Pets, pools and pennies at the Hemingway House, Key West

A story about Ernest Hemingway could easily include subtitles about his books, his children, his wives, his travels, his cats…

Hemingway cat, Key West

Wait a minute! Cats? Hemingway’s cats?

That’s right. Papa had cats – and heaps of them. Unexpected? Perhaps at first. But when you think about it, wasn’t Hemingway a bit like a cat himself? Independent, self-absorbed, charming. He roamed around, came and went as he pleased…

When Hemingway lived in Key West, he was given a cat, Snowball, by a ship’s captain. Soon he had a house full. As he so eloquently put it:

One cat just leads to another.

That might sound a bit resigned. But I get the feeling he loved, even admired, the lovely little fur balls. Another famous Hemingway quote:

A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.

Hemingway's cats
Ernest with cats and kids in Finca Vigia, Cuba – image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Hemingway House

50 years after his death, 40 – 50 cats still roam his house in Key West, Florida. Some are descendants of Snowball.

Hemingway home, Key West
The Hemingway Home on Whitehead Street in Old Town, Key West

The Hemingway cats are not just any cats. Oh no, these are mitten cats – or more scientifically, polydactyls, six-toed cats. As you can see from the photos below, they’re not one particular breed. The sixth toe is simply a genetic mutation, quite common on the east coast of North America.

Hemingway Cat, Key West

Hemingway cat, Key West

Hemingway cat, Key West

Hemingway cat, Key West

Hemingway cat, Key West

Pauline’s pool

Aside from the cats, the house comes with plenty of interesting stories of the temperamental philanderer.

Our guide (a Hemingway look-alike, naturally) points to a penny in the ground.

Guide, Hemingway house, Key West

During his Key West years, Hemingway was away much of the time, covering the Spanish Civil War – and Martha Gellhorn. His wife Pauline, tired of Ernest gallivanting about in war zones with his girl-friend, got this sweet revenge:

Pool, Hemingway House, Key West

In Hemingway’s day, a swimming pool was an extraordinary luxury and this was the only one within a 100-mile radius. No wonder; in 1938, this cost 20 000 dollars. In comparison, the house itself cost 8 000 dollars.

Why so expensive? At the time, there was no fresh running water in Key West. The builders had to drill through solid coral down to salt water, then set up a pump to fill the pool. A daunting task, no doubt.

Penny at Hemingway House, Key West

Ernest was none too pleased about the expenses. One day, he flung a penny onto the patio, saying:

Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that!

Pauline, in turn, had the penny embedded in cement for eternity.

As I wander around the pool and the pretty garden, it’s easy to picture the scene. But is it a true story? We can only guess. Soon after, Pauline and Ernest were divorced and he married Martha.

Hemingway House, Key West

Are you an avid Hemingway fan? Have you been in Key West?

Want more photos? Have a look at Spring time in Korea and other great takes over at Budget Travelers Sandbox.

74 Responses to “Pets, pools and pennies at the Hemingway House, Key West”

  1. RyukyuMike 15 March 2012 0232 #

    “One cat just leads to another” LOL That’s what my huskies are always yapping about !
    Terrific post !

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1445 #

      Haha! Huskies, eh? They probably think ‘dinner’ when they see cats.

  2. jade 15 March 2012 0414 #

    I’m not a huge cat person, but even some of these cats are cute! I think I like the pool better than the cats! haha
    jade recently posted..29 Palms & Joshua Tree National Park

  3. InsideJourneys 15 March 2012 0631 #

    I’ve learned something new today. Thanks, Sophie.
    Those cats are just adorable.
    InsideJourneys recently posted..#TPT Seaford Town, Connecting Jamaica to Germany

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1447 #

      Yeah, I like cats, too. Easy pets. Though one or two is quite enough.

  4. Cheziannhe 15 March 2012 0757 #

    The The Hemingway House is what i really like and I love the photos you have provided here too…Thanks Sophie because I have learn a lot from this…

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1448 #

      Glad you enjoyed it :)

  5. Muza-chan 15 March 2012 0829 #

    So cute, I love cats (^_^)
    Muza-chan recently posted..A Japanese Song per Day: FictionJunction – Stone cold

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1448 #

      Me too, Muza :)

  6. Laurel 15 March 2012 0841 #

    As a huge cat lover, this makes me love Hemmingway even more.
    Laurel recently posted..Silent Snake at Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1449 #

      It’s certainly an interesting, and slightly unexpected, side of him, isn’t it…

  7. ItalianNotes 15 March 2012 0923 #

    Just lost my cat after 19 years and all these animals make it quite sentimental:)
    ItalianNotes recently posted..Veneto for wine lovers

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1451 #

      So sorry; Mette! Our cat died over a year ago. We still miss her.

