by Tracy Harris
“Would you like a picture of his typewriter?”
At first I don’t understand the guard, and it’s not because of her Cuban accent. I’ve been jostling my way up a three-story outdoor staircase for the past 15 minutes, leaning back against the rail as other tourists push past me on their way down. The metal staircase is attached like a fire escape to the exterior wall of a square white stucco tower. When I reach the top, I will be able to peer inside the studio where Ernest Hemingway purportedly wrote The Old Man and the Sea. Climbing the stairs and getting a glimpse inside this literary silo is meant to be the highlight of our visit to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s estate about ten miles east of Havana.
Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary, had the writing tower built in 1946. I imagine she had plenty of reasons for enticing her famously tempestuous husband to work outside of the main house. The tower is only 20 feet away, but from where I’m perched right now, I can’t even see the white Spanish-style mansion. Instead, as I inch my way toward the top, I can feel the warm breeze in my hair and see the city in the distance through the palm trees. Privacy and a view; pretty nice, but I wonder what Papa H. thought about having to climb these stairs each time he wanted to write. I look down between the narrow steps and contemplate the grass and paved walkways below. Then I look up. A bosomy German two steps above me is waiting to descend. I lean back to let her nudge by and flinch as I feel the railing wobble behind me.
I’ve been worrying about getting back in time to meet my group at the bus, and after the woman squeezes past I am relieved to see that I am almost at the top. Another minute goes by. Finally, it is my turn to step up to the platform and peer inside the large open window. The guard standing inside the room holds out her hand for my cell phone. When she asks if I want a picture of “his” typewriter it takes me a second to remember who she’s talking about.
Hemingway. In truth I am not much of a fan and rereading The Old Man and the Sea before this trip didn’t help. Still the guard seems eager, and I haven’t noticed her asking anyone in line ahead of me to hand over their cameras. I am flattered she picked me.
“Sí, gracias,” I reply and give her my Samsung. The guard snaps about ten photos, making a complete circuit around the large room. Hemingway’s telescope, his lounge chair, his bookshelf, a portrait of the great man himself, and of course the typewriter. The line is piling up behind me so she works fast.
“Gracias,” I say again as she returns my camera. I tried to learn some Spanish before my trip, so I add, “Soy una autora.” I am a writer. It’s not really a lie. I teach law for a living but I am in Havana for a week-long writer’s workshop. And I want the guard to know that her graciousness is not unappreciated.
I take my phone, turn around and inhale, preparing to press my way back down the stairs. The line of slowly ascending Hemingway devotees has grown even longer; the walkways surrounding the main house are even more crowded than when I arrived. I’ve got 10 minutes left to see Hemingway’s boat and apparently a cemetery for dogs.
* * *
When it comes to famous men and their typewriters this is not my first time at the rodeo. I’ve seen Faulkner’s typewriter in Oxford, Mississippi, and Jack Kerouac’s typewriter at the Lowell National Historic Park in Massachusetts. I’ve visited the site of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond; I’ve driven past John Steinbeck’s home (now a restaurant) in Salinas, California; and I’ve visited the graves of Jean-Paul Sartre and Frederic Mistral. Except for existentialist Sartre, whose work and philosophy stirred my 16-year-old soul during high school French class, I am not a particular fan of any of these authors. You couldn’t pay me to read On the Road, but when my husband and I were visiting Lowell’s famous textile mills, I insisted that we detour across town to see Kerouac’s boyhood home. I even ran up the steps and stood by the door while Will took a picture.
It’s what tourists do. We want to stand in the places where the famous once stood, to touch the objects they touched, to inhabit if only for a moment the rooms in which they lived. The luminaries whose lives we shadow are not always authors. But in an age when so much of our experience comes to us virtually, most often on a screen so small that we can hold it in one hand, people still seem to crave a connection to the physical places and objects that their heroes touched in the real world. You may be able to see it all online, but visitors still flock to Faulkner’s house and to Walden, just as they line up for a glimpse inside Buckingham Palace or sign up months in advance for the chance to walk through the White House or pay top dollar for those Hollywood bus tours of the stars’ homes. Tourism based on hero worship still exists. It is everywhere. And it is nothing new.
