On a fall afternoon in 1940, a large rock and an anxious ox abruptly changed the meandering course of René Villarreal’s life. And all he’d wanted that day was a ride to town.
After a baseball game, eleven-year-old René and his two older brothers hopped into the back of an oxcart passing near their home in San Francisco de Paula, just outside Havana. Their youngest brother, seven-year-old Popito, clambered in front with the driver. Suddenly, the wagon hit a large rock, throwing Popito under the still-moving cart. “The wheel actually went through his midsection. It didn’t kill him instantly,” Villarreal says.
In the hysteria, Popito’s brothers carried him to their ramshackle home. Their mother instructed one of them to run up the hill to ask their neighbor, the American, for help. Moments later, Ernest Hemingway’s chauffeur barreled down the block-long dirt driveway from his grand estate. “He said Hemingway had sent him to take Popito to the hospital. He said to let them know that he’d pay anything to save his life,” says Villarreal. “But they couldn’t do anything for him.”
The family stayed cloistered in their home for nearly a month, following a Cuban custom for mourning the death of a loved one—until the day Hemingway appeared in their kitchen. The writer had come from his nine-acre hilltop estate known as Finca Vigía, or “Lookout Farm,” where Popito had been a constant, welcome presence, a playmate to Hemingway’s son Gregory. “He said to my mother, ‘How come nobody goes to La Finca anymore? It was not my fault. It was an accident,’ ” Villarreal says. Hemingway implored Villarreal’s mother to let another of her sons take Popito’s place, to run errands and help feed the dozens of animals roaming the estate. Without hesitation, she gestured toward René and his twin, Luís. Unable to tell them apart, Hemingway asked which one liked boxing. René’s hand shot up, and the choice was made.
“I started loving Papa as a father from an early age,” Villarreal says. “He was like a god to me. He told me, ‘I want you to be here in the Finca as a member of the family.’ ”
Villarreal, a 76-year-old retiree who lives in West New York in a modest yellow row house fronted by blooming flowers and rose bushes, moved to New Jersey more than 30 years ago. He and his wife, Elpidia, live a few blocks from Union City, affectionately known as “Havana on the Hudson” and home to the largest number of Cuban-Americans outside Miami.
Villarreal’s smooth, taut face slips into the easy smile of a man adrift in a pleasant dream. He is a boy again in Cuba, the trees are heavy with mangoes, the scent of tropical flowers mingling in the breeze. “La Finca to me was a magical place,” says Villarreal, who spent 21 years as Hemingway’s majordomo, the household’s chief steward. Hemingway, his children, and his wife, Villarreal says, all spoke to him and his family in Spanish. “I learned so much from Papa when I was young,” he says. “He taught me a lot about life—as a friend, as a man. I learned to love animals even more than I loved them before. I learned to love life.”
It was in Cuba, where the celebrated writer lived longer than anywhere else, that Hemingway finished Across the River and Into the Trees, The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, and Islands in the Stream. He was so captivated by his island home that he dedicated his 1954 Nobel Prize to the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint, and donated it to the Catholic Church.
When Villarreal talks of the two decades he lived at La Finca, he remembers everything—from cocktails by the pool at noon and intimate dinner parties for famous guests to endless shopping lists for marshmallows and macaroons, whiskey and fence wire. Looking back, Villarreal sees Hemingway flush with success from For Whom the Bell Tolls. Flashing forward, he sees an aging artist at home, largely content with his wife, his books, and his routine. Villarreal pictures the great writer—hair mussed and clothes rumpled—falling asleep in his overstuffed chair, a highball in hand and his dog Blackie at his feet.
“There was a time he said to me, ‘Who am I going to sell this old Finca to? Who am I going to sell these books to? I can’t sell my fame,’ ” Villarreal says. “He had ten years without writing. And then he wrote Across the River and Into the Trees, and the book was not welcome. It’s a big book, but people could not stand it. And then he comes out with The Old Man and the Sea—[only] 26,500 words, but he says so much.”
In 1995, Villarreal began telling his stories over wine and cigars to his son, Raúl, a visual artist who also lives in West New York. Raúl translated his father’s tape-recorded memories into an 80,000-word book tentatively titled Remembering Papa Hemingway: Life in a Cuban Paradise, which is now being shopped to publishers. On September 14, Villarreal provides an important voice and shares some anecdotes in a PBS documentary, Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea, directed by Peabody and Academy award–winner DeWitt Sage. The film airs on Thirteen/WNET New York’s American Masters series.
