Crazy Cat Ladies
“I love…cats. I want to hug all of them,” sobs a woman calling herself Debbie in a YouTube video that now has more than 22 million views. “Debbie” is actually 23-year-old actor Cara Hartmann delivering the performance of a lifetime. The character she plays is eerily familiar, but is it possible for a woman to be that crazy about cats? This map explores the origins of crazy cat ladies and even some crazy cats.
It’s hard to determine the exact number of cats roaming the ramshackle East Hampton estate Grey Gardens during their 1924–1979 residence, but “Big” and “Little” Edith Beale would likely have bristled at being called animal hoarders. Despite the squalor and “knee-buckling smell” furnished by the cats (with help from a few raccoons), the Beales had downsized. “We’ve had 300 cats altogether,” Little Edie tallied during a 1972 encounter with a neighbor, journalist Gail Sheehy. “Now we have 12, but they’re not wild. They’re fur people.” These “fur people” were allowed free rein of the house in every sense (“Mother doesn’t believe in kitty litter,” Little Edie explained). Prominent members of the pack included Tedsy Kennedy, Hipperino, Little Jimmy and Champion.
Little Edie sold Grey Gardens to journalists Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn in 1979. When they discovered mountains of excrement, the horrified couple pegged the number of cats living there at anywhere from 30 to 52. They overhauled the manse and reside there to this day, but even though the cats have long been evicted, their presence lingers unsavorily: Quinn recently claimed that when it rains they can “still smell the cat pee.”
Dubbed “the Witch House” by journalist Gail Sheehy’s daughter, the unkempt Long Island mansion Grey Gardens certainly looked the part, and its inhabitants—both furry and human—complemented the spooky atmosphere. Sheehy described the cats as “devil-eyed…mean and stricken,” and although she decided resident Little Edie Beale was too friendly to be a “proper witch,” the bizarre woman’s affinity for animals and her self-proclaimed ability to “tell what’s inside a person” only enhanced her mystical air.
Women and cats have been linked for millennia, for better or worse. Revered in ancient Egypt thanks to feline goddess Bastet, they were considered protectors, fertility charms and tomb companions. But their reputation took a nosedive in the Middle Ages and colonial America, when the rejection of a matriarchal society in favor of Christianity turned them into symbols of paganism and witchcraft. If the cats weren’t shape-shifting witches, then they were familiars—devoted spiritual companions primed for mischief. Owning a black cat could get a woman tried, tortured and killed. The cats fared no better, but getting executed en masse at least won them some purr-etic justice in the mid-14th century, when an exploding rat population ushered in the bubonic plague.
“I think I’ll be an old maid until I die,” Little Edie Beale predicted later in life. She never married, but this wasn’t always a foregone conclusion for the woman once nicknamed Body Beautiful Beale. A model for Macy’s and a dancer, Little Edie spent her youth running away from home to perform, trying to get cast in movies and, she claimed, catching the eyes of a distinguished cadre of suitors that included J. Paul Getty and John F. Kennedy’s oldest brother, Joe Jr., who was being groomed for an eventual presidential bid. Joe’s death in World War II prevented all of that, and Little Edie blamed this twist of fate for whisking her younger cousin Jacqueline Bouvier to the White House on a magic carpet that should have been hers.
After spending a few years at New York’s Barbizon Hotel for Women, Little Edie rejoined her divorced, financially vulnerable mother at Big Edie’s pleading. Despite her resentment about returning to Grey Gardens, Little Edie’s resignation was too steep or her psyche too fragile for her to leave until after Big Edie’s death. “Shall I tell you what I’ve done for 20 years?” Little Edie asked Gail Sheehy. “Fed Cats.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines spinster as “an unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage.” In medieval times the word’s Scottish origin was literal, as spinning wool was one of the few ways an unmarried woman could earn a living. The label shed its utilitarian connotation in the 19th century, when a spinster might have been a romantic idealist who refused to settle for any old schlub, and, later, a pawn of fate in the aftermath of World War I, who could hardly be blamed for her diminished marriage prospects.
