Their eyes combed the lush jungle landscape as we stood waiting at the gated entrance to 907 Whitehead Street. With a quiet gasp from my travel companions, the first orange splash of cat appeared, a bold stroke sauntering on four legs before the chartreuse shutters of the porch. It paused for a moment, gazing toward us as if daring the children to skip the queue, then turned to walk through the open door as if it owned the place.
“Do you think it has six toes?” my son whispered.
I held up crossed fingers where he could see and whispered back, “I hope so.”
As the official travel planner for our family, I often walk a fine line. Drag everyone to an activity too esoteric and risk mutiny, but build a trip around too many child-themed activities and at some point I may feel compelled to jab something sharp into my eye. For the most part, we’ve kept a good balance in our family’s travels. Though I wasn’t so sure how our visit to The Hemingway Home Museum in Key West was going to play out. After all, what did my three young children know of Ernest Hemingway?
Still, I vowed I would not travel all the way from San Francisco to Key West and miss my chance to stroll along Mr. Hemingway’s bookshelves, peer into his private chambers, and possibly gaze into the very bathroom mirror where he’d examined his beard on so many mornings, including the one after a favorite poet of mine purportedly broke his fist against it.
It would be a literary pilgrimage for the parents, and—I secretly hoped—a possible antidote to the plague of the blank page I’d been battling of late.
But what would it be for the kids?
I imagined myself giving a parental preface upon arrival, something like, “A famous American writer lived here. He wrote novels, short stories, and nonfiction books, and some of his best and most important works were created here—right in this room in fact. And on THAT (we assume) typewriter.” But I already knew better. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell a child a place “is important because it’s important.” That’s not what will make it important to them.
There was only one thing I could think of that final day in Key West, one card to play that would get my young entourage to walk without grudge through the sweltering blocks of Old Town to visit the Hemingway Home Museum. It was the prospect of seeing cats there, “And quite possibly…” I widened my eyes for effect, “the legendary six-toed grandcats of Mr. Ernest Hemingway.”
“SIX toes?” cried the littlest.
“Wait a minute,” challenged the biggest. “How many toes do cats usually have?”
Cat research was quickly underway, and there was definite interest in visiting Hemingway’s cats at least, if not his home. Even better? Polydactyl—the scientific term for cats born with more than the standard set of five toes on the front or four toes on the back—could also be, the kids were quick to point out, the scientific term for their grandmother were she a dinosaur.
At last, we strode up the path toward the stunning Spanish Colonial that had stood abandoned and a shambles in 1931, the year that Ernest and Pauline moved in (his second wife of four). As the guide preparing to lead the next tour greeted us on the steps, the kids darted past her without salutation. On the far end of the porch, they’d spied a snoozing patchwork calico draped across the stonework corner.
I overheard a quiet counting followed by a very loud confirmation: “SIX TOES!!!”
I cringed, but the cat simply yawned in response and continued its siesta as if it were used to such invasions by small, paw-prodding visitors.
The guide called us to join our group in the dining room, with its many portraits of Hemingway, African sculpture, and photos of the famed second family that called the house home, but the room was packed. I did my best to listen from the doorway as my husband wandered down the hall taking in the rooms of the lower level on his own, and I wondered if we shouldn’t follow his lead and see all we could before the kids lost patience. Though I hated to miss the storied details of the place I now stood after imagining it for so long.
I’d at least hear the introduction.
When the Hemingways arrived in Key West in 1928, planning only to stay long enough to retrieve a Ford Roadster that Pauline’s wealthy uncle had purchased for them, the town was nearly bankrupt. It hit upon hard times well before the Great Depression owing to the end of the shipwreck salvaging era that had built the community and the recent demise of the local sponging industry which had, for a time, sustained it.
Since the car had not yet arrived in Key West, the couple stayed on. And in the three weeks they waited for the Roadster, an inspired Hemingway managed to finish the manuscript for A Farewell to Arms while he simultaneously fell in love with America’s southernmost city. When the Roadster finally arrived, it remained in Key West along with the Hemingways.
