Dogs is trumps but cats is the longest suit we hold.
How It Was
It was important to Ernest Hemingway in 1945 that his bride-to-be, Mary Welsh, like the sea and his family of cats and dogs. Ernest lucked out on all accounts. Mary loved the sea, was comfortable aboard the Pilar, and became an excellent angler. Mary also was enchanted by the family of small dogs with the curled tails, particularly Negrita, a female dog Hemingway had rescued from the streets of Havana, and she had a genuine fondness for his beloved feline friends. She immediately took to the Finca’s principal cat family that consisted of Princessa, Boise, Friendless, Friendless’s Brother, Willy, Uncle Wolfer, Good Will, Fatso, Furhouse, Thruster, and Littless Kitty. It wasn’t long after Mary’s arrival that Thruster, Martha’s favorite cat, gave birth to three energetic males. Ernest decided to name two of the brothers after poets. He felt cats liked to hear the sound of "s" in their names and christened one Stephen Spender, which was changed to Spendthrift and shortened to Spendy. Spendy’s brother was named Shakespeare, changed to Barbershop and later again changed to Shopsky. The third kitten of the triplets was named Ecstasy. Ernest and Mary took great patience to teach each cat his name on the front terrace of the Finca under garlands of bright red bougainvillea, rewarding them with treats of catnip. Spendy immediately bonded with Hemingway’s new female friend and became Mary’s "love sponge" and constant companion. Boise was also enchanted with the new mistress of Finca Vigia, and soon developed a crush on the petite blonde with the sweet scent of My Sin perfume, bringing Mary gifts of half-dead fruit rats and depositing them on her bedroom window ledge. Hemingway described one of these times in Islands in the Stream:
Boise was a very silent cat. But he called to the man as soon as he was on the window ledge and Thomas Hudson went to the screen and opened it. Boise leaped in. He had two fruit rats in his mouth. In the moonlight that came in through the window, throwing the shadow of the trunk of the cieba tree across the wide, white bed, Boise had played with the fruit rats. Leaping and turning, batting them along the floor, and then carrying one away to crouch and rush the other, he had played as wildly as when he was a kitten. Then he carried them into the bathroom and after that Thomas Hudson had felt his weight as he jumped on the bed. "So you weren’t eating mangoes out of trees?" the man had asked him. Boise rubbed his head against him. "So you were hunting and looking after the property? My old cat and brother Boise. Aren’t you going to eat them now you have them?" Boise had only rubbed his head against the man and purred with his silent purr and then, because he was tired from the hunt, he had gone to sleep. But he had slept restlessly and in the morning he had shown no interest in the dead fruit rats at all.
When Mary Welsh arrived at the Finca, Thruster (aka Thrusty) tried to make friends with the new visitor, desperately lonesome for female companionship after her mistress, Martha Gellhorn, had left the Finca for the last time. But Mary, after being told by Ernest that Thruster had been Martha’s favorite cat, wanted no part of the lonely feline. Mary wrote in How It Was that Thruster was clawing her sheet, asking for affection and she had written in her diary: "Thrusty mistakes me, I am not hers, nor she mine."
The cat family had the run of the house, sleeping in the guest bedroom on two double beds. The room was situated in the center of the home, off the spacious living room, with a door opening to the back terrace, where the cats were fed. The Finca’s houseboy, Rene Villarreal, lovingly cared for the cats and served the ever-growing menagerie bowls of ground meat, canned salmon, and fresh milk from the farm’s cows, as well as treats of homegrown catnip when available. Boise preferred people food to the cat food, dining on whatever Ernest ate.
Ernest’s breakfast was usually served in his bedroom while he worked. Rene would also include several bowls of food for the cats in attendance. The cats were Ernest’s constant companions and Hemingway said they helped him in his work. Boise received preferential treatment, sitting by Ernest’s side while he wrote.
Mary Welsh was enchanted by Finca Vigia on her arrival on May 2, 1945. But by August she was having second thoughts about the large cat family that had taken up residence in the guest bedroom of the house.
Even though Mary was fond of Hemingway’s feline friends, she felt the cats needed to have their own room, possibly separate from the main house—particularly Ernest’s stud cats that had a terrible habit of spraying. During a visit to Hemingway’s home in Cuba, Ernest’s sister, Madelaine Hemingway Miller, wrote in Ernest Hemingway’s Sister "Sunny" Remembers: "The bedroom between the living room and the veranda was the cat room. A couple of single beds and cushions were strewn about, as well as eating and drinking dishes to accommodate the scores of cats that kept accumulating. The room had a door that would swing in and out so the cats could come in and go at their pleasure, day or night. Cases of salmon were fed to them."
