Home / Catfight! Hemingway’s Beloved Cats in Peril

Catfight! Hemingway’s Beloved Cats in Peril

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A home without a cat, and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat, may be a perfect house, but how can it prove its title? — Mark Twain

Ernest Hemingway was a fine writer. He was an even finer man. How do I know this? He appreciated cats. More than this, he really adored them. They inspired him and made him laugh. Cats are the ideal companions for a writer. They lounge about attractively and do not demand to be taken for walks. Even better, they can use the bathroom without dragging you out to share the experience.

To say that you love cats is to declare yourself to possess a capacity and amusement for eccentricity and individuality; that you appreciate something just for "being", rather than what it "does". This recalls a philosophical spat I had years ago with a big Swede who argued rudely that cats were useless, but his dog – oh, his dog had function and purpose. This really flummoxed me until I went home that night and was distracted by the preternatural beauty of my Siamese cat, and an epiphany hit me. She didn't have to "do" anything.

Her "being" was enough to justify her existence. She brought joy and magic to my life that haunts me to this day. Beauty is its own excuse for being, and cats are beauty and grace incarnate. They are primal and unfathomable. We can only aspire to be as cool as cats, which is why people either love them or are helplessly envious of them and profess to hate them, or work to undermine their freedom.

It was Hemingway’s will to leave his home as a museum to the public and to ensure the domestic tranquility of cats at this latter day temple of Bast for ever more. Now I like Hemingway well enough as a writer and I wouldn’t mind touring his estate, but the lure of communing with 47 cats who essentially own the place and are its living soul and sense of humor would make his home an irresistible tourist haven if I ever visited Key West. They’d have to kick me out at closing time.

It must have been an unnaturally overcast day, or perhaps the eye of newt porridge did not sit well, when two socialist activists, former members of the Florida Keys Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals became haunted by phantasms that made their gallbladders sick. Before their eyes were elegant creatures, dilettantes in fur yawning, meditating, slinking through the grass or reveling in the refrigerator cool of the master bathroom tiles of a great American writer… Doing. Nothing.

It made the blood boil.

Here they were, God/dess’s aristocrats, muses since the days men and women first lay eyes upon their ancient predecessors slinking through the reeds of the Nile until they deigned to grace humanity’s homes and granaries with their timeless mystery and allure. In their sensuous beauty and lives of ease, these modern day temple cats embodied everything that makes a socialist get a bad case of the fits. But these were just cats they assured themselves, just animals. "We can do something about them. We can make ourselves feel better and more in control – by enforcing control over them – by mobilizing the iron wheels of government bureaucracy!"

"Those cats have seen their day! No more will they taunt us with their nonchalance and aristocratic demeanor. They will bow to the iron will of the collective’s commissar; be humbled, yoked and forced to be called ‘performing animals’, proper ‘working animals’ – or they should not be there at all!"

And with that they hopped on their brooms and reported the Hemingway museum to the USDA and those charged with applying the 1996 Animal Welfare Act. The fur has been flying ever since.

This is a travesty. Legislating against the freedom of domestic cats? Against the stated will of a lion of American literature? In disregard of people who have lovingly tended them and the estate for years? In disregard for the many thousands of people who travel to see this historic landmark partly because of the living spirit and wit of an artist embodied in the keeping of these cats? This must not be.

It is downright un-American, which last time I checked was about freedom and the spirit of independence, not socialism or any form of totalitarian imposition on these values by bitter pills. At least it shouldn’t be. If it is, people need to wake up and vote with their dollars and at the ballet box.

But let us return for a moment to the idea of domestic cats as "performing animals." Hemingway himself might have laughed at this, before going after those bat-winged harpies with a harpoon. I stand here humbly in his stead, with a lampoon.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWhen I was about six or seven years old I had the idea to hold a circus our backyard and charge admission, of course. In between gymnastic feats performed by myself and neighborhood friends, I would amaze and delight the audiences with lion-taming stunts starring our beautiful, saintly cat Tiger, a marbled tabby with dark auburn markings contrasting with bright white fur and huge green eyes.

