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Fall is an excellent time to visit the Conch Republic, weather permitting. And if a hurricane comes calling, do what the natives do: Buy a six-pack and sit tight.
Fall is an excellent time to visit the Conch Republic, weather permitting. And if a hurricane comes calling, do what the natives do: Buy a six-pack and sit tight.
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KEY WEST

In the Off-Season, It's Even More Laid Back

Six-toed cats keep Hemingway's spirit alive at his former home in Key West.
Six-toed cats keep Hemingway's spirit alive at his former home in Key West. (By Bob Sacha -- Corbis)

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By Diane Roberts
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Katharine Hepburn lies supine across Clark Gable's long body. From the other side of the veranda, Yvonne De Carlo watches, narrowing her green eyes. Hepburn yawns, sticking out her pink tongue, stretching her paws over her head. De Carlo switches her tail. Gable keeps sleeping.

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Key West is famous for its exotic creatures: skinks, conchs, feral chickens, feral poets, parrotheads, drag queens, pirates manqu¿ and, of course, Ernest Hemingway's polydactyl cats. There are four dozen of them, at least half descended from Snowball, a six-toed cat given to Hemingway by some ship's captain he met in a bar. Or so the story goes. The cats, named for movie stars, disport themselves throughout the big-windowed antebellum house Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, bought in 1930. I hang out with them every time I'm in Key West.

The house tour, led by a docent with a Papa-esque beard, tells how Hemingway's wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, replaced all the ceiling fans with fancy chandeliers. (There's still no air conditioning -- this is Old Florida.) Cats nap under the palm trees, cats lap at the water from a fountain Hemingway had built for them using a urinal from a local bar. According to the house guides, the uber-manly Hemingway occasionally used it for its original purpose.

Cats sit washing their paws next to the typewriter upon which the Master composed "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." In the Master's bedroom, Charlie Chaplin, a bolster-sized black and white pile of fluff, lounges on the candlewick bedspread, glaring at a couple of tourists who dare disturb his siesta.

The Hemingway cats embody the lazy hedonism of Key West, drinking, eating and sleeping when they feel like it. "This is a very nonjudgmental place," says Nancy Klingener, editor of Solares Hill, Key West's oldest newspaper. "We just reelected a strip-club owner as one of our city commissioners."

Hurricane season -- which officially ends Nov. 30 -- may seem a strange time to visit this comma of an island parked in a notoriously stormy stretch of water, but airfares and hotel rooms are cheap. Headwaiters who wouldn't give you the time of day in January and February are delighted to seat you at their best tables. True, there's a late-October bacchanal of rum-drinking, feather-wearing and body painting known as Fantasy Fest, and the Disney cruise ship still docks near Mallory Square, blasting the island with "When You Wish Upon a Star," making me wish I had a bazooka.

A small gaggle of solid citizens in the Margaritaville bar (shame on you, Jimmy Buffett) takes cellphone photos of one another drinking flamingo-colored potions, and a clutch of bottle-tanned bridesmaids lurches from dive to dive on Duval Street. But there's another Key West off the tourist trail.

"It's not about what happens on Duval Street," says Lorian Hemingway, granddaughter of Pauline and Ernest. "Key West has a magic that goes beyond anything. It's tied in to all that's taken place here. Look in the alleys, the corners, the little streets. Go when no one else is there."

And if a hurricane comes calling, do what the natives do: Buy a six-pack and sit tight. The chunk of coral that is Key West has been there for 10 million years.

Lost and Found

I'm somewhere on Olivia Street, trying to find the gate to the Key West Cemetery. I made it here from Caroline Street, where Robert Frost used to spend his winters in a cottage parked in back of a foam-green Conch mansion built in 1834, but I'm not quite sure how. The Old Town is theoretically laid out on a grid, but Key West geometry tends toward the surreal: Streets found on no map appear; other streets disappear into the sea.

Not that I mind being a little lost. Great swags of purple, peach and magenta bougainvillea hang on fences, and white houses with porches like fancy crocheting line the road. The poinciana trees are in hot-red bloom, and gem-colored lizards dart across the sidewalk.

Finally, I see the main gate at Margaret Street and Passover Lane and walk into a silent garden of stone crosses, obelisks, urns, lilies and lambs presiding over echoes of long lives, tragic accidents, dreadful diseases, crimes of passion, military adventures and eternal love. In 1846, a hurricane washed away the old graveyard, so the town worthies decided to do their burying inland, on the almost-imperceptible slope of Solares Hill, the island's highest point.


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