  8. Denise 15 March 2012 1043 #

    she was one clever woman….
    Denise recently posted..Becoming Hanoi, losing myself

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1451 #

      that she was…

  9. I love this story about Hemingway! Good for Pauline. . . way to go. I haven’t been to Key West but if I ever make it it would be do to Flipper and not Hemingway :)
    Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista recently posted..My Home Looks Like the Hofburg!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1452 #

      Didn’t see Flipper, but there was a nice aquarium there.

  10. Leigh 15 March 2012 1745 #

    This was a fun read. I’ve only read one of Hemingway’s books and have never been to Key West. His house definitely sounds like it’s worth a visit should I get there.
    There must have to be a full time kitty litter caretaker. At least the cats are cute.
    Leigh recently posted..Book Review: Hypertravel – 100 Countries in 2 Years

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1455 #

      Yes, I think it was a highlight of our brief stop in Key West. At least my kids thought so.

  11. Sabina 15 March 2012 1810 #

    How cute these little puff balls are :) When I toured Charles Dickens’ house in London, there was a white cat on a bed. I thought it might be stuffed, a remnant of Dickens’ life. But then it moved. Perhaps it was a descendant of a Dickens’ cat…
    Sabina recently posted..Welcome to My Mountain

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1457 #

      Ooh, I didn’t know one could see Dickens’ House. The cat sounds like a bonus, too. Def next time in London! Thanks!

  12. Cathy Sweeney 15 March 2012 1916 #

    Yes, I am a proud Hemingway fan! But I never knew that Papa had cats. I’d love to see his place in Key West. I have been to his birthplace in Oak Park, Illinois. They have a nice little museum there, too.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Chilly Scenes of Niagara Falls

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1459 #

      I’m not really a huge fan of his books. Nobel Prize or not, his style is too macho for my liking. I think his life was rather more fascinating, though. Michael Palin did a series once, where he followed the Hemingway trail around the world. Very interesting.

  13. Trexcy 15 March 2012 1921 #

    It’s all beautiful, kitty, the house and the pool.. Love it!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1500 #

      :)

  14. Nancie 15 March 2012 2112 #

    Beautiful cats! I would have gotten along great with Hemingway!
    Nancie recently posted..Travel Photo Thursday — March 15, 2012 — Springtime in Korea — A Photo Sampler

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1501 #

      I think I would, too. Just so long as I wouldn’t have to be his wife…

  15. I haven’t been to Key West, but I’m a Hemingway fan and loved this post. I want to dive into that swimming pool right now!
    Andi at The Particular Traveler recently posted..My Favorite Airport

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1501 #

      Nice year-round temperature for a swim, too :)

  16. Dick Jordan 16 March 2012 0055 #

    Interesting bit of Hemingway history!
    Dick Jordan recently posted..Travel Photo Thursday: There’s A Pattern to My Madness

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 March 2012 1113 #

      Thanks, Dick :)

  17. Jenna 16 March 2012 0314 #

    I have not been to Key West. This looks like a beautiful palce to visit. I could look at cats all day– I just adore them. Nice photo of Hemingway in Cuba that you included.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1503 #

      Yeah, it’s impossible to feel stressed with a cat around, isn’t it…

  18. Eileen Ludwig 16 March 2012 0747 #

    Fun story for those of us who need to hear it to remind us of the great writers of the times
    Eileen Ludwig recently posted..Cherry Blossoms Washington DC Jefferson Memorial

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1504 #

      An interesting side of Ernest H., I thought.

  19. Christy @ Technosyncratic 16 March 2012 0936 #

    Dang, that is an expensive pool! We didn’t make it to the Hemingway House when we visited Key West, but I wish we had gone (to pet the cats if nothing else).
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..Strange Street Foods in Thailand

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1504 #

      next time, perhaps… :)

  20. Cole @ Four Jandals 16 March 2012 1105 #

    Definitely not a cat person or a Hemingway fan but loved the penny story!
    Cole @ Four Jandals recently posted..Four Jandals Adventure Travel Blog is Six Months Old

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1505 #

      Yeah, sounds like Pauline was pretty cool..

  21. Ana (Ana Travels) 16 March 2012 1349 #

    Whether this story is true or not I don’t now but I’m on Pauline’s side. Revenge is sweet! :)
    Ana (Ana Travels) recently posted..Dallas for culture vultures

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 March 2012 1506 #

      Served him right, didn’t it… :)

  22. Turtle 16 March 2012 1639 #

    What a cute story! I love that some of the cats still there are descendants. If only they knew the literary history of their ancestors!! :)

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 March 2012 0033 #

      Cats seem to have all kinds of talents, maybe they know…

  23. dtravelsround 16 March 2012 1739 #

    What a cool place to visit. I love that there are so many cats. :)
    dtravelsround recently posted..Are you a stripper? And other questions about living in Las Vegas

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 March 2012 0035 #

      It really was surprisingly cool.

