my much requested 2008 article on visiting Hemingway's house rescued at last from behind The Sunday Times's paywall. I imagine things have changed quite a bit since I was there and hopefully things are better now from an economic and curatorial standpoint
The secret policeman wasn’t smiling. It just looked like that because his false teeth didn’t fit correctly. I was relieved. If Isaac Babel is to be believed it’s when secret policeman start grinning at you that you should begin to worry.
“Think about it,” he said as he ran his fingernails along the right lapel of a navy double breasted blazer that was miles too big for him. His eyes were dark and squinty and his skin was yellowy white. He was small and grey haired and admittedly not terribly menacing.
“I’m sorry?” I said, unsure that I had heard him correctly.
He repeated his offer. “Any book in Hemingway’s library for two hundred dollars,” he said in carefully annunciated English.
I nodded to show that I had understood his proposition.
I had spent the last twenty minutes examining the library in Hemingway’s Havana house - the Finca Vigia. There were thousands of books: first editions, engineering text books, old atlases, older dictionaries, galleys mailed to Hemingway for blurbs, review copies, gifts; many of them had been doodled over by Hemingway himself and several were extensively underlined and annotated. A bruised early copy of The Sun Also Rises was probably worth a couple of thousand and at the bar of the Ambos Mundos a man had told me that somewhere in these stacks was a signed Catcher in the Rye which I knew I could flog on eBay for at least fifty grand.
The secret policeman tapped his foot, leaned backwards and placed his left hand on a cheetah skin which had been draped over a sofa. He patted it gingerly, like an underconfident Bond villain.
The cheetah interested me. In his seminal 1958 Paris Review interview George Plimpton had described Hemingway’s house in Havana, and this room in particular, with meticulous detail. “The walls are lined with white painted bookcases from which books overflow to the floor...Hemingway stands when he writes in a pair of oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu.” Opposite the writing desk and directly in Hemingway’s field of view Plimpton noted “an armoire with a leopard skin draped across the top.”
Apart from the books, papers, bull fight posters and letters, Hemingway’s home was dominated by hunting trophies. Plimpton observed dead animals everywhere - skinned, mounted, stuffed and yet more carved from wood and ivory. He also found random bags filled with shotgun shells and carnivore teeth. But nowhere does he mention a cheetah. Heminway’s writing desk is still opposite the armoire but strangely Plimpton’s leopard skin has metamorphosed into the hide of a cheetah. The animals are difficult to mistake. Their pattern of spots, heads, and bodies are completely different and this beast currently being drummed upon by the secret policeman’s chubby fingers was definitely a cheetah not a leopard.
Two possibilities presented themselves to me: either Plimpton had got it wrong about the leopard and the creature he had seen was in fact a cheetah or, more intriguingly, the skin had been replaced.
“Are you English?” the secret policeman asked.
“Uh...yeah...close enough,” I said.
“I thought so. Ok, my friend, not two hundred. One hundred and fifty dollars for any book in his library. For an Englishman. Seventy five pounds.”
I realized now that he had thought my silence a negotiating tactic. I attempted to disavow him of that notion. “Look, I appreciate the offer, but I don’t know about this at all. I’m not sure if it’s...I actually think I have to go.”
“I need to go back to my hotel.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, uhm, well, I need to go to the toilet for one thing,” I said with grave finality. I thought that would be the end of the matter. In the British Isles no one sober uses the word “toilet” unless they are quite desperate. In polite company it is taken as a sign that you are uncomfortable and at the mention of the word any decent host will allow you to escape with dignity.
This nuance however was lost on the Cuban secret policeman
“Go here. We have a W.C. Through there,” he said.
I had no choice and in fifteen seconds I was in Ernest Hemingway’s famous water closet. Famous at least for biographers because it was here that he had kept a weight journal on the bathroom wall through various periods in the late fifties. Ahead of his time in many things, Hemingway had also gotten body consciousness a couple of decades before other American males.
I was not terribly impressed. In William Faulkner’s house Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi, I remember vividly examining a plan of Faulkner’s story ‘A Fable’ sketched on a wall. It was fascinating and wonderful, allowing you a peak into Faulkner’s mind at work.
But this was not wonderful. This wasn’t what I wanted from macho, bold, Ernest Hemingway. This was self obsessed and weak. Depressing. I looked at the parade of figures and the scrawly explanations next to them: “210 pounds,” “215 pounds after drinking”, “205 pounds after diet.”
I stopped reading after a time and instead began wondering how I was going to avoid the attentions of the secret policeman. Could I climb out the window and if so, what then?
There seemed to be no way out and I found my mind drifting back to the cheetah.
Could the studious George Plimpton had erred about the beast’s correct species? Not impossible by any means. A dead leopard is the iconic image in Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro so dead leopards were probably on Plimpton’s brain as he walked around the Finca Vigia avoiding Hemingway’s dozens of cats and listening to Ernest go on about how he used to play the cello and how King Lear cheered him up.
