While vacationing in the Florida Keys recently, my family and I visited the Key West home of Ernest Hemingway, one of the most famous and influential American writers of our time. He received the Nobel Prize for literature and won a Pulitzer Prize. He wrote The Sun Also Rises at age 27, followed shortly by A Farewell to Arms. As my younger brother and I toured his former house, we teased each other, “Now why didn’t one of US think to write the great American novel while we were in our twenties?”
Hemingway and I have a lot in common. 🙂 Ok–a few things. We both began our lives in Oak Park, Illinois. We both wrote novels. We both loved cats, and have owned (or been owned by) a six-toed cat. Coincidentally, my intern Anna, who blogged for me last time, mentioned Ernest Hemingway in her post, saying: Ernest Hemingway hunted lions in Africa and fought bulls in Spain, but when asked about the most frightening thing he had ever faced, he answered, “A blank sheet of paper.” Starting a new novel is challenging for me as well.
That’s where the similarities between us end. I realize I will never experience the fame of Ernest Hemingway and that’s ok with me. More than ok. For all Hemingway’s success, he was not happy. He suffered from depression and mental illness for years before taking his own life. Sadly, his legacy of dysfunction seems to have been passed down to several of his descendants. I would gladly forego wealth and fame for a reasonably happy and healthy family. Wouldn’t you?
In any case, what I liked best about touring the house was seeing Hemingway’s office and imagining the former “cat walk” that linked his second-floor veranda to his office across the backyard (until a storm blew down the connector). How handy to be able to slip away to an writing retreat in a quiet, separate building without having to put on shoes.
My sons were not too impressed with the house itself, but the 40-50 resident six-toed cats were a hit with everyone—especially my nieces. The cats are named for famous people, like Tennessee Williams, Billie Holiday, Betty Grable, and Hairy Truman. Visitors are allowed to pet the cats, but not pick them up. The story is that Ernest Hemingway was given a white six-toed cat by a ship’s captain years ago, and the cats who live on the museum grounds are descendants of that original cat. (In writing this post, I learned that six-toed cats were common ship’s cats both here and in England and were considered good luck. I will have to include one in a future book!)
Until his disappearance two years ago, we were the proud owners of a six-fingered cat named Skittles, a stray we adopted. Perhaps extra-digit or “polydactyl” felines are drawn to the homes of authors? Here’s a photo of him showing our kitten Mojo who was boss.
All in all, it was interesting to visit the home-turned-museum of an acclaimed author. Have you ever visited a similar place? Or had a cat with six toes?