11 Writers Who Really Loved Cats

Alamy
Alamy

They say that a dog is a man's best friend, but these writers found solace—and occasional inspiration—in another four-legged companion. Celebrate International Cat Day with these feline-loving scribes.

1. MARK TWAIN

Mark Twain—the great humorist and man of American letters—was also a great cat lover. When his beloved black cat Bambino went missing, Twain took out an advertisement in the New York American offering a $5 reward to return the missing cat to his house at 21 Fifth Avenue in New York City. It described Bambino as “Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair across his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light.”

2. T.S. ELIOT

Aside from peppering his high Modernist poetry with allusions to feline friends, T.S. Eliot wrote a book of light verse called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of 15 poems, dedicated to his godchildren, regarding the different personalities and eccentricities of cats. Names like Old Deuteronomy, the Rum Tum Tugger, and Mr. Mistoffelees should be familiar to people all around the world—the characters and poems were the inspiration for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running Broadway musical, Cats. Later publications of Old Possum's included illustrations by noted artist Edward Gorey—yet another avid cat lover. You can listen to Eliot read "The Naming of Cats" here.

3. ERNEST HEMINGWAY

A cat sleeps on the bed at the home and museum of author Ernest Hemingway on February 18, 2013 in Key West, Florida, where Hemingway lived and wrote for more than ten years
A cat sleeps on the bed at Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida.
KAREN BLEIER, AFP/Getty Images

Ernest Hemingway and his family initially became infatuated with cats while living at Finca Vigía, their house in Cuba. During the writer's travels, he was gifted a six-toed (or polydactyl) cat he named Snowball. Hemingway liked the little guy so much that in 1931, when he moved into his now-famous Key West home, he let Snowball run wild, creating a small colony of felines that populated the grounds. Today, some 40 to 50 six-toed descendants of Snowball are still allowed to roam around the house. Polydactyl felines are sometimes called “Hemingway Cats.”

4. WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS

William S. Burroughs is known for his wild, drug-induced writings, but he had a softer side as well—especially when it came to his cats. He penned an autobiographical novella, The Cat Inside, about the cats he owned throughout his life, and the final journal entry Burroughs wrote before he died referred to the pure love he had for his four pets:

“Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner, and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats present and past. Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”

5. WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

Though not overt, William Yeats’s love for cats can be found in poems like “The Cat and the Moon,” where he uses the image of a cat to represent himself and the image of the moon to represent his muse Maude Gonne, a high society-born feminist and sometime actress who inspired the poet throughout his life. The poem references Gonne’s cat named Minnaloushe, who sits and stares at the changing moon. Yeats metaphorically transforms himself into the cat longing for his love that is indifferent to him, and the heartsick feline poet wonders whether Gonne will ever change her mind. Too bad for Yeats; Maude Gonne never agreed to marry him, despite the fact that he asked for her hand in marriage—four separate times.

6. SAMUEL JOHNSON

A 'talking statue' of Samuel Johnson's pet cat 'Hodge' is pictured in central London
CARL COURT, AFP/Getty Images

Known to be a general cat lover during his life, this 18th century jack-of-all-trades was immortalized in James Boswell’s proto-biography The Life of Samuel Johnson. In the text, Boswell writes of Johnson’s cat, Hodge, saying, “I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge.” Although Boswell was not a fan, Johnson called Hodge “A very fine cat indeed.” Hodge is immortalized, with his oysters, with a statue of his likeness that stands outside Johnson’s house at 17 Gough Square in London.

7. CHARLES DICKENS

One of most important and influential writers in history, Charles Dickens once said, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?” He would sit entranced for hours while writing, but when his furry friends needed some attention, they were notorious for extinguishing the flame on his desk candle. In 1862, he was so upset after the death of his favorite cat, Bob, that he had the feline’s paw stuffed and mounted to an ivory letter opener. He had the opener engraved saying, “C.D., In memory of Bob, 1862” so he could have a constant reminder of his old friend. The letter opener is now on display at the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library.

8. NEIL GAIMAN

The author of American Gods and The Sandman kept regular updates on his blog of the everyday eccentricities of the group of cats—including Hermione, Pod, Zoe, Princess, and Coconut—that he kept at his house. Though he hasn’t written much about them recently, the love and affection that come across in the posts from 2010 and earlier show someone who is absolutely an animal lover in all respects.

9. PATRICIA HIGHSMITH

American novelist Patricia Highsmith, the author of 'The Talented Mr Ripley' and 'Strangers On A Train'
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Patricia Highsmith doesn’t have the friendliest literary reputation around (she once said “my imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people”). But The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train author nevertheless found a perfect way to let her imagination function with her many four-legged companions. She did virtually everything with her cats—she wrote next to them, she ate next to them, and she even slept next to them. She kept them by her side throughout her life until her death at her home in Locarno, Switzerland in 1995.

10. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

Imagist poet William Carlos Williams also worked as a doctor to supplement his writing career, which would eventually culminate in a 1949 National Book Award for Poetry and a posthumously awarded 1963 Pulitzer Prize. His direct style tried to capture the essence of small moments in everyday life, and it’s no wonder he uses a cat to conjure a simple scene in his poem entitled “Poem (As the Cat)”:

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot

carefully
then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty
flower pot

11. RAYMOND CHANDLER

Raymond Chandler had an immense influence on detective fiction and came to define the tenets of hard-boiled noir. He used femme fatales, twisting plots, and whip-cracking wordplay in his evocative classics starring the detective Philip Marlowe, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. But it wasn’t all serious business for Chandler because—you guessed it—he really loved cats. His cat Taki gave him endless enjoyment, but also occasionally got on his nerves. Here’s a passage from a letter Chandler wrote to a friend about Taki:

“Our cat is growing positively tyrannical. If she finds herself alone anywhere she emits blood curdling yells until somebody comes running. She sleeps on a table in the service porch and now demands to be lifted up and down from it. She gets warm milk about eight o'clock at night and starts yelling for it about 7.30.”

This post originally ran in 2013.

The Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

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