With so much to take in many observers certainly could have misidentified the cheetah but Plimpton’s description of Hemingway’s foot rest as a lesser kudu made me think that he probably was very careful about what he wrote in the Paris Review and he probably got the species right.
Perhaps the leopard had simply gotten moldy and been chucked out, but much more likely, a western collector had offered top dollar for ‘Ernest Hemingway’s Leopard’ and the Cuban authorities had sold it, replacing it with a cheetah, hoping that no one would ever notice.
Well I had noticed and I wasn’t-
“Come on, English,” the secret policeman growled.
I left the toilet without flushing and went back to the hacienda. It was already becoming quite familiar. I’d been in here for what seemed like forever. Supposedly the Casa Hemingway is off limits to all but VIP visitors and even those aren’t allowed to manhandle anything, or, heaven forbid, read his books without gloves, or touch his furniture. Michael Palin has written humorously about his attempt to sit in Hemingway’s chair and how he was screamed at and nearly attacked by the Finca Vigia’s curators.
But now I saw that all this superficial care and respect was for only for show and only when the cameras were rolling. As in any good plutocracy all goods and services were for sale. If you want to sit in Hemingway’s chair (the chair he never sat in, because, as Plimpton explained, he wrote standing up) it’ll cost you about ten dollars. And if you want to wander around Hemingway’s house and look into his beautiful library, just come at closing time and bring greenbacks, or better still, Euros...
I had come late on a drizzly Tuesday in November 2007. I’d been a little worried because Lonely Planet Cuba informed me that if it was raining it was inadvisable to go to the Finca Vigia. Since no one was allowed into the house anymore because of petty theft the only way to see the interior was through the open window shutters and when it was raining the curators closed the shutters (though cunningly still charging you full price to get into the grounds).
I had arrived just as a party of tourists were finishing their desultory exterior circuit of the house. In dreadful Monty Python English a bearded, gesticulating, sandal-wearing, Cuban tour guide was saying something about “Ava Gardener” or maybe “the garden” or “gardenas.”
“Am I too late?” I asked one of the half dozen female curators as she began closing up for the night.
“Si, it is finished,” she said gloomily.
“Oh dear, well, thank you,” I replied.
I caught a quick glimpse of Hemingway’s bed and a few animal heads before the shutters on the east side of the house were closed.
It was getting dark now and despite what I thought were fairly explicit instructions my taxi driver had taken off, so, suppressing my native reticence, I jogged to the mini bus and asked politely if they could give me a ride back to Havana. The tourists were up for it, but the guide said it was not possible for reasons of “insurance” or possibly “insolence” or “intransigence.”
I walked back to the house.
When Hemingway had purchased the “Lookout Farm” in 1940 with the proceeds of For Whom the Bell Tolls the neighborhood of San Francisco de Paula had been a genteel village just outside of the city. Now San Francisco de Paula is a typical Havana suburban slum. Backed up sewers flow in the streets, the sidewalks are crumbling, pigs root in the gutters and children are to be seen combing trash heaps for anything remotely sellable.
On the way there taxis, indeed motor vehicles of any kind, seemed few and far between and the idea of a long and complicated walk back to Havana in the rain was not appealing.
I caught the eye of another of the female curators.
“Can I, uh, can I possibly use your phone?” I asked her in a stuttering Hugh Grant voice which I hoped would assure her that I was not a local deadbeat and had in fact come a long way to see this place. As indeed I had, not as far as Notting Hill, but to fly to Cuba from Denver, you still have to go through either Mexico City or Montreal. I have tried both routes and both have their detriments. In Montreal you must put up with a plane load of salivating, obese, Québécois sex tourists and via Mexico City the Cuban authorities subject you to the indignities of a full body and luggage search to make sure you are not attempting to undermine the Revolution with subversive copies of Mexican Vogue or People en Espanol.
“No, senor, no phone,” the female curator said looking behind her at a shadowy figure inside the house.
I stood outside in the rain for a while, watching small yellow parrots shit on each other. Sadly this activity loses its luster surprisingly quickly.
“Back to Havana then,” I said to myself and was about to brave the rooting pigs, scavenging children, and potential ne’er do wells when a short man in an enormous suit approached from somewhere behind my left ear.
“Excuse me,” I said, startled.
He nodded with satisfaction. Clearly he was well practiced at getting into people’s blind spots and disarming them with his ill fitting teeth.
“Good morning,” he said in English and to be fair in England at this time it could have been in the wee hours.
“Hello,” I said.
He offered his hand and I shook it, his jacket sleeve enveloping my wrist like that of a Neapolitan pickpocket.
“You are an admirer of Comrade Hemingway?” he asked.
I removed my wallet from my jeans pocket and presciently kept it out.
The house was extraordinarily beautiful. Except perhaps for the cheetah, it had been preserved almost exactly the way it had been when Hemingway had left it in 1959. Disarmingly compact and all on a single floor, even on this rainy day it radiated light, airiness and comfort. Blue tiles in the kitchen, a living room jam packed with books and period magazines, an old comforter on the bed. Borges once said that “paradise would be a kind of library” and but for all the dead African animals this would have been a kind of paradise.
