The six-toed cats and me: writing in Ernest Hemingway’s Key West studio

I’ve been offered the privilege of locking myself into Hemingway’s Key West study to write – the first author to do so since the man himself

 

My table is here, his just there. My laptop looks across at his typewriter. His eyes stare back at me from portraits on the wall. I am alone in Ernest Hemingway’s studio in Key West. A respectful pause seems appropriate. Mata Hari has other ideas: my meaningful thoughts about this meaningful moment are disturbed by a plaintive, drawn-out meow. Cats rule here, just as Hemingway would have wanted it.

The first time I came to this part of Florida, to attend the excellent Key West Literary Seminars in 2013 – Colm Tóibín was a guest speaker – I visited the Hemingway Home & Museum on Whitehead Street. The glorious colonial villa, with wraparound balcony and lush gardens, is where Hemingway lived with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, from 1931 to 1939.

I wandered the gracious rooms, walked through their bedroom, snooped in their bathroom and cooed at lolling cats before heading to Hemingway’s second-floor studio in the converted coach house. In the small entrance I looked through a grille at the room where the Nobel laureate wrote so many of his masterpieces. It would have taken an impossible leap to imagine that I would return three years later and be given my own key to this sacred place.

As the winner of the one-off Florida Keys Flash Fiction contest I have been offered the privilege of writing in Hemingway’s studio, the first author to do so since the man himself – a daunting and bewildering prospect. And so we are room-mates, of a sort, he and I, and I am also something of a live exhibit, as tourists look on.

I lock myself in and, when taking a break, padlock the gate behind me. A sign explains the presence of the interloper, but the shuffle of feet on the iron steps outside and the soft click of cameras – some pointed at me – don’t distract. Visitors are respectful, keen not to disturb, just as I don’t wish to disturb their Hemingway moment. I smile and nod, they smile and nod, and here we all are. Many put their arms through the grille to take photographs of the Woodstock typewriter that Hemingway used when he was following Gen George S Patton during the second World War. But I suspect the true devotees are the ones who gaze, and are still.

“Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous,” a woman exclaims as she comes in, and she doesn’t mean me. This is a lovely room. Red tiled and uncluttered, it is bright, and shady, with hunting trophies, artefacts, bookshelves and a chaise longue, plus the birthing stool that Hemingway liked to sit on while getting drunk at Sloppy Joe’s. Out of sight, a loo and bathroom.

Windows look out on gardens far shadier than in Hemingway’s day and thick with the kind of language that makes novelists drool: frangipani, plumbago, mimosa, elephant ear and the vibrant, evocative red flame trees. Across the road Key West lighthouse rises up, like a totem pole to the man’s literary output.

Swimming pool

The studio also overlooks the infamous swimming pool. It had been Hemingway’s idea; Pfeiffer installed it when her husband was reporting on the Spanish Civil War. He was horrified by the $20,000 price tag when he got back, even though Pfeiffer mostly paid for it. Nor was it popular with the locals. It was hewn out of hard coral, had to be filled with seawater and, in the US during the Depression, was the only private pool for 150km. For all that it remains a special thing, sultry and blue beneath the palms.

Pfeiffer, the second of four wives, also replaced the ceiling fans in the house – she considered them unfashionable – with heat-pumping chandeliers, which has not endeared her to generations of museum staff. Air conditioning was installed last year, but not here in Hemingway’s studio.

He handled the intense heat and humidity by working from 6am to noon. I come in a little later, wait for the fog on my specs to clear, and leave when I have no sweat left.

The staff express concern for me, but I might as well swelter away like Hemingway did, even in these record-breaking temperatures. (Florida’s governor has declared it illegal to use the term “climate change” even though the Keys are predicted to be under water within 50 years. The highest point on this island is 5m above sea level.)

The polydactyl – six-toed – Hemingway cats are a huge attraction. There are 53 in residence, about the same as in his day, and they roam the property, which has been in the same hands since the Hemingway family sold it in 1961 to Bernice Dixon, who turned it into a museum.

The cats tend to live up to their Hemingway-inspired names: Howard Hughes skulks in the basement; Marilyn Monroe lies across the beds like a grande dame; and Duke Ellington, head of the pride, loves to show off his big paws. Although they all carry the polydactyl gene, my companion, Mata Hari, cannot boast six toes and so remains aloof, up here in the studio. The cats are well cared for by the staff, who call themselves “staff for the cats”; the animals preen and pose, flexing their digits.