Despite being embraced by some feminists, the term is still largely viewed as a slur, and a number of recent media portrayals have equated spinsterhood with cat ownership. Cat Ladies, a 2009 documentary, follows four women who have devoted themselves entirely to their cats. On TV’s 30 Rock, perpetually unlucky-in-love Liz Lemon completes her “graceful transition into spinsterhood” in one episode by adopting a cat and naming her Emily Dickinson. And tabloids had a field day when Susan Boyle, the matronly, golden-piped contestant on Britain’s Got Talent, was dropped from a concert lineup after “launching into a bizarre rant over her beloved cat, Pebbles.”
Unsurprisingly, animal hoarding creates a litany of dangerous health risks, but toxoplasmosis, a disease transmitted through cat feces, can make unchecked cat stockpiling especially harmful. Doctors have long warned pregnant women to stay away from litter boxes because transmission of the disease can cause brain damage and even death in fetuses. But Czech scientist Jaroslav Flegr has discovered that the single-celled parasite that causes it, Toxoplasma gondii, is also the culprit behind all sorts of behaviors displayed by the infected—including the desire to be around cats. After discovering in the 1990s that he had contracted T. gondii, Flegr began to question whether the parasite was responsible for some of his reckless behavior, such as outspokenness, walking into oncoming traffic and delayed reactions while driving. Similar brash behavior displayed by infected rats—rendering them easy targets for cats—supported his theory that the displaced T. gondii parasites will go to any length to get back inside a cat to reproduce. Infected women, he found, exhibited warm, outgoing behavior, an inviting appearance that would help them attract others and a propensity to “tend and befriend”—all nurturing characteristics that make for perfect cat owners.
When Sex and the City character Miranda Hobbes purchases a Manhattan apartment for herself and her cat, Fatty, she is unsettled to hear from a neighbor that the previous tenant—an unmarried woman named Ruthie—met a macabre fate: “She died in there, you know. It was a week before anyone realized she passed. Rumor has it, the cat ate half her face.”
A few days later Miranda has a choking fit while eating alone in her new kitchen. “Take a good look at my face,” she shrieks to her friend Carrie, “because at my funeral, there’ll only be half of it!”
The urban legend of a famished house cat forced to feed on the corpse of its friendless owner is popular fodder for chain emails and web forums, but so far it remains rooted in campfire lore. While commentators on the myth-busting website Snopes.com agree that it’s not impossible for a cat to gobble someone’s face, they also can’t authenticate any such instances from news sources. The site, however, has thoroughly debunked the old chestnut about cats sucking the breath from babies as they sleep.
By far the most insane depiction of a cat lady is a character on The Simpsons simply referred to as the Crazy Cat Lady, a mentally unhinged spinster and animal hoarder who wanders around Springfield shouting gibberish and hurling cats at people. Her character is further developed in later seasons, when her name is revealed to be Eleanor Abernathy. Eleanor started life as an ambitious girl who went on to earn an MD from Harvard Medical School and a JD from Yale Law School. By age 32, however, she suffered from burnout, turned to alcohol and became obsessed with her pet cat. By 40 she was a raving maniac who had to rely on psychoactive medication for “brief moments of lucidity” (though the “medicine” turns out to be Reese’s Pieces).
Could a real-life Crazy Cat Lady exist? According to Toxoplasma gondii studies, maybe. About a third of the world’s population is infected by the parasite. Though generally benign, T. gondii in humans has been correlated with schizophrenia and changes in behavior. Startlingly, scientists also claim infected women are at an increased risk of suicide.
It’s a good thing no 17th-century clergymen got their hands on Oscar. Had the seven-year-old cat from Providence, Rhode Island, been born a few centuries earlier, he would likely have been accused of witchcraft.
Oscar is a resident of the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center’s third floor, which caters to people suffering from severe dementia, and he possesses a spooky gift: He can predict when patients are about to die by curling up with them in their final hours. The furry harbinger has so far correctly predicted about 50 deaths. Dr. David Dosa, the center’s resident geriatrician and author of Making Rounds With Oscar, says that when the normally aloof Oscar jumps up on a patient’s bed or scratches to get into the room, his staff alerts the patient’s family.
Dosa has no concrete explanation for Oscar’s behavior but suggests the cat may be able to detect chemicals, called ketones, emanating from a patient’s dying cells. He says the cat’s tireless vigils are mostly perceived as comforting, and Oscar has been awarded a plaque praising him for his “compassionate hospice care.”