By Shelly Rivoli
It would be a literary pilgrimage for the grownups, but what would it be for the kids?
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 bathroom mirror where he’d examined his beard on so many mornings, including the one after my favorite poet broke his fist against it.
It would be a literary pilgrimage for the grownups, and—I secretly hoped—a possible antidote to the “plague of the blank page” I’d been battling for months.
But what would it be for the kids?
I imagined myself giving a parental preface upon arrival to underscore the significance of the place, something like, “One of America’s most famous writers 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. 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 and 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 African sculpture, assorted portraits of Hemingway, and photos of the famed second family that had called the house home. But the room was already packed. I did my best to listen from the doorway, watching as my husband wandered down the hall, taking in the rooms of the lower level on his own. I wondered for a moment 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 finally 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 would come along, 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 Ernest 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 she spoke, 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 villa 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.
My stray children, along with two others, were 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 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 a 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 upon it—was a cat. With an exaggerated stretch, it rolled onto 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 the writer Snowball’s kitten as a gift.
As we ventured out to the patio between the Hemingway home and the carriage house, 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 she explained how the author had made a tradition of naming his own cats’ six-toed offspring after famed celebrities. We were all invited to pay our respects to Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, Ezra Pound, and several generations of four-legged “stars” laid to rest in the cat cemetery.
At last, it was my chance to see Hemingway’s writing studio, which it turned out was the upper level of the adjacent carriage house. In Hemingway’s early days here, there was an elevated walkway between the master bedroom of the main house and the second-story entrance to the studio. But all that remained now was a narrow iron stair case labeled “UP” on the left side and “DOWN” to the right, with tourists in transit on each.
I figured the kids, quite engaged with the cats on the ground, wouldn’t miss it a wink.
“I’ll be right back—I’m going up to have a look in the writing studio.” As I gestured up toward the pinnacle of steep steps beside us, I felt a fleeting pang of envy at the clear separation between “Papa” Hemingway’s work space and his home.
With cocked heads and curious eyebrows raised, the girls looked up from the cats, their faces somehow more mature than I remembered.
My firstborn stood, her gaze suddenly level with my collar bones.
Her younger sister crossed arms, then furrowed oddly familiar eyebrows.
“Do you want to come with me?”
Heads nodded quickly. Both girls did.
“Okay…” I couldn’t help but grin. “Then let’s do this.”
Together, we made way up the crowded steps of the converted carriage house, toward 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, not much bigger than a phone booth, from which visitors could view the studio between decorative iron bars.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I couldn’t help but grumble.
There we stood, pressed against the bars, as more and more visitors insinuated by way of shoulder and elbow 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 exiting the staircase “Down.”
“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 writing table.
My daughter laughed, “If you just showed up and didn’t know better, you’d think this writing studio belonged to the cats.”
“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,” the big sister warned.
“Cats only!” the middle sister huffed.
I giggled as 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.
Among the many souvenirs we brought back with us from Key West, I discovered something small and nearly invisible I hadn’t realized I’d acquired at the time. I only noticed it when I was suddenly compelled to pick up a pen—and start writing again.
~ ~ ~
Postscript: A poem
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?
Shelly Rivoli is an author, blogger, and freelance travel writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children. She’s received several awards for her blogging efforts, including the 2012 Bronze and 2013 Silver awards for Independent Travel Blog from the North American Travel Journalist’s Association (NATJA). Her most recent book, Travels with Baby, received the NATJA Gold Prize in Guidebooks and a Lowell Thomas Award.