Of life in 1940s Cuba, Villarreal says, “We were one big family. If a bad man walked in, the whole town got together and chased him out.” The lone policeman, he says, had no gun, just a holster stuffed with old newspaper. There was family, school, church, and catechism on Fridays. Until there was Hemingway.
Villarreal and his brothers were playing baseball, using a stick for a bat and a ball fashioned from wadded-up rags, when they met the writer in 1939 as he scouted the estate he would soon buy. Villarreal was intrigued—but not because he’d come face-to-face with the famed author of The Sun Also Rises. “Here is a strong, corpulent man, and he’s wearing shorts, like we were. He was very tall, with large, strong hands,” Villarreal says, his face bright with the 66-year-old memory. “He gave each one of us a dollar. At that time, one dollar was very much money. We say, ‘Thank you, mister, thank you.’’ He turned red, embarrassed, and say, ‘Stop, stop.’ ”
The American wanted to know why the boys were playing on the road instead of inside the gate in the generous fields. “We told him the owner would send the dogs after us or send the gardener with a machete,” Villarreal says. Hemingway told them that he had sons their age—Gregory, Patrick, and Jack. “If I buy the property I’d like them to have friends here,” he said. “We’ll put in a baseball field.” True to his word, he bought enough gear to outfit two teams, naming one the “Gigi All-Stars” after Gregory.
Photos of Villarreal from that time show a skinny boy with a big smile. The shadow of the boy returns when Villarreal tells stories, especially the one about the gardener’s ghost. Shortly after Villarreal went to work at the estate, La Finca’s gardener killed himself by the well. The boys found his body. One night, haunted by the memory, Villarreal convinced himself that he saw the man’s ghost and he ran to Hemingway. “I was really young then, and I was frightened out of my shirt. I was trembling with fear,” he says. “Papa went down with me. As we got closer, I realized it was some dried juana leaves. After that, I was never afraid in life.”
When he closes his eyes and pictures La Finca, Villarreal sees strong light from the terrace door flooding the living room, where Hemingway liked to read. There were so many photos, most just stuffed into drawers in the room next to the workroom. On one desk were snapshots of Gregory, Patrick, and Jack—and one large framed photo of Marlene Dietrich.
Throughout the house, thousands of books in English, Spanish, French, and German lined nearly every wall, even in the bathroom. Hemingway always returned from travels with more books. The only room without a bookshelf was the dining room, where Hemingway enjoyed facing a favorite Joan Miró painting, The Farm. Says Villarreal, “He often said his job was to read and to write.”
On a table were bottles of Old Grandad bourbon, Pinch scotch, Gordon’s gin, and Vichy mineral water; on the phonograph, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, Andrés Segovia or Louis Armstrong. The music was usually soft. The windows were always open.
Villarreal slept in the basement of the two-bedroom house, which was converted to include two rooms and a bathroom. Visitors usually bunked in a nearby bungalow, since the guest room, where Villarreal fed the estate’s 39 cats and 11 kittens, often smelled like a litter box. La Finca was overrun by dogs, cows, chickens, fighting cocks, and pigeons. The writer had nicknames for all the household favorites, kids or pets. Patrick was “Mouse,” Jack was “Bumby,” and of course, there was “Gigi.” Hemingway’s wife, Mary, was “Kitten,” and he was “Big Kitten.”
Villarreal says that Hemingway was fair, if eccentric. “He was a great lover of nature,” he says. “Even though he was a hunter, I never saw him harm an animal. He always taught us ‘Never even throw rocks at a bird.’ ”
At first, Villarreal earned seven pesos a week for fetching mail and pulling weeds. By age seventeen, he was named majordomo. The rules of the Hemingway house were simple: Respect others. Be courteous. When you must be strong, be strong. When you have to be harsh, be harsh. When you shoot, do not hesitate. Look people in the eye. If there’s a fire, grab the manuscripts first and the art second. When Papa is writing, be quiet and still.