He really preferred the calmer company of adults, but as his karma had it, he landed amongst a slew of children who absolutely adored him, but subjected him to the occasional indignities of modeling doll clothes in baby carriages… and performing in circuses.

I stripped down the leaves from a branch of a willow wand, long and flexible, and ran with it through the summer grass as Tiger flew after it, leaping gracefully over gardening buckets I had set up. I think we had one performance. We made enough money for chocolate all around, which was pretty good.

Still, this was not a "performing animal". This was a domestic Bodhisattva.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “In October 2003, a USDA inspector posing as a tourist surveyed the grounds and later ordered the museum staff to get a license or face $10,000 in daily fines.” $10,000 a day adds up to a lot of cat food and veterinary maintenance from the Hemingway museum’s funds, or filet mignon and entertainment for politicians, depending on how you look at it.

“Since then, a veterinarian from the USDA has made repeated inspections of the property, recommending increasingly restrictive measures each time,” said the museum’s chief executive, Michael Morawski. The Times continues, “Angled screens have been installed atop the wall to prevent the cats’ jumping over. A misting system is intended to dissuade any critters from loitering close to the exits."

"But he and the cats’ caregivers balked at government requirements that the museum prevent all escapes by installing an electrified wire atop the wall and 12- to 15 foot high mesh back stopping, like that used along driving ranges and ball fields.” This is bizarre. People aren’t forced to do this with man-mauling bull mastiffs!

“Our National Historical Site designation precludes us from doing anything like that.” Morawski said. “It became contentious to the point where they said, if you can’t do these things, you’ll have to round them up and put them in cages.’” In cages? Are we dealing with lions or cattle here?

These people claim to have the cats’ best interest at heart… and if you believe that, there will be no new taxes. Ever. According to the article in the Times, “Suspiciously, the only known off-site fatality involved a cat run over after being lured out by the activists.” Oh.

This news is not only sad, it is patently disturbing, though not surprising. For socialists, truth is a relative squishy thing, a matter of semantics. Language is a tool to obscure and twist rather than reveal the truth, and the ends always justify the means. Think about that little cat lured and deceived and crushed beneath the wheels of a car, for a ‘greater cause’. Think about it at election time when a socialist tries to lure and deceive you in order to part you from what they perceive as the ‘pampered lair you don’t deserve’.

One should be wary of people who would restrain the freedom of domestic cats in their own abode on a protected site in the name of the common good, or the good of these creatures whose freedom and happiness they would destroy; for such people would legislate against your freedoms and leisure as well if it piqued them. And I assure you it will. With such people, it always does.

Socialism in all forms is a hydra with many heads that reflect its immortal one, ‘the politics of envy’. We should protect these cats the way a mother cat protects her kittens and stalk useless politicians who prey on domestic cats, like the worthless grouses they are. For in a way, those cats are us. Don’t let anyone take their freedom away.

I hope that other people will come to the defense of these modern cats where Ernest Hemingway cannot; for if he were alive today, be assured that you would hear a mighty roar and then it would be open season on these malcontents and their ilk. The gentle sanctity of those cats’ existence would not be in question. It would be like safari time out on the Savannah, with ‘Papa’ Hemingway staring down the scope of his hunting rifle. If you so choose, you can join the many who have signed online petitions to the USDA, and save the Hemingway Cats.

The ancient Egyptians, writers, artists, philosophers, culture vultures of all stripes… the admirers of cats are legion. I leave you with a thought from the photography book, Vavra’s Cats. A beautiful tabby cat gazes into the darkness, her jewel eyes ringed with cobalt blue make-up that matches the jewels which drape her head and neck.

She spoke of Egypt, and a white temple… against night she smiled with clicking teeth and said, that the dead were never dead; said old emperors hung like bats… but empresses come back as cats. — William Rose Benét

To learn more, visit the official website of the Hemingway Home and Museum.

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About Ashtoreth Valecourt

  • Jean Naimard

    You obviously don’t know what Socialism is.

    It certainly is not nitpicking regulation like you demonstrate being done in the least socialist country in the world, the United States of America.

  • Socialism, schmocialism…an ideal or is it function? I dunno. My cat will deal with it.

