Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A day in Key West: roosters, six-toed cats, and Duval Street

November 27, Key West, Florida

One of forty-five cats who have the good luck
to call the Hemingway House their home.

I am way behind on keeping up with the blog-- testimony to the draw of many things to do here in the Keys coupled with the urgency of filling our days as my uncle’s health was rapidly failing back in Tampa. Making the trek from mile marker 50 in Marathon to mile marker 0 in Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States, is something you just have to do to earn the right to say that you went to the Keys.  Key West is a national treasure that has retained much of its island charm due in part to regulations spearheaded in the 1980s by the strong presence of the gay and lesbian community here. As a result, there are no sprawling hotels or condominiums lining the shore. Instead, there is an eclectic mix of gracious plantation style homes, tin roof conch houses, and historic restored wooden homes of the Bahamian neighborhoods. Another quirky aspect of Key West are the numerous roosters and hens that freely roam the street from Cubans being drawn to the cigar industry here (it's only about 90 miles to Cuba from Key West) and bringing along their best roosters for the popular sport of cockfighting. Fast forward almost a hundred years, even though cockfighting was outlawed in the 70s, chickens are allowed to roam the streets and are protected by law here. They definitely adding to the character of this place made famous by Jimmy Buffet and Ernest Hemingway in the local bars, Margaritaville and Sloppy Joes. 

Internet photo showing the lifestyle of Key West chickens

My niece’s primary goal in coming to Key West was to shop the famous mile-long Duval Street.  My request was to visit the Ernest Hemingway home, and Vic’s top choice was to tour what is referred to as  Truman’s Little White House.  A perfect trifecta.  We decided to start out at the Hemingway Home and Museum as this stop was something all three of us wanted to do.  I had been there over thirty years ago and loved it then, so I was looking forward to seeing it with new eyes (and a different husband—ha, ha).  My first husband makes his living as a writer and Hemingway is his hero and the writer he most desired to emulate--so maybe my first visit here was colored by my own fear of following the tradition of being the second of four wives. Fast forward a few years and I became an English teacher with respect for his writing in spite of the feminist attacks on his machismo lifestyle and fictional characterizations. I actually love Hemingway’s writing, especially the short stories “Big Two Hearted River” and “A Clean Well Lighted Place” which rank in my book as some of the best American fiction ever written. I also have the intense memory of reading A Farewell to Arms in one sitting, finishing in the wee hours of the morning while sobbing over the ending.

The house was even better than I had remembered and I was delighted to see that the tradition of taking care of future generations of Hemingway’s six-toed cats still carries on as part of his estate. One other thing that impressed me in his home was the laid-back attitude of allowing photos of whatever you want to take and learning that the public may even rent out the home and gardens for weddings.  Our tour guide, Tyler, however, questioned the wisdom of being married in the home of someone who had four relatively unsuccessful marriages. We learned that Hemingway was married to his second wife Pauline during most of the years he spend in his home in Key West and that she discovered his affair with the war correspondent and journalist Martha Gellhorn while they were living in this home. As a result, she felt sorry for herself and special ordered the largest private pool in Key West to be built on these grounds. When Hemingway saw the bills for this extravagance, he gave Pauline what he said was his “last penny” as a symbol of her outrageous extravagance and this penny remains cast in concrete in a tile near the pool.

Aside from getting chills as I thought of him writing most of his well-known novels in the little writing room above the pool, seeing the well taken care of forty-five cats that have free range throughout the property was certainly a highlight of our visit.  Our tour guide claimed to know the names of all the cats (of which about  half carry the recessive gene causing them to be six-toed)  and he was kind enough to capture one named Shine Forbes so I could take a photos of the six toes.  Shine, like all the other cats, was named after a well known character who played a role in Hemingway’s life: Forbes, a local boxer in Key West, got in a fight with a boxing referee who turned out to be Hemingway himself.  Hemingway was so impressed with his talent in punching him he ended up asking Forbes to be his sparring partner. Shine the cat seemed all but oblivious to this story although he did have an arrogant strut and formidable size for a street cat. Check out the prominence of the sixth toe on this big boy—maybe the sixth toe would give him an extra edge in cat fights?

