On August 19th of 1944, after flying into Occupied France, Ernest Hemingway took charge of a ragtag group of French soldiers and resistance fighters clothed in the uniforms of a dead group of recon troops, and they drove into Paris a full day before the Allied Forces to liberate the Ritz Hotel, the same hotel Hemingway had famously frequented as an expatriate. This is not a dramatization; it’s fact. Later in his life Hemingway hunted and killed some of the most dangerous animals on the planet. He set the world record for catching seven marlin in one day, and he used machines gun and grenades to blast sharks when he went fishing. J. Edgar Hoover personally placed Hemingway on the FBI Watchlist because the KGB once approached him to be a spy before he headed to China. Papa Bear (or Hemingstein, Hem, Champ, Bumby) survived anthrax, malaria, pneumonia, skin cancer, hepatitis, diabetes, two plane crashes, and shock therapy before taking his life with a shotgun he bought at Abercrombie & Fitch. He won a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize, and he unconditionally loved a six-toed cat named Snowball.
The story goes that a ship captain gave Hemingway the cat. Polydactyl cats are considered good luck on ships; the thinking is that the more toes the better sea legs and bigger mitts to catch rats, but Hemingway took the cat home and cared for it. He even left a provision in his will to keep all of Snowball’s descendants housed and fed on his Key West property.
These cats slowly began to attract as many tourists as did the legend of Papa Bear (or Hemmy, Tatie, Tiny, Wax Puppy). There are 60 feline progeny on the property in Key West, and almost half of them have at least six toes. The caretakers of the estate have taken to naming each cat after a celebrity or politician just like Hemingway had done. On any given day, between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., visitors to the Ernest Hemingway Home might even spot one of the few cats named Hemingway stretching in the lazy Florida sun beside Frank Sinatra or Zsa Zsa Gabor or Harry Truman. The current owner of the estate and the feline tenants therein went through a lengthy and very expensive legal battle with the federal government—the cats were being utilized to draw in tourists and in doing so they caught the eye of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, who ruled that the cats fell under The Animal Welfare Act which is usually used to help zoo or circus animals. According to an article in The New York Times, a disgruntled museum volunteer filed a suit with the Department of Agriculture after one of the more aggressive kitties wandered off the property, potentially striking fear in the hearts of the entire city of Key West, and perhaps Monroe County as a whole. Soon the federal government paid undercover agents to frequent Hemingway’s old house to make sure these cats were being taken care of properly. The point being that these cats have been the focus of much attention, first from arguably one of the most interesting people who has ever lived, and recently by the judicial branch of the most powerful nation on the planet. Why?
Hemingway once said, “Cats were put into the world to disprove the dogma that all things were created to serve man.” Is this true? Who knows, but they do win the hearts of people who don’t seem like particularly big cuddlers. Why did this larger-than-life titan-among-men love his six-toed cats? He explains it himself in a letter to one of his close friends, soon after one of his favorite cats—named Uncle Willie—was hurt.
Just after I finished writing you and was putting the letter in the envelope Mary came down from the Torre and said, ‘Something terrible has happened to Willie.’ I went out and found Willie with both his right legs broken: one at the hip, the other below the knee. A car must have run over him or somebody hit him with a club. He had come all the way home on the two feet of one side. It was a multiple compound fracture with much dirt in the wound and fragments protruding. But he purred and seemed sure that I could fix it.
I had René get a bowl of milk for him and René held him and caressed him and Willie was drinking the milk while I shot him through the head. I don’t think he could have suffered and the nerves had been crushed so his legs had not begun to really hurt. Monstruo wished to shoot him for me, but I could not delegate the responsibility or leave a chance of Will knowing anybody was killing him…
Have had to shoot people but never anyone I knew and loved for eleven years. Nor anyone that purred with two broken legs.
Written by Sean Davis