BY: MIROSLAV TOMOSKI
In the fall of 1960, Earnest Hemingway and his long-time friend A.E. Hotchner drove frantically to Ketchum, Idaho without taking the time to stop for a drink. For those familiar with the Nobel Prize winning writer’s reputation – and for his passengers that day – Hemingway’s refusal to stop at their usual dive was not only out of character; it was seriously worrying.
Hotchner later recalled the hunting trip which brought him to Idaho and a nervous conversation with his friend in an article for The New York Times:
Ernest was anxious to get on the road. I asked why the hurry.
“They tailed us all the way. Ask Duke.”
“Well … there was a car back of us out of Hailey.”
“Why are F.B.I. agents pursuing you?” I asked.
“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.”
At the time, Hem’s behavior struck his passengers as delusional, but what Hotchner didn’t know is that Hemingway was a former agent for the FBI – an organization he once called the American Gestapo.
On the eve of the Second World War, Hemingway moved to a villa just outside of Havana with his third wife and fellow writer Martha Gellhorn. It was there that he frequented a bar called the El Floridita where he built a network of trusted friends and veterans of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that inspired his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
According to the writer’s FBI file, which was released decades after his death, “Early in September 1942, EARNEST HEMINGWAY began to engage directly in intelligence activities on behalf of the American Embassy in Havana.”
The memos, letters and intelligence reports that make up the 120-page document show that Hemingway held significant sway with the American Ambassador in Cuba, Spruille Braden, and quickly began to build a network of his own personal informants.
In an early report, on September 30th 1942, Hemingway’s FBI handler R.G. Leddy noted that, “he now has four men operating on a full time basis, and 14 more whose positions are barmen, waiters, and the like.”
As an avid fisherman Hemingway was considered an asset to the Navy for his knowledge of the Cuban coast. As the US entered the Second World War, German submarines threatened the Atlantic coast and the Navy provided the writer-turned-spy with weapons as well as money to refurbish his boat, the Pilar – which he built himself when he first moved to the island.
“Special permits have been secured for him,” One report stated, “and an allotment of gasoline is now being obtained for his use. He has requested that some firearms and depth charges be furnished him, which is also being done.”
As Leddy continues to file reports, it becomes clear that Hemingway was not providing the Bureau with any actionable intelligence and federal agents routinely struggled to identify the people involved in his network of spies.
While his wife at the time — a well renowned war correspondent — had left for the European front, Hem stayed behind in Cuba. Gellhorn is said to have mocked her husband, suggesting that he used his $500 monthly stipend from the Navy to fish rather than search for German U-Boat submarines.
Though Hem claimed to have no personal motivations in offering to ‘help the American government’, The FBI soon became frustrated with how little information he was willing to give. He routinely shunned his handler and preferred to report to Ambassador Braden, a man the FBI was equally frustrated with for his obsession with corruption in Cuba.
Hem’s ties to the FBI were officially severed by April 1, 1943, but he continued to cause headaches for the Bureau when it became clear that he was considering writing a book about his intelligence operations and intended to include the names of the people involved. At a time when the US had a friendly relationship with their island neighbor, the book threatened to expose years of US interference in Cuban politics.
“Leddy stated that he has become quite concerned with respect to Hemingway’s activities and they are undoubtedly going to be very embarrassing unless something is done to put a stop to them,” one agent wrote in a memo to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The Bureau then began to keep tabs on their former agent, and suspected the writer of supporting Cuban communists. Though he was never found to be directly connected to the underground movement which would eventually take over the country, Hem seemingly made no effort to quell these rumors and even hosted a fishing tournament for Fidel Castro.
It’s unclear why the FBI ever agreed to take the writer on as an agent, since they had been suspicious of him from the start. In the years before his involvement with the Bureau, agents attempted to tie him to an attack on the FBI in Detroit, arresting 11 suspected communists who enlisted in the Spanish Civil War — soldiers who fought with Hemingway as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
These suspicions, and the Bureau’s agents, continued to follow Hemingway for the rest of his life and caused a haunting sense of paranoia to dog the writer until the day he took his own life. But as his friends and relatives later discovered, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you.