You’re on vacation in sunny tropical Key West, Florida, walking beneath the cool shade of a Weeping Fig tree. Beneath the tree, you see a cat on a cement park bench and it’s cleaning one of its paws. You take a closer look and to your amazement, you notice the paw it’s licking has a thumb just like a person! Guess what - you just saw your very first Hemingway cat.
Hemingway cats are named after the famous American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist Ernest ‘Papa’ Hemingway who lived from 1899-1961. Papa Hemingway was a fearless war correspondent during World War I, the Spanish Civil War and World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. He used his real life experiences in his novels, sometimes greatly exaggerating the events that happened to him, which made for great stories told both verbal and written.
In Hemingway’s teenage years he had a great enthusiasm for baseball, boxing and books and his friends enjoyed his wit and humor. As an adult, the force of his personality was such that it heightened the impact of his physical presence. Darkly handsome, broad-shouldered and muscular, he always impressed people as being taller than he really was. Actually 5 ft, 11 inches, he often was described as being a “huge man, over six feet tall.”
Papa Hemingway admired the spirit and independence of cats and believed that, “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” Hemingway liked cats, because they were not disruptive when he was trying to write. He surrounded himself with them all his life and sought their comfort during times of loneliness and stress. Cats appear in many of his writings; particularly in A moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, the Garden of Eden, and True at First Light.
From 1931-1940, Papa Hemingway lived in a house made of limestone in Key West, Florida given to him by his wife Pauline’s Uncle Gus. It was here he received his first cat with thumbs—a six-toed polydactyl tomcat (the term polydactyl is Latin for ‘many digits’) named ‘Snowball.’ Snowball belonged to Papa’s friend Stanley Dexter, a sea captain from Massachusetts. The captain had the tomcat on his ship, because polydactyl cats are excellent mousers and were considered good luck at sea. Upon his departure from Key West, the captain presented Snowball to Hemingway as a gift.
Today the descendents of the first Hemingway cat, Snowball, still possess the unusual six toes. Normal cats have five toes on each front paw and four toes on each hind paw. Hemingway cats may have as many as seven toes on each front paw and six toes on each hind paw. and it is rare for a cat to have polydactyl hind paws only. These front toes look like mittens so polydactyl cats are often called ‘mitten cats’. Some polydactyl kittens have difficulty learning to walk, however when they get older, cats with six toes can perform tricks a five-toed cat cannot. Some of these tricks include opening latches, catching objects with a single paw like catcher with a mitt, and picking up food to bring to its mouth. Some polydactyl cats can even pick up a pencil!
Hemingway once wrote, “One cat just leads to another…it doesn’t really seem as though there were many cats until you see them all moving like a mass migration at feeding time…” He was speaking of his eleven cats at his villa ‘Finca Vigia’, in ‘San Francisco de Paula’, which is a suburb of Havana, Cuba. Papa Hemingway lived in this spacious Spanish Colonial house for twenty-one years, from 1940-1961. During this time the number of cats swelled to a staggering fifty-seven.
Papa Hemingway named each cat he owned and had a personal relationship with each one. He gave them fanciful names like Howard, Hughes, Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy, who were movie stars of those days. He even named some of them after characters in his own books.
However, contrary to popular belief, Hemingway did not own a large number of cats at his house in Key West. He only owned two, but all of the polydactyl cats on the island of Key West today are descendents of these first two Hemingway cats .
Today, Hemingway’s habit of giving his cats fanciful names has become tradition in Key West. The polydactyl cats are named after movie stars, legendary writers, presidents, and even after some of Florida’s hurricanes. Currently, cats called Ivan and Frances, Emily Dickinson, Audrey Hepburn, and Harry Truman roam the grounds with their thumbed feet at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, and these entitled felines are protected by the terms of his will. You will never be far from seeing a cat as there are now forty-six.
Upon Papa’s death in 1961, a local Key West businesswoman named Mrs. Bernice Dickson purchased the Hemingway house. She lived in it until she opened it as a museum in 1964, when she moved into the carriage house in back of the main house. The home was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968 and the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Home today is the property of Mrs. Dickson’s family.
At the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Home all of the ‘mitten cats’ live a life of luxury. Many of the home’s visitors say they would like to come back as a cat and live there. This is because all Hemingway cats do is get up in the morning, eat, and take a nap, eat some more and then take another nap. The cats do nothing, the same way Papa Hemingway saw it and liked it at his house in Cuba, with fifty-seven cats running around his property. Every corner you take at his House and Museum you’ll find a couple of cats either snoozing or eating, or lapping up some water out of a special cat fountain that was once a bathroom’s urinal. Do you think you could live with fifty-seven cats?