Hemingway wrote in a bedroom that had a cot for napping. Villarreal was the only one who could enter when eyes were on page. The author often stood while writing, shirt off, pecking at a typewriter that sat high on a bookshelf. He’d mutter as he gazed out the window or at Juan Gris’s painting The Guitar Player. “He’d say, ‘You probably think I’m crazy, talking to myself. One day I will explain it to you.’ ”
In the late 1940s, a three-story tower was added to La Finca to serve as the writer’s retreat. Villarreal says a frustrated Hemingway lasted one day in his new office. He remembers Papa storming down the stairs, papers in hand, calling the tower no good for writing. The next day, the new writing retreat became the new cat lair.
Hemingway—and anyone who stayed with him—maintained a strict routine. “He’d wake at 5:30 or 6 to exercise,” Villarreal says. Each morning, Hemingway recorded his weight and blood pressure, then ate the grapefruit, toast, tea with no milk, and egg that Villarreal prepared as soon as he heard the writer stirring. Usually Boise the cat shared Hemingway’s breakfast. Then, the writer would work until midday.
With its camel saddle, Egyptian leather seat, paintings of bullfights, and heads, horns, and skins of animals killed on safari, La Finca was a shrine to Hemingway’s exotic adventures. “I was always worried when Hemingway was away,” Villarreal says. “I read the newspaper to see if I could read any news about him. And twice I read articles that he was killed, but there was something inside of me that told me that he was alive.”
Once back home, Hemingway threw small dinner parties for movie stars, an Italian countess, or famous Spanish matadors. Villarreal especially remembers the breathtaking Ava Gardner. Spencer Tracy visited while filming The Old Man and the Sea. But Villarreal’s favorite was Gary Cooper, who often slept on the couch. “He was gentle, really kind, and very humble,” he recalls. “He speaks to everyone.”
Hemingway drank, joked, and sang raucous Basque songs with his friends. Parties often lasted for days, continuing on to Havana’s Ambos Mundos Hotel, La Floridita, or La Terraza. “In the neighborhood, people called him ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mr. Way’ because it was too hard to pronounce Hemingway. Or they said the ‘Americano,’ ” Villarreal says. Generous to the needy, Hemingway unfailingly sent two floral arrangements to funerals, with a card signed only “Finca and Staff.” Once, Villarreal recalls, a distraught man cried to Hemingway about his dead mother and begged for burial money. A month later, the man returned with the same story. Hemingway said, “You killed your mother last month.” Snagged, the man turned to leave, but Hemingway stopped him. “I’m a writer, and I like to get paid for my work,” he said. “You are a great actor, and you should get paid for a great performance.”
For much of the time that Hemingway lived in Cuba, Fulgencio Batista, an authoritarian friendly to the United States, controlled the country. “Batista’s men were always on the prowl looking for counterrevolutionaries,” says Villarreal. “But after a while you realized that they were really looking for money so they can go out and drink rum and party.” One night, a group of rifle-toting soldiers knocked on La Finca’s door, annoying Hemingway, who’d just finished one of his favorite peanut-butter-and-onion sandwiches. “He is saying ‘You don’t let hardworking people rest? What are you doing bothering me?’ ” Villarreal says.
As the frustrated soldiers took their leave, La Finca’s lead guard dog, Machakos—named after a town in Africa—followed them to the edge of the fields, nipping at their boots. When Villarreal found him the next morning, his skull had been crushed by the butt of a rifle. “Papa said, ‘Oh, those sons of bitches, those sons of bitches… If they come back, we’ll shoot at them,’ ” Villarreal says. “But Papa couldn’t complain to anybody, because they were Batista’s men, and with all that corruption there was nothing, nothing you could do.”
In 1954, after he was involved in two plane crashes in east Africa, Hemingway’s health deteriorated and his mood darkened. Recovering from burns, he also suffered lingering effects of numerous fractures and ruptures. Villarreal remembers piles of Seconal, blood-pressure tablets, and vitamin B. “I often massaged his back,” Villarreal says. “At the end, he was reading a great deal. He’d drink more, but he was still very disciplined.”
On September 17, 1955, Villarreal was called to the living room to witness the signing of Hemingway’s will, handwritten on La Finca stationery, which entrusted everything to Mary. The one gift Villarreal received was a .22 rifle, which he prized until it was confiscated when he and his family left the island.