At first the secret policeman had been content to let me wander, but then he had hit upon the idea of bonus charges.
Ten bucks for a photo sitting at Hemingway’s desk.
Five bucks for a photo under the ibex head.
Another ten for a browse through the library.
The female curators - serious young women in their twenties - were too cowed to interfere but I could sense their disapproval and after a while I was itching to go.
“Well thank you very much for showing me around and letting me look through the books, it was great,” I told him.
But that’s when the short, sallow-faced secret policeman had come out with his extraordinary offer. I could have any book, any book at all, in Hemingway’s library for two hundred dollars.
An initial covetousness flooded through me. The first editions were what appealed most, especially ones by Graham Greene, Paul Bowles, Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, and perhaps if I looked hard enough I’d find that legendary inscribed Catcher in the Rye “Ernest, here’s remembering that time we spent liberating the Ritz bar, your buddy, Jerry.”
Yes, it was tempting, but it wouldn’t do. How could I help break up this incredible library? What kind of a human being would I be? It would be like trading in plundered Nazi loot. Obviously I was not the first person the secret policeman had approached and apparently he had met with success before now, but, unfortunately for him this wasn’t my thing at all. Morally, legally and karmically it was all wrong.
I made my bathroom excuse and on Hemingway's loo I had a good, long think and when I returned I knew that my mind was made up.
“No. I’m sorry. I don’t want any books at all,” I said.
The secret policeman made a fist, gave the cheetah a friendly bonk on the noggin and then, guiltily, he looked across the room at the curators. It was well after five thirty now and officially the Vigia was closed. They wanted to go home too but they knew better than to kick up a fuss. Still they must have been cramping his style because he gave them a curt dismissal with a wave of the hand.
“One hundred dollars,” he hissed when they had gone.
“No, look, I’m sorry, I’m not negotiating, I really don’t want any of the books,” I said.
The secret policeman frowned. “A hundred dollars, Englishman,” he said. “For an admirer of Comrade Hemingway that is nothing. Any book in the library for a hundred dollars. Fifty pounds.”
“Please understand, I’m not trying to haggle with you, I just don’t want to do it. Thank you for the offer but I really don’t want to take one of Hemingway’s books,” I said.
The secret policeman stared at me for a long time, sighed heavily and eventually pointed to the door next to the kitchen.
I made a beeline for it and one of the remaining curators let me out.
I walked down the muddy driveway that led to the street and of course my taxi driver was waiting for me, having just slipped away for a moment to get some cheap Venezuelan gas.
It was pitch black as we drove through San Francisco de Paula. Cuba may have one of the best health care systems in Latin America, but it’s street lighting evidently did not extend very far into the suburbs of Havana.
Once we were back into the Habana Vieja, however, it was a different story. There the bright lights reveal a much sadder set of circumstances than even the sordid little scene at Hemingway’s house.
After dark the streets of Old Havana fill up with prostitutes and most of them seem to be barely into their teens. Their clients are European and Canadian and a few American men in from the cruise ships or package tours. Apologists for the Castro brothers talk about Cubans uncomplicated attitudes towards sex and money. Why not get paid for a night with a stranger when both parties gain from the experience? We Westerners, they say, are so hung up on morality that we are suspicious of the free-spirited, lusty Cubans.
It’s nonsense of course. It’s nothing to do with Latin expansiveness and Western repression. It’s about a disastrously managed economy, endemic corruption, poverty, desperation and hunger.
I reflected that the secret policeman too back at Finca Vigia was probably as much a victim as a practitioner. If he was willing to risk prison for a measly hundred bucks he must be in dire straits.
My taxi driver left me near the pedestrian walkway known as the Prado and I ambled back to the Hotel Sevilla. Damp thirteen year old girls in denim skirts and high heels were hanging out under street lights while their pimps solicited me from bicycles.
After a dozen “no gracias” and a couple of “fuck offs” I got back to the stately hotel where Graham Greene had written Our Man in Havana.
I went upstairs to my room and sat on the edge of the bed.
My head was light. The bitter taste on my tongue was adrenalin. Clearly, the pimps and the whores and the sad secret policeman and Hemingway’s melancholy toilet had unsettled me.
I opened my journal.
“I pissed in Hemingway’s bog,” I wrote.
I thought it would be funny but there on the cool white page, in black ink, it wasn’t.
When the inevitable adrenalin crash came I went down to the bar and had a couple of Mojitos. Those didn't help either. I was feeling very depressed. I went back to my room and lay down on the bed.
The secret policeman was wrong, I’m not English, I’m Irish, and unlike our cousins over the water we have a weakness for sentiment and pathos.
Tears filled my eyes. After a while I picked up the journal again. “I pissed in Hemingway’s bog,” I wrote, “and I don’t feel good about it at all.”