This little slip of coral island, 3km by 6km, dangling off North America, with no fresh water to call its own, is packed tight with history.

Squeezed between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, adjacent to the third-largest reef in the world and Cuba, Key West grew out of mangroves and shipwrecks. Its fortuitous location brought salvagers and sailors, smugglers (rum during Prohibition, cocaine in the 1970s), cigar makers (at one time a million Cuban cigars were made here every day), soldiers, hippies and even blimps.

In 1860, when Miami was barely a pimple, Key West was, per capita, the United States’ wealthiest city. By 1928 its population had shrunk to 10,000, many of whom were on welfare. Now it is a laid-back town of quiet streetsand bicycles, wandering cockerels, delightful clapboard houses and exquisite trees; it is a town where flowers fall at your feet and magnificent clouds are usually too selfish to dump their rain.

Its literary heritage spreads beyond Hemingway. He arrived with Pfeiffer from Cuba in 1928, expecting to collect a car to take them up to mainland Florida, but the car didn’t show for three weeks. He used the time well, writing most of A Farewell to Arms (aspiring authors look away now) in just over two weeks.

Tennessee Williams arrived in 1941 – I like to swim on the beach where he swam every morning – and the list of writers who came for the warmth but stayed for the company includes Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Truman Capote.

The works written here include 70 per cent of Hemingway’s output, Williams’s The Night of the Iguana, Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall and part of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, among many others. Few islands can boast such a library of sheer genius.

Key West claims more writers per capita – including Alison Lurie, Judy Blume and Meg Cabot – than any other town in the US. Blume came to work on a “difficult book” one winter and, as seems to be the pattern, stayed. She now runs a bookshop in the Studios of Key West, an impressive arts facility that runs residencies for artists from all corners, of which I am one.

That a population of 25,000 people can support a centre of this ilk is mouth-watering to a former arts administrator from Ireland, but as the director Jed Dodds says, “We like to think global and act local.”

Waxwork

Back at Hemingway’s home, during my air-con break, a guide stops me to rave about Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I make his day by telling him about The Green Road. Later, in the library quiet of the studio, I hear a woman say to her friends, “She looks so real!” She means me, so I move and smile, and we all crack up. “Not a waxwork yet,” I tell them. Another visitor clenches his fist and whispers, “Congratulations”. Such a generous word, and uplifting in a tough week in American affairs, and one that keeps coming at me through the grille.

I have 10 days in the studio, during a three-week residency in Key West, but what to write when sitting across from Hemingway? Some flash fiction, perhaps, given that my first piece worked out quite well, or some work on that novel with a Key West section?

But all that seems a bit too much like a day at the office, and this is no ordinary day at the office. Best, I decide, to see what comes.

I have never before, and will never again, work in such a space as this. I thought I might struggle to write here, intimidated by the presence, but Mata Hari rests her chin on her shoulder and tells me to get on with it, as another hand comes through the grille to photograph the room where Hemingway used to be.

Paradise road? The Florida Railroad Extension

Seen from the Overseas Highway, a remaining section of the Miami to Key West railroad makes for a forlorn and intriguing sight.

The line was begun in 1905 by Henry Flagler, an entrepreneur whose workers, struggling through swamp, mosquitoes and sludge, pulled off an engineering feat when “Flagler’s Folly” reached Key West, in 1912.

But the railroad that seemed to float on the sea had a bitter death. The great hurricane of 1935, the “storm of the century”, devastated the middle Keys, sweeping away 1,000 people, many of whom were veterans working on the highway.

Hemingway, who helped gather the dead, subsequently wrote a furious article in which he accused the US government of manslaughter for failing to rescue the veterans in time.

The train sent to fetch them left Miami too late and was washed away by a 5m tsunami at Matecumbe Key. (The name comes from ‘mata hombre’: kill man.) The Florida Railroad Extension – the line to paradise – was never used again. Its viaducts, however, still stand; they support the Overseas Highway.

Denyse Woods is the author of five novels, including Overnight to Innsbruck and The Catalpa Tree. For more about the Hemingway Home and Museum see hemingwayhome.com

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