The earliest tourists, however, were not celebrity seekers or literary acolytes. They were typically religious pilgrims, and the heroes in whose footsteps they followed were typically gods, saints and prophets. Buddhist pilgrimage dates back to at least 250 B.C.E.; in India, the mass Hindu pilgrimage known as Kumbh Mela has been going on since the seventh century. At the dawn of Christianity, pilgrims visited sites associated with the life of Jesus, making the arduous journey to Jerusalem to walk in the places where Jesus was born, lived, preached and died. Centuries later, when Islam took root in the holy land, European Christians stayed closer to home, redirecting their pilgrimages to sites associated with saints and holy relics, such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Muslim pilgrims, meanwhile, were going on the hajj, a highly ritualized journey to Mecca in which participants retrace the steps walked by the prophet Muhammed in the seventh century.
None of these early pilgrims took photographs, of course. Medieval Muslim pilgrims would bring back a stone or bit of dirt from the holy site. Christians bought medal badges that they sewed on to their outer clothing as proof of where they’d been.
Two million Muslims made the hajj in 2018, but you don’t have to travel to Mecca to find religious pilgrims. In Quebec, the pillars at the entrance to the Basilica of Saint-Anne-de-Beaupré are covered floor-to-ceiling with crutches and canes and all manner of medical devices, left behind by pilgrims who claim, even in the present day, to have received a miraculous cure. I visited the church several years ago and could scarcely believe that a place still exists where the devout can hope to throw down their crutches and walk, and that such a place can be found in sensible, secular Canada; yet there it is, amidst the tree-covered hills that line the banks of the St. Lawrence River. The site has been a shrine to Sainte Anne since the mid-17th century; the current basilica, completed in 1946, receives half a million pilgrims each year.
Perhaps I was skeptical about the crutches at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré because my own tradition, Judaism, is not really big on pilgrimage. Ancient Jews traveled to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, but that practice stopped after the temple was destroyed in the year 70. Modern Jews still visit the remnants of the destroyed temple, the Western or “Wailing” Wall, where the custom is to wedge a prayer written on a scrap of paper in between the bricks. Even the most secular Jews will do this, as I did when I was dragged to the Wall decades ago, a sullen and unappreciative teenager on a family trip to Israel. But pilgrimage is not a key aspect of the faith or of Jewish culture. Miracle cures at holy shrines? As far as I know, Jews go to doctors.
* * *
I feel a familiar cynicism as I get off my tour bus at Finca Vigia, “Lookout Farm” in English. It’s the same feeling I had staring at the towers of crutches at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré: I could not deny the physical evidence that hundreds of medical miracles had taken place at the basilica, but in my heart I had a hard time believing it was real. Now, as I join the hundreds of people crowding the path to reach the house, about a quarter mile up a hill from where our tour bus parked, I cannot deny that a lot of people seem to be crazy about Hemingway. But I have a hard time believing they are all are true literary pilgrims. I consider how Hemingway’s value as a writer compares to his obvious value as a tourist attraction. Cuba is a poor country. I do not begrudge its government or its people the revenue they generate marketing Hemingway’s legacy.
The house itself is lovely: large and white, with an arched entryway and a red-tile roof. Built in 1886, it looms somewhat imposingly, but that’s more because it’s situated on a hill than because of its size. Except for one small section, the house is only one story tall. I feel some twinges of unexpected eagerness as I approach the columned doorway. So I am taken aback when a dark-haired young man wearing a crisp white shirt and sporting a laminated badge smiles and points to the left, away from the front door. It takes me a minute to realize that tourists are not allowed inside.
I let pop one burst of laughter and look around for other members of my group, but they seem to have already dispersed. There is no one with whom I can share the ridiculousness of this moment. All this excitement about Hemingway’s house and you can’t even go inside! I’ve been to the houses of many famous people: Bill Clinton’s boyhood home in Hope, Arkansas. Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Mount Vernon. Versailles. They may insist you go with a guide or block entry to certain rooms, but I’ve never been to a famous house where they don’t let you in at all.