As we listened on, a sociable tabby padded down the hallway toward certain inspection. “Only five toes,” the kids confirmed.
Three years later, Pauline’s Uncle Gus purchased the two-story villa as a gift for the couple—along with two other houses on the same property—from the City of Key West for a mere $8,000 in back taxes. The Hemingway’s home itself had been built in 1851 for Mr. Asa Tift, owner of one of the most prosperous salvaging operations in Key West history, with no expenses of architectural detail, marble fireplace, or carved wooden baluster spared.
Just days before, we’d seen Tift portrayed by a costumed interpreter at the Key West Shipwreck Museum, but when I turned to remind the kids, they were nowhere to be seen. I politely sped through the first level of the house—and checked the status of the calico sleeping on the front porch—but didn’t see a one. Up the narrow staircase I went.
I found my stray children, along with two others, quietly gathered at the end of a long display case filled with odds and ends from Hemingway’s life: war service medals, a signed baseball, old snapshots, and tax receipts for the property. The kids were not admiring the treasures within the case, however, but the tabby sprawled comfortably atop its glass lid. Beside the bold feline on display was a sign reading: “Please do not lean on the glass.”
“I guess they should have written it in Cat,” my daughter grinned, giving him a gentle scratch between the ears.
Seeing that kids, cat, and museum artifacts appeared safe for the moment, I stepped into the neighboring room to see what I could learn from another tour in progress. It was the master bedroom, and the guide explained that the carved headboard had long ago served as a garden gate on the property. Ernest and Pauline had discovered it during their renovations to the house and both liked the look of it. When they discovered it was exactly the width of their bed, up the narrow staircase it went.
Above the bed hung an oil painting of the home with wide-footed cats in the foreground. And on the bed itself—which was chained off to prevent any person from presuming they could sit on it—was a cat. With an exaggerated stretch, it rolled over to its other side, the black of its tuxedo fur commingling with chenille nubs of coverlet. The humans in the room, including the guide, looked on with affection.
How these cats, numbering somewhere between 40 and 50, came to be at the Hemingway Home is a subject of much debate. While some argue they couldn’t possibly be related to any cat or cats the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author kept here in the 1930s, others insist they are indeed the direct descendants of the original six-toed kitten young Gregory and Patrick Hemingway named Snow White.
What is widely agreed upon is that Snow White was the polydactyl progeny of a six-toed seafaring cat named Snowball, whom Hemingway had often admired on the docks of Key West. Snowball belonged to Captain Harold Stanley Dexter who had sailed down to the Keys with her from Massachusetts, where polydactyls are not only more common but have been traditionally thought to bring good luck to sailors. Knowing how fond Hemingway was of Snowball, Dexter gave him Snowball’s kitten as a gift.
As we ventured out to the patio between the Hemingway home and the carriage house, a full five cats quickly came into view. Our original guide stood surrounded by the stripes, patches, and black tie get-up of the resident Hemingway cats. As they snacked on treats delivered with a casual toss of the hand, I overheard her quote a letter from Hemingway: “One cat just leads to another.” Indeed, the cats appeared to multiply in the laughter as more crept in from the nearby shrubs to pursue her offering.
Hemingway made a tradition of naming his own cats’ six-toed offspring after famed celebrities, a tradition which the caretakers of the estate continue to this day. In the shaded cat cemetery beside us, we quickly paid respects to the generations of four-legged stars laid to rest on the property—Willard Scott, Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, and Ezra Pound among others—before moving along with the tour.
At last, it was my chance to see Hemingway’s writing studio, which was the upper story of the adjacent carriage house. In Hemingway’s time here, there was an upper story walkway between the master bedroom of the main house and the entrance of the studio. But all that remained now was a narrow iron stair case labeled “UP” on the left and “DOWN” to the right, with tourists in transit on each.
