In 1939, after covering the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway returned to Cuba with a desire to flee the city limits.
Rene Villarreal lived in the country town of San Francisco de Paula, a half-hour from Havana. He was playing stickball when a black sedan pulled up, and a tall American got out. The boys picked the lock on the gate, and Ernest Hemingway went up the driveway for a closer look.
|Papa's Place: An Interactive Guide to Hemingway's Cuba. A timeline of Hemingway's life, a map of his Cuban haunts, Great footage, and more. Click to Launch|
Hemingway rented La Finca Vigia for a year. Then, flush with royalties from the film For Whom The Bell Tolls, he bought the place and hired young Rene as his houseman.
"When we were younger, we didn't know how to say Hemingway," Rene remembers. "When his sons came on holiday, they would call him 'Papa,' and we called him 'Papa' because we started to like him. "
"As time went by, he called me his Cuban son," says Rene. "He had great affection for me, and I loved him too, truly like a father."
Rene kept Hemingway's house for 22 years. The place is a museum now, run by the Cuban government. Visitors come from all over the world, even though they're not allowed inside. They see Hemingway's rooms from the outside though the windows, but Rene gave me an inside look.
He showed me the big game trophies that stare down from the walls, the table where the world's literati and glitterati gathered. He showed me the oversized sofa. Gary Cooper, a frequent guest, was too tall for any bed, so he slept there. Rene showed me apa's books. He showed me the hunting knives. He showed me Papa's shoes, still on their rack. The story goes, he purposely bought them a size too big for comfort.
He showed me Papa's favorite chair, the bar within arm's reach. It was probably the object of repeated ruin, with an estimated 50 felines running about.
"He'd get up early. After he did his exercises, he'd weigh himself," says Rene. "I'd come bringing him breakfast. He'd take a cup of tea, orange juice, two toasts and lemon marmalade."
He'd then proceed to write for six straight hours, standing shirtless and barefoot on a small piece of kudu skin.
"He was very protective of his things," Rene recalls. "Sometimes I heard him say 'I'm working well, I've written x amount of words'."
But Hemingway would complain sometimes to his wife, Mary, that he could write x plus words if it weren't for the distraction of all the guests. Yet he loved having people around, and invited them to come. So to give him the solitude he said he needed to write, Mary had a tower built, one where could be inspired by the view but not distracted by the company. It was a good idea, but not a great idea, as Papa didn't use it very often.
"Only one time," says Rene. "I helped him bring the typewriter and his manuscripts upstairs and he installed himself there and I think it was no more than 15 or 20 minutes later Papa came back downstairs again. 'Open the door! Help me open the door 'cause I'm coming back. I can't work there. I need the house, I need it!' He was used to working here among the cats in the buzzing environment of the house."
And it was in that very house that he finished For Whom the Bell Tolls, authored numerous short stories, Islands in the Stream, A Moveable Feast, and The Old Man and the Sea.
When he wasn't writing, Hemingway was often fishing. His boat, Pilar, has been brought right up to the Finca, where it's displayed. After a day at sea, Hemingway and his captain, Gregorio, would repair to their corner table at La Terraza, overlooking the sea. There they'd sit and have a drink and talk about the day.
Gregorio Fuentes is 101 years old now. He and I sat at that same table and talked about the 20 years he and Papa spent together on the Pilar.
"He knew things that fish do, so he could catch them," says Gregorio. "We leftÂ…every day to go fishing at 7 in the morning, and then after we went fishing, he'd write on the boat at night."
Gregorio remembers one trip that inspired a book. "When we went to sea, we found the old man and the sea. We found him adrift on a little boat with a big fish tied there," remembers Gregorio. "And when he went to write, he wanted to give it a name. I named it The Old Man and the Sea."
Gregorio Fuentes was not himself an old man at the time, and neither was Ernest Hemingway. But at 60, he looked older than his years. Something was appening to him, and something was happening to Cuba: the Castro revolution.
Subsequently, Hemingway left there, hoping one day to come back. But as time went by, it became clear that he never would. One day a letter from him arrived at the Finca, addressed to Rene.
My dear Cuban son:
Papa has run out of gas. I am not the same man I used to be. The doctors have given me a rigorous diet, no salt, no fat...I have no spirit for writing, which I used to love so much. And whatever happens, Papa always remembers you, so take care of the cats and the dogs and what I asked you to keep for me.
And so Hemingway left, and many of the 50,000 visitors who each year peer through the windows of La Finca say it looks as if Papa had just stepped out for a moment, nearly four decades ago, leaving behind some unfinished manuscripts, some fond memories, and two old friends.
Rene Villarreal is currently in the process of publishing his manuscript, Remembering Papa Hemingway: Life In Our Cuban Paradise. He can be reached by contacting:
Maritza F. Bolanos
Bolanos & Associates
241 Avenue of the Americas
New York, N.Y. 10014-7500
By Charles Osgood