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It's true that the grounds are loaded with cats. About 50 live there full-time, and the guides are taught to say that they're all descendants of Hemingway cats. It sounds good, but there's no evidence to support the story. Hemingway might have owned a few cats while he lived in Key West. He also owned a few raccoons and peacocks. But it wasn't until he lived in Cuba that he had 50 cats, a fact documented by Miami-based Cuban scholar Norberto Fuentes, who wrote, "At one time he had 57 cats, most of whom lived on the first floor of the tower at Finca Vigia." And in fact, a long-time Key West resident told me that back in the Seventies, people who had cats they no longer wanted took them to the Hemingway House and tossed them over the six-foot brick wall, knowing the animals would be fed.
Several groundskeepers work daily to feed them and clean up after them, but even so, pungent odors were always wafting through the air. Some of the cats had mange. Others looked pretty ill, and tourists would occasionally accost me, saying we should be taking the animals to a vet rather than let them languish.
Most visitors, though, ignored the scruffy and sickly cats and cooed over the healthy ones, petting and photographing them. Though they weren't allowed in the house, one big yellow cat always sneaked into Hemingway's bedroom and slept on the bed. Every time I led a group into that room, people would whip out their cameras and begin taking pictures of him. Once as I brought a group in, the cat began dragging his posterior across the white bedspread in a manner that suggested a bad case of worms. The tourists laughed but no one took pictures.
Of course, if you wanted to get full-color, extremely cute cat pictures, you could go to the gift shop and buy a book co-written by Linda, the manager. Pictures of cats are also found on T-shirts, mugs, scented candles, art objects, and magnets, all bearing the words "Hemingway House."
The tourists often asked inane questions about the cats. "How did Hemingway control the cat odor?" one man asked me. "Where do they give birth?" a woman asked. "Who feeds the cats?" was a question I was asked several times a day, slowly eroding my desire to have anything to do with the bogus legends promoted by the Hemingway House. I could never bring myself to tell the cat stories. But I heard them often.
One day I ran into a local author, one of the founders of Key West's prestigious annual literary seminar that takes place in January. When I mentioned that I was working as a guide at the Hemingway House, he became irate. "They lie," he said. "It's not about literature." And I had to agree.
The tour, for example, includes a visit to Hemingway's study in the old coach house. It's well known that Hemingway wrote in the early morning. He was also an insomniac. He'd get up very early, often at sunrise, get to work, then go fishing in the afternoons. Yet depending on the guide, groups heard various stories. One would say Hemingway usually awoke around nine, and after breakfast in bed with Pauline he'd cross the catwalk to his writing room. Another would say he worked until noon, then went fishing. Yet another said he wrote 500 or 600 words, then went fishing and usually ended up Sloppy Joe's. The Maestro liked to say he wrote in an uncomfortable chair so he wouldn't fall asleep.
A few of the guides just couldn't help themselves. I remember the relentless fibber, for example. Mention nuclear physics and she'd tell you about her friend Albert Einstein. Mention any city in the world and she'd been there. Somehow she was an expert in nearly every field and had made a fortune in each. Why then was she working at the Hemingway House? I guessed it gave her a place to practice her favorite activity -- telling tall tales, something Hemingway himself indulged in.
For a time, a fun-loving guide named Eddie grew out his white beard and became a Hemingway look-alike. It was as though Papa himself were leading the tours. By the time I worked there, he'd gotten rid of the beard and always dashed off when he finished his tour, apparently having tired of tourists' questions and attention. Another co-worker, a tall, lanky fellow with shoulder-length gray hair, showed up occasionally in a miniskirt, sporting huge fake breasts under a skintight tank top. On Halloween he worked in drag. Between tours he invariably scribbled notes on tiny scraps of paper. He was working on a book about freedom in society, he said.
Hemingway's gender-bending sexual fantasies, disclosed in his posthumously published novel The Garden of Eden, were a source of much speculation. Tourists asked, "He was quite the womanizer, wasn't he? Four wives and many mistresses. But wasn't he AC/DC?" When I first began leading groups, a gay guide insisted, "Hemingway was gay. He had an experience as a young man in Europe, and it scared him so much he ran from it for the rest of his life. He overcompensated by being a macho bully. Guess which of his wives slept together?"