September 12, 2017
Hemingway’s six-toed Key West cats (and the humans that care for them) stuck around for Hurricane Irma, and they all made it through just fine
by Chad Felix
This past Saturday, September 9th, the Telegraph reported that the staff at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum would not be evacuating Key West in advance of Hurricane Irma, despite overwhelming advice—even orders—to do so.
Hemingway’s Key West home is best known for housing the Old Man and the Sea author (and Last Interview series participant) between 1931 and 1939. It was during this time that Hemingway procured his infamous boat, Pilar, and explored the Caribbean, as well as published the works Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, and To Have and Have Not (though he didn’t necessarily write these books in the house; he was traveling a lot—to Spain, to Nairobi, Kenya, and the Bahamas—at the time). These days, nearly eighty years later, it’s fifty-plus polydactyl (six-toed) cats—all descendants of the felines who kept Hemingway company during his time living there—that serve as the home/museum’s most notable attraction, at least for the Papa-agnostic/ambivalent.
The staff, led in part by Jacqui Sands, the museum’s septuagenarian manager, would stay, they said, and protect the cats and the property. And the home, the group no doubt believed, would protect them, too. Positioned sixteen feet above water level, Hemingway’s house ranks among the highest in the keys. It’s been through its share of storms, and has always come out more or less unscathed. That’s all thanks to its solid construction: the home, curator Dave Gonzales told Forbes’s Keith Flamer in advance of the storm, is built out of eighteen-inch blocks of solid limestone and features a deep, dry basement. Still, Irma, at the time of the staff’s decision, was promising twenty-foot surges and record-breaking winds.
Speaking to TMZ, Mariel Hemingway, actress and granddaughter of Ernest, begged for Sands to get herself, her staff, and the dozens of cats out of there: “I think you’re wonderful and an admirable person for trying to stay there and to try to save the cats and the house,” she remarked. “This is frightening. This hurricane is a big deal…. Get in the car with the cats and take off.”
But nope. Jacqui and her staff remained unmoved, and Irma made landfall the following day as a Category Four hurricane with sustained winds of 130 miles per house, just as promised.
Thankfully, as the Mercury News’s Martha Ross reported yesterday, all of the cats—all fifty-four of them—and all of the staff that stayed behind have made it through just fine. Asked about the experience, Gonzalez told NBC, “The cats are accustomed to our voices and our care. We’re comfortable with them. They’re comfortable with us. We love them, they love us. We all hung out last night together.”
On the cats’ behavior prior to the storm, he added: “The cats seemed to be more award sooner of the storm coming in. In fact, when we started to round up the cats to take them inside, some of them actually ran inside knowing it was time to take shelter. Sometime I think they’re smarter than the human beings.”
As of this writing, the Hemingway House is without outside electricity, running water, or internet. Still, it’s cool, though (that thick limestone), and they’ve plenty of supplies. The generators are humming. And the cats, the cats are just fine.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.