a black and white cat laying on the ground
A Hemingway cat is completely unfazed by wedding preparations at ‘her’ house. AMY PATTON/Keys Weekly

By Amy Patton

When Daytona Beach couple Michael and Courtney White-Benedict were searching this year for a place to tie the knot, the hunt stopped at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, known locally in Key West as the Hemingway House, where the famous cats are not just accessories; they’re part of the wedding package.

“We’ve always loved historical homes in Key West and of course we adore that the cats are here,” said the newly married Courtney on a recent balmy Friday evening while their 80 guests arrived for the nuptials. Forty-eight furry friends of the feline kind were already in attendance.

The Hemingway House, the cherished landmark at 907 Whitehead St., is well-known for its tribe of free-roaming cats and carefully tended grounds. The house’s event planner, Ralph Segar Jr., said the six-toed, or polydactyl, residents are just part of the landscape.

 “Cat lovers seek out this place, they’re so excited to share in the Hemingway mystique that draws people in.” The legendary American author, Ernest Hemingway, was reportedly obsessed with the quirky cats and named them all after Hollywood stars and notables of the 1930s and ’40s. That tradition still stands at the house: You’ll see Princess Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Tennessee Williams dozing and playing in the gardens.

Despite all the buzz and fanfare of the recent Benedict wedding, most of the whimsical cats seemed unfazed by the celebration: “They’re very urbanized,” said Segar, laughing.

The Hemingway House animals share an interesting history and lineage. In the 1930s, the author was given a six-toed cat named Snow White by sea captain Stanley Dexter. In Hemingway’s time, the multi-digit cats were considered to be tokens of good luck by some sailors and were used as agile mouse hunters aboard some of the ships of the day.

Now, those who seek the historic space for their special day may find that some of the fabled feline fortune still endures.

“It’s kind of funny, we weren’t even looking at the Hemingway House in the beginning,” said Kiara Nielson, who wed her husband Sean there in the summer. The two are from the Washington, D.C. area. “We were looking all over for venues and it didn’t cross my mind until I saw this picture of a cat curled up on Pinterest. I was like, ‘Wow they have weddings there!’ Sean and I are huge cat lovers and we were thrilled to see that the house and grounds are such a great sanctuary for them on the island.”

Although most of the cats at the house are spayed and neutered, a handful are left fertile in order to hand down the prized genetic polydactyl trait, said Alexa Morgan, the PR director at the house. Surprisingly, she said, the fees generated from weddings and other events are just a fraction of what the Hemingway House, a for-profit organization, needs annually to operate. Proceeds from bookstore sales on the property and entry tickets make up the majority of revenue.

Erica LaClair, who runs her own Islamorada wedding consulting company, Salt Wife, is well acquainted with the historic space and organized both the Nielsen and Benedict nuptials. She said if you’re looking to book the space any time soon, don’t get catty: the Hemingway House’s calendar fills up quickly. “People I work with really love it here. It’s kind of informal yet grand at the same time.”

At Michael and Courtney Benedict’s wedding last week, it was clear that love was in the air: along with a little fur.

Six-toed cats are always on the guest list for weddings at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. IRIS MOORE PHOTOGRAPHY/Contributed
A Hemingway cat plays with wedding flowers on the property. IRIS MOORE PHOTOGRAPHY/Contributed