Villarreal doesn’t dwell on the firing squads, political prisoners, or millions driven into exile. Neither did Hemingway: “Papa no político,” he says. In 1959 on the night the bearded revolutionary seized power, Hemingway was off the island. Upon his return, a delegation greeted him at the airport with the Cuban flag, which he impulsively kissed. The photographers begged him to do it again for the cameras, but he refused, says Villarreal. “He said, ‘It’s not from the heart. I’m not an actor.’”
With Castro in power, the American ambassador strongly suggested Hemingway leave the country. After buying a home in Ketchum, Idaho, Hemingway told Villarreal, “René, hold on as much as you can and keep taking care of the property as long as you can without risking your life, because you know that this is a hard place. Do as you’ve always done.” Before he left for Ketchum, Villarreal says, Hemingway gave him a thick manuscript wrapped in a towel. “He wanted me to put it in my favorite hiding place.” The majordomo wrapped the manuscript in a second towel, put it inside a suitcase, and placed it on a shelf in Hemingway’s closet. Villarreal believes that the manuscript was Islands in the Stream, which was published after Hemingway’s death.
Villarreal last saw Papa was in July 1960. “He didn’t look that well at all,” he says. “Mary told me, ‘He wants to act the way he did as a young man. What Papa needs is a long, long time at the Finca with us. He is living life too fast for his age.’ ”
In his last letter to Villarreal, Hemingway wrote, “No matter what happens to me, remember to take care of the manuscript. Only hand it to Mary.” After the U.S.–backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Hemingway never returned. That summer, over a shortwave radio, Villarreal learned that Hemingway had shot himself on July 2, in Ketchum, after a series of electric shock treatments for depression. “I had a sense of it,” Villarreal says. “I knew he was not well at all.”
Much of the stuff of Hemingway’s life was moved to La Finca’s basement and largely ignored for 40 years. The government turned the estate into a museum, allowing visitors to peer in from outside at well-maintained rooms—places were set for dinner—as if Hemingway were out for a walk and due back soon.
Mary Hemingway returned once, shortly after her husband’s death. After burning some of his papers, she took the manuscript from Villarreal’s hands and packed it along with the few items she was allowed to take. “She told me to hang on as long as I could and that she would send for me,” he says.
It took more than ten years. From 1963 to 1968, Villarreal, appointed by Castro, served as La Finca’s administrator, director, and tour guide. It was a plum position, but to keep it, he would have had to join the Communist Party. Instead, he quit. In exchange for permission to leave Cuba, he worked for two years at hard labor in the government-run sugarcane fields. Finally, in 1972, with Mary’s money, Villarreal departed for Madrid, where he, Elpidia, and their five children lived for two years before moving to Union City.
When Villarreal fled Cuba, he could take only a few snapshots. He lost forever the last letter Hemingway wrote him, a week before his suicide. Villarreal recites from memory: “ ‘René, my dear Cuban, Papa is running out of gas….In the past couple of months I have written very little, one letter to Patrick, in Africa, and one to Charles Scribner….Take care of the cats and dogs….I’ve lost a lot of weight. I went from a heavyweight to a welterweight on a strict diet.’ ”
Villarreal found work in Manhattan, casting rings for a jewelry manufacturer, and the entire family became U.S. citizens. Mary continued to send money, over Villarreal’s objections, until she died in 1986. “She said she would help as long as she could,” he says. “She said, ‘What I give you is like taking a feather from a turkey.’ ”
Since leaving his homeland, Villarreal has returned more than a half-dozen times, always stopping at La Finca to share stories with its new staff. In 2002, he finally went into the basement and sorted through the precious Hemingway archives—which, according to a New York Times story, contained 3,000 crumbling letters and documents, 3,000 photographs, and 9,000 books in which Hemingway had made notes.
Over the years, Villarreal has often re-read his favorite book, The Old Man and the Sea. “In the end, like Hemingway, the old man brought the fish to shore. But he couldn’t enjoy anything from it,” says Villarreal. “That’s what happens to the old man and that was what happened to Hemingway….Just when you’re triumphant, the sharks take your prize away from you, and you’re just left with the skeleton, the head, and the tail….Now, I can relate to the old man.”
When Villarreal dreams, it is often of La Finca. “When I have a hard time falling asleep, all I have to do is picture La Finca,” he says. “I picture myself as a boy, as a young man, and I fall asleep happy. To me, it’s paradise.”
Dawn Shurmaitis lives in Jersey City. She’s still fighting to land her own big fish.
Article from September, 2005 Issue
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