Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Ernest Hemingway, FBI Victim, Spy Wannabe, Both or Neither?

I recently came across, via a blog comment, an old New York Times story about Hemingway. The author, A. E. Hotchner, reported that in his final years Hemingway was believed by his friends to be paranoid because he thought the FBI was spying on him—but that the FBI really had been spying on him, as revealed much later by documents turned up under the Freedom of Information Act. There was some suggestion that the FBI had driven him to his eventual suicide.

I went looking for more information and discovered an FBI file on Hemingway, released under the FOIA and webbed. It is an interesting document, but it provides very little support for Hotchner's claims.

Most of the file deals with events in Cuba during WWII. Hemingway, who was friends with people in the U.S. Embassy, had offered to use his contacts among Spanish Republican exiles to get intelligence information about activities in Cuba by the Franco government. The relevant FBI agent thought such information would be useful.

Hemingway ended up, at least by his own account (reported by the FBI agent, presumably from his contacts in the Embassy) setting up his own spy network. The FBI concluded, however, that the information being produced was worthless, "that it is completely unreliable, that the time taken to investigate it and check on it is purely wasted time and wasted effort, ... ."  

My favorite sample of Hemingway's work, from one of the FBI reports:
He enjoys the complete personal confidence of the American Ambassador and the Legal Attache has witnessed conferences where the Ambassador observed Hemingway's opinions as gospel and followed enthusiastically Hemingway's warning of the probable seizure of Cuba by a force of 30,000 Germans transported to the island in 1,000 submarines.
Hotchner writes about the FBI file that "It revealed that beginning in the 1940s J. Edgar Hoover had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba." That's an odd way of describing what is actually there.

There is very little in the file from the post WWII period. The most nearly relevant bit is a report about Hemingway as a patient at Mayo:
 “(something whited out) Mayo Clinic, advised to eliminate publicity and contacts by newsmen, the Clinic had suggested that Mr. Hemingway register under the alias GEORGE SEVIER. (something whited out) stated that Mr. HEMINGWAY is now worried about his registering under an assumed name, and is concerned about an FBI investigation. (something whited out) stated that inasmuch as this worry was interfering with the treatment of Mr. HEMINGWAY, he desired authorization to tell HEMINGWAY that the FBI was not concerned with his registering under an assumed name. (something whited out) was advised that there was no objection.”
That tells us that Hemingway thought the FBI was watching him, not that they were.

Hotchner writes:
Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones. The surveillance continued all through his confinement at St. Mary’s Hospital. It is likely that the phone outside his room was tapped after all.
Looking through the webbed file, I could find no evidence that the FBI ever tapped Hemingway's phone or that he was under surveillance at any time. The "reports on him" after the Cuban episode consist of:

Reports summarizing information about Hemingway from FBI files, sent in response to queries from elsewhere in the government.

Two pieces apparently dealing with a dispute between Hemingway and Ted Scott, a New Zealand columnist, which had led to Scott challenging Hemingway to a duel, a challenge Hemingway declined.

A description of an interview in which Hemingway, returning to Cuba from Spain in 1959, said positive things about the Castro government.

It is possible that there is some other collection of FBI files on Hemingway released under FOIA, but it does not seem likely. If the collection I found and read is Hotchner's source,  he is badly misstating what is in it. Presumably, since he was telling a story people, including his editors at the Times, wanted to believe,  they made no effort to check whether it was true.

I found, from another source, a report of Hemingway being at some point a spy for the KGB:
However, he failed to “give us any political information” and was never “verified in practical work”, so contacts with Argo [Hemingway] had ceased by the end of the decade.”
That fits the same pattern. Hemingway pretended to do important things along secret agent/spymaster lines both for the U.S. government and for the Soviets. Both found him useless.

[I have been unable to find an email address for Hotchner, so couldn't ask him where in the FBI file he found evidence of phone taps or continued surveillance. With luck someone will point him at this post, in which case he is more than welcome to defend what he wrote.]


Benjamin. said...

I watched "A Beautiful Mind" for the first time a few months ago, not knowing what it was about. I was surprised to find out he had be "hallucinating" the whole thing, (the film changing the nature of the events a certain amount.)

I wondered afterwards if he really was being used by the government agencies, and that they merely used his mental problems to make him think everything he had been through was in his mind.
He is, after all, quite intelligent, and it doesn't seem out of the question that the government might find Nash valuable.
I guess we'll never know.

raul duke said...

Well while it's possible that Hotchner and Hemingway were wrong the facts are that they were probably right for a variety of reasons. We now know that Hemingway's former brother in law (Hadley's brother) was spying on Hemingway for the British who were interested in Hemingway's support for the Spanish loyalists. Secondly we have eyewitness accounts of Hemingway running guns on behalf of Castro, and third we know that Hemingway was avoiding taxes on his own black market sales - mostly of his own manuscripts.

Lasly, it makes no sense given what we know about Hoover and the era, that Hemingway wouldn't be spied on. If the hoovers were going to go after Helman and Hammett and everyone else the idea that Hemingway would at most be an idle curiosity doesn't pass the giggle test.
To cite just one example: Hemingway and Gellhorn took a trip to Asia on behalf of FDR to collect impressions and intelligence. The idea that a man of his stature with a professional journalist as a companion could take a trip like that under the auspices of the Roosevelt administration and would not come under the eye of the spooks is silly.

Of course he was being watched.

He was a character in a Graham Greene novel without knowing it until later when he did. But then it was too late.

David Friedman said...


It's possible that Hemingway was being watched by the FBI, but Hotchner makes specific claims about what was in the FBI file and, unless there is another FBI file other than one I found, those claims are false. Once I conclude that someone has offered fictitious evidence for a conclusion, I become skeptical of both him and the conclusion.