Armchair photo tours: The polydactyl cats at the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West

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A cat lounging at the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, Florida

Photos by Cheryl Landes

Newlyweds Ernest and Pauline Hemingway arrived in Key West in 1928 and while waiting for a new Ford Roadster to arrive from Pauline’s wealthy Uncle Gus, they started making long-lasting friendships. During the three weeks they waited for the car, Ernest also finished writing his autobiography of World War I called A Farewell To Arms.

The couple returned to the island for two more seasons. During the second season, they decided to look for a permanent home there. In 1931, Uncle Gus bought a Spanish Colonial house for them at 907 Whitehead Street. The house was built in 1851 and needed a lot of repairs, which the Hemingways completed in the early 1930s.

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The entrance to the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, Florida

In 1940, Ernest and Pauline divorced. He went to Cuba with his new wife but still visited Key West until his death in 1961.

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The dining room at the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, Florida

Today, this National Historic Landmark is open for tours. Many of the Hemingways’ personal touches are still present, from the antiques collected while they lived in Europe to the trophy mounts and skins from African safaris and hunting expeditions in the U.S. West.

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The studio at the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, Florida

The original in-ground swimming pool is still there as well. It was built in 1937-1938 and Pauline supervised most of the work while Ernest traveled as a war correspondent. His work at that time focused on reporting on the Spanish Civil War.

The swimming pool originally used saltwater, because there was no fresh water in Key West. When freshwater became available in Key West in the 1940s, the pool was converted.

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The pool outside the studio at the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, Florida

And there are the famous polydactyl cats, which originated from one of Ernest’s friends. Captain Harold Stanley Decker sailed often from his home in Massachusetts to Key West, and Ernest knew him from the docks. One time, Decker brought Snowball, his six-toed cat. Ernest became fascinated with Snowball, so Decker gave Ernest a kitten from Snowball’s litter.

The Hemingway boys named the kitten Snow White. When new litters arrived, Ernest named all the kittens after his famous friends.

Most of the cats at the Hemingway House & Museum are descendants of Snowball, and many have six toes. They hang out everywhere:

On the couch (this one is named Joe DiMaggio),

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between the pillows on the bed (this cat is named Daisy),

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in the windowsill in the bathroom,

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on the balcony,

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on the tiles,

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in the courtyard,

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at the entrance to the gift shop,

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and at the fountain, which this kitty uses as a purrsonal water dish.

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I found another cat leaning against the trunk of a palm tree, which didn’t look comfortable to me. Obviously, this cat would have disagreed if I’d brought up the topic.

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Another one stood at the entrance to the house until someone opened the door to let him in.

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There’s a cemetery for the cats, along with a wall of memorial plaques with each cat’s name, the year they were born, and the year they died.

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The cat cemetery at the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, Florida

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The cat memorial at the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, Florida

Guided tours are 30 minutes and first-come, first-served. After the tour, you can roam the grounds as long as you want.

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The balcony at the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, Florida

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The courtyard at the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, Florida

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A pathway leading to the cat cemetery at the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, Florida

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