WARM AND FUZZY ARE NOT adjectives typically used to describe the emphatically macho Ernest Hemingway. His sentences are short, devoid of flowery and descriptive language. His pastimes included such red-blooded hobbies as boxing, hunting and fishing for marlin.
How is it, then, that a man known as a tough guy has come to be known by so many as the namesake for the dozens of cats that roam the Key West property where he once lived?
If you visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum today, the furry four-legged residents are, for many, the main attraction. Cats stretch out and sun themselves on benches or by the pool. They snooze on the beds. They even climb and roost in the palms trees that dot the property.
It all started with one. The history books say that Hemingway was gifted a white six-toed kitten by a local mariner, Captain Stanley Dexter, after Hemingway had admired the captain’s own six-toed feline, Snowball, at a local watering hole in 1935. His sons named the kitten Snow White. Beginning with the famous storybook character, Hemingway named all of his cats after famous people — there are miniature gravestones on the museum’s grounds commemorating the lives of such feline celebrities as Willard Scott, who died at age 12 in 1988; Errol Flynn, who was only 6 when he died in 2005; and Gremlin, who lived for 19 years before his death in 2005 — and the museum honors that tradition today.
According to Alexa Morgan, director of public relations and the media department of the Hemingway Home and Museum, though “all of the cats carry the polydactyl gene, only about 70% show it with the extra toes,” but the Hemingway cats with four and five toes can still have six-toed kittens.
“Once there is a litter born, we wait until they have completed their vaccines and we know their sex,” Ms. Morgan said. “From there, all the employees get to cast in their votes. Currently, to name a few, we have Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, ‘Sloppy’ Joe Russell, Jackie O. and Alfred Hitchcock.”
Some, but not all, of the 40–50 cats who live on the museum grounds are descendants of Snow White.
The multi-toed cats that reside at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum all have a congenital physical anomaly called polydactyly. Polydactyly is an autosomal dominant trait, meaning that a polydactyl gene inherited from one parent is sufficient for a kitten to develop extra toes, but the gene does not always express itself in the offspring. Polydactyl cats are also known as conch cats (no doubt a reference to their Key West connection), thumb cats, boxing cats, snowshoe cats, mitten-foot cats and Cardi-cats (not a reference to a certain female rapper, but instead to Cardinganshire, a small town in Wales where the cats were especially present).
Non-polydactyl cats typically have a total of 18 toes, with five toes on each front paw and four toes on each hind paw. Though Hemingway’s cats are often affectionately known as six-toed cats (because polydactyl is a few syllables too many after a few Hemingway daiquiris), polydactyl felines can have as many as nine digits on each paw. Most polydactyl cats have extra toes only on their front paws or on both their front and back paws; it’s rare for a cat to exhibit extra digits on its back paws alone and rarer still for a cat to have extra toes on all four paws.
In the most adorable cases, a sixth toe on the front paw tends to make it look like the cat is wearing mittens. Some polydactyl cats also have dewclaws, which grow higher on the leg and don’t make contact with the ground when the cat is standing, but give the animal an additional claw with which to capture and hold prey.
The genetic abnormality is most commonly found in cats along the East Coast of North America and in southwestern England and Wales. Intelligent minds disagree as to whether the mutation originated in New England or in actual England, but there is a consensus that it was spread largely by cats transported on ships sailing out of Boston. Sailors reportedly thought polydactyl cats were lucky, and the cats were prized for their superior climbing and hunting abilities, which helped control rodent populations onboard.
Maura Kraus, Collier County’s Principal Environmental Specialist, adopted a black polydactyl cat in 2006 and named him Ernie. “Ernie is his short name,” she said. “He is Ernest, yes, after Hemingway. We figured it was only fitting Ernie be named after Hemingway. He actually has seven toes, including a dewclaw. He can use the extra sixth and seventh toes as opposable thumbs. He likes to grab with them and he does know he has them — he likes to show them off. He will stretch and spread his feet out and it almost looks like he’s wearing mittens because the extra toes are on the inside, like thumbs would be. He is a very good hunter and likes to bring home weekly presents.”