Mary thought the guest bedroom could better serve Hemingway if it was made into additional library space for his expanding book collection. The guest bedroom could still be used for guests, if needed, but the two-story guest house (known as the Casita) next door was big enough to accommodate family and friends.
Hemingway had read in Care and Handling CATS: A Manual For Modern Cat Owners by Doris Bryant, published in 1944, a book he kept on the table next to his side of the bed in Mary’s bedroom, that "A mature male should have his own quarters—a large and sunny room where he can spray and howl and be entirely natural and normal. In a bare room, it is easy to wipe up after a cat that has sprayed. . . . And no male should be scolded or punished for spraying or howling, it would just be as reasonable to punish him for eating or sleeping." Mary’s idea of a separate house for the cats began to make sense to Hemingway, and he agreed that they needed more space for the cats. He told Mary that he would build a house for the cats close to their house, but he was worried that the cats might feel rejected and hurt if they were moved too far from the main building. Mary was visiting family and friends in late September when Ernest wrote her about his thoughts on a new home for the cats.
Want to get good small house for the cotsies now . . . with easily cleaned arrangements and nice shelves to sleep on and places to have and raise their kittens. . . . It ought to be almost part of house so cotsies do not feel sent to Siberia or abandoned and it should be close enough so that from house you can see whether it is well cared for and cotsies will be happy. . . . Will make a big scratching pole covered with carpet for them to use their claws on and have catnip bin and ping-pong balls for kittneys to play with. Can even put in Shakespeare First Folio for Friendless to spray on [an act which Friendless had already committed ]. It is unfair to keep cotsies, not feed them properly, and interpret their natural impulses and needs as sins.
[an act which Friendless had already committed ].
Hemingway enjoyed the closeness of his cats underfoot, but Mary was pleased with the plans for a new cat house for their expanding cat family, allowing the principal cats to remain in the house if they wished, particularly Boise, who was Ernest’s day and night companion.
Ernest and Mary were married March 14, 1946, but it would be almost a year before plans were drawn up and construction began on the structure. Edwardo Rivero, the principal building contractor from the village of San Francisco de Paula, was hired to do the work. Ernest and Mary decided on a four-story building which Hemingway referred to as "the tower." The building would be four meters eighty centimeters square and twelve meters (forty feet) high above the ground level, with a patio on the roof where Mary could sunbathe nude. The staircase would run outside the building, offering a spectacular view of the countryside.
The cats’ room would be on the second floor of the tower on the level with the terrace. It was important to Hemingway that he would be able to see the cats’ room from a window in his bedroom and also from a window in his bathroom, where he stood every morning while he shaved. The cats’ room would also be in close proximity to the doors of the dining room, kitchen, and the back terrace, where the cats were fed. Hemingway envisioned the cats’ new room as having large windows, providing good light and cross ventilation. He wanted tile on the floor, making the room easier to wash down and clean. The first ground-floor room, below the cats’ room, would house a much-needed carpentry shop for their Spanish carpenter Pancho. The third-floor room would serve for extra storage for Hemingway’s fishing and hunting gear, their winter clothes, and their luggage, and could be used as an additional guest bedroom. A workroom on the fourth floor would offer Hemingway the privacy in which to write.
Times had changed a lot for Hemingway since his poverty years in Paris when he said he was too poor to own a cat. Not only was he a successful writer, but he could afford to take care of as many cats as he could possibly desire. By 1954 he and Mary would own thirty-four cats and the colony would continue to grow. Hemingway would surprise friends by identifying and naming each and every cat.
When Earl Wilson of the New York Post said that there were those asking if Ernest was a true American citizen since he preferred to live in Cuba instead of the United States, Ernest fired back:
You find me a place in Ohio where I can live on top of a hill and be fifteen minutes away from the Gulf Stream and have my own fruits and vegetables the year around and raise and fight fame chickens without breaking the law and I’ll go live in Ohio if Miss Mary and my cats and dogs agree.
Hemingway loved Cuba and its people and could not imagine living or working anywhere else. A revolutionary war would change all that.