Last week, I visited Key West with my family, and we had an absolute blast! There are tons of things to do in Key West, but there was one place that was a must-see for all of us: The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum.
Now, we were definitely curious to see the house and the beautiful gardens there. But. If we’re being totally honest, we mostly just wanted to meet some of the resident cats. You see, they’re not just any cats – they’re polydactyl cats, which means that they have extra toes! And there are a whole lot of these cats roaming the stunning Hemingway property.
About five minutes after we arrived and bought our tickets, we were able to join a guided tour of the house and grounds. The tour is included in the admission price and lasts about 30 minutes. Once a big enough group has assembled, the tour will depart (this typically happens about every 10-15 minutes throughout the day).
History of the Hemingway Property
The house wasn’t originally built for the Hemingways. Construction actually began back in 1849 and the house was completed two years later in 1851. It was built by a man named Asa Tift, who was a marine architect and salvage wrecker from Connecticut. Tift’s wife and sons died within a couple years of moving in, but Tift remained in the house until his own death in 1889.
After Tift died, the house sat vacant for quite some time, though electricity was added about 10 years after his death. Ultimately, though, the place remained empty and boarded up until Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, moved into the house in 1931, 80 years after it had been built. Ernest lived there until he and Pauline divorced in 1940, and she stayed there with their two sons until her death in 1951.
Hemingway never moved back into the house, though he would stay there from time to time after Pauline’s death when he was traveling to and from Cuba. He took his own life in 1961, and his sons eventually sold the property to a local Key West woman named Bernice Dixon, who only lived there for a few years before turning it into a museum. (Though Bernice passed away quite some time ago, the house is still owned by her family and they continue to operate the museum today.)
The Hemingway House and Writing Studio
We began our tour on the first floor of the house where there is a large display devoted to Hemingway’s life as a sailor and fisherman. There is a small model of his boat, Pilar, and our guide explained how Hemingway liked to fictionalize people and stories from his life in his writing. For example, she pointed out a photo of Gregorio Fuentes, his first mate on Pilar, whom he modeled the old man, Santiago, after in his book the Old Man and the Sea.
We quickly zoomed by the kitchen without any commentary, but I thought it was lovely! I’m always fascinated by kitchens in beautiful old homes and this one did not disappoint. I don’t know if it’s been remodeled or has any original features, but I personally thought it was the prettiest room in the house. Don’t forget to pop by it if it’s not covered on your tour!
Next, we stopped in the dining room to look at what our guide called “The Wall of Women”. Hemingway had four wives, and it sounds like he cheated on the first three with the wife that came next. So, while he may have been a good writer, he was clearly a terrible husband!
We saw photos of all four of his wives, and we mostly learned about wife number two, Pauline, whom Hemingway lived with on this property (Pilar was the secret name he used for Pauline while cheating on wife number one, in case you’re wondering where the name of his boat came from.)
Moving on, we headed upstairs next and saw the nanny’s old room and the attached bathroom. The tile work in the bathroom was very pretty, and we also learned that the house was way ahead of its time as far as the plumbing was concerned.
See, Key West didn’t really have running water until it started getting piped in from the mainland in the 1940s. This house, though, had cisterns that collected rainwater, and they were able to have running water on the second floor of the house as a result.
Next, as we ventured through the nanny’s room and the room Hemingway’s two sons, Patrick and Gregory, once shared, we saw more photos of Hemingway and his family, as well as several objects that were of great importance to him. And before we entered what was once Ernest and Pauline’s bedroom, our guide warned us that there was a naked female on the bed. Turns out, there was! Miss Billie Holiday…
From the bedroom, we were able to step out onto the verandah where there are beautiful views of the Key West lighthouse across the street. At one point, the Hemingways would have been able to see all around town from this verandah, but it’s impossible to see much now with all the plants and trees that have grown up over the years!
Our guide mentioned that there was once a wrought-iron catwalk that connected the verandah to the writing studio which was on the top floor of the carriage house just out back. Hemingway would wake at 6:00 am every day and cross that catwalk into his studio, where he would write until noon.
Apparently, about 70% of Hemingway’s work was written in that very studio. We didn’t visit the studio on our tour since our group was so large, but we did pop in afterward and you will find it laid out exactly as it used to be when Hemingway spent his mornings working in there. In fact, about 90% of the items and furnishings at the Hemingway house are original, including one of Ernest’s old typewriters which you can see up in his studio.
The Gardens and Pool
From the verandah, we walked down the outer stairway so that we could head out to the pool. We didn’t wander much through the gardens on the tour, but stick around afterward and you can spend as much time there as you’d like. There are plenty of chairs and benches scattered throughout where you can enjoy a bit of shade, and if you’re lucky, a furry companion may just sit down and keep you company!
