The 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death has prompted a variety of articles, including an op-ed piece in the New York Times by A.E. Hotchner, who portrays the famous novelist as being obsessed about FBI surveillance.
He told Hotchner: “It’s the worst hell. The goddamnedest hell. They’ve bugged everything. That’s why we’re using Duke’s car. Mine’s bugged. Everything’s bugged. Can’t use the phone. Mail intercepted.”
Hotchner describes getting Hemingway’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act:
“Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the F.B.I. released its Hemingway file. 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. 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.
“In the years since, I have tried to reconcile Ernest’s fear of the F.B.I., which I regretfully misjudged, with the reality of the F.B.I. file. I now believe he truly sensed the surveillance, and that it substantially contributed to his anguish and his suicide.”
In fact, Hemingway’s 125-page FBI file is online. Let’s check it out and see if Hotchner’s account is correct. [Warning: FBI files are incredibly repetitious. A page count is not necessarily a good indication of content].
Here’s the breakdown: Pages 1-91 date from the 1940s; Pages 92-109 are from the 1950s and include a rehash of such subjects as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade [remember, FBI files are repetitious]. And exactly one page (110) is from the 1960s prior to Hemingway’s death.
Let’s take a closer look:
Yes, Hemingway ran a spy ring of 18 bartenders, waiters, etc.
In fact, Hemingway supposedly considered this work so important that he turned down a writing job that would have paid $150,000 [$1,870,010.42 USD 2010].
Of course, there were some rough patches to his spycraft, like introducing an American envoy as “a member of the Gestapo.”
Oh dear. Hemingway’s amateur spy ring is nearly worthless!
Hm. Someone in the buro compiled a biography (Pages 19-33).
There’s quite a lot about Hemingway being superficially friendly with agents, but having a hostility toward the buro. In fact, Hemingway’s views of the FBI figure prominently in his file. This is rather typical, as analysts often characterized subjects as “friendly” or “unfriendly” to the agency.
And he hates what Hollywood did with “For Whom the Bell Tolls!”
Because Sam Wood disliked the book and Gary Cooper was too old for the part!
Of course, the file is a bit censored….
OK, it’s heavily censored.
In 1961, the buro finds out that Hemingway checked into the Mayo Clinic under an assumed name (George Sevier).
Oh, the FBI doesn’t care whether he registered under a fake name.
Gosh the now-forgotten columnist Westbrook Pegler never liked Hemingway.
There’s more, but those are the highlights.
In other words, the majority of Hemingway’s FBI file consists of a rehash about his amateur spy ring during World War II, a biography of him and background on some associates, notably Gustavo Duran. My hunch is that as a former reporter, Hemingway probably developed pretty good material but that out of professional arrogance, the buro dismissed him as a bungling meddler. Without seeing Hemingway’s reports, of course, it’s impossible to say.
And yes, the FBI compiled information about him and the Spanish Civil War and collected stories about him from communist papers. There are a few items from the 1950s and some other miscellaneous material. But I don’t see anything beyond what the buro kept on all prominent individuals, like Louis Armstrong. Compare it to the FBI’s monumental files on Bugsy Siegel, who actually was under heavy surveillance.
Note: The FBI has removed the file on Louis Armstrong from its website. But you can find it here.