Polydactyly is not specific to any particular breed; it can appear in black cats, calicos, tabbies, or any other color combination crossbreeding can engineer. In fact, the two cats tied for most toes in the Guinness Book of World Records, at 28 toes apiece, are both tabbies. Alas, neither cat resides in Key West.
Perhaps the most famous polydactyl cat of all time is Lil Bub, who had 22 toes and was an internet and film sensation (“Lil Bub & Friendz,” a documentary feature about the popularity of cats in Internet memes and viral videos, won the Tribeca Online Festival Best Feature Film in 2013) and whose death in 2019 sent ripples of grief through the world of online cat lovers. And President Theodore Roosevelt even had a six-toed cat, named Slippers, who he is said to have doted on during his tenure in the White House.
Hey, all you cool cats and kittens
Much like their celebrity namesakes, each one of the polydactyl cats who live on the Hemingway property has its own personality. “The cats are all funny in their own way,” said Karen Ward, a former Hemingway Home employee who now sells her art in the gift shop. “Each one has an individual personality and stakes out their own area of the property. I personally love Rita Hayworth. I say, ‘Rita!’ and she’ll let out a very loud ‘meoooowwwww!’”
Ms. Hayworth is not the only quirky kitty on the premises. “Shirley Temple crosses her front paws when she sits,” Ms. Ward said. “Gina Lollobrigida sits in a char like a human. Teddy Roosevelt needs to be picked up (by workers, not visitors!) and carried with his head on your shoulder. Amelia Earhart leaps from countertop to countertop, living up to her name. Daisy Buchanan sleeps on the bed in Hemingway’s bedroom. Celia Cruz, named for the great Cuban-American signer, meets the workers at the back gate when they arrive to work.
“Josephine Parker, who is at least 100 years old (OK, 21), will stare you down but won’t let you pet her unless she knows you. Howard Hughes is a recluse who hides in the cellar window when it gets too people-y. Elizabeth Taylor woos men. If they sit at her table, she will sit on their laps and won’t let them leave. And that is just the tip of the iceberg!”
It wouldn’t be a true Key West story without a little supernatural flair.
Once they go off to join Papa Hemingway in the afterlife, deceased Hemingway cats are buried on the property in a set-aside cat cemetery. According to David Sloan, an expert on Key West’s haunted history, owner of Sloan’s Key West Ghost Hunt, and the author of “Tutu: The (Almost) Hemingway Cat,” the ghosts of Hemingway cats past have been known to continue prowling around the grounds even after they’ve left the mortal coil.
“Decades ago, friends of former City Commissioner Marili McCoy were renting one of the upstairs units in the carriage house at the Hemingway Home,” Mr. Sloan said. “They started waking up in the middle of the night and there would be a black-and-white tuxedo cat on their bed — the husband would feel it walking on his legs. There were cats on the property, so he figured he must have left the door open. But then he would go to pet the cat and it would disappear. One morning he woke up and felt paws on his chest. He opened his eyes and saw the cat standing there, looking him in the face. The cat meowed and then disappeared, but not before his wife said, ‘Honey, open the door. The cat wants to get out.’ Both of them heard the meow!”
One of Mr. Sloan’s Ghost Hunt employees also had worked at the Hemingway Home for a time. “Ray said there was one cat he called Dracula because this cat liked to live in the basement or could always be found somewhere in the dark — he wasn’t social at all,” he said. “One day in the middle of the day, Dracula came out, walked 10 steps out into the light … and died. After that, Ray started seeing that cat on the wall of the Hemingway House during the Haunted Key West ghost tours he led.”
Keeping up with the kitties
As one might expect, monitoring all of the cats (real or spectral) on the Hemingway Home property is a bit like, well, herding cats. To control the population, the Hemingway Home allows each generation of cats only one litter per year. Once the pregnant female has given birth, she and the rest of her generational cohorts are spayed or neutered.