    I am definately a cat person. I think a few cats need to be on the board of directors…

  • This cat-love seems to contradict the report – perhaps apocryphal? – that the random assassination of a cat in Salinger’s “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” was based on an encounter with Hemingway. Apparently, in order to demonstrate to Salinger that he was a hard man, Hemingway picked up his pistol and blew the brains out of an innocent kitty. Salinger was revolted.

    I’d love to have this story proved fictional – I’m fond of Hemingway (although I value Salinger more). Please, someone: demonstrate to me that this is libel.

  • Ashtoreth

    That is an interesting story.

    I suspect that Hemingway may have been trying to prove in a macho sense how ‘hard’ ergo ‘what a man’ he was by symbolically murdering what in his consciousness embodied his feminine or anima; the blasted softness which he dearly loved and needed, but which he was somehow ashamed and afraid of as something he could not control or tame.

    The act was not something he would have done alone, I don’t think. Sadly, it was all about the reflected shock and horror on the face of Salinger which was the pay-off. It was murder as theater.

    It is also a paradox that he loved cats, but hunted lions. The little cat is reflected in the big cat and the big cat in the little cat. But then he had a pattern of pitting himself against the elements and trying to challenge the gods to prove his manhood. The ‘Old Man and the Sea’ was him.

    Sad as this story is (if it is true) it would point to his deep insecurity and splintering from his inner feminine. Note how he kept bonding to and then betraying, symbolically murdering, and splintering from his four wives – again needing to merge with, and needing to dominate and execute the feminine whose power he secretly longed for, feared, and envied. A gun blast fixes everything in the ‘two year old’ narcissistic mind.

    His murder of the cat before an audience showed great narcissism. The cat did not matter, his illusions of ‘male hardness’ did. How embarrassing for him. It would suggest pathological insecurity in his furious need to ‘prove’ he was the icon of masculinity he so desperately needed to see himself as, project out to the world, and have reflected back at him; even if an innocent animal had to die to make this statement.

    And then he left the house to the cats. Maybe because the independent little beasts loved him best and simply, and because in the end, he could never tame them without killing them, and came to admire and identify with them. As I said, we can only aspire to be as cool as cats. 🙂

    Thank you for your most interesting comment.

  • Lots of Hemingway stories are false, even those told by Hemingway himself. I doubt Hemingway would have shot a cat, especially one of his own.

    Salinger could have been embellishing or maybe even retelling a story Hemingway told. Remember, Hem was prone to taking a truth (he was an ambulance driver who was wounded delivering chocolate to the troops and it became that he was something of a war hero) and spinning it for all it was worth.

    Hemingway shooting a little kitty? Yes, just what those who hated (or envied him) would love us to think. I’ve been to Key West and even had dinner once at the old homestead, and those cats belong there for all time as per Papa’s wish.

  • Ashtoreth

    Jean, jean, I think we area all too aware what socialism is and represents. And for your information, bureaucratic nitpicking is its hallmark.

  • you appreciate something just for ‘being’. Very nice words.

    I, having about 42 years of cat experience (i was 7 getting my first cat), sometimes have to educate newer cat owners about being a cat. Some folks just don’t get it. Amazing, majestic creatures. I do cherish their existance.

    Their job of doing nothing? Humans should heed to their actions. Allow yourself to ‘be’. Charles Atlas (98 lbs weakling? Old Timers will remember) developed his ‘dynamic tension’ exersices based on the fact that cats, even though they meditate a lot, are also in very good condition. He watched cats stretch (then jump up on a fence or something) and thought there was something to it.

    Anyway, let the cats be!!!!!


  • Douglas A Cooper, nice mention of Salingers “For Esme-With Love and Squalor”.

    I am familiar. Good of you to bring it up.

  • Marg Terriode

    As it’s told by Salinger’s biographer, Hemingway shot a chicken, not a cat, to demonstrate the accuracy of a particular breed of handgun he was expounding on. Salinger found it disturbing enough to adapt it for one of his stories, evidently.

  • Ashtoreth

    Hi Marge,

    Well, I hope that’s true. I’d certainly would rather think he executed a chicken than a cat.

    *looks both ways for Vegans with torches and spears – runs* 😉