04/28/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Gary Cooper slept over at Ernest Hemingway's house in Cuba, the lanky Hollywood legend was too tall for the bed, so he stretched out on the couch. When a visiting Ava Gardner wilted in the tropical heat, the smoldering star supposedly skinny-dipped in the pool. "It was greenish water, but it was refreshing," recalls author George Plimpton, who, along with Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich and Jean-Paul Sartre, visited the literary giant's hacienda outside Havana. "I swam nude too," says Plimpton. "There are no photos of that, thank goodness!"
Every old house has its share of stories, but few can compete with Finca Vigía, Hemingway's hilltop retreat in San Francisco de Paula, where the writer lived with two of his wives, at least one mistress and more than 50 cats over 21 years. Now more of those tales—and a lot of literary history—can be told, thanks to an act of cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba that has opened the house and its cache of letters and artifacts to preservationists. One relative in particular hopes access to the papers will erase misconceptions about the macho author, who fatally shot himself in 1961. "A lot of nonsense was written about Ernest," says his niece Hilary Hemingway, 41, coauthor of the upcoming Hemingway in Cuba. One example: his reputation as a carouser. "If he had been in every bar in the world that claims to have served him," asks Hilary, "how the heck did he keep writing?"
After buying the 10-acre property in 1940, Hemingway wrote eight books there—including The Old Man and the Sea, inspired by fishermen from the nearby village of Cojímar. "We were not his workers," says former cook Alberto Ramos Enrique, 72. "Hemingway was like a father to me."
Cuban scholars have already cataloged thousands of items his widow, Mary Welsh, left behind, including war medals, poems, and letters from pen pal Ingrid Bergman. While finding an entire novel is unlikely, experts still hold out hope for a literary gem. "I'll be surprised if they don't uncover some treasures," says A. Scott Berg, biographer of Hemingway editor Max Perkins. "It would be great if there is a short story there."
Linda Trischitta in Cuba