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The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West, Florida, is the first literary landmark I’ve toured twice. Why? The cats. The 50 or so furry ambassadors greet and interact with visitors, as much of a draw as the house’s literary pedigree.

If you’d like to read about my first visit there, click here. It’s more of a traditional take on touring the house and Hemingway- related bars and restaurants on the island. This time around, it was about finding out what was new (mostly feline-related) and taking in details I’d previously missed. Here are some random impressions about Hemingway’s Key West, Take Two.

Fats Waller (named for the jazz musician) is one of the three most recent residents. We made fast friends, and I even briefly considered smuggling him out in my oversized handbag. He has six toes, as do many of the other cats, a trait passed down from their ancestor and Hemingway companion Snowball.

Sadly, I learned that the beautiful, fiery-orange Archibald, who reigned as the top cat, has passed away. The distinction now belongs to Marlene Deitrich (above right). She wasted no time in claiming the perk that comes with this lauded position: dibs on the bed in Hemingway’s bedroom. She looks annoyed—I think we disturbed her nap.

How adorable is this feline-sized replica of the house? Of course, the cats actually have the run of the real thing so I don’t think they’re as enamored with it as I was. 

The tour was just as fascinating the second time, a testament to the excellent and entertaining (human) guides—who are more than willing to keep the tales flowing if you stop by the porch near the front door after seeing the house and grounds. One of the guides, with his rugged, weathered face and sailor cap, looked like he could have stepped from the pages of a Hemingway novel. He had a (tall?) tale of his own: He was heading south when his boat broke down in Key West; two decades later, he’s still on the island.

Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s are the most well-known of the island’s pubs associated with Hemingway. But just down the street from the writer’s abode is the Green Parrot, where he pulled up a barstool and threw back a few. Far from bustling, crowded Duval Street, Key West’s main thoroughfare and home to those other famed watering holes, the Green Parrot is more of a local hangout.

Head to the Dry Tortugas to get a sense of the vast open waters Hemingway liked to fish. The cluster of seven islands lies about 70 miles off the coast of Key West and is now a national park reachable only by boat or seaplane. A planned week-long outing once went awry for Hemingway and his “Mob”—a group of fishing buddies that included John Dos Passos and saloonkeeper John Russell of Sloppy Joe’s—and they were marooned at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key for seventeen days. Luckily, legend has it, their supply of canned goods, coffee, and liquor—along with fresh-caught fish—saw them through until they could safely return to Key West in their small fishing boats. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

 

A lively, informative tour of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home (one of the best tours I’ve had at any historical site) reveals insights into the writer’s early years. She was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925, and lived in the house until she was thirteen. The abode was recently restored thanks in large part to a donation from literary enthusiasts Linda and Jerry Bruckheimer, the film producer.

O’Connor was a precocious child, writing comments in the margins of her books—some of which are on display with her notations, such as Alice in Wonderland, which she panned. Her childhood in Savannah later provided inspiration for some of her short stories, like “A Circle in the Fire,” which features a child eavesdropping on her mother’s conversation from a second-floor window.

While living in Savannah, O’Connor developed a lifelong affinity for domestic birds. The news organization British Pathé once reported on a pet chicken that 5-year-old O’Connor had taught the unusual feat of walking backwards, captured on video. The writer later called the event “the high point in my life.”

The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home is located along Lafayette Square (above right), one of the city’s 21 historic and picturesque squares. Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, it was laid out in 1837. The water in the fountain at its center, which was donated in 1984 to mark the 250th anniversary of Savannah’s founding as a colony, runs green on St. Patrick’s Day.

O’Connor was baptized at the French Gothic-style Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (below), and she later attended services and made her first communion there. Religion is a central theme in much of O’Connor’s fiction, which she combined with dark comedy. “My subject in fiction,” she once said, “is the action of grace in territory held larely by the devil.”

 

Another historic dwelling on Lafayette Square is the Hamilton-Turner Inn, where rooms are named for famous Savannah figures. Located in a carriage house, the Flannery O’Connor Room features bright blue walls, a decorative iron bed, and French doors opening onto a courtyard patio.

The French Empire mansion was built in 1873 by the city’s mayor (and a blockade runner) and opened as a B&B in 1997. The abode was featured in John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as the site of some notorious parties. Tours related to Berendt’s true tale of murder in Savannah have brought literary travelers to the city in droves and are still a big draw. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

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