10 of History's Craziest Cat People
Many illustrious historical personages had a beloved cat or two, but some of them were full-on crazy cat people, filling their homes with felines and far preferring their companionship to that of humans. Here are 10 famous historical figures who were unabashed crazy about cats.
1. CARDINAL RICHELIEU
Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu (1585-1642)—cardinal, statesman, power behind the throne, and scene-stealing villain of The Three Musketeers—was such a devotee of the cat that he contributed significantly to their adoption as companion animals in fashionable French society. Richelieu had a cattery built at his residence the Palais-Cardinal (later the Palais-Royal) to house his many cats, mostly Persians and Angoras, and was said to always have a cat on his lap as he worked.
He was also a world-class adept at naming his cats. Among the 14 cats Richelieu had at the time of his death in 1642 were Ludovic le Cruel, named for his savage dedication to killing rats; Ludoviska, who according to some sources was Ludovic's girlfriend and was Polish; Perruque (French for wig), so named because as a kitten she'd fallen out of the wig of poet Honorat de Bueil at Richelieu's feet; Rubis sur l'Ongle, the French idiom for "cash on the nail"; Gazette, because she was "indiscreet"; the cardinal's favorite Soumise (submissive); plus Pyrame and Thisbe, named after the lovers in Ovid's Metamorphoses because they slept together holding paws.
2. POPE PAUL II
Pope Paul II (1417-1471) loved jewels, luxurious ecclesiastical garments, collecting antiquities, and forcing the Jews of Rome to run naked in the streets during Carnival. He also loved animals. So tenderhearted was he toward non-bipeds that if he happened upon an animal on its way to be butchered, he would rescue it. Cats were his particular favorites. He treated them as well as he treated himself. When his cats fell ill, he summoned his personal physician, Giacomo Gottifredi, to tend to them. When whatever leechcraft and wortcunning Gottifredi possessed was not sufficient to save one of the pope's beloved cats, he was grief-stricken. His emotional reaction to the loss of his cat was roundly mocked in Rome, where epigrams were written deriding the Pope's soft-hearted mourning for an animal—and one with a reputation for consorting with the Devil at that.
3. CATHERINE THE GREAT
Catherine the Great of Russia (r.1762-1796) had two fully-fledged cat colonies in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Her personal pets were elegant Russian Blues, a breed she favored above all, giving them to ambassadors as gifts for other sovereigns, reputedly including the British royal family. Catherine's Blues had the run of the upper floors of the palace. The basement, on the other hand, was populated with unpedigreed working cats. Their mission, which they chose to accept with alacrity, was to keep the rodent population at bay. Catherine officially promoted the working cats to guard status, complete with salaries and additional food rations.
She loved cats so much that Prince Grigory Potemkin (military commander, statesman, and the Empress's onetime lover) gave her one to thank her for her gift of the Sévres Cameo Service. The service cost 62,324 rubles, about $70,000 then and about $40 million today. It was so expensive that Catherine spent the next 13 years attempting to renegotiate the price down. Poor Potemkin could never come close to matching this gift, so his response was to give her an Angora cat. She adored the present, calling her new cat "the cat of all cats" and "he of the velvety paws."
4. ROBERT SOUTHEY
Poet Laureate Robert Southey (1774-1843) was an out and proud cat lover. His felines made frequent appearances in his correspondence, often relaying messages through Southey to his friends' cats "from the Cattery of Cat's Eden." He too enjoyed picking arcane names for his pets. In 1826, when he was away from home in Leyden, he wrote this in a letter to his 7-year-old son Cuthbert:
I hope Rumpelstiltzchen has recovered his health, and that Miss Cat is well; and I should like to know whether Miss Fitzrumpel has been given away, and if there is another kitten. The Dutch cats do not speak exactly the same language as the English ones. I will tell you how they talk when I come home.
Seven years later, Rumpelstiltzchen's health finally gave out. Southey shared the news with his old friend Grosvenor G. Bedford, a cat lover in his own right.
Alas! Grosvenor, this day poor old Rumpel was found dead, after as long and happy a life as cat could wish for, if cats form wishes on that subject. His full titles were : "The Most Noble the Archduke Rumpelstiltzchen, Marquis M'Bum, Earl Tomlemagne, Baron Raticide, Waowhler, and Skaratch." There should be a court mourning in Catland, and if the Dragon [i.e., Bedford's cat] wear a black ribbon round his neck, or a band of crape a la militaire round one of the fore paws, it will be but a becoming mark of respect.
5. ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th President of the United States, was a great cat aficionado. First Lady Mary Todd said cats were her husband's only hobby. He took in strays and had several cats in the White House, even though he had left his dog Fido behind in Springfield, Illinois. Secretary of State William Seward gave him two kittens, Tabby and Dixie, and the President doted on them shamelessly even at formal events. He once fed Tabby from the table at a state dinner. When his wife complained, Lincoln reassured her, "If the gold fork was good enough for [former President James] Buchanan, I think it is good enough for Tabby."
