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The much-loved, furry tourist magnets that live at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West are famous for being polydactyls–they have six-toed front paws that make them look as if they’re wearing mittens. Like Fats Waller in the picture at left. Today’s New York Times has an article, “For Whom the Cell Mutates: The Origins of Genetic Quirks,” that delves into the science behind what makes a cat polydactyl, along with some insights about Hemingway and his writing. Although they care more about enticing literary travelers to pet them and napping in the garden, Fats Waller and his fellow residents have made it into science lore. “When found in felines,” the Times reports, “the condition, formally known as preaxial polydactyly, is now commonly referred to as a ‘Hemingway cat.'”

Novel Destinations features a chapter about Ernest Hemingway’s days in Key West in the 1930s, which Joni researched and wrote. After reading her descriptions of Hemingway’s haunts on the island, I was inspired to visit and recently had the chance to do so. On the plane ride there from New York I read Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, which uses Key West and Cuba as its backdrops, and is his only novel set in the U.S.

The highlight in Key West was the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, a two-story Spanish colonial-style house at 907 Whitehead Street. The rough-and-tumble charm of the U.S.’s southernmost city appealed to the writer, and it became his first home on U.S. soil after spending most of his adult life abroad. Located behind the house is Hemingway’s writing studio, where he worked on his semi-autobiographical novel A Farewell to Arms and other works.

The literary connection was enough to lure me to the Hemingway Home, but there was also another draw: the 50 or so cats that live on the property. Legend has it that a ship’s captain gave Hemingway a six-toed cat and the ones that live there today are its descendants. The cats have the run of the gorgeous grounds and the house, and the orange-colored Archibald even sleeps in Hemingway’s bed. That’s Archibald in the photo on the right at the cats’ drinking fountain; the bottom portion of the fountain is a urinal from a bar Hemingway frequented, Sloppy Joe’s.

Speaking of Sloppy Joe’s, my husband and I paid two visits to the raucous bar that has Hemingway’s photo and other memorabilia scattered throughout the place. I sampled the Papa Dobles, a cocktail invented for Hemingway and named for him. (If you’re flying in at night, the red neon “Sloppy Joe’s” sign is visible from the air.)

On the dining front, there was Blue Heaven (right), which serves up Caribbean-inspired food and has live music. Before the space was a restaurant, the courtyard that now serves as the dining area was the site of boxing matches occasionally refereed by Hemingway. Another restaurant recommendation is Santiago’s Bodega. Sadly there is no literary connection, but the tapas are excellent.

Look for Part 2 on my Key West adventures — and information about another famous literary figure who spent time on the island — next week…

–Shannon McKenna Schmidt

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