The July 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine reproduced a recently unearthed letter by Ernest Hemingway. It was written on February 22, 1953 to his friend Gianfranco Ivancich.
In the letter, Hemingway talks about finding his cat Willie with both right legs broken; he had apparently hobbled home from a car accident with only his left side in use. Hemingway writes, “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.” Hemingway knew immediately that there was no possibility of fixing the wound. He asked a servant to get a bowl of milk. While the cat was lapping the milk, Hemingway shot him through the head, even though another servant volunteered to do the killing for him. “I could not delegate the responsibility or leave a chance of Will knowing anybody was killing him,” Hemingway writes.
He ends the letter with a personal reflection addressing the cat directly:
“Certainly missed you. Miss Uncle Willie. Have had to shoot people but never anyone I knew and loved for eleven years. Nor anyone that purred with two broken legs.”
The letter is extraordinary in its tenderness, but not surprising.
At his Cuban home Finca Vigia (“Lookout Farm”), a 15-acre property 15 miles from Havana, Hemingway had so many cats you couldn’t always count them “until you [saw] them all moving like a mass migration at feeding time.” Initially, according to Carlene Fredericka Brennen’s fine book Hemingway’s Cats, Hemingway had 11 cats with three house cats –Princessa, Boise and Willie. “The cats slept in the guest bedroom and later lived in a room on the second floor of the white tower Papa had built …”.
Where Hemingway shows his love most for cats is in his famous short story “Cat in the Rain” and in his posthumous and failed novel Islands in the Stream. Hemingway devotes over 70 pages to cats. The pages of “Cuba,” Part II of the novel, are overrun with the names and presence of his cats; they’re major characters in the narrative. His sentences about them combine knowledge with love:
“His cat lay on his chest and he pulled a light blanket over them both…”
“The cat kneaded his chest softly…and he felt the cat’s long, lovingly spread weight and the purring under his fingers.”
“The cat lay, contentedly, breathing in rhythm with the man…
“The cat lay against him, heavy and unpurring and desperate.”
You sense as a reader that the cat is not so much desperate as the character Thomas Hudson, and by extension, the writer Ernest Hemingway who by this time was awash in alcohol, depression and despair.