A black butterfly gyrates on the warm air. It spirals erratically through the room, up near the nose of an African gazelle’s mounted head, down among the dusty Campari bottles. I lean forward as far as the rope blocking my entrance will allow and gaze with envy at that lucky, lucky bug, freely wandering those rooms.
I’m at Finca Vigía, high on a hilltop, 30 minutes from downtown Havana. Ernest Hemingway’s home for more than 20 years, the house and grounds were given to the Cuban government in 1961 after the author killed himself. Everything is exactly as it was back then, and, since 1962, the building and gardens have been on view to the public as Museo Hemingway. You can’t enter the house, but because it is a single-storey building with large open windows and doors on all sides, you can see almost every room from the wide terraces outside.
I hang my toes over the threshold of the front entrance as a museum employee rattles off a list of items: “See the drinks bottles. That was his favourite chair. There are his books. See the poster of a bullfight in Spain.” I wish she’d stop talking. I’m an unashamed devotee of Hemingway’s writing and, for me, being here is a moment bordering on the religious. This is where he lived and wrote nine books, at least two of which were brilliant: The Old Man and the Sea and A Moveable Feast. This is the closest I’ll ever get to the culmination of a pilgrimage.
Havana loves Hemingway. Every bar he frequented, every hotel room he ever stayed in has been preserved, and can be visited independently or as part of a tour. Such a group is passing me when the guide points to a wall in the finca’s bathroom where Hemingway recorded his weight daily: “March 10, 1960: 202.5.” He’d gained a quarter pound from the day before.
Despite his superstardom, Hemingway’s personal letters reveal a man who could be sensitive and shy. That’s not to say he had no hand in shaping the monumental image of himself. I count the trophy heads of 18 animals, three creatures preserved in formaldehyde and the skin of a leopard draped across a bench. Lined up on a table in his writing room are 10 shotgun shell casings and nine bullets.
But I’m here to find evidence of a different Hemingway. I’m looking for the man whose last letter, dated 17 days before he died, encouraged a sick nine-year-old to get better so they could “joke about our hospital experiences.” Moving on to the next window, I find what I’m looking for: his bedroom, a private room at odds with his public image. A bed with a tatty blue chenille cover sits in the sparsely furnished room. On the pillow is the beige cotton cap Hemingway wore in some of his iconic portraits. The scene is humbling and reminds me of the last line in The Old Man and the Sea: “The old man was dreaming about the lions.”