Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hemingway's Cats at His Key West Home.

The polydactyl cats that live at the home Ernest Hemingway spent his later years at in Key West have always fascinated me. Now I finally have a chance to meet them on the premises.

I can't vacation. It's just not in me. I have to do something when I am out and about and, on this particular jaunt of seven days aboard the Carnival Triumph, I'm still working, documenting the food aboard the ship. Tomorrow we'll be in the Bahamas, but today I got to experience something just grand. 

I got to go to the Hemingway House.

Mind you, it's just one of several places I visited during a five hour afternoon in Key West that included having a cheeseburger in paradise at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, visiting the southernmost point of the continential United States and buying some soda for the next leg of the trip. But it's the one I've anticipated the most.

Ernest Hemingway is of interest to me. I share his writing schedule of early mornings to get my thoughts down, and I've walked on the land where he lived right after he was married - right here in Paragould, Arkansas. Hemingway himself first visited Key West in 1928. His wife Pauline (whose folks are the Paragould natives Hemingway stayed wiith) had an uncle, and that uncle had bought a Roadster for the Hemingways as a wedding present. The first night the Hemingways were there, they slept in an apartment over the dealership showroom. They'd spend the next three weeks waiting for that car - and there, Hemingway would finish the book he'd started in Paragould - A Farewell To Arms.

Hemingway fell in love with deep sea fishing, which he was introduced to by local resident Charles Thompson. His wife Lorine forged a friendship with Pauline. The Hemingways decided to stay, and two years after arriving they moved into the house bought for them by Pauline's uncle Gus, in 1931.

The house itself dates back to 1851, a Spanish revival with two stories, lots of windows and a lot of native rock. It was in pretty poor shape when the Hemingways took ownership, but they worked hard to restore it and add their own details - including a pool, the first in-ground pool in Key West;

a fountain in the yard 

that was once the urinal at a nearby bar called Sloppy Joe's; 

and an upstairs bathroom, 

run with rainwater collected from the roof.

Hemingway himself wrote in a second story loft at the back of the property

in a study similar to the taxidermy haven that was the barn loft in Paragould.

And yes, you do get to see all of it, including its own bath

from the comfort of a cast iron cage that only a few people are allowed to enter at a time.

In 1940, Ernest and Pauline Hemingway divorced and he moved to Cuba, where he took up with Martha Gelhorn. His last wife, Mary Welsh Dickson, sold the house in 1961 (the year Hemingway died) and opened it as a museum in 1964. Michael Marowski, Dickson's great-nephew, runs the house today, and it's on the National Historic Register. 

But that's not what I was planning to write about. I want to tell you about the cats.

Ernest Hemingway was given a white polydactyl cat named Snow White or Snowball by a friend, a sea captain by the name of Stanley Dexter. Today, many of this very cat's descendants live full time at the Hemingway House.  Today, some 40ish cats with that gene live on the property. They don't all have six toes on each foot, but they all have it in their DNA. And the ones who do have the extra toes look like they're wearing mittens.

And they are everywhere. I was warned when I started on the tour that the cats are notorously aloof and photographing any of them might be less than optimal, but I managed to capture quite a few.

The cats get free roam of the place. They're all named after celebrities, though they wouldn't admit it, the cats, that is - not to me. 

But they're not just allowed to breed forever - heck, otherwise all of Key West would be overrun with Hemingway cats. No, in each litter of kittens, each female cat is allowed to have one litter, and is then spayed. The males are neutered at a similar age. They're all cared for by vets, and some have reached the age of 20.

They're fed twice a day, and they live their whole lives here (no adoptions out). When they die, they're creamated - though there is a cemetery for the cats where their predecessors were buried.

You can talk to the cats, and if they deem you worthy, they'll allow you to pet them. You'll find them under the bushes in the yard, in the stairwell, on the furniture - wherever they want to go, they go. The only real rule is you can't pick them up. That's for the cats' safety and for yours, too.

I would have loved to spend more time in the company of the cats, but the short stop by the ship and my busy itinerary meant I had to keep moving. If you're interested in a visit, check out the museum's website.

More photos from the tour:

You can visit Hemingway's home in Paragould, Arkansas, too. Click here for information.

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