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Hemingway's Polydactyls

June 6, 2016

One of the things Mrs. Chatterbox was keen on seeing in Key West was the Hemingway House. The celebrated writer lived here less than ten years, but it was where he was most prolific, penning The Snows of Kilimanjaro, To Have and Have Not and The Green Hills of Africa. Key West has claimed Hemingway as their local celebrity and his name and image turn up like Saint Francis’ in Assisi.


The house, built in 1851 by a rich maritime salvager, had suffered years of neglect by the time it was purchased for $8000 by Hemingway’s second wife’s uncle and given to the couple as a wedding present. Hemingway had little money at the time. The property stands at sixteen feet above sea level on the second highest spot on the island, and it was made from concrete-hard coral, making it impervious to hurricanes.


I was surprised to learn that Hemingway was extremely superstitious, perhaps because of all the accidents and illnesses he’d endured. Someone gave him a polydactyl cat—having more than five toes on each foot—because sea captains believed these cats brought good luck. I would have thought it more likely that superstitious individuals would consider these cats jinxes, but evidently the reverse was true. The decedents of these felines, numbering fifty-eight at last count, continue to make the Hemingway House their home.




Polydactyl Hemingway cat.




Photos of Hemingway line the walls.


            In 1936 while Hemingway was in Spain reporting on the Spanish Civil War, his wife Pauline had the island’s first swimming pool built on the site of Hemingway’s boxing ring. Hemingway hated the pool, preferring to swim nude in the ocean, and he was angry to learn his wife had spent twenty thousand dollars on it, a sum that today would be equivalent of $330,000. Hemingway complained that she might as well take his last cent, and when he flung a penny at her she had it imbedded in concrete near the pool.




Hemingway's pool.



Hemingway's last cent.


Hemingway did extract revenge for losing his boxing ring. He was a notoriously heavy drinking and his bar of choice was run by a fellow named Joe. Joe kept a dirty bar and his place was known as Sloppy Joe's. When Joe was informed by his landlord that his rent would be raised a buck a month, he went into a fit of rage, shut down his bar and moved it across the street to where Sloppy Joes currently serves overpriced drinks and yes, sloppy Joe sandwiches.

Sloppy Joe's in its current location on Duval Street.




Current location of Sloppy Joe's.


Just to be nasty, Joe ripped out all of the fixtures, including a bathroom urinal. (Are there urinals in rooms other than bathrooms?) When Hemingway spotted the urinal in the street he commented that over the years he’d pissed a fortune into it. Joe told him to take the urinal home, and Hemingway complied, installing it near his wife’s beloved pool as a drinking fountain for his polydactyl cats. Pauline had it covered in decorative tiles and added a Cuban water jar to gussy it up, but a close look reveals the fountain’s humble origins. According to our guide, cats will lick the jar but none have been seen drinking from the urinal.




Hemingway's Fountain.







Hemingway used a caretaker’s apartment above the garage as his writing studio.





Many of the tropical plants and trees were brought from Cuba after the Hemingways relocated, although Hemingway retained title to the property until he died. Key West didn’t have fresh water until it was piped in from the mainland after WWII. Today, the Hemingway House is booked year round for weddings. I wonder if tipsy guests have used the urinal for its original purpose.


It was fascinating to see where this acclaimed writer worked. Since returning home I’ve revisited The Sun Also Rises and read The Snows of Kilimanjaro and A Farewell to Arms.  While I can appreciate the novelty of his stripped-down prose, I doubt these works would be published today. He may have penned many classics in the sultry heat of Key West, but unfortunately for me, his exploits remain more interesting than his writing and his work continues to leave me cold.




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His works leave me cold, too. But all this information was fascinating.
By: Rita McGregor on June 6, 2016
Did you dip a foot in his pool?
By: Daniel LaFrance on June 6, 2016
I never toured the house, but have seen it from the outside. As for his writings, I like the Nick Adam stories (written after WW1). I've also been by his cabin on Walloon Lake in Michigan and spent several summers in Ketchum ID, where he ended up taking his life.
By: Sage on June 6, 2016
He and his wife sure had a pissing contest going on, didn't they? Cool place. Nice they let the cats stay and breed.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on June 6, 2016
I didn't get to the Hemingway House, so thanks so much for this tour and your insights. I thought, "Oh, I should pick up Hemingway again." Then I finished reading your post and thought, "Maybe not!"
By: Mitchell is Moving on June 6, 2016
I love the tour of Key West. Many of the things you describe here I didn't know. I love Hemingway's style. I recently read A Movable Feast and the Sun Also Rises as well as a short story about a fly fishing trip to Spain. They all blew me away.
By: Rick Watson on June 6, 2016
I've had 5 toed cats- they are a bit silly looking- but I always thought they would be good baseball catchers! Thanks for the tour- I loved the Sun Also Rises but that was it for me.
By: Kathe W. on June 6, 2016
Not a great writer, but a fascinating man!!
By: fishducky on June 6, 2016
I would want to see that too though like you I'm not a fan of Hemingway.
By: Patrick Dilloway on June 6, 2016
Thanks for the tour and splendid photos of the Hemingway home and Sloppy Joes. We love that house and could imagine being quite comfortable writing and partying there. BTW we have a polydactyl named Hemingway but he is not much of a writer. EH was a writer that people embraced or did not. There is very little middle ground on his literature. I'm in the camp of those who admire his lean style which forced or birthed a new kind of commercial literature genre.He did a great deal with simple declaratives and a keen eye. Fascinating man for sure. Glad you made it to the home.
By: Tom Cochrun on June 6, 2016
I must re-read one of Hemingway's classics and see if I am as underwhelmed as you. And these freak cool! You never fail to leave me a little more knowledgeable after reading one of your posts. And for the record, a builder friend of mine had a urinal installed in his garage so he could work on his classic cars without having to go inside to relieve himself. It seems his wife frowned on his greasyness traipsing through her house. :)
By: scott park on June 6, 2016
I had to read his works for college. I do like The Old Man and The Sea. He was a very colorful man..a bit too chauvinistic for this day and age.
By: Tabor on June 6, 2016
Fascinating read into the life and times of Hemmingway in Key West. Thanks for all the details. Now I'm intrigued to go and visit Hemmingway's house too.
By: Michael Offutt on June 6, 2016
Interesting man for sure. I'm not much of a reader, but I did like "The Old Man and The Sea" very much.
By: cranky on June 6, 2016
The Old Man and The Sea is a favorite of mine, too. While i've never been to the house, i've seen many pictures of the cats.
By: messymimi on June 6, 2016
I've never liked Hemingway's writing, but I would like to visit his house. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on June 6, 2016
I never read him, so I can't review his works. But I DID know about his cats! The rest of it? Just as fascinating as the cats.
By: Val on June 6, 2016
interesting but not a big fan of Hemingway.
By: Ellen Abbott on June 7, 2016
I never liked his writing either - I couldn't keep track of who was saying what!
By: The Bug on June 7, 2016
Sloppy Joe's is a fantastic place! I had a great time there. Or so I've been told.
By: Al Penwasser on June 7, 2016
I enjoy his writing and reading about this drunkard. I would like him more if he wasn't such an avid hunter. His cats are famous as well as his exploits. His wife had a good sense of humour.
By: Birgit Bedesky on June 7, 2016
We had lunch at Sloppy Joe's, but missed going to Hemingway's house (we looked at it from the outside). Now I want to go back and visit it. Well that, and that tombstone...
By: Pixel Peeper on June 7, 2016

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