In an epic life of perpetual motion—Paris, Pamplona, Mount Kilimanjaro, Key West, etc.—one place was truly home to Ernest Hemingway: the Finca Vigía, his rustic estate outside Havana. It was kept by the Cuban government as a shrine in the half-century since his suicide, and its full contents remained a mystery until 2002. One of the American team that finally gained access, A. Scott Berg, shares the discovery of a literary treasure trove to celebrate the publication of thousands of never-before-seen letters now to be included in the forthcoming volumes of Hemingway’s collected correspondence. 
IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST Ernest Hemingway’s Corona at the Finca Vigía, in Cuba, photographed by Julian Broad. (Hemingway generally preferred a Royal.)
His earliest short story—five action-packed sentences—displayed several markings of his later works. “My First Sea Vouge” (1911) was a maritime adventure about two boys and their father voyaging from Martha’s Vineyard to Sydney, Australia; its centerpiece was the spearing of a porpoise, excising its liver, and frying it for dinner. Beyond the virility of the 11-year-old author, the story also foreshadowed his budding nomadic nature. Fifteen years later, in his novel The Sun Also Rises, one of his characters would say, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” But Ernest Hemingway spent his life trying.
Growing to disdain his father and despise his mother, Hemingway left Oak Park, Illinois, at 18 to begin his career as a journalist at The Kansas City Star. From that moment on, he was in perpetual motion, spinning tales of his travels into two dozen books and scores of stories. Along the way, he married four times, fathered three sons, caught marlin, fought bulls, bagged big game, reported wars, chased Nazi U-boats, skied, hunted, survived a plane crash only to read his own obituary, and became the fifth American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Stories of his daring life intertwined with those he invented on paper, until he became as famous for his macho exploits as for his writing. Even more than his (sometimes two-dimensional) characters and his (sometimes creaky) plots, Hemingway’s strength was in capturing locations, his remarkable ability to re-create settings, to bottle their ambience, to recall—as he said—“how the weather was.” As a result, Hemingway put more places on the map than any writer of his time.
He wrote what he knew: the big Two-Hearted River country of his boyhood summers up in Michigan; Northern Italy, where he drove ambulances during the Great War; the Lost Generation’s Paris of the early 20s, in which he was lucky enough to have lived as a young man with his first wife, Hadley; the Spanish town of Pamplona, where they ran the bulls through the streets; the green hills of Africa, over which loomed snowcapped Mount Kilimanjaro; a pine-needled forest floor in Spain’s Guadarrama Mountains during the nation’s Civil War; Harry’s Bar in Venice at the close of World War II; Sloppy Joe’s in Key West; Bimini; the fishing waters where the Gulf of Mexico swirls into the Atlantic. His brisk style—suggestive, staccato, and deceptively simple—influenced much of the American writing that followed, transforming him into a national icon and an international celebrity, the most famous writer of his day. Ironically, few of his works are set in the United States, and the one house that remained his home longer than any other was in another country—the Finca Vigía, in Cuba.
Although he had stopped over on a few occasions, Hemingway didn’t truly discover Havana until 1932, when he crossed the Straits of Florida from Key West. He went for the fishing and stayed for the quality of life there. He lodged at the charming Ambos Mundos Hotel, in La Habana Vieja, a particularly colorful part of the capital city, with its colonial architecture, plazas, and narrow streets leading to the Malecón, a great curving esplanade outlining the seafront. For those who could afford to get away from the United States at the start of the Depression and the end of Prohibition, Havana was a glamorous destination with drinking and gambling and plenty of sunshine.
In 1939, Hemingway left his house in Key West and his second wife, Pauline, for a striking writer named Martha Gellhorn. Thirty-one to his 40, she had looks and brains and deeper political convictions than he. At her urging, they had both covered the war in Spain and were moving in together in Cuba, where he would write his magnum opus about that war. Looking to share more than a hotel room, Martha found a tumbledown but private estate 15 kilometers to the southeast of Havana, up in San Francisco de Paula. Because of its hilltop view of the city and the sea, it was called Finca Vigía—generally translated as “Lookout Farm,” though nothing about it felt especially agricultural. Hemingway didn’t love the place at first sight, and so Martha returned on her own, paid to clean it up, and brought him back for a second look. They promptly moved in, and, upon their marriage in 1940, Hemingway purchased the Finca for $12,500.
But Martha was even more footloose than Ernest, and she would soon move on. (As she told me when I interviewed her in 1972 for a biography of the legendary Maxwell Perkins, who had edited each of them, “He was entering this great ‘Papa’ phase, and I wasn’t looking for a Papa!”) In the meantime, he had met in London another blonde reporter, one Mary Welsh. “Funny,” he wrote Perkins, “how it should take one war to start a woman in your damn heart and another to finish her.” Upon their respective divorces, they married; and Hemingway yearned for home. “We stayed in a lot of places,” Mary told me, also in 1972, “but we lived at the Finca.”
Hemingway’s love for Cuba deepened. He presented his Nobel gold medal to the Cuban people, donating it to the country’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, to be kept at her shrine in El Cobre Basilica, outside Santiago de Cuba; and he told a crowd of reporters that greeted him at the Havana airport in 1959 that he considered himself Cuban. Few Americans would have claimed as much at the time, as the United States government was already shunning the new Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Then, during a prolonged Stateside visit in 1960, depression overcame a long-troubled Hemingway. After receiving electroshock treatments at the Mayo Clinic, conditions worsened. By the time he kept his appointment with a double-barreled shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961, diplomatic ties between the two countries had been severed. Castro forces had repelled an American-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs; Cuba had been expropriating foreign-owned properties on its soil; and the United States responded to the totalitarian Communist regime by imposing an embargo.
Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs telephoned Mary to announce that his government wished to acquire the Finca, intending to turn it into a Hemingway museum— un monumento. With that, either the Cuban government seized the house or the Hemingway Estate offered it to his adopted homeland, depending upon which side of the Straits one hears the story. In a respectful diplomatic gesture under hostile political circumstances, Cuba permitted Mary to revisit the house to retrieve some of the possessions there. She was able to empty a bank vault of her late husband’s manuscripts and reclaim several works of art—including two Juan Gris paintings and a Paul Klee—as well as some personal papers and items. But the bulk of the Finca’s contents—drawers and shelves and boxes with thousands of pages of accumulated correspondence and manuscripts—quietly became the property of the Republic of Cuba.
Forty years later, I received a call from Jenny Phillips, a psychotherapist from Massachusetts who is also a granddaughter of Max Perkins. She and her husband, Frank, the statehouse bureau chief for The Boston Globe —both of whom I had met years earlier—had recently visited the Finca Vigía. During their tour, Jenny explained to me on the phone in January 2001, an innocent query had turned into a quest. She had asked if the museo had any letters from her grandfather in its possession. So impressed were her hosts by this proximity to Hemingway’s most trusted literary adviser, they surprisingly said yes, but they kept deflecting her requests to see them. They referred the Phillipses to the Ministry of Culture, a response that only added intrigue to their curiosity.