Both Kathryn my niece and I took many photos of our tour as we were captivated by the charm and fascinating energy of this estate. I finally figured out how to make a collage in Picasa and thought this would be a fun way to show several images from his home.

hemingway home collage2

After spending about an hour and a half touring the property, we all agreed it was well worth the cost of $13 tickets. We also felt inspired to download some Hemingway novels on the Kindle or dust them off the shelf (in our caseit would have to be from the boxes in storage) and re-visit his classic works. Watching Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris, also brought about a resurgence of interest in Hemingway’s life in Paris chronicled so beautifully in his non-fiction work, A Moveable Feast.

Speaking of feast, we were quite hungry by the time we finished the tour of his home and decided to have a late lunch at Blue Heaven, a well-known cafĂ© just a few blocks from the Hemingway home. This place used to host cock fights, gambling, and boxing matches refereed by Hemingway himself while the second floor above the restaurant earned its colorful reputation as a dance hall and brothel. The Blue Heaven serves casual Caribbean fare and may be best known nowadays for its roosters that wander the premises while you eat. My niece was a little taken aback as one rooster same swooping down from a chicken coop roof and I was surprised to be seated next to a hen and her baby chicks who were just learning to walk.  Fun ambience for a Key West day.

I decided to take Kathryn for a walk down Duval Street while Vic took a tour of Truman’s Little White House. Unfortunately for him, the Little White House was being renovated, so he was only able to see parts of this historic place which became a winter retreat for Truman while dealing with the threat of the Cold War  between the years of 1946 and 1952.

While Victor took in a slice of American history, the girls suddenly found themselves in Margaritaville, a cheesy tourist trap. But by now, a classic margarita sounded pretty good. We also discovered while we made this wet your whistle stop, that you can order your cocktails to go in Key West, not a big surprise when you see all the partying going on here at all times of the day. 

Window shopping on Duval Street is very fun as most of the stores are local ones vs. part of a national chain, and many feature local artists’ work or irreverent references to the Key West lifestyle. A little daunted by the price tags in some of the boutiques, we enjoyed most of the shopping experience without making any serious purchases.

We ended our exploration of Key West by meeting up with Vic at the famous Sloppy Joes bar where Hemingway used to meet up with his friends every afternoon after a day of writing.  (The original Sloppy Joe’s was actually two doors down.) According to legend, Hemingway liked the urinal in the bar so much that when the bar was moving, he pulled it out and brought it home as somewhat of a payback to his resentful wife Pauline who had just spent a small fortune building a pool on their property.  The urinal is now a fountain which provides water to the many cats who still reside in his former home.


With plans to make dinner for the family back in Marathon, we headed out without participating in the sunset celebration on the Mallory Square Dock, a popular daily attraction for tourists like us. The traffic was a little intense at this hour of day but we made it back in less than an hour and half—just in time to have a nice meal and shortly after call it a day well spent!  I will add though that our pocketbooks were noticeably lighter as a result of our little day trip to this festive place—something we couldn’t sustain for an extended period of time on our retirement budget but this day was a special treat.

It seems only appropriate to close with a relevant Hemingway quotation:
“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”—Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls


  1. Really great write up on this unique place. It's been a looonnng time since I have been there but unlike most places, doesn't sound like it has changed much. Glad to hear that and see your great pictures.

  2. Nice post on Key West and the Hemingway house. We toured it last spring and I was also fascinated by the stories of Hemingway. Key West is certainly a unique little city and one not to be missed.

  3. We've stopped in for day visits on a couple of cruises heading to the Caribbean; have roamed the streets, saw the chickens, visited the southernmost buoy which really isn't the southernmost point, toured the grounds of the Truman White House, and enjoyed frozen key lime pie on a stick. As for the rest of the sights ... we'll do them one of these winters when we head to Key West for a few weeks.


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