Ernest Hemingway seems to haunt every part of laid-back Key West. Here, at the literal end of the road, everyone has a story about him. Even the descendents of his own polydactyl cat. Of course, they only meow, but there are 50 to 60 of them living at his former home, which is now a museum and the most popular tourist attraction in town. People come from all over the world to see these heirs, many of whom have six toes due to inheriting that ancestor's recessive gene.
As our guide leads us through Hemingway's tiny, charming Spanish colonial house, pointing out a photo of the author surrounded by four ex-wives, the cats loll carelessly where they will. All-white Snowball lounges on Papa's all-white bed. Charlie Chaplin, who looks for all the world like his namesake, poses for photos. Archibald MacLeisch reclines on a display case. Someone here is having a lot of fun naming these fawned-over felines.
When a visitor asks our colorful guide--he is wearing a brightly toned tie-dyed t-shirt--why the cats don't just leave, he replies, "Why should they?" He goes on to tell us that he himself applied for the position of cat but was told he didn't have enough fur.
In between all the cat madness, we picked up a few tidbits about the man himself. One was that it is rumored he didn't even like cats. He preferred and kept as pets peacocks, ducks, and raccoons. Another is that he had the only basement in the Keys, which he turned into a wine cellar.
Hemingway lived here with his second wife, Pauline, and their two children from 1931 to 1940. He met Pauline, who was a writer for Vogue, in Paris. In this idyllic setting, in the two-story writing studio that adjoins the house, he wrote at least six of his eight novels, including Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
The studio overlooks what was Key West's very first swimming pool. Pauline surprised him with it when he returned from covering the Spanish Civil War. He wasn't pleased she had spent $20,000 (equivalent to $250,000 today), and the penny he dramatically tossed to the ground, which was supposed to represent his last cent, is now embedded in cement by the pool.
While Hemingway lived here he hung out at Sloppy Joe's bar, drinking scotch and soda and observing the scene. Now the bar serves up its famous namesake sandwiches along with Hemingway's favorite drink--a mix of light rum, grapefruit juice, sour mix, 7-Up, and local key lime juice dubbed a "Papa Double." In fact though, according to local legend, any bar in town can probably claim "Hemingway drank here."
For the Hemingway Festival, which takes place annually around the author's July 21 birthday, Sloppy Joe's hosts the Hemingway Look-A-Like Contest. It can be eerie seeing so many men who look more like the man than he did.