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Ernest Hemingway’s Other Legacy: A Colony Of Adorable, Six-Toed Cats

The macho writer was a huge cat lover. Now, photographer Henry Hargreaves captures the polydactyl gene-carrying felines of Hemingway Home.

Writer Ernest Hemingway is best remembered for his macho antics–the hunting, the fishing, the heavy drinking–but he also had a gentle side. With 23 cats by 1945, he was a devout cat lover who called his pets “purr factories” and “love sponges.” A new photo series depicts the descendants of these beloved creatures.

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In 1935, a ship captain visiting Hemingway in Key West, Florida, gifted him a six-toed cat named Snowball, and soon, Snowball had populated the Hemingway estate with litters of six-toed spawn carrying the polydactyl gene. Hemingway named them after famous people of his time: Billie Holiday, Hunter S. Thompson, Rudolph Valentino, and Betty Grable. Decades later, 55 of Snowball’s mutant descendants still reside at the Hemingway home-turned-museum, in Key West, Florida.

Henry and Winston Churchill

Last year, photographer Henry Hargreaves traveled to Hemingway’s home to shoot the contestants of a Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. But he soon found himself taken with the strange-footed felines seen around the estate. “I was intrigued by the story of a softer side to Hemingway,” Hargreaves tells Co.Design in an email.

Hargreaves got permission to give the cats their own photo shoot and posed them against pastel backgrounds. “Like their famous namesakes, some of the cats lapped up the attention while others fled from the set like they were being chased by paparazzi,” Hargreaves says. Some look like they’re wearing mittens, with thumbs on their paws. Others have the normal number of cat toes–four or five–but because of the polydactyl gene, they can still mother or father six-toed cats. The Hemingway Home keeps up a selective breeding program for the cats, which live on as one of the most endearing aspects of the writer’s legacy.

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About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.

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