For just a moment, I felt the fleeting pangs of envy for the stark separation of space “Papa Hemingway” kept between his writing world and that of his young family. The kids, quite engaged with the cats on the ground, might not miss this, I thought. “I’ll be right back—I’m going up to have a quick look in the writing studio,” I said, gesturing up toward the pinnacle of steep steps beside us.
With cocked heads and curious eyebrows raised, I could see my daughters read more into the statement than I’d imagined they would. My eldest daughter stood, her gaze suddenly level with my collar bones. Her younger sister crossed arms, and furrowed oddly familiar eyebrows.
“Do you want to come with me?”
Heads nodded quickly. They did.
So, slowly, together, we made way up the crowded steps toward the entrance of the room where Hemingway spent his early morning writing hours during what most agree was his most prolific period, toward the room where celebrated short stories like “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the nonfiction book The Green Hills of Africa, the novel To Have and Have Not, and many other well-known works were penned, punctuated, and percussively typed.
Yet when we reached the top of the stairs, instead of entering a writing room we stepped into a holding cell. It was just a small entryway from which visitors could view the studio between decorative iron bars. So there we stood, pressed against the bars, as more and more visitors insinuated with shoulders and elbows that we should hurry up and snap our photo, genuflect, and exit the sacred space so that they might have a quick turn, too.
But I refused to be rushed.
If there is such a thing as “good writing vibes,” this room had to have plenty of it, and I would absorb every bit I could before I exited the staircase “Down.” If I couldn’t actually walk through Hemingway’s studio, I would at least take a moment to explore what I could of it with my eyes. And if I couldn’t stand next to his writing table, I would at least take in the air, deeply as I could, as it breezed from an open window over the keys of his typewriter to me.
“Look!” my daughter pointed her slender finger through the bars.
At the far end of the studio, in an open window slept a cat, the long stripe of its tail hanging down from the sill like a limp exclamation point.
I inserted the lens of my camera between the bars that the cats could easily transgress, accepting that it was as close as I might ever get to Hemingway’s typewriter.
“If you just showed up and didn’t know better, you’d think this writing studio belonged to the cats,” my daughter laughed.
“Maybe it does,” I shrugged, adjusting my focus on the typewriter.
Both daughters laughed in spite of the throat clearing behind us.
“People: Do not enter,” my big girl warned.
“Cats only!” the middle sister cried.
With a giggle, I snapped the shot.
“Imagine what stories they might write…” I dared, and of course they did.
We descended the stairs with visions of polydactyls pouncing on typewriters and running their own small publishing empire from a writing studio that once, long ago, was used by a man called Hemingway.
In the nearby shade of a banana tree, we found my son crouched down in quiet observation of an enormous orange tabby. “Look at his toes,” he whispered. He gently lifted a forepaw as we all leaned in for the count. “SEVEN TOES!” he squealed.
The kids could have happily spent another hour hunting polydactyls in the shade of the African tulips, plumeria, and palm trees that surround the Hemingway home, but eventually it was time to leave and begin packing up for the long trip home.
Post script: A poem
Among the many souvenirs we brought back with us from Key West, I discovered something so small and nearly invisible I hadn’t even realized I’d acquired at the time. I only noticed it when I was suddenly compelled to pick up a pen—and write.
What if, like a six-toed seafaring cat,
I could slip between the iron bars
that separate His hallowed hall
from the daily deluge of onlookers?
If I could pad over to His typewriter
in the hours when no one can see?
If I could type one sentence upon it—
what would mine be?
If you go:
The Hemingway Home Museum in Key West is open 365 days a year, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission includes a 30-minute guided tour, and kids 5 and younger visit free of charge. Please note: The museum accepts cash only at this time. For more information about the museum, visit www.hemingwayhome.com or call (305) 294-1136. For more help planning your trip to the Florida Keys and Key West, take advantage of the many free resources at www.fla-keys.com.