For a moment I feel offended. Then I laugh again, this time to myself. Keeping visitors from getting too close doesn’t just protect the objects from harm; it enforces a level of respect that sanctifies both the objects and the man who owned them. Forcing us to admire the rooms from a distance makes visiting Hemingway’s house seem more reverential than if we were allowed to trample through. More like a ritual. More like a pilgrimage. I move toward the left as the guard suggested and begin my clockwise circuit.
* * *
There is another famous writer whose house truly feels like a place of pilgrimage. The writer is Anne Frank, and at her house, visitors are allowed inside.
I visited Anne’s house in Amsterdam while backpacking through Europe the summer after I’d graduated from college, more than 30 years before I visited Finca Vigia. I didn’t intend the visit as a pilgrimage. My family was Jewish but not at all religious. I took the cavalier secularism with which I was raised and turned it into near antipathy for my heritage. Still, like most Jewish girls of my post-WWII generation, I had read and reread Anne’s diary, imagining what it would have been like to be her. What would I have taken with me when I left to hide from the Nazis in the attic annex? Would I have been able to stand two years in such close quarters with my mother? Would I, like Anne, have perished in the concentration camps? As much as I wanted to deny it I grew up knowing that if not for some accidents of time and place, Anne’s story could have been mine.
And it’s the house itself that tells Anne’s story. At the Anne Frank House, you don’t just go inside; you actually step through the hidden doorway, camouflaged with a bookcase, that sheltered Anne and her family. You enter and then you walk up a narrow staircase and into the low-ceilinged rooms where they lived for two years before they were discovered, perhaps betrayed.
Anne began writing her diary before her family went into hiding, but the book is the legacy of her forced stay in that “house,” which of course was not really a house but the annex of Anne’s father’s business, a refuge and a prison where Anne had to tiptoe during workday hours, where her only view of nature was a small window through which she watched a tree blooming in the garden, and where eventually Nazi soldiers broke down the door and dragged Anne and her family away. I saw that window and imagined Anne sitting there, watching the tree and writing and believing that people were still really good at heart.
Hemingway may have written The Old Man and the Sea sitting high in the tower that I climbed all those stairs to see, but the place where he wrote represents little more than his good fortune in having a private writing studio. The place where Anne Frank wrote doesn’t just represent her story, it is the story. Her book derives its power from the fact that she wrote it in those cramped, hidden rooms in an ordinary brick building facing a canal on a tree-lined street in central Amsterdam, while desperately trying to avoid some of the worst evil the world has known. And although Anne perished, one among six million, she is remembered because her words, the actual physical diary, miraculously survived. Moreover, unlike so many of the Christian relics which migrated from the Holy Land to churches and crypts all over Europe, Anne’s diary can be seen practically in situ. The small, red-plaid volume is on display in the museum adjacent to the house, a relic of the genocide inflicted upon my people.
I did not weep when I saw Anne’s diary or the rooms where she and her family lived. I did not have a revelation or experience a miracle cure. But visiting Anne’s house was the first step in a journey, a journey that continued that same summer when I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, and later spent time with family friends in Brittany whose seaside home had been occupied by Nazi soldiers. Until that trip, being Jewish had been not much more than an embarrassment to me. It took more than a two-month pilgrimage across Europe, but eventually I grew able to acknowledge that when one is born a member of a group of people who have been continually subjected to persecution and genocide, one does not turn away.
Hemingway, if I’m being fair, can’t really compete with that.
* * *
Hemingway bought Finca Vigia in 1940, two years before Anne Frank and her family went into hiding. Although the house is beautiful, there is nothing especially noteworthy about its architecture or its 1940s and 50s era furnishings. It is, however, the place where Hemingway gathered the things he prized: fishing rods, paintings, thousands of photographs, correspondence and journals, original manuscripts and galleys of his stories and novels, and a personal library of almost 9000 volumes. Most of those items are on view at Finca Vigia, which is preserved in its original state and looks, visitors are assured, pretty much as it did when Hemingway lived there. I do not, by the way, learn any of these facts during my visit; most of what I learn about Hemingway’s house will come later, from the Finca Vigia Foundation website. There is little explanatory material on site.
