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The famous house at 907 Whitehead Street is a tourist attraction for visitors to Key West. The descendents of Hemingway's legendary six-toed cats may be the biggest draw.

Polydactyl Cats

Key West is that rare thing in the USA, a truly walkable city. The streets are mostly tree-lined and shady and in a short distance you can ring the changes from tourists and bars on Duval Street, to quiet backstreets with soothing names like Angela and Petronia. The trouble is that Key West is on the same latitude as Mecca and it can get very hot.

The commercialization of Hemingway is not a new phenomenon, nor was it something he actively discouraged.

In the early 1950s he gave his name and, one presumes, his creative talent, to an ad for Ballantine Ale. "I would rather have a bottle of Ballantine Ale than any other drink after fighting a really big fish," he enthused.

Today his house has moved up to the top of the charts and visitors are met at the gate with a charge of $7.50 for adults and $4.50 for children and a sign reading "Do Not Pick Up Cats." The cats are, to be honest, a bigger attraction than Hemingway. There are over sixty of them strolling, sleeping, washing and occasionally leaping about the house and grounds in proprietorial fashion. They are reputedly descended from Hemingway's six-toed cats and the sure sign of this is that half of them are still polydactyl - that is, they have a bit to spare in the toe department. Some have six, others seven or even eight. They lighten up what is otherwise a pretty lifeless series of rooms, and they give the guides something to talk about.

"This red one here is a marmalade tom we call Bill Clinton. He has seven toes, and yes, he has been neutered."

All the rooms are fully accessible except for his writing room, located above one of the outbuildings. It was once attached to the rest of the house by a rope bridge, which must have tested Papa's sobriety. It is unconvincingly pristine, with dead animals on the wall and the obligatory typewriter as its central feature. (Hemingway seems to have had as many typewriters as he had cats.) visitors peer into this sanctum from behind a screen of Spanish-style wrought-iron bars, as if about to see someone tortured on the rack.

By the end of the tour I feel sorry for Pauline, Hemingway's second wife, who, with the help of Uncle Gus, created this home for him. Our guide holds her responsible for the fact that we are all dripping with sweat. According to him it was Pauline who apparently removed the ceiling fans and had them replaced by elaborate wood and glass chandeliers.

Photo credits: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection/John F. Kennedy Library. Text excerpt: "Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure" by Michael Palin © Michael Palin, 1999. Used with permission of Cassell & Company. Buy the book in the Palin Shop.