We now know young Ernest Hemingway was a sensitive soul but, beneath the machismo for which he became known, the iconic author seemed to have maintained his soft core into his final years. One testament to this was his well-documented love of his cats — he had 23 by 1945. (His first cat, named Snowball, was given to him by a ship’s captain and was six-toed; his former home in Key West, Florida, currently houses nearly a hundred descendants of Snowball, about half of whom are polydactyl — an inadvertent lab for inbred genetic mutation.) Hemingway’s niece, Hilary Hemingway, writes in the foreword to Hemingway’s Cats: An Illustrated Biography that the author and his fourth wife, Mary, called the cats “purr factories” and “love sponges.”
On February 22, 1953, one of Hemingway’s cats, Uncle Willie, was hit by a car. Following the accident, Hemingway sent his close friend Gianfranco Ivancich the following distraught letter:
Just after I finished writing you and was putting the letter in the envelope Mary came down from the Torre and said, ‘Something terrible has happened to Willie.’ I went out and found Willie with both his right legs broken: one at the hip, the other below the knee. A car must have run over him or somebody hit him with a club. He had come all the way home on the two feet of one side. It was a multiple compound fracture with much dirt in the wound and fragments protruding. But he purred and seemed sure that I could fix it.
I had René get a bowl of milk for him and René held him and caressed him and Willie was drinking the milk while I shot him through the head. I don’t think he could have suffered and the nerves had been crushed so his legs had not begun to really hurt. Monstruo wished to shoot him for me, but I could not delegate the responsibility or leave a chance of Will knowing anybody was killing him…
Have had to shoot people but never anyone I knew and loved for eleven years. Nor anyone that purred with two broken legs.
For more on the literary legend’s tender side, see Young Hemingway’s Letters.