  24. cheryl 16 March 2012 1750 #

    Wow, what a cool story! Hemingway is such a fascinating figure … and I love the fact that his wife put the penny in the cement! Hilarious.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 March 2012 0037 #

      Totally fascinating. Imagine his wife must have been, too :)

  25. Anwar 17 March 2012 0522 #

    I guess I didn’t realize how common those cats are with extra toes. One of my friends has a cat like that, and similarly he’s on the east coast of the US. I guess the eastern US breeds mutants….
    Anwar recently posted..Friday Photo: The Choice of a Communist Generation

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 March 2012 0038 #

      How interesting! I wish I had thought to take a close-up photo of their paws. They really looked like mittens.

  26. Andrea 17 March 2012 1153 #

    This is such an enjoyable read! I’ve never heard of these cats but love the name, ‘mitten cats’ – this would be such a great tour.
    Andrea recently posted..Visa Runs – The Mandatory Vacation

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 March 2012 0039 #

      Yeah, would definitely recommend stopping by the Hemingway House if you’re in Key West.

  27. Stephanie - The Travel Chica 17 March 2012 1333 #

    I’ve been to Key West, but I’ve never actually gone inside the Hemingway House. I heard there were cats but had no clue they have 6 toes!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 March 2012 0040 #

      Yep! Absolutely worth a look – both the house and the cats.

  28. Christina (Jandal Road) 17 March 2012 1550 #

    Love the pool and the little bridge. And the penny! Never been to Key West, but you’ve just made it more appealing with this story!
    Christina (Jandal Road) recently posted..Lyttelton farmers’ market

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 March 2012 0041 #

      Thanks. It’s a house full of stories.

  29. Angela 17 March 2012 1848 #

    Lovely post, very interesting to know more about Hemingway private life. The cats are gorgeous :)
    Angela recently posted..Surrendering to pleasure in Rome

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 March 2012 0042 #

      Thanks, Angela :)

  30. Don Faust 19 March 2012 0000 #

    For the others reading this post, the house does NOT smell of cats – they keep it very clean, since it is historic landmark – but the cats pretty much have free reign while in the house.

    We saw a number outside with the 6 toes, and one in particular had these perfectly formed 6-toe paws – they were so huge on him… like a lynx paw.
    Don Faust recently posted..Girlfriend Getaway: Things to do in Charlotte

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 March 2012 0047 #

      Thanks for your comment, Don. You’re right, I didn’t notice any smell in the house at all. When we were there, the cats mostly just laid around, looking cool and superior. And absolutely adorable!

  31. Becca@R We There Yet Mom? 19 March 2012 1605 #

    Fascinating! I love the story of the pool and the penny!!

    Thanks for linking up last week! I was out of town all weekend, so sorry it took me a few days to visit you!

    ~Becca
    Becca@R We There Yet Mom? recently posted..Friday Daydreamin': Spring Break Favorites!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 March 2012 0043 #

      Thanks. And no worries. Sounds like you had fun :)

  32. Anne 27 March 2012 0441 #

    I loved it went we went to Key West. The weather is fantastic and the houses are amazing. We just drove around and looked at some of the houses. They all have in-ground swimming pools with incredible landscaping – little shrubs and flowers around the pool to create an oasis. You don’t even have to go inside to know the house is luxurious.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 3 February 2013 1311 #

      Would be really interesting to have a peek inside some of the fabulous houses in Key West.

  33. monique 7 April 2012 0233 #

    I’m an avid hemingway fan (and not a fan of pauline, more of first wife hadley) and have posted plenty about him and the other 1920s expats during his paris years. After reading the latest biography, Hemingway’s Boat, I am very curious to see the places in this post! Thank you for sharing!
    monique recently posted..streaming italian

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 9 April 2012 1723 #

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m not a huge fan of Hemingway as a writer, but he was an intriguing personality. I’ll have to read Hemingway’s Boat.

  34. Marie 6 March 2013 1719 #

    I was drawn in by this title and absolutely loved the whole article. I can’t believe I’ve missed this house even though I’ve been in Key West. Might just have to go back now.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 12 March 2013 0958 #

      Thank you so much, Marie. Key West is one of my favourite places in the USA. Hope you go back :)

  35. Christian 6 April 2013 1002 #

    This is a great story. Key West is so different from the rest of the USA, a little world on its own. I’ve been there many times, but I’ve never visited the Hemingway house. I even love cats.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 8 April 2013 1051 #

      If you love cats, the Hemingway house is definitely for you.

  36. Florida Pool Builder 2 July 2013 1737 #

    Anne-Sophie, great post with such delightful and educational information! The Hemingway house is one of our definite treasures here in Florida. Like the pictures too! Thanks.

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