8 of History's Greatest Cat Ladies
by Kalli Damschen
When most people think of the stereotypical cat lover, they may picture someone resembling the character from The Simpsons known simply as the Crazy Cat Lady—an insane, grizzled old woman who speaks in gibberish and throws cats at innocent passersby. And although the stereotype of the crazy cat lady is far from flattering, several of history’s most successful women were devoted to their furry friends. Here are eight of history’s greatest cat ladies.
1. Vivien Leigh
Vivien Leigh, the English actress who starred in the 1939 adaptation of Gone with the Wind, owned multiple cats throughout her life. She was particularly fond of Siamese cats, and she is quoted as saying, “Once you have kept a Siamese cat you would never have any other kind.” Leigh’s first Siamese, called New Boy, was a gift from her husband, actor Laurence Olivier. New Boy (named after London's New Theatre) wore a custom collar imported from Paris and appears in many photographs with Leigh. Poo Jones, the seal point Siamese she adopted after New Boy's death, was Leigh's favorite cat. He traveled with her everywhere (with his own luggage) and napped in her dressing room whenever she was working onstage or in front of the camera.
2. Clara Barton
Clara Barton, the famous nurse and founder of the Red Cross, was an animal lover with a particular affinity for felines. During the Civil War, Barton earned the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield,” and in appreciation for her selfless work, U.S. Senator Schuyler Colfax sent Barton a kitten. Barton’s most beloved cat was the black and white Tommy, who kept her company for 17 years. A portrait of Tommy painted by Barton’s friend and fellow nurse Antoinette Margot still hangs in the Barton house in Glen Echo, Maryland.
3., 4., and 5. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte
The famous Bronte sisters not only shared a love of writing, but also a love of cats. Felines are featured in many of the sisters’ writings, including Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, as well as in the personal diaries of Anne and Charlotte. Emily Bronte even wrote a French essay entitled “Le Chat” (“The Cat”), in which she defends cats against those who argue that they are selfish and cruel, asserting that the disposition of cats is quite similar to that of humans and even arguing that the self-reliance of cats is better than the hypocrisy of humanity.
6. Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale, often regarded as the founder of modern nursing, took the term “cat lady” to new levels. Nightingale once said that “cats possess more sympathy and feeling than human beings,” and throughout her lifetime she owned over 60 cats—perhaps as many as 17 at once. Nightingale was a devoted caretaker for her feline friends, who ate specially prepared food off of china plates in her room. Evidence of Nightingale’s affection for her cats can still be seen today, as some of her kitties left ink paw prints on her letters.
7. Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott once jokingly listed an “inordinate love of cats” among her vices, and her fondness of felines shone through her writing. In Little Women, the March sisters have a pet cat, and at one point in the story Beth is seen playing with the cat and her kittens. The book even includes a poem called “A Lament (For S.B. Pat Paw)” eulogizing a beloved pet cat: “We mourn the loss of our little pet, / And sigh o’er her hapless fate, / For never more by the fire she’ll sit, / Nor play by the old green gate.”
8. Harriet Beecher Stowe
The famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin owned an assertive Maltese cat named after her husband, Calvin. According to Stowe’s friend and fellow writer, Charles Dudley Warner, Calvin “walked into her house one day out of the great unknown and became at once at home.” Stowe was immensely attached to Calvin the cat, and supposedly she even allowed him to perch on her shoulder while she wrote. When Stowe and her husband had to move, she gave Calvin to Warner, and the cat went on to become the star of Warner’s essay, “Calvin (A Study in Character).”