Cats, Key West, and Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway six toed cat

One of the Hemingway polydactyl cats. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Fred Astaire, Winston Churchill, Lauren Bacall, and Howard Hughes pop out from basement grates, stroll through shrubs, and pose for guests visiting a certain Spanish Colonial home in Key West.

Who are they? The Hemingway cats, all descended from Ernest’s original tomcat, Snowball, who had six-toed paws.

Ship’s captain Stanley Dexter gave Hemingway Snowball as a gift, after the author admired his polydactyl feet. Hem gave Snowball’s many children the names of famous people, and took great amusement in being able to say things like, “Look what a fine, fat rat Winston Churchill left on the doorstep this morning!”

Their massive paws are unlike any I’ve seen. I’d have adopted one of the cats the spot, had it been possible.

The Hemingway House in Key West.

The Hemingway House in Key West. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Hemingway and his second wife Pauline called Key West home for 11 years (1928-1939), which means a quarter of the author’s adult writing life was spent here.  While in Key West, he completed and published:

  • A Farewell to Arms
  • Death in the Afternoon (nonfiction)
  • Winner Take Nothing (collection of short stories)
  • Green Hills of Africa (nonfiction)
  • To Have and Have Not
  • The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway often drank at Sloppy Joe’s with his friends (the Mob) after sword-fishing on his boat, the Pilar.  The ice house next to Joe’s leaked in a constant stream of water that Joe didn’t clean up — so the floor was always a wet, dirty mess — hence the bar’s name. Originally on Green Street, Joe’s moved to its location on Duval in 1937.

Captain Tony’s Saloon, current resident of the original site, retains the stinky dock-bar funk that Hem and his Mob enjoyed.

The original Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West.

In 1936 Martha Gellhorn met Hemingway at Sloppy Joe’s, and in 1937, when Hemingway went to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, she was there doing the same thing. Their experience inspired Hemingway’s next novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is dedicated to Martha.

Their very public affair also spelled the end of Hemingway’s second marriage, along with his time in Key West. With Gellhorn, Hemingway moved on to the Cuban period in his life, and he would never write as much or as well again . . . the one fine exception being The Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway and Gellhorn.

I’ve loved Hemingway’s work since I was fourteen when The Sun Also Rises was at the top of my summer book list. On my first trip to Paris at seventeen, reading A Moveable Feast cemented this feeling. Loving Hemingway in the 1980’s was unfashionable, and I was told frankly, by two high school teachers and three professors, that E.H. was a sexist, misogynist asshole who aggrandized bullfighting, big game hunting,  — and that basically at by the end of the 20th century, we no longer had any need of his sort — and that there were other writers of the Lost Generation that wrote better anyway.

I disagree.

Hem wasn’t an easy man. Charming and intense, given to the highs and lows of his bipolar disorder, he drew people to him like a magnet — only to abuse those close to him when he was on a deep down. He had the reputation of being incredibly patient and giving as a teacher, only to turn quicksilver mean in a fight. Poorly suited to marriage, he married four times — and loved deeply, but was inevitably unfaithful, and the marriages inevitably over.

I think Hemingway could only feel safe for a period before restlessness took over. Before it took someone or something else, someone new, to make him feel safe and whole again.

Deeply damaged and deeply personal, Hem was brave enough to take us in there with him: to feel things intensely; to be self-aware; to write about it ALL. To write the truest sentence he knew, without flinching, without cheating the note.

And as he did it, he re-invented the way novels and stories might be written.

Typewriter in Hemingway’s writing studio. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

So if you find yourself in Key West, you will see tourists come and tourists go, and you will know that Duval Street is not what it once was.

But if you are looking for Hemingway, go to his garden surrounded by walls on an early morning. A cat will come find you, and you can still feel him here.


This and That

Letters between Leonard Bernstein and Martha Gellhorn in 1959, concerning Hemingway.

Letter from Leonard Bernstein to Martha Gellhorn, 1959:

“I met Ernest Hemingway at Sun Valley last week, and was taken totally by surprise.

I had not been prepared by talk, photos, or interviews for a) that charm, and b) that beauty. God, what goes on under his eyes? What’s that lovely adolescent tenderness?

And the voice and the memory & the apparent genuine interest in every living soul: fantastic.

We spoke tenderly of you: he said you were brave . . . . His present wife seems to be a professional Ja-sayer, though simpatico enough.

The question is not: How could you have married him, but how could you have done anything else?”


Letter from Martha Gellhorn to Leonard Bernstein, in response.

“Interested about Ernest [Hemingway]. Tenderness is a new quality in him; but people do luckily change all their lives and the luckiest ones get better as they grow older. His main appalling lack was tenderness for anyone. I longed for it in him, for myself and for others. I’d almost have settled for others. I do not remember his voice as being anything much, but I always was thrilled by his memory.

He was interested in everyone but there was a bad side. It was like flirting. (Like you, in fact, he has the excessive need to be loved by everyone, and specially by all the strange passing people whom he ensnares with that interest, as do you with your charm, though in fact he didn’t give a fart for them.) So he would take people into camp; they became his adoring slaves (he likes adoring slaves) and suddenly, without warming, he would turn on them. That was always terrible to see; it made me feel cold and sick and I wanted to warn each new conquest of what lay in wait for him. But one couldn’t; they wouldn’t believe; they were on the heights of joy—for he can be a great life-enhancer and great fun, and his attention is very flattering.

By the time I did marry him (driving home from Sun Valley) I did not want to, but it had gone too far in every way. I wept, secretly, silently, on the night before my wedding and my wedding night; I felt absolutely trapped. When I fell in love with him was in Spain, where for once he did have tenderness for others (not me, he was regularly bloody to me, lustful or possessive, and only nice when he was teaching me, as if I were a young man, the arts of self defense in war. And also he liked being the only man in Spain who took his woman around with him, and I was blonde, very helpful in brunette countries, raises one’s value.)

I loved him then for his generosity to others and for his selfless concern for the Cause. That was all gone by the time I married him. I think I was afraid of him though I certainly never admitted it to myself or showed it to him. You will also be surprised to hear that I have never been more bored in my life than during the long long months when we lived alone in Cuba. I thought I would die of boredom. But it was very good for me. I wrote more with him than ever before or since in my life, and read more. There were no distractions; I lived beside him and entirely and completely alone, as never before or since.

I am very glad he now speaks pleasantly of me. I never speak of him one way or the other with anyone. The whole thing is a distant dream, not very true and curiously embarrassing. It has almost nothing to do with me. What I write you here is, as you can understand, secret and between us only and forever.

He ought to be happy and he ought to be gentle; because life has showered gifts and blessings on him; and I hope he is.”


Practical Notes:

Open 9:00 – 5:00 most days. The Hemingway House does NOT take credit cards for the entry fee of $14 (adults) $6 (children)  — but will take credit cards in the gift shop for purchases of books, t-shirts, and other Hemingway memorabilia.











8 Comments on Cats, Key West, and Ernest Hemingway

  1. I’m not a fan of Hemingway’s, but those are gorgeous cats.


  2. You really brought the Hemingway home to life – great post. You give another compelling reason to visit Key West.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never been to Key West, but if I ever get there, I’m definitely stopping in to see these cats. As for Hemingway, he may not have been someone who was easy to get along with and had many flaws, but I fail to see why that should stop anyone from enjoying his work…which is fascinating. great post!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. your story evokes the steamy day two summers ago when we stood in the rain, unsuccessfully digging in our pockets for the necessary cash to buy admission to see the damn cats. Channeling H, Dad shocked the kids as my frequent expletives hung in the wet air.

    Liked by 1 person

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