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Letter from Ernest Hemingway’s widow could solve Cuban farmhouse mystery

Letter from Ernest Hemingway’s widow could solve Cuban farmhouse mystery
Letter from Mary Hemingway, written in year of novelist’s death, appears
to show willingness to bequeath Finca Vigía to the ‘people of Cuba’
Thursday 12 February 2015 15.29 GMT

The mystery of whether Ernest Hemingway’s widow volunteered or was
coerced into leaving their Cuban house to the nation has come a step
closer to being solved, with the discovery of a letter in which she
states that her late husband “would be pleased” that Finca Vigía be
“given to the people of Cuba … as a centre for opportunities for wider
and research”.

Hemingway lived on the 19th-century Cuban farm for 21 years, between
1939 and 1961, writing his masterpieces The Old Man and the Sea and For
Whom the Bell Tolls there as well as posthumously published works
including A Moveable Feast and Islands in the Stream. He committed
suicide in Idaho in 1961. The property became a museum in 1962, but it
has been unclear whether this was following the wishes of Mary
Hemingway, his fourth wife, or at the insistence of the Cuban
government, with differing accounts from different parties.

The newly discovered letter, dated 25 August 1961, sees Mary Hemingway
specifically donate the Finca Vigía to the Cuban people. “…Whereas – my
husband, Ernest Hemingway, was for twenty-five years a friend of the
Pueblo of Cuba … he never took part in the politics of Cuba … he never
sold any possessions of his, except his words, having given away cars,
guns, books and his Nobel prize medal to the Virgen del Cobre,” she
wrote to her husband’s friend Roberto Herrera.

“I believe that he would be pleased that his property … in Cuba be given
to the people of Cuba … as a center for opportunities for wider
education and research, to be maintained in his memory. With this
document, as the only heir of Ernest’s estate, I hereby give to the
people of Cuba this property, in the hope that they will learn and
profit from, and enjoy it, as much as Ernest and I did.”

Sold this week via Alexander Historical Auctions, the letter was found
among the papers of Herrera. “Ernest Hemingway had committed suicide in
Ketchum less than two months earlier. However, at some point shortly
thereafter, Mary backtracked and stated that after Hemingway’s suicide,
the Cuban government contacted her in Idaho and announced that it
intended to expropriate the house, along with all real property in Cuba.
These documents show that Mary did indeed intend to donate the home to
the Cuban people,” said the auction house in its catalogue. The
handwritten note was snapped up on Wednesday for $1,100 (£716), a price
well below the estimate of $2,000-$3,000.

Valerie Hemingway – who was Ernest’s secretary before marrying his
youngest son, whom she met at the author’s funeral – went to Finca Vigía
with Mary shortly after Hemingway’s death to sort through his papers.
She said via email that “what is being auctioned is a draft of a memo
Mary intended to give to [Fidel] Castro that Roberto Herrera was going
to translate. As far as I can remember Mary never actually sent the
memo; she gave the draft to Roberto afterwards.”

Her own memoir, Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways,
sees Valerie write that Mary “genuinely wanted to see her husband’s
memory endure by creating a shrine of the home he loved and dedicating
it to the Cuban people, among whom he had lived for more than a third of
his life … Mary’s first idea was that the finca would become a learning
centre, and to that end she wanted to leave there as complete a record
of her husband’s life and most especially of his work as was prudent.”

But Naomi Wood, author of the novel Mrs Hemingway, said that Mary
Hemingway’s own memoir suggests the situation was not quite as
straightforward. “The question is whether the Hemingway house was
‘donated’ by Mary, or coerced from her, or extracted from her via
diplomacy. In all likelihood it was a mixture of all three,” she said.

“In her memoir, How It Was, she uses the words ‘acquisition’ and
‘appropriation’, which suggests the takeover of Hemingway’s property was
done with some unwillingness on her part, rather than a donation as the
auctioned letter suggests. Though the auctioned letter suggests a
donation, her memoir suggests bullying, though Castro does it in the
most gentlemanly fashion, even asking her: ‘Why don’t you stay here with
us in Cuba?’”

Mary Hemingway recounts a telephone conversation from the time in How it
Was, in which she says to a Cuban official that “I’m not sure if I wish
to give you our finca. [They could appropriate it, of course, as they
had done to so much US property there.] Perhaps your government would
give me permission to go down to remove our personal papers. Would you
find out and call me back tomorrow? This same hour? Muy bien.”

She was advised, she writes, “to take the chance of recovering Ernest’s
manuscripts, if nothing more. By this time United States citizens were
prohibited journeys to Cuba, but the US immigration authorities in Miami
gave me the exit and re-entry permits.”

The author’s widow would bring back crates of papers on a shrimp boat
travelling from Havana to Tampa. “Mary also recounts her negotiations
with Castro to remove a few paintings back to the US: including a Paul
Klee and Juan Gris,” said Wood. “She also manages to remove Hemingway’s
wax-sealed manuscripts they’d found at the Banco Nacional. Mary’s cargo
left on a shrimp boat back to Tampa, which was the last to have any
clearance papers from the US. More importantly for scholars than the
nature of the deal for the Finca Vigía donation or appropriation was the
fact that she managed to get those manuscripts out.”

Dr Susan Beegel, editor emerita of The Hemingway Review, said the
discovery of the letter – first covered in Fine Books & Collections –
was “new and interesting”.

“It’s nice to see her thoughts on how she intended the people of Cuba to
enjoy the museum – still thriving today,” said Beegal. “It’s well-known
that Mary deeded the Finca Vigía to the people of Cuba. After the Castro
revolution, the house could have been appropriated, as was the case with
other US property in Cuba, but instead the Cuban government approached
Mary to request the house as a gift, to be used as a monument to
Hemingway. She negotiated with them (and the Kennedy administration as
well, because US citizens were not allowed to visit Cuba) to be able to
return and remove personal belongings, art, and Hemingway’s manuscripts
from the house in exchange for the donation.”

Source: Letter from Ernest Hemingway’s widow could solve Cuban farmhouse
mystery | Books | The Guardian –

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