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Hemingway’s Pilar in need of refit

Treasury Department partially OKs application

to restore the author’s Wheeler, on display in Cuba

Treasury Department partially OKs application

to restore the author’s Wheeler, on display in Cuba

A non-profit group dedicated to the preservation of Ernest Hemingway’s legacy has won the U.S. government’s permission to take the first step in the restoration of the author’s sportfisherman, as well as his Cuban home where the boat is displayed.

Permission came reluctantly because of lingering hostility between the United States and Fidel Castro’s government, but Hemingway aficionados found a powerful ally in Republican Sen. John McCain.

In April the U.S. Treasury Department reversed itself and partially approved an application by the Hemingway Preservation Foundation, which resubmitted its application to restore the author’s home and its contents, including Pilar, Hemingway’s 38-foot 1934 Wheeler Playmate. The estate is known as Finca Vigia, Spanish for “Lookout Estate,” because of its hilltop location overlooking Havana and the sea. The estate is a museum operated by the Cuban government; Pilar, among the most significant vessels in U.S. history, rests under cover on Hemingway’s old tennis court.

“After consultation with the Department of State for foreign policy guidance, the issuance of the specific license [the Hemingway Preservation Foundation] requests would be inconsistent with current U.S. policy, inasmuch as the natures of the services described in your application would facilitate tourism in Cuba,” wrote Richard Newcomb, explaining why the U.S. Treasury Department denied permission to begin restoring Hemingway’s Cuban home and his belongings. The ruling came down in June 2004.

This year the foundation resubmitted its application, paying better attention to politics, according to executive director Mary-Jo Adams. The prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation joined the cause as a co-applicant, and the application was supported by Republican and Democratic congressmen alike, most notably McCain. Adams describes the crumbling Finca Vigia and its original contents as “a preservation emergency” that the Cuban government cannot afford to address. “One of America’s most important cultural treasures and its contents are in danger of imminent loss,” Adams says.

The foundation’s Boston attorney, Thomas D. Herman, says McCain has a unique debt to Ernest Hemingway. “He’s a big Hemingway fan,” says Herman. “He had read as a boy ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ and it was a very important influence in his life, particularly the character of Robert Jordan and his sense of ethics and duty. McCain said that when he was a prisoner of war he knew the book so well he read it to himself from memory.”

According to Herman, McCain is no friend to Fidel Castro and his regime, but the Arizona senator joined a bipartisan group of congressmen who argued that preserving Hemingway’s legacy and Finca Vigia rises “above the political considerations of the moment.”

The foundation’s most recent application was twofold in purpose. First, it sought permission to evaluate Finca and its contents. Second, it sought the go-ahead to undertake any necessary restoration using money raised in the United States. The Treasury Department approved the first part of the application in May. “As for the actual preservation work,” Herman says, “they said you need to come back to us with information about the scope of the work, the cost of the work, and the extent of the Cuban contribution before we give you permission to go ahead.”

Herman and Adams say a survey of Pilar is expected to be included in the initial evaluation, and that survey will be conducted under the auspices of Mystic (Conn.) Seaport Museum, which has extensive experience in wooden-boat restorations. The point man in Pilar’s restoration is Dana Hewson, the Seaport’s vice-president for watercraft preservation. He visited Pilar in 2002 in connection with the initial application.

In a March interview, Hemingway Museum curator Ada Rosa Alfonso insisted that museum staff had cared for Pilar with great affection over the years. She confirmed termites had briefly infested the 71-year-old Wheeler Playmate but had been eradicated; Pilar was termite-free. Hewson says his own examination of Pilar was necessarily superficial, but he came away with the impression that the Cubans had indeed maintained Pilar as best they could, considering their means and the tropical environment.

Still, a survey would reveal the vessel’s true condition. “For one thing, termite damage — until it’s horrendous — isn’t visible from the outside,” Hewson says. “She looks to be in pretty good shape, but as any surveyor can tell you there’s a lot that can show up. It could be that she just needs a good cosmetic paint and varnish job, or it could be that she needs something more structural. There’s a lot I just don’t know.”

The only other 1934 Wheeler Playmate known to exist is Valhalla, which belongs to Massachusetts lawyer Hank Clark, who has labored for more than 600 hours continuing years of restoration efforts by its previous owner. Hewson estimates that a cosmetic restoration might cost as much as $200,000 at U.S. boatyard rates. However, few who recognize Pilar’s role in literature, history and in shaping the ethos of the American recreational boater and sport angler would begrudge the expense. Hemingway wrote and fished at a critical time in the 20th century. His novels and magazine articles were devoured by the post-World War II American public at a time of unprecedented prosperity. And with the advent of a miracle material called fiberglass, boats became more affordable for the middle class.

Hemingway’s determination to connect with nature made him a key figure in the development of today’s multibillion-dollar sportfishing industry and has earned him a place in the International Game Fishing Association’s Hall of Fame. Through his fishing and World War II submarine-hunting efforts aboard Pilar — as recounted in his novel “Islands in the Stream” — Hemingway informed the boaters of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and they passed his influence down to us. In the American psyche, Pilar sits moored alongside a select flotilla that includes Columbus’ Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria; the Mayflower; Old Ironsides; Slocum’s Spray; and John F. Kennedy’s PT-109. Only two of these exist today: Old Ironsides and Pilar.

Tax deductible contributions can be made to Pilar’s Survey in care of the Hemingway Preservation Foundation Inc., 60 Lloyd St., Winchester, MA 01890. Anyone with questions about the project or fund-raising opportunities should contact Adams at (781) 729-0870 or e-mail .