I don’t notice the lack of interpretive materials at first because, as I begin peering through the ground-floor windows, I am too busy just trying to see inside. The house is packed full of stuff, but it’s hard to get a good look at the books and photographs and knick knacks because I am short and there are mobs of people jostling for position at each window. Preserving the interior as a sanctum sanctorum for fans of Hemingway may prevent wear and tear on the floorboards and carpets, but it has turned visiting the house from a quasi-literary ritual into a competitive sport.
As I move forward on my circuit I soon realize that there’s another reason for all the gasping and pointing. Hemingway owned an astonishing collection of stuffed animal heads. Water buffalo, antelope, an enormous black bull given to him by Picasso. I have never seen anything like it. Grisly but well-preserved mementoes of Hemingway’s manly hunting escapades stare out from every wall in every room, and even though the majority of the visitors are exclaiming in Japanese or German, neither of which I speak, I can tell it’s the taxidermy that is sparking most of the excitement. Nothing is labeled, so I can’t identify the animals and must guess where they came from. I wonder how Hemingway managed to ship them all to Cuba.
I look around at the people gesturing and calling to their traveling companions, rushing from window to window, elbowing one another aside. The whole setup has me feeling vaguely annoyed. I am not consciously aware in that moment, but the lack of messaging itself conveys a message: that Hemingway is so universally revered, he and his objects need no introduction. The fact that he owned these rooms and their contents is enough to make them worthy of veneration.
Despite my twinges of resentment, I find myself falling prey to the lure of Hemingway’s celebrity, caught up in this spectacle of unmediated adoration. I am not about to let a bunch of backpack-toting, camera-wielding tourists get in my way. As if channeling the spirit of Hemingway himself, I begin elbowing and shouldering my way to the front at each window, determined to get pictures of everything.
Then I come to the bathroom. Reverence for Hemingway at Finca Vigia does not apparently require discretion regarding his bodily functions. You can stare right in, past the tub with its jaunty nautical-esque shower curtain, to the scale where Hemingway recorded his weight each morning and a straight-on view of Hemingway’s toilet. At first, this frankness seems inelegant and strangely at odds with the god-like status Hemingway is accorded. On the other hand, I visited enough cathedral crypts on that trip to Europe to know that the relics pilgrims traveled to see were often actual body parts. If nothing else, the bathroom provides a tangible reminder of Hemingway’s corporeal existence. Contemplating the space where Hemingway performed his daily ablutions and eliminations is perhaps the 21st century substitute for crowding around one of his bones or a clump of his hair.
* * *
I do not recall seeing the bathroom when I visited Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis was in fact found dead on the bathroom floor in 1977. Visitors are allowed inside the house, but the bedrooms and bathrooms are kept private.
The house, however, is just one of Graceland’s attractions. There’s a huge museum detailing Elvis’s history as a performer. There is his car collection, his two private planes, a 50s-style diner where you can order a peanut butter and banana sandwich, just like Elvis enjoyed. Visitors choose from among seven tours at Graceland, the “mansion only” tour being the simplest of the many “experiences” for sale at prices ranging from $39 to $169. Finca Vigia, by way of comparison, costs $5, and there is not even a gift shop.
I visited Graceland on a cold, grey day in February. I was in Memphis for work and, while I am not an Elvis fanatic, I was not about to miss the city’s premier attraction. So I chose a mid-range Elvis experience that included his two private planes, which were parked somewhere nearby. Then I stood in line to ride the Graceland shuttle that would bring me across the street and up the driveway to Graceland’s front door.
Graceland is white, like Hemingway’s house, and also situated on a small hill. But at Graceland a guard welcomed me to come inside. Once through the entryway, I kept slow steady pace with the stream of visitors as we embarked on our self-guided tour.
The living room came first. It was all white carpet and white upholstered furniture with swirling floor-to-ceiling royal blue drapes. It took me a minute to realize that this was the same basic decorating scheme as my Aunt Sandy’s house, if it had exploded into an Alice-in-Wonderland type fantasy dreamscape. On the far side of the living room stood an enormous stained glass doorway done in a peacock feather design. It framed the music room, where the grand piano was propped open before a backdrop of still more full-length drapes, this time in gold. There is a small music room at my Aunt Sandy’s house, too, really an alcove off the living room. No peacock feather stained glass. Just the grand piano that had once filled most of the living room of my grandparents’ cramped two bedroom apartment, the piano that my father had learned to play on but had gone to Sandy after my grandparents died.
