Cat House

One of the most famous tourist attractions in Key West is the Hemingway Home, located one block west of Duval Street and the pubs Hemingway regularly bellied up to between 1931 to 1941. The residence was more or less a base camp for Ernest, as he spent considerable time in Spain covering the civil war (or was on one of his many testosterone and whiskey fueled African hunting safaris). Today, in addition to being a place he sporadically laid his head on a pillow, the house has two legacies: where he wrote some of his finest works (including The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Snows of Kilimanjaro), and where forty-eight descendants of Snowball, his six-toed pet cat, now reside.

Sign of feline habitation is prevalent throughout the property. Cats saunter in and out of every room in the residence and lounge lazily in the shade on the flat stone walkways in the garden. They have their own ornate drinking fountain (a former porcelain urinal from Sloppy Joe's Saloon that Ernest emptied his bladder into countless of times. There's some irony in this). A corner of the curtilage has been dedicated as a cat cemetery, with little gravestones permanently memorializing past kitties like Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra. They even have their own website, which is all fine and good, but considering all the feral cats we saw wandering the streets and alleys of Key West, we had to wonder: how many of Snowball's "descendants" are local vagrants who jumped the brick wall after whiffing a cat in heat or a dish filled with Friskies cat chow? It was a question our tour guide wouldn't answer.

While the home was intentionally decorated to appear as though Ernest and second wife Pauline had moved out last week, there were numerous indicators to the contrary. Like the swimming pool filled with chlorinated fresh water. Back in the thirties, when the only source for fresh water on Key West was the rainwater collected in cisterns during the wet season, the pool was filled with salt water that quickly turned fetid in the sub-tropical climate. Now it looks nothing like the bacteria cesspool that needed constant draining and cleaning. And inside the home, the walls are adorned with schlock pastels of sea scapes painted by "local artisans" and framed cancelled checks to Abercrombie and Fitch (which was a safari outfitter decades before the company name was used to sell overpriced jeans to tweenies at suburban malls). We had to ask- is this how Hemingway really decorated his home? Again, the tour guide wouldn't (or couldn't) answer.

A notable answer to our unanswered questions, perhaps, is that when Hemingway sold the property he specifically asked the home not be used as a tourist attraction. Obviously, his wish went unheeded. Maybe that's a good thing. Now commoners like us can gander at the room where he typed out some of the greatest American prose ever written while standing (he once compared writing to bullfighting and said neither could be rightly accomplished sitting in a chair). But somewhere in the absurd preservation effort, the essence of Hemingway has been lost. Historical reverence has been replaced by Snowball refrigerator magnets and other trite knick-knacks in the gift shop.

And all the cats. Criminy. Fresh cat turds dot the walkways like landmines on the Ho Chi Minh trail. We have to believe, that if Hemingway awoke from his grave tomorrow and made a return visit to his former Key West home, the first thing he'd do after walking through the front gate is step in a pile of cat shit. The second thing the ghost of Hemingway would do is get rid of all the hissing six-toed pests who think they own the place and get a dog.

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