Page last updated at 11:24 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Rare project saves Hemingway papers

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana


A look inside Ernest Hemingway's Cuban home

An important collection of papers belonging to the American writer Ernest Hemingway has been saved for posterity, thanks to a unique joint rescue mission involving communist Cuba and the United States.

The letters, manuscripts and documents offer fresh insights into the man, his work and his colourful life.

For decades they had been gathering mould and dust in the basement of the Nobel Prize winning author's former home on the outskirts of Havana.

"Papa" Hemingway moved to Cuba in 1939 and spent 21 years living at the Finca Vigia or Lookout Farm, with its lush sub-tropical gardens and impressive views of Havana and the sea beyond.

Today, some 50,000 tourists a year come to peer through the open doors and windows to see where he wrote the Old Man and the Sea while entertaining Hollywood stars.

The walls are full of the stuffed heads of animals he shot whilst on safari in Africa along with a collection of bullfighting paintings.

Hidden away in the basement of the house were thousands of his papers.

Politics is not important. We are working to preserve a legacy which belongs to both peoples
Gladys Rodriguez

For decades they had been gathering dust in hot, humid conditions.

The Cubans were working hard to preserve the house and its contents but did not have the resources to protect the documents.

In a rare exception to the trade embargo, the Bush administration agreed to allow a joint rescue mission.

In 2002 the Cuban National Cultural Heritage Council signed a co-operation agreement with the New York based Social Science Research Council.

US conservation and digitalisation specialists made regular trips to Havana while two Cuban restoration experts went to the US for additional training.

'Sweet old lion'

Restorers work on Hemingway papers
The restoration work is a rare exception to the US embargo of Cuba

Hemingway has long been considered a cultural bridge between Cuba and the US. Now he is helping to cross the political divide.

Gladys Rodriguez, from the Cultural Heritage Council, is the project co-ordinator.

"Politics is not important," she says. "We are working to preserve a legacy which belongs to both peoples. So we can work together."

Phase one is now complete - 3,197 pages of documents have been restored and then scanned on to digital archives.

There are no newly discovered, previously unpublished literary works amongst the documents but there is an alternative ending to For Whom the Bell Tolls.

There is also the final draft of the Hollywood screenplay to the 1958 Hollywood movie version of The Old Man and the Sea, which starred Spencer Tracy.

"He hated all the film versions of his books except this one," the museum's director Ada Rosa Alfonso explained.

"With The Old Man and the Sea he was actively involved in revising the film script. He participated in the filming and had producers and actors staying with him in the house. We have photos of them."

A careful and detailed reading of the letters suggests this was a more intense, passionate and material love
Ada Rosa Alfonso

One subject arousing interest is a series of letters from a young Italian countess, Adriana Ivancich.

"My crazy good sweet old lion," she calls him.

They had met in Europe and Adriana later visited Hemingway in Cuba, becoming the inspiration for his 1950 novel, Across the River and into the Trees.

It was widely believed that they were just good friends but now Ada Rosa Alfonso is not so sure.

"Hemingway's passion for Adriana was well known," she says.

"Most researchers and those who knew them describe it as a platonic relationship. But a careful and detailed reading of the letters suggests this was a more intense, passionate and material love."

Cashing in

There are still about 1,000 documents left to be restored.

How to make the perfect mojito

Preserving the publisher's galley proofs for Across the River and into the Trees marks the start of phase two of the project.

Some of the pages are torn, others show sign of mould and stains. Many have handwritten alterations by Hemingway scribbled in the margins.

Mayte Soto is one of the Cuban restoration specialists who has been working on the Hemingway documents from the very beginning.

"We could never have completed the project so quickly without help. Restoration materials are so expensive we couldn't afford them otherwise."

Each page is washed in a special solution before being carefully dried, laminated and filed away in acid free storage boxes.

All of the equipment, including papers, chemicals, brushes and rollers, were provided by the US.

There are also hundreds of photographs amongst the collection.

Many show Hemingway drinking with friends including Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy at one of his favourite watering holes in Havana, El Floridita.

Ernest Hemingway in Cuba in 1948 (image provided by the John F Kennedy Library and Museum)
Hemingway has been a cultural bridge between the US and Cuba

Today there is a statue of him propping up one corner of the bar.

The Cubans have been quick to cash in on Hemingway's presence here.

At times it appears as if every bar in the city where the hard drinking writer fell over drunk has been turned into a tourist attraction.

At the nearby Bodegita Del Medio, tourists queue up outside for a chance to squeeze in and sample Cuba's famous rum cocktail, the Mojito.

What you do not see is many Americans drinking here. US citizens are still banned from travelling to communist Cuba.

That is one reason why, as part of the rescue mission, CDs and microfilms of all his documents have been sent to the Hemingway Archives at the Kennedy Museum in Boston.

They will be made available to scholars later in the year.

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