Most readers have read an Ernest Hemingway book or short story sometime in their life, such as his stories of war skirmishes in “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Scholars have studied his activities on his boat Pilar, and how it inspired his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Old Man and the Sea.”
But many people may be shocked to read that Hemingway was engaged in espionage activities with Cuban and Russian intelligence officers, as Nicholas Reynolds, a retired CIA officer and former CIA Museum historian, reveals in his adroitly written and evocative new book, “Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961.”
Reynolds believes that the great hurricane of 1935 that walloped the Florida Keys was the impetus for Hemingway’s political activism. Hemingway could see, from his cabin cruiser Pilar, the storm’s aftermath: the bodies of WWI vets, whom the government had failed to protect while they were working on a New Deal construction project, floating in the water and on the beach off the Keys. From that day, “the political Hemingway was almost as active and independent as the literary Hemingway.” Rightly so, Reynolds devotes several pages to the disaster that motivated Hemingway to speak out publicly. I caught up with the author in a phone interview, and he said: “After 1935, there is a political Hemingway to be reckoned with. The earlier Hemingway was largely apolitical.”
Hemingway had a built-in audience who listened to everything he said and read every word he wrote. First, he took to the New Masses, run by communist editors, to write about the 1935 hurricane in “Who Murdered the Vets?” – a cover story that ran in September 1935. Hemingway wrote: “That wealthy fisherman like Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt knew it was not wise to frequent the keys during the summer. ... Especially around labor day. … The veterans, however, were not property … they were ‘unsuccessful human beings’ who did not have the luxury of choice.” The Daily Worker ran the New Masses piece word for word, capturing the attention of Moscow officials.
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Readers will note that, “In the winter of 1940-41, after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway agreed to work hand in hand with the NKVD in the fight against fascism, and he met secretly with Soviet spies during War War II.” Reynolds clarifies Hemingway’s involvement with the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB: “Ernest did not participate in classical espionage ... he did not pass American secrets to the Soviets. Rather the two parties agreed to fight fascism together. The U.S. was not doing a lot to fight it. Thus, in typical Hemingway fashion he did it on his own, or more pointedly he had his own foreign policy. When he signed up with the Soviets, the U.S. was neutral, not involved in WWII.”
“Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy” also chronicles Hemingway’s tenure in WWII reporting for Collier’s (and fighting with soldiers there), and his trip to China with Martha Gellhorn to meet with Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek as well as China’s communist leaders. The FBI became suspicious about his travels and his meetings with top dignitaries, so they began checking up on the great writer; and as you can imagine, he was not happy about that.
Further, while in Cuba Hemingway formed the Crook Factory, in which he recruited 25 friends to serve as informants who would help ferret out fascist spies. Reynolds provides an in-depth analysis of the Crook Factory, including a passage in which “Hemingway would use Basque jai alai players, expert at placing a fast-moving ball where it needed to go, to lob grenades down the open hatches of the (hopefully) still unsuspecting German U-boat.”
Hemingway loved Cuba — he lived in his Finca Vigia estate there for 20 years — but when Castro’s rhetoric turned dictatorial, Hemingway thought twice about staying there: “Castro’s anti-American rhetoric was now over-the-top, and he was threatening Americans and American property on the island.”
Castro and Hemingway were friends, but in July 1960, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, decided to move to Idaho because of the Cuban-American tension on the island, and by this time Hemingway was worn down, mentally and physically: “He invested heavily early on and many of his ‘notes on life’ were coming due in the late 1950s and the first two years of the new decade,” Reynolds told me. “There were many factors, I believe, that led to his breakdown, including that he was a boxer, that he was injured in Italy, that he had also suffered several accidental concussions, that he drank (and ate) too much, that he was married four times, that he traveled extensively, and there was mounting tension between Castro and the U.S. There was also his brand of political activism. It became the perfect storm for him, making it extremely hard for him to carry on.
“Perhaps the final, and cruelest blow, was that he could not write anymore. He tried to edit ‘A Moveable Feast’ but found that he just could not do it.” And if Ernest Hemingway could not write, he could not live.
Ultimately, Reynolds’ creation informs readers about a controversial, but very important, part of Hemingway’s life. Reynolds supports every assertion with detailed research, and he allows the exploration to speak for the Great American Author — 55 years after his tragic death.
Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.