Brow Beat

When Ernest Hemingway Killed His Cat

Ernest Hemingway

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In his recent assessment of Ernest Hemingway for Slate, Nathan Heller complicated “the grave, macho” image that many still have of the writer, pointing to the uncertainty of the author’s early prose as an antidote.

For further complication of that image, Susan Wrynn, curator of the Hemingway collection at the JFK Library, points to newly released letters by the author. “We think of him as a hunter or as machismo image. But in the letters, we see a warmer side, like how sad he feels when he has to kill his cat.”

That particular letter, highlighted today by the ArtsBeat blog of the New York Times and in the Boston Globe, actually combines Hemingway’s swaggering macho act with what is indeed a near-heartbreaking vulnerability. In 1953, Hemingway’s cat Willie, aka Uncle Willie—who, according to Hemingway’s Cats: An Illustrated Biography, inspired one of the cats in Islands in the Stream—had been hit by a car, and Hemingway had to put him down. Someone else volunteered, but Hemingway feared the “chance of Will knowing anybody was killing him.” Hemingway got his rifle, and then some tourists drove by.

I still had the rifle and I explained to them they had come at a bad time and to please understand and go away. But the rich Cadillac psycho said, ‘We have come at a most interesting time. Just in time to see the great Hemingway cry because he has to kill a cat.

“I humiliated him as he should be humiliated,” Hemingway says of the “rich Cadillac psycho,” choosing to “omit details.” “Have had to shoot people but never anyone I knew and loved for 11 years,” he adds. “Nor anyone that purred with two broken legs.”

While the popular myth of Papa Hemingway surrounds the writer with lions and other big game, smaller felines played a larger role in the writer’s later life. By 1945, he had 23 cats, who were “treated as royalty,” according to Hemingway’s Cats, which was published in 2006. Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary called the cats “purr factories” and “love sponges.” The descendants of those cats continue to live at the old Hemingway house (a fence was erected for them after a neighbor’s complaint led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Because many of Hemingway’s cats were of the six-toed variety, “Hemingway cat” has become a colloquial term for polydactyl felines. Cats also show up in Hemingway’s fiction, most notably, perhaps, in “Cat in the Rain,” from In Our Time.

If Hemingway had been a single woman rather than a married man, surely he would have been tarred as a “cat lady.” Perhaps that label would have been enough to complicate the macho, big-game-hunting image that, more than 50 years after Hemingway’s death, persists.