Hemingway’s Key West legacy and six-toed cats

Ernest Hemingway’s home, inside and out. At right is Hemingway with sons and kittens at Finca Vigia, Cuba, ca. 1942 with cats.

Ernest Hemingway’s home, inside and out. At right is Hemingway with sons and kittens at Finca Vigia, Cuba, ca. 1942 with cats.

The crown jewel of Key West’s rich literary legacy, which has attracted writers such as Tennessee Williams, Ralph Ellison, Robert Frost and Carson McCullers, is Ernest Hemingway’s old home at 907 Whitehead Street. The sprawling two-story property is a National Historic Landmark where Mr. Hemingway lived and wrote during most of the 1930s. It is also famously home to about fifty cats. They lounge among the tropical foliage and occasionally leap into visitors’ laps. An average cat has five front toes and four back toes, but about half the cats have an extra toe on one or more paw since they’re descendants of Hemingway’s cats. All the cats on the property carry the polydactyl gene in their DNA.

Tour guides offer a complete narrative room by room, or you’re free to explore on your own. Forget the crowd and listen to the breeze rustling the palms like the sound of gentle rain on his upstairs wrap-around porch. Then you can almost imagine the peace and solitude the famous writer may have felt as he hammered away on a typewriter working on stories he published at the time such as “To Have and Have Not” (with some characters inspired by his Key West friends) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He would write in the mornings and go out exploring in the afternoons.

Later the press leaked his address. After that Mr. Hemingway and his friend, Captain ‘Sloppy’ Joe Russell, who also owned Mr. Hemingway’s favorite bar and indulged his taste for big-game fishing, built a brick wall that still stands around the property. The bricks, tour guides note, are a little crooked, suggesting that the hard-drinking writer and his friend may have been a little sauced at the time.

Fellow writer John Dos Passos first suggested to Mr. Hemingway that he visit Key West. The first place he stayed in 1928 was the Trev-Mor Hotel at 314 Simonton Street with his wife Pauline, where he finished “A Farewell to Arms.” They purchased the property on Whitehead Street, a 19th Century Spanish Colonial style house, in 1931 for $8,000. It’s a lavish property and, including the gardens, the single largest property on the island. Mr. Hemingway, his wife Pauline and their two sons Patrick and Gregory lived there until 1940. They added a pool in the late 1930s, at the time the only one within 100 miles, that cost an astounding $20,000. The home is filled with original furniture, art, European antiques, and trophy mounts from Mr. Hemingway’s African safaris. You’ll also find his old bookshelf with outdated titles such as “Cranberry Red” by E. Garside, “The Iron Mistress” by Paul Wellman, and “Poise: How to Attain It” by D. Starke.

The Hemingway Home & Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information: 305-294-1136 or visit Hemingwayhome.com





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