Life Sketches: Cats in Key West

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Cats in Key West

Several years ago my wife Alice and I made a trip down to Key West, Florida and among other sites visited the house where Ernest Hemingway lived and worked on great writing projects like “A Farewell To Arms.” It was an interesting two-story structure, one of the few in Key West that was made out of stone blocks that had been cut and removed to create a cellar. There was a veranda that skirted the second floor and overlooked a spacious yard that was populated with palm trees and myriad tropical plants. Papa liked cats and one section of the backyard held a feline cemetery where among other names carved in stone was Marlene Dietrich. In the back of the house there was a catwalk that led to the second floor of a carriage house that provided a surprisingly neat space where the writer worked.

The walls of the main house held pictures of Hemingway with family and friends, big game and fishing trophies and some of his favorite haunts, but what I liked best was an oil painting done, I thought, in the style of the French painter Paul Gauguin. Better than a photograph, to me it seemed to catch the spirit of a place that had housed such a creative, larger than life man. Like a typical tourist I took a photo of the painting but later when it was developed it lacked the spirit that the oil painting held.

Alice’s mother, Elaine, happens to be a pretty good painter who works in oils and acrylics. My birthday was coming up, so I suggested that my wife take the photograph I took of the “Gauguin” painting and give it to her mother to copy in oil as a surprise birthday gift to me. “Great idea!” my spouse said with a sly expression on her face.

Several weeks later Elaine came up with an excellent replica of the painting I had photographed and I was very pleased until I realized there were no cats in it! Hemingway loved cats and the original artist recognized this by placing no fewer than five cats on the porch and in the foreground. I hid my disappointment not wanting to diminish her feat of producing an almost exact copy of the original — minus the cats. How could I tell Elaine that the cats were an integral part of the spirit of the picture, without insulting her? I left that task to Alice and without being hurt her mother agreed to paint in the missing felines. A week later my wife came home with the touched up painting. There were four cats instead of five but I felt the spirit of the work had been captured and in short order the painting was hanging on our dining room wall. In the months that followed several guests recognized and admired Elaine’s painted copy of Hemingway’s house. Then, my daughter Elizabeth made a visit and when she got around to taking a look at the painting with her 20/20 eyes — she declared, “Dad, these cats are pasted on!”

“No way,” I said as I stood before the painting and brushed a finger across one of the figures. Sure enough I felt a telltale edge and realized that the cats had been painted and then fixed to the canvas. If it wasn’t for my daughter I would never have known. When mildly confronted Elaine sheepishly confessed, “I was afraid of ruining it.” I guess unlike cats, paintings don’t have nine lives.

Now, any time someone looks at the copy I never fail to point out the additional dimension of the paste deception, which Hemingway might have agreed makes for a better story.

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