For the resident cats, “we have a small crew that shows up daily to tend to the cats and the property,” Ms. Morgan of the Hemingway Home said. Routine procedures like ear mite treatment, flea spraying and worming are performed by local veterinarian Edie Clark. Dr. Clark also administers all vaccinations and performs routine feline health maintenance.
During Hurricane Irma, which hit Key West as a Category 4 storm and decimated entire stretches of the Florida Keys, 10 dedicated staff members remained on the property to ensure the 54 cats living at the museum at the time were cared for and emerged from the storm unharmed. The museum’s thick limestone walls (and the property’s generators) kept the cats and caretakers safe and cool, and the staff had stocked up on food, water and medical supplies, so everyone was fed and happy.
Does the staff ever actually have to herd stray cats back onto the property? Not a chance.
“These cats are so spoiled and loved, they have no reason to want to venture off,” Ms. Morgan said. But they do have free reign of the property, which sometimes results in cat wedding crashing. “Many times, we have cats walking up the aisle, laying on the dance floor or photobombing pictures,” Ms. Morgan said. It’s a matrimonial hazard couples are happy to endure for the heartwarming and hilarious photos that result.
Cats in court
Hemingway’s polydactyl crew appear to be content with their pampered lifestyle, but some animal activist visitors to the Hemingway Museum have not always been happy to let sleeping cats lie. In 2003, a museum volunteer concerned about the cats’ welfare filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claiming that the museum was exhibiting the cats without an appropriate license in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act. (Never mind the fact that the license in question wouldn’t have been appropriate for the Hemingway Museum, as it would have required the animals to be kept in an enclosure.) At the time, employees of the museum claimed that the USDA mounted an undercover campaign, sending agents to pose as tourists and surreptitiously take pictures of the cats to help build a case.
To comply with federal regulations, the Hemingway Museum would have been required to place the cats in cages at night, and the property would have had to hire a nightguard to ensure the felines were contained properly. The USDA threatened the museum with fines amounting to $200 per cat per day (or approximately $10,000 a day) for their noncompliance, or they would remove the cats from the property. After five years and $250,000 worth of legal bills, a judge ruled that the Hemingway cats could continue to roam the museum grounds freely — provided that the Hemingway Home build taller fences and upgrade its cat shelters.
The resident cats do, from time to time, indulge their celebrity status with a bit of diva-like behavior. In 2016, Martha Gellhorn — not Hemingway’s war correspondent third wife, but the gray tabby named after her — nipped at an overeager tourist and found herself detained — at a local vet’s office. It was the first time anyone remembered a Hemingway cat acting aggressively toward a visitor. After a 10-day imprisonment, Martha returned to the museum. She was a model prisoner, even dubbed a “sweetheart” by her jailers.
To Have (or Have Not) a six-toed cat
Thanks to the popularity Hemingway’s cats have attained in their decades roaming his historic Spanish Colonial property, feline-loving Hemingway fans have been known to hunt down polydactyl kittens to call their own. Lauren Ellis, development and marketing manager of the Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League in West Palm Beach, said potential cat rescuers are wild for the six-toed felines. “We do get polydactyl cats in and people do ask for them,” she said. “We currently have one in our foster program named Peanut. Peanut boasts seven toes on each of his front feet.” If you’d like to adopt a seven-toed cat of your own, you can learn more about Peanut at www.peggyadams.org.
But if you’d like to take home one of the bona fide Hemingway cats, you’re out of luck. “The cats born on property here stay at the home,” according to Ms. Morgan of the Hemingway Home.
But you can visit them (and maybe learn a thing or two about their namesake) seven days a week at the Hemingway Home and Museum. Or, if you’re stuck at home like the rest of us, download the Hemingway Cats app to your smartphone, where you can learn about each cat and its favorite spots to nap and engage in other feline pursuits. ¦