Ernest Hemingway and his Key West Cats
“A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” - Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway arrived on the island of Key West in April 1928 at the recommendation of a fellow writer. He was so enamored of this place that quickly he sent for the car his second wife Pauline’s uncle had given them as a wedding gift. It would take three weeks for the car to arrive. While waiting, the newlyweds lived in an apartment and Hemingway decided to use the time to finish a novel he had been working on. The novel was A Farewell to Arms.
Today Key West is a vacation destination that sees visitors from around the world and Hemingway is one of the reasons the island has become so famous. He bragged about his fishing exploits in the gulf waters, drank at the various watering holes on the town’s main drag, Duval Street, and his famous friends came to visit him spreading the word. When the Hemingways decided to live full time in Key West, Pauline’s wealthy Uncle Gus came through again and purchased a home for them. The Spanish Colonial home on the corner of Whitehead and Olivia Streets was built in 1851 made from limestone that was dug from the ground underneath it. The couple promptly began remodeling it filling the home with treasures from their travels around the world. Ernest built a writing studio in a room above the carriage house where he wrote To Have and Have Not, novel about Key West during the Great Depression. All these things can be seen today by visitors because the house has been turned into a museum for admirers, historians, literary fans and … cat lovers.
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is home to more than just literary history. It is the actual home to the descendants of Hemingway’s pet cats. But these felines are incredibly unique because of a physical defect. The cats are polydactyl, which means they have extra digits on their paws. Polydactyl cats are more commonly known as six-toed cats.
“One cats just leads to another.” - Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway was given a white six-toed cat by a ship’s captain, Captain Harold Stanley Dexter. As cats on boats are good luck, the captain had a white cat named Snowball he sailed with and after Hemingway admired his cat while on a stop in Key West, he gave Hemingway one of her kittens, which Hemingway’s two sons named Snow White. Soon more offspring followed and the cats were given the names of Hemingway’s famous friends. Over the decades subsequent cats have had names like Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich. It is a tradition that continues today. On the grounds of the home there is cat cemetery and a memorial with the names and dates of all the cats who have lived at the home. Staff members guess they have between 40-50 cats currently on the property.
Polydactyl cats have a genetic abnormality that causes them to have extra toes. Most cats have 18 toes with five toes on each of the front paws and four toes on each hind paw. Polydactyl cats may have as many as eight digits on their front and/or back paws, however, is more commonly found on the front paws. The extra toes don’t impair the cats in any way, but because the cats are free roaming and occasionally allowed to breed, they pass the polydactyl gene to each new generation. The cats come in all shapes, sizes and colors and spend most of their days lying about the home and gardens, in the shade when it is hot or nuzzling up to visitors when the mood suits them. Behind the carriage house/bookstore, there is a mini replica of Hemingway’s house with rooms for the cats. Some staff at the museum believes it is possible that most of the island’s stray cats are in some way related to Hemingway’s original felines.
Hemingway was a life-long lover of cats. According to Hemingway's Cats, an illustrated biography by Carlene Fredericka Brennen, Hemingway grew up with cats as a boy in Illinois and Michigan. He had cats wherever he went, including Feather Kcat in Toronto and F. Puss in Paris, who made an appearance in his book A Moveable Feast. After moving on from Key West, he had a menagerie of cats and dogs on his farm in Cuba. However, it is the cats of Key West that still fascinate locals and tourists alike. His cats have become so famous that often polydactyl cats are referred to as “Hemingway Cats.”
Hemingway divorced Pauline in in 1940 and shortly after married his third wife Martha and moved to Havana, Cuba. Although he moved away from Key West, he retained ownership of the house and spent weekends there with his cats. Pauline remained in the Key West home the rest of her life.
“No animal has more liberty than the cat. The cat is the best anarchist.” - Ernest Hemingway
The cats all have free reign of the home and during a visit could be found lounging on Hemingway’s bed, walking through the gardens and even sitting next to the cash register in the gift shop. A sign at the ticket entrance states that guests are allowed to pet and interact with the cats, however, no one is allowed to pick up the cats. Let a sleeping cat lie.
The Museum website has its own cat page with information about the cats, along with names and photos. Although the Museum advocates spaying and neutering animals, they do keep some of the cats unaltered so they can have one or two litters each year to continue the lineage. However, the majority of cats at the house and on the island are fixed. As a private enterprise, the Museum provides and pays for all of the cats' care, including high-quality cat food, catnip on special occasions, and regular vet visits and vaccinations. Pfizer Animal Health is also a sponsor and provides some medicines for the felines. Museum literature says that the reason there are so many cats on the island is because of its maritime past. In the days before pesticides, cats were kept aboard ships to control rats and mice. Since Key West was a port town, many of those cats ended up on shore and because of the mild weather, cats were, and still are, able to roam outside year around. Many restaurants and guests houses have their own resident cats that roam their grounds as well. All this makes Key West a cat-friendly town.
Hemingway Home and Museum is located at 970 Whitehead Street and is every day, 365 days a year, from 9 AM to 5 PM. Cost is $14 per adult, children 6-12 are $6 and kids five and under are free.
907 Whitehead Street, Key West Florida, 33040