Declassified documents reveal the truth about the FBI’s contribution to Ernest Hemingway’s demise
What happens when paranoia becomes reality? Hemingway’s friends and loved ones believed he was insane when he told them the FBI was following him, but the truth turned out to be far worse than anyone could’ve expected. Analysis of declassified documents tells a story about a troubling chapter in American history, and how it led to the suicide of Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway thought someone was following him
Something was wrong with Ernest Hemingway and his friends knew it. Duke McMullen was driving Hemingway to the train station in Shoshone, Idaho to pick up another friend, AE Hotchner. Hotchner would later write a biography about Hemingway titled “Papa Hemingway,” but on that day in November 1960, the trio was going pheasant hunting.
It was an annual trip and one that Hemingway looked forward to. Typically, upon picking up Hotchner, they would stop at a bar by the station for a round (or a few rounds) of drinks. But Hemingway shooed them along and said they had to hurry to get out of there. Hotchner asked, “Why the hurry?” To which Hemingway replied: “The feds.”
Hemingway was a soldier and hero
Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899 in a suburb near Chicago, Illinois, and was exposed to the arts immediately. His father was a physician, but his mother was a musician and insisted he learn to play the cello. He began writing for his high school at 17 years old, then after he graduated he got his first job as a journalist.
In 1918 Hemingway enlisted in the army and became an ambulance driver in Italy. In that same year, he was severely wounded in both legs from mortar fire. Despite his wounds, he was able to bring other men to safety, meriting a medal for bravery.
He traveled to France and wrote two classics
In 1921 Hemingway married a woman named Hadley Richardson, who would be his first of four wives. Shortly after their wedding, Hemingway was mingling with a mixed bag of ex-pats in Paris, inspiring him to write his breakout novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” which was first published in 1926.
By the time “A Farewell to Arms” was published in 1929, Hemingway had already divorced and remarried. The 1929 classic was based on his wartime experiences and was extremely well received. His minimal use of words to convey broader ideas was a one-of-a-kind style and was perfected over the years to produce some of the best literature of the 20th century.
Hemingway went to Cuba to get back to writing novels
Hemingway was restless, combining long days and nights of adventure and drinking with extremely long bouts in front of the typewriter. By the mid-1930s he and his second wife, Pauline Hemingway, had three children. When the Spanish Civil War kicked off in 1936, he went there to serve as a war correspondent.
He spent most of the next three years there, and when it was over, he sailed his boat to Cuba. Once there, he divorced his wife and married his mistress, fellow journalist Martha Gelhorn. Hemingway hadn’t produced a novel in a number of years, so he got to work on what would be another classic. But it was here that Hemingway made an unlikely acquaintance in the United States government. Many years later, this relationship would be partly responsible for his demise.
Hemingway used to work for “the feds”
Hotchner (pictured below with Hemingway’s son, John) and McMullen thought Hemingway was paranoid when they rode with him in November 1960, and they could see that he was visibly upset. “They tailed us all the way,” Hemingway said. ‘Was he making it up?’ his friends asked themselves. ‘Why would the FBI be following Ernest Hemingway?’
Hemingway had a history with the FBI, having actually worked with them during the early years of WWII. From 1941-1943, the FBI attempted to make Hemingway their man in Havana, as the writer was living in Cuba at the time. For the reason of combating sheer boredom, He was interested in the project; but Hemingway and the FBI didn’t exactly get along.
Hemingway thought the FBI was dumb
The FBI kept files on Hemingway while they worked with him. One of their reports had Hemingway mocking them when he said, “…the FBI agents were not very smart individuals, but by sheer weight of detail, they eventually buried their opposition under index cards and files so came out on top.”
Hemingway was unimpressed with the FBI, but he decided to work with them nonetheless. In 1941, when United States involvement in WWII was just beginning, securing the home-front was a top priority. The US government suspected there were Spanish spies in Cuba and hired Hemingway because of his previous ties to Spain.
Hemingway called an agent a Nazi
Hemingway served as a correspondent in Spain between 1937 to 1938 during the Spanish Civil War and made many ties with Spanish officials. The US government feared that the Fascist government that won the Spanish Civil War may try to woo Cuba into joining the Axis nations, and because Hemingway lived in Cuba, he was an obvious choice to help.
But Hemingway never pulled any punches with the FBI and was happy to ding them every chance he got. One report has an FBI agent getting angry with Hemingway because he introduced him as part of the Gestapo. The agent, like just about anyone, took exception to being called a Nazi and “did not appreciate the introduction.”
Hemingway left the FBI
Hemingway reached international renown when he completed “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which was released in 1940. The FBI approached him the next year, but by 1943 Hemingway had enough of them. He claimed they were jealous of his work and was convinced that they were undermining him in case: “[Hemingway], an untrained investigator, should uncover a case which had escaped the highly trained FBI.”
