They pushed open the door to the secret basement and shed new light on Ernest Hemingway's life.
In the musty darkness and tropical humidity, surrounded by the writer's shotguns and stuffed animal heads, a delegation of four Americans found what they described as a jackpot: file cabinets and boxes filled with thousands of pages of Hemingway's original manuscripts, rough drafts and outtakes from great works, handwritten letters of love and anger, notes in English and Spanish and thousands of photographs. On that day last March, a low-ceilinged room where only a handful of people have been allowed access in the past four decades yielded what scholars say promises to be one of the most important treasure troves in the history of modern American literature.
"My hands must have been shaking, because my pictures from the cellar are all blurred," said Sandra Spanier, a Penn State Hemingway scholar and the editor of a complete collection of his letters. "It was the thrill of a lifetime. These materials are the missing piece in our knowledge of Hemingway."
Spanier said the hidden collection would give scholars and biographers a more complete understanding of the final third of Hemingway's life, which he spent in Cuba. The frustrating gap in knowledge about that important period has always gnawed at those who study the American icon, who killed himself in Idaho in 1961. Now they will have rich new material to probe, including what appears to be a discarded epilogue to "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
The cellar also holds an original typed manuscript of "In Another Country," a story Hemingway wrote in Paris in the 1920s. And there are previously unknown letters to and from his fourth wife and widow, Mary, along with a collection of letters from Adriana Ivancich, a 19-year-old Italian aristocrat with whom Hemingway was deeply infatuated and who inspired the character Renata in "Across the River and Into the Trees."
There were also more mundane items, including his bar tabs and laundry bills, and a specific set of instructions, in Spanish, for how the household cooks should prepare and present Hemingway's favorite foods, especially avocados.
"Those domestic details really round out the picture of him," Spanier said. "It makes it possible to reconstruct his life at an extraordinary level of detail, which helps to separate the man from the myth and really see the artist at work."
That March visit to Finca Vigia, or Lookout Farm, Hemingway's airy hilltop house in this community 12 miles east of Havana, was a first step in an ambitious effort to microfilm, digitize and preserve his papers. The project, an unusual joint effort between President Fidel Castro's government and Hemingway's family, scholars and devotees, will be launched officially next month at a ceremony amid the lush palms and fruit trees at Finca Vigia.
Officials in Cuba's Ministry of Culture said they would have no comment on the project until its official launch Nov. 11. They have always been secretive about and protective of the Hemingway collection. Guides still routinely deny the existence of the basement, and VIPs allowed to touch Hemingway's possessions are given white cotton gloves.
One guide at the house, Cecilia Lambrada, said the preservation project "would be fantastic. It's no secret that we have few resources, and the materials of preservation and restoration are extremely expensive."
The U.S. Treasury Department must approve the plan, because it involves the 40-year-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. But the willingness of people in both countries to cooperate suggests how both nations feel about Hemingway, whose staccato sentences and muscular verbs remain widely popular around the globe.
"Hemingway is an icon in both cultures," Spanier said, noting that the writer spent more than a third of his 61 years in Cuba, from 1939 to 1960, and donated the medal from his 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature to the Cuban people.
Hemingway's name and image are everywhere around Havana, from El Floridita bar, his favorite place to drink daiquiris, to La Bodeguita del Medio, his favorite place to drink mojitos, to his perfectly preserved room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where he often wrote and slept off the rum. In Cojimar, the little port village that inspired "The Old Man and the Sea," fishermen who knew Hemingway donated their propellers to be melted down to make a bust of the writer, which still watches over the marina.
Cuba's reverence for Hemingway is obvious here at Finca Vigia, a gated nine-acre retreat that looks out over Havana and the shimmering blue of the Straits of Florida. At the end of a winding driveway, broad marble steps lead to a front door with a bell that Hemingway rang to welcome visitors and two miniature cannons he fired to greet his most special guests.
Multilingual guides who give tours to busloads of visitors -- mainly from Europe because of the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba -- tick off the list of Hemingway's famous visitors, including Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, Jean-Paul Sartre and Ava Gardner, who is most fondly remembered here for stories of her nude swims in Hemingway's wide, blue pool.
The Caribbean heat presses down like a steam iron here, but a flirty little breeze still plays through the palms and African tulip trees and into the open windows of Hemingway's bedroom. Historians say it was there that Hemingway savored the morning breeze as he wrote, standing at a small Royal typewriter with his furry army of cats playing around his sockless ankles.
The typewriter, like everything else from Hemingway's daily life, has been preserved by the Cuban government. A month after his death, Mary Hemingway loaded 200 pounds of papers and other personal items onto a shrimp boat bound for Florida. Spanier said manuscripts she removed from a Havana bank vault ultimately became works published posthumously, including "Islands in the Stream" and "The Garden of Eden."
Mary Hemingway's trip to retrieve some of her husband's effects was one of the few times Washington and Havana have agreed on anything since Castro took power in 1959: President John F. Kennedy arranged her visa to Cuba, and Castro permitted the shrimp boat to leave. Her last act in Cuba was to sign over Finca Vigia and everything in it to the Cuban government, which immediately designated it a national monument.
Today, Hemingway's loafers are still stacked on a rack near a desk with neatly arrayed shotgun shells and carved elephants. His favorite armchair still sits next to a tray filled with bottles of Gordon's gin and Old Forester bourbon. Enormous water buffalo and antelope heads still stare blankly from the walls, and old copies of Sports Illustrated and Today's Japan sit in his magazine rack. The dining room table is still set with Limoges china for a meal that will never arrive.
Bookshelves in all eight rooms are still crammed with 9,000 books. In his copy of "The Oxford Book of English Prose," Hemingway circled John Donne's line "No man is an island," which became the epigraph for "For Whom the Bell Tolls." In his copy of "Wuthering Heights," he kept a record of his weight, blood pressure and pulse.
His collection of bullfighting posters and oils still hangs on the walls, along with a plate that his old friend Pablo Picasso cast with a bull's image. The couch on which actor Gary Cooper used to sleep is still draped with a cheetah skin, next to a desk where Hemingway opened letters with marlin swords. In the bathroom, Hemingway's daily record of his weight is still penciled on the wall near the lizard he kept pickled in a mason jar, apparently, the guides say, in tribute to its bravery during a fatal encounter with one of his cats.
The project to preserve Hemingway's papers began in January 2001 with a visit here by Jenny Phillips, a granddaughter of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. On that trip, Phillips said she and her husband, Frank, heard whispers from guides about a basement that was closed to the public. Their interest piqued, they returned to their suburban Boston home and contacted Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), an advocate of closer ties with Cuba, to help find a way into the basement. McGovern led a delegation to Havana a year later, and delegation members and Cuban officials agreed to the joint preservation effort.
McGovern said Americans in the past have urged Cubans to allow Hemingway's remaining possessions to be brought to the United States for preservation, which he called "arrogant and demeaning."
"Our approach recognizes that Ernest Hemingway is an important historical, cultural and literary figure not just in the United States, but in Cuba," McGovern said.
The Rockefeller Foundation has put up $75,000, and a fundraising drive is aiming to raise at least $250,000 more, largely to make copies of the materials to be displayed at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.
McGovern said he believes the project will be approved by the Treasury Department, but not without problems. McGovern said a U.S. government bureaucrat suggested that it might be difficult to bring an air conditioner to Cuba, which the preservationists want to control the heat and humidity in the basement. McGovern said the official told him there could be objections because an air conditioner could possibly be used to cool a Cuban military barracks.
"It seems to me that this is something that both countries can work on together," McGovern said. "It's history; it's got nothing to do with whatever you think about Fidel Castro's policies."