In the home stretch of the Civil War in March, 1865, Lincoln went to see General Ulysses Grant, then engaged in the siege of Petersburg in Virginia. While he was at Grant's headquarters in City Point, he saw three kittens in the telegraph hut. He scooped them up and cuddled them on his lap. According to Admiral David Porter, Lincoln talked to them, saying, "Kitties, thank God you are cats, and can't understand this terrible strife that is going on." Before he left, he charged a colonel with ensuring the kittens were fed and sheltered.
6. THÉOPHILE GAUTIER
French author Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) adored cats and talked about them all the time. Any collection of quotes about cats can't help but feature at least a half dozen from Gautier. He literally wrote the book, Ménagerie Intime, about his domestic life with his cats.
He started off with Childebrand, a black-and-tan tabby whose name gave Gautier a much-needed rhyme for "Rembrandt." As his pets were not neutered, there were soon more cats. The white Angora Don Pierrot de Navarre and the equally white feline enchantress Marquesa Dona Séraphita had a litter of three black kittens: Enjolras, Eponine, and Gavroche. (Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was the latest literary sensation shortly before they were born.) Eponine had at least one kitten of her own, Cléopatre, who enjoyed standing on three legs. Then there was Madame Théophile, an orange-and-white cat who enjoyed eating food from Gautier's fork, and Zizi, an accomplished musician who did her best work walking across the piano at night.
His love for cats followed him to the grave, where a carved cat peers out from the top of his headstone at the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
7. CHARLES BAUDELAIRE
The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) placed cats significantly above most people in his social hierarchy. One of the poems in his masterpiece Les Fleurs du Mal not only praises the feline, but identifies the cat's meow as the very source of his verse.
This voice, which seems to pearl and filter
Through my soul's inmost shady nook,
Fills me with poems, like a book,
And fortifies me, like a philtre.
Baudelaire couldn't resist cats, even the ones he'd never seen before. He would follow them on the street, pick them up, and pet them. When he was invited to someone's home for the first time, he would seek out the cat and then spend the rest of the visit snuggling it, completely focused on the cat to the detriment of all the humans. He would ignore his hosts and the other guests for the duration of his visit.
8. CALVIN COOLIDGE
Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), 30th President of the United States, had at least four cats in the White House—Tiger, Blackie, Timmy, and Smokey. Tiger was an orange tomcat Coolidge had moved into the White House from his farm in Vermont. He would come when the President called him by the nickname "Tige" and was often seen draped around his neck when Coolidge walked around the White House.
On the night of March 20, 1924, Tiger slipped out an open door and into the wilds of Washington, D.C. The next morning, Coolidge called for Tiger, but he didn't appear. Alarmed, the President dispatched the staff to search the executive mansion and grounds, but to no avail. Next he enlisted the city police, who were put on alert to look for the orange-and-black cat. Again, no Tiger.
Desperate, Coolidge turned to a medium with a wider reach. He sent Secret Service agent James Haley to WCAP radio where, on the night of March 24, he broadcast an appeal to listeners, asking them to call the White House phone if they had any information about the president's missing cat. Hundreds of people called the White House, either with tips or with offers to give Coolidge a whole new cat.
In the end, the radio appeal did the trick. One of the listeners was Captain Edward Bryant, who the next morning found a sleeping cat in the Navy Building just half a mile from the White House. Bryant tried the president's usual greeting, "Here, Tige!" and the cat ran over to him. A short cab ride later, Tiger was back in President Coolidge's everloving arms. To keep him that way, Coolidge got Tiger a new collar that declared, "My Name is Tiger. I live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
9. PAUL KLEE
Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) was inspired by his adored cats. Cats feature in close to 30 of his artworks, and those are just the ones where cats are the subjects. Sometimes they were his assistants and he directly enlisted their aid in his work. His cats Fritzi, Bimbo I, Bimbo II, Mys, Nuggi, and Fripouille (Skunk) were by his side when he painted and traveled. American philanthropist and collector Edward Warburg once tried to shoo away Bimbo when he walked across one of Klee's still-wet watercolors. Klee stopped him. "Many years from now," Klee said, "one of your art connoisseurs will wonder how in the world I ever got that effect."
10. MARK TWAIN
Mark Twain (1835-1910) may well out-crazy even the craziest of cat people. He had up to 19 cats at one time, all of whom he loved and respected far beyond whatever he may have felt about people. "If man could be crossed with the cat," he said, "it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat." When he was away from home, he would rent cats, paying their owners a large enough sum to see to their needs for a lifetime.
In keeping with the tradition established by Richelieu, Southey, and Gautier, Twain gave his cats most excellent names, among them Apollinaris, Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Satan, Sin, Sour Mash, Tammany, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, and Bambino. To be fair, the credit for the last of these goes to Twain's daughter Clara, who took in Bambino during a sanatorium stay. She gave the kitten to her father after one of the other patients ratted her out.
When Bambino escaped one day, Twain was frantic. He put ads in New York newspapers describing the cat as "large and intensely black" and offering a $5 reward for his return. As Calvin Coolidge would find out 20 years later, a famous person asking for aid in the return of a lost cat was subject to an enormous quantity of doppelgangers and would-be changelings from people who just wanted to make contact with the celebrity. Even after Bambino turned up on his own a few days later and Twain sent notice to all the papers, people still turned up at his Fifth Avenue home with cats for him.
This story originally ran in 2016.