I had expected Graceland to be gaudy, crowded, sparkling, ostentatious; I had not expected that it would feel so familiar. I let my fingers trail on the red velvet ropes and followed the slow footsteps of the crowd as I moved on.
The kitchen came next, and I gasped when I entered. Not because it was big, not because its floor was covered with some sort of paisley-design carpet. I gasped because, indoor/outdoor carpet notwithstanding, Elvis’s kitchen looked like the 1960s-style kitchens of my childhood: wood paneling, harvest gold appliances, bar stools at a counter where Elvis could have eaten a quick breakfast. I’d eaten countless meals in kitchens just like this. Graceland was supposed to be Elvis’s palace of dreams. Was this really all he wanted? Fancy drapes. A room for his piano. A side-by-side harvest gold refrigerator-freezer. Graceland’s ordinariness moved me practically to tears.
That ordinariness belies the spiritual power that emanates from Graceland even 40 years after Elvis’s death. Graceland welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, many of whom come not to gawk, but to seek grace. Some kneel and pray at Elvis’s grave in the gardens out back, while others, as if emulating the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, write prayers or petitions for help on the brick wall surrounding the estate. And two miles south of Graceland, the St. Paul the Apostle Church each year dedicates its August 15 Solemnity of the Assumption mass to the memory of Elvis.
Elvis was not Catholic. He was raised in the Pentecostal Assembly of God, and he was not in any sense a saint. But beneath his smoldering gaze and his leather fringed jumpsuits and his struggles with worldly temptation, Elvis was a poor boy who loved his mother. There’s a lot of resonance in that image.
Not everything at Graceland had a counterpart in my suburban childhood or my Aunt Sandy’s house. There is plenty to delight the gawkers: the famous “jungle room,” for example, with its green shag carpet and exotic wood; or those two private planes with their gold-plated seat belts and other foofaraw. But a visit to Graceland is for many a true pilgrimage, and it is not just about venerating the objects associated with the King of Rock and Roll. At Graceland you can actually learn about Elvis.
As at Finca Vigia, the contents of the Elvis’s house are not labeled. But the house tour includes separate buildings where Elvis’s gold records and costumes and movie posters are displayed and where Elvis’s story is fully documented. I loved Elvis even more after watching video clips of his 1968 comeback TV special. I hadn’t known that Elvis’s popularity declined after he returned from his stint in the army. The poor guy came home and had to compete with the Beatles.
* * *
I check my watch after I descend from Hemingway’s writing tower and make tracks toward the Pilar, Hemingway’s fishing boat that is kept out back, past the pool. Hemingway’s pool is a wide white cement rectangle, now drained, in which Ava Gardner is said to have swum nude.
I find the Pilar under a protective wooden roof of sorts. The 38-foot boat has been restored and is all shiny wood, stained red and black, with rich dark green interiors lining the deck where Hemingway would have sat and piloted the vessel. A member of my group comes by and I have her snap my photo standing with the boat in the background. I’ve now got a triptych: Hemingway’s typewriter, Hemingway’s bathroom, and me standing by Hemingway’s boat. My work at Finca Vigia is almost done.
Turns out my work actually is done, because from the Pilar I can’t find another sign pointing to the dog cemetery, and it’s time for me to head back to my bus. The visit has not inspired any deeper feelings about Hemingway. Finca Vigia offered up the writing tower and all those dead animals and even a glimpse into Hemingway’s bathroom, where he penciled records of his weight onto the wall. But to me the physical place failed to tell a story.
I take a seat on my air-conditioned tour bus and prepare for the short ride to Cojimar, the actual fishing village depicted in The Old Man and the Sea. As I wait for the stragglers to arrive, I take my phone from my purse and scroll quickly through the photos I’ve taken at Finca Vigia. I think about posting one online, like a digital pilgrim medallion, evidence of where I’ve been and the famous footsteps in which I’ve walked. The bright Cuban sun streams through the bus’s broad windows, shining on the screen and reflecting the image of my face. I keep scrolling and let my face provide the backdrop as pictures of Hemingway’s house glide by.
[Check out Tracy Harris’ back porch wisdom]