We did, however, get to learn a bit more about the Hemingways’ gorgeous pool. At 24’ X 64’, it is the largest residential pool in Key West (which our guide pointed out makes it even bigger than many of the local hotels’ pools!) The pool wasn’t already on the property when the Hemingway’s moved in, though. In fact, Ernest once had a regulation-sized boxing ring out where the pool is currently located.
As our guide explained, Pauline had become aware that Ernest wasn’t exactly being the most faithful husband and so she got her revenge by taking out his boxing ring and putting in the pool for a whopping $20,000 back in 1937.
Supposedly, Ernest came home, saw what Pauline had done, and threw a penny on the ground at her, saying “you might as well have taken my last red cent.” Pauline picked up that penny and had it placed in the grout by the pool and it’s still there today!
Our final stop in the gardens was at the cats’ water-drinking fountain, which also has an interesting history. Hemingway was a regular patron at the famous Key West bar called Sloppy Joe’s, which was originally located where Captain Tony’s now stands. When Sloppy Joe’s moved to its current location, Ernest took one of the old urinals and put it out in his backyard for some reason.
Pauline, naturally, wasn’t too thrilled about this new addition to her backyard, but she added some pretty tiles to it, water was later piped into it, and now it provides the cats with plenty of fresh water to drink throughout the day!
And speaking of the cats…..you didn’t think I would forget, did you???
The Six-Toed Hemingway Cats
The number of cats on the property varies at any given time, but during our visit, we were told that there were currently 59 in residence! However, only about half of the cats that are on the property are polydactyl, meaning they have six toes on their front feet and sometimes five on their back feet (although one, Billie Holiday, actually has six toes on one of her back feet, too!) The remaining cats on the property all have the normal number of toes.
Ernest Hemingway’s first polydactyl cat, Snow White, was given to him by a ship’s captain. Our guide told us that six-toed cats are supposed to be good luck in the maritime world, which is part of why Hemingway had so many polydactyl cats in particular.
Although, she also told us that Hemingway had lost sight in one eye, suffered nine documented concussions, and spent four months in a hospital after an explosion in WWI, so it’s hard to say whether all the cats he had over the years brought him much good luck at all!
Ernest is known for saying that “one cat just leads to another”, and that was true for him in his life. He loved cats and collected many of them over the years, and our guide said that several of the cats that reside at the property now are even descendants of that first polydactyl cat, Snow White.
The cats were all beautiful and looked healthy and clean – and they should be since they have their own private veterinarian! Unfortunately, though, none of them were especially friendly. They weren’t exactly mean, but they were pretty standoffish, which made us a little sad.
We hoped that they would have been a bit more interested in coming over to say hello and getting some scritches from us, but they tended to keep to themselves for the most part. I’m sure it’s exhausting to be in the limelight all the time, though! So many paparazzi…
Even though they didn’t want much to do with us, we did still enjoy seeing all of the cats at the Hemingway house. I did my best to catch some photos of their unique and unusual little paws, and we tried to sneak in a few pats when they’d let us. Mostly, though, we just watched many of them enjoying a good snooze. I mean, they’re cats! What else were you expecting them to do???
If you’re a cat lover and find yourself in Key West, I highly recommend a visit to The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. There are cats everywhere, which is my idea of heaven, and it doesn’t hurt that the house and grounds are absolutely gorgeous as well. Give yourself at least an hour to take the tour and explore, and I promise you’ll leave with a smile on your face!
Have you already been to The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum? Tell me about your own visit!
And if you live in NYC and won’t make it to Key West anytime soon, you can always check out the Brooklyn Cat Cafe in the meantime!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum: 907 Whitehead St., Key West, FL 33040
When to Go
- The museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Tips for Visiting
- Admission is cash only, so be sure to bring some of the green stuff if you wish to enter the museum and grounds. As of November 2019, adult pricing is $14 (no senior pricing available) and child pricing is $6. Check their site for up-to-date rates before you visit.
- Tours are offered approximately every 10-15 minutes and take about 30 minutes. However, you’re also welcome to simply wander the grounds and house on your own during the opening hours if you do not wish to participate in a tour.
- The pace of the tour is pretty fast, but once it’s over, you can always go back into the house and gardens to look at things in more detail if you’d like.
- Below the writing studio, you’ll find a bookstore and gift shop, as well as the restrooms. The shop has books by and about Hemingway and even a few cats tending shop!
- The Hemingway House is a popular venue for weddings and parties. Be aware that events may be happening the day you wish to visit, which could impact where you can and cannot go on the property.
- Finally, while you’re welcome to pet the cats, you’re not permitted to pick them up. However, should one decide to take up residence on your lap, you don’t need to make it leave. Just relax and enjoy!