What’s Up With Bogart, Gable &
the Other Hemingway Cat Friends?
Throughout his adventurous life, few creatures brought Ernest Hemingway more pleasure than cats. So, only three years after his tragic death in 1961, Bernice Dixon bought his Key West home and turned it into a museum to celebrate one of America’s greatest writer.
Thing is, soon enough, visitors seemed more interested in the cats, lots of them, than in Papa’s legacy itself. Now they number at 45, and the house doubles as a museum and a sanctuary to them, all supposedly descendants of one of his favorite cats. Also, they’re all polydactyl.
Another distinguished characteristic sets this felines apart: most of them are named after movie stars and famous people, both the living, and those who’ve passed away and rest on a private cemetery in the museum grounds. Now their tranquil existence as keepers of Papa’s life is being disturbed by a recent legal decision.
The U.S.Court of Appeals ruled that the Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction over the cats, subjected to the same rules that regulate zoos and traveling circus animals. So, the care for some of the best treated felines in America now requires a federal license, and as such, it can and may as well be revoked.
In one incomprehensible bureaucratic twist, a lot of federal, state and local laws and resources are being directed at a group of cats that have been helping the public interest in the life and work of Hemingway to remain very much alive. They’re also essential for the museum’s fund-raising efforts and sale of exclusive keepsakes at its store.
At the same time, just a few blocks of its location, and throughout the Florida Keys and many parts of the entire U.S., stray and abandoned cat populations remain a health hazard and local nuisance. They just weren’t lucky enough to meet Hemingway’s attention, or Ms. Dixon’s dedication. She passed away and the museum is now run by her great-nephew.
THE HEMINGWAY OR THE HIGHWAY
Local lore has it that the six-toed felines ‘descend from Snowball, a fluffy white cat who was a gift to the Hemingways,’ according to NYTimes’ Lizette Alvarez. Apparently, pirates too had a thing for polydactyl cats, believing they would bring a plentiful bounty or, at least, the promise of not dying away from land.
There are many pictures of Hemingway with cats, as a quick Internet search reveals, but there’s also some doubt as to whether he even had a multitoed cat around, when he was alive. Still, the photographs offer a benign side of Hemingway, otherwise known for battling multiple demons of his own.
Lionel Barrymore, Harry Truman, and even Francis, named after a hurricane, no less, are happy to bask in the attention visitors lavish upon them. This being a museum and all, they’re also the only ones allowed to climb on the house’s original furniture and everywhere else as they damn as well please.
In fact, their presence throughout the grounds, and the attention they receive from strangers, may be appropriate stand-ins for the author of The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bells Toll, and The Sun Also Rises. It’s as if they’re a reminder that their species once considered a human one of their own, and even allowed him to be their friend.
Now that he’s gone, tell those suits from the Animal Welfare Act that the kids will be alright, thank you very much, without their intervention. After all, when it comes to understanding how Hemingway or some of us feel about cats, it’s just like the title of another book of his: you either Have it or Have Not.