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Travel

Finca Vigia: the Cuban villa where Ernest Hemingway and Ava Gardner found their friendship

@SamWKemp

In the noonday sun, Finca Vigia takes on the milkwhite sheen of an intricately carved piece of ivory. Built on a hill roughly 15km east of Havana by the Catalonian architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer, it is as glamourous, complicated, and aloof as the writer who once lived inside its pearlescent walls: Ernest Hemingway.

The American author lived here from 1939 until his death in 1961 when he put a bullet through his head using his favourite shotgun. Prior to that moment of reckoning, however, Hemingway found great comfort in Finca Vigia; writing two of his most famous novels – For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man And The Sea – while he lived there. But the house was also somewhere for the writer to host glamorous parties and, when the world got too much, to drink himself blind with his closest friends, one of whom was the great American actor Ava Gardner.

Hemingway knew Gardner’s face long before he met her in person. Likewise, Gardner knew Hemingway only through his writing, later naming A Farewell to Arms her favourite book of all time. The pair were introduced to one another not in Cuba but in Spain, where Gardner had become obsessed with the theatricality of bullfighting after reading Hemingway’s 1932 work Death in the Afternoon. She would later describe feeling an intense kinship with the female characters in his books; a familiarity which would lead her to star in all three adaptations of Hemingway’s novels. He’d always despised actors’ attempts to capture the complexities of his characters on the silver screen, but Gardner’s performance in The Killers (1946) convinced him that it was indeed possible.

At the time of their meeting, Gardner was involved with the bullfighter Luis Dominguin. The pair’s forbidden romance quickly attracted the press and photographs of them were splashed over every tabloid newspaper in America – largely because her divorce from Frank Sinatra had not yet been finalised. Thinking that it might help her get away from the prying eyes of the media for a little while, Hemingway invited Gardner to Finca Vigia. The actress had heard about the writer’s palatial “lookout house” before. Indeed, as Ava’s friend and assistant Mearene ‘Rene’ Jordan recounted in Living with Miss G, Hemingway “loved Cuba and never stopped talking about it”.

As Gardner’s car wound its way up the shrub-lined driveway, she would have spotted a flat-roofed house painted a pale cream, shimmering on the crest of a modest hill. Despite being designed in the neo-classical style, the house looks remarkably bright and modern; its tall windows allowing huge beams of light to flood the stone slabs that line the floors. Hemingway bought it from a Frenchman in 1939 because his wife at the time, Pauline, had refused to spend another night in a Havana hotel room. The marriage didn’t last, but the house remained an important fixture in Hemingway’s life – acting as a safe haven for him but also for Gardner, with whom the writer became firm friends during her stay in Havana. Describing Gardener’s arrival at Finca Vigia, Rene recalled: “There were fifteen acres of wilderness… Still, there was room for a swimming pool, vegetable garden, vines, and more species of mango than anywhere else in Cuba. There were about five million cats, as far as I could see, along with dogs and chickens and cows that gave the place a friendly atmosphere.”

However, that friendly atmosphere also seems to have been underpinned by an unspoken sexual attraction. Indeed, after Gardner emerged from a late-night dip in the pool, Hemingway ordered that the water never be drained. Of course, we can never truly know the nature of the relationship between Hemingway and Gardner. What’s clear is that they did a hell of a lot of drinking. They were in Havana after all. According to Hemingway’s close friend A.E Hotchner, Hemingway once said: “[Ava] was the only woman who could out drink me. She could party all night at flamenco bars and go straight to the studio and look beautiful – and then do it all again the next night. No one could keep up with her.”

Today, Finca Vigia is owned by the Cuban government and is open to the public. You can find out more about the museum here.

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(Credit: Tony Hisgett)