger picture, the Finca Vigia and the Pilar as metaphor to art as life. Pride, as usual, seems to be holding up the healing.


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