in Key West, Florida
article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers
Ernest Hemingway seems to haunt every part of laid-back Key West. Here, at the literal end of the road, everyone has a story about him. Even the descendants of his own polydactyl (six-toed) cat, Snowball. Of course, they only meow, but there are 50 to 60 of them living at his former home, which is now the Hemingway Home & Museum and the most popular tourist attraction in town. People come from all over the world to see these heirs, many of whom have six toes due to inheriting that ancestor’s recessive gene.
As our guide leads us through Hemingway’s charming Spanish colonial house, pointing out a photo of the author surrounded by four ex-wives, the cats loll carelessly where they will. All-white Snowball lounges on Papa’s all-white bed. Charlie Chaplin, who looks for all the world like his namesake, poses for photos. Archibald MacLeisch reclines on a display case. Someone here is having a lot of fun naming these fawned-over felines.
When a visitor asks our colorful guide—he is wearing a brightly toned tie-dyed t-shirt—why the cats don’t just leave, he replies, “Why should they?” They are fed organic cat food and petted endlessly by visitors. He goes on to tell us that he himself applied for the position of cat but was told he didn’t have enough fur.
In between all the cat madness, we picked up a few tidbits about the man himself. One was that it is rumored he didn’t even like cats. He preferred–and kept as pets–peacocks, ducks, and raccoons. Another is that he had the only basement in the Keys, which he turned into a wine cellar.
Hemingway lived here from 1931 to 1940 with his second wife, Pauline, and their two children. He met Pauline, who was a writer for Vogue, in Paris. In this idyllic setting, in a two-story writing studio that adjoins the tiny house, he wrote at least six of his eight novels, including “Death in the Afternoon,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
The studio overlooks what was Key West’s very first swimming pool. Pauline surprised him with it when he returned from covering the Spanish Civil War. He wasn’t pleased she had spent $20,000 (equivalent to $250,000 today), and the penny he dramatically tossed to the ground, which was supposed to represent his last cent, is now embedded in cement by the pool.
While Hemingway lived here he hung out at Sloppy Joe’s bar, drinking scotch and soda and observing the scene. Now the bar serves up its famous namesake sandwiches along with Hemingway’s favorite drink—the “Papa Double,” a mix of light rum, grapefruit juice, sour mix, 7-Up, and local Key lime juice. Plan well, and you can wave to your friends on this bar’s live web cam. In fact though, according to local legend, any bar in town can probably claim “Hemingway drank here.”
For the Hemingway Days festival, which takes place annually around the author’s July 21 birthday, Sloppy Joe’s hosts the Hemingway Look-A-Like Contest. It can be eerie seeing so many men who almost look more like the man than he did.
more things to do in key west
Blue Heaven Restaurant Dine outside among truly free-range chickens, and feast on Jamaican jerk chicken and fresh local fish.
Key West Aquarium Fondle a live conch in the touch tank and attend a shark feeding at the world’s first open-air aquarium.
Kino Sandals The fit of these simple, bargain-priced sandals can be adjusted right on the factory premises where you can watch them being made.
Mallory Square Be here early for the daily sunset extravaganza, which includes performances by Catman Dominique and his trained Flying House Cats and the chance to pick up interesting souvenirs—like a chicken-fabric potholder.
“To Have and Have Not,” by Ernest Hemingway. Written in his second-story writing studio while he lived here, this novel is set in Key West.
“Quit Your Job and Move to Key West,” by Christopher Shultz & David L. Sloan. Only 26,000 people live in Key West. You could be number 26,001