In 1943 Hemingway severed his relationship with the FBI and left for Europe to take on another role as a war correspondent. But the FBI did not severe their relationship with Hemingway, as their file on the future Nobel Prize-winning author would continue through the rest of his life. Perhaps he wasn’t paranoid after all.
“They’ve bugged everything”
In November 1960 Hemingway was driving with two of his friends on their way to Ketchum, Idaho for a hunting trip. “Why are FBI agents pursuing you?” Hotchner asked. Hemingway’s answer would haunt Hotchner for the rest of his life.
“‘It’s the worst hell,” Hemingway started. “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 and McMullen were deeply scared for their friend, but even McMullen noticed what looked like a car tailing them. But it just seemed too far fetched for them to believe, and they told Hemingway he was just paranoid.
Hemingway showed signs he was losing his mind
Hotchner was sure that Hemingway was losing his mind having already witnessed him struggle. The previous year, Hemingway took an assignment from Life magazine to follow the lives of two top matadors in Spain. It should’ve been a dream assignment for Hemingway, having been an avid fan of bullfighting since the 1920s.
The two men were having a great time in Spain with unrestricted access to matadors Luis Miguel Dominguín and Antonio Ordóñez. Hotchner saw no reason for concern, so he left Hemingway and went back to the United States. All seemed well until May 1960 when Hotchner got a call from a frantic Hemingway.
Hemingway was on good terms with Fidel Castro
Hemingway was in Cuba when he called Hotchner. A lot had happened on the island nation since Hemingway first took up residence there nearly 20 years prior. He had cozied up to the Communist party, and when they overthrew the Cuban government, Hemingway praised the action.
At the time the United States was neck-deep in the Red Scare, and communism was like atheism to the US government and the FBI. Hemingway supported the insurrection in Cuba, which was widely unpopular in the United States. But at that moment, Hemingway had bigger problems: He had written double the word count required by Life magazine, which was a very un-Hemingway thing to do.
Hotchner goes to Cuba
Hotchner decided to fly to Cuba right away to help his friend. Since he last saw him in Spain, his article had grown out of control and was approaching a full-on novel. The original piece called for 10,000 words, so Hemingway negotiated with Life Magazine to turn it into a 130,000-word manuscript.
Hotchner got him through it, despite the fact that he found Hemingway to be, “unusually hesitant, disorganized, and confused… and suffering badly from failing eyesight.” In July 1960, Hemingway and his (now fourth) wife Mary, left Cuba for the last time, after the Cuban government turned on him and threatened to seize his assets.
Hemingway moved from Cuba to Idaho
Hemingway had previously bought a house in Ketchum, Idaho, and when he left Cuba, he made it his permanent residence with his wife Mary. That’s where Hotchner caught up with Hemingway again in November 1960, as they were traveling together to his house from the train station.
The car ride from the train station to Hemingway’s house was a little over an hour, and the entire ride was spent in complete silence with few exceptions. Then, suddenly Hemingway saw two men working in a bank. “Duke,” Hemingway said. “Pull over. Cut your lights.” Hotchner asked, “What is it?” To which Hemingway replied, “Auditors. The FBI’s got them going over my account.”
Hemingway said the FBI was looking at his bank account
Was Hemingway being paranoid? It certainly sounded like he was a man who was losing his marbles, but was the FBI really keeping him under surveillance? “How do you know it’s [the FBI]?” Hotchner asked. Hemingway replied with, “Why would two auditors be working in the middle of the night? Of course, it’s my account.”
Eventually, Hotchner and McMullen convinced Hemingway to keep going, and they arrived at his home shortly after. The two friends of Hemingway were well received by Mary, and the four of them had a great weekend. In fact, Hemingway didn’t bring it up again at all until they went back to town, where he spotted a couple of agents.
Hemingway needed help
Though Hemingway hadn’t brought up the FBI when his friends arrived at his home, according to reports, he was agitated and on edge the entire time. Hotchner knew first-hand that his friend was struggling, and Mary had also witnessed a Hemingway that couldn’t bring himself to work on his writing and was prone to violent outbursts.
Just before Hotchner left, the group went to a local restaurant for dinner. Their meal was interrupted when Hemingway identified two men as FBI agents. This scared the daylight out of Hotchner and Mary. It was clear to both of them that he needed help.
Hemingway tried to commit suicide four times
Hemingway’s condition continued to deteriorate, and before the end of 1960, Hemingway was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The next few months were hell for him, as he decidedly did not enjoy his stay at the Mayo Clinic.
He continued to drone on and on about the fact that the FBI bugged his room. He complained to Hotchner often, and was released temporarily. But Hemingway was in a very dark place, as he knew that his writing days were behind him. He tried to kill himself four times before he returned to the Mayo Clinic, this time for much harsher treatment.
Hemingway received shock therapy
Hemingway’s paranoia brought him to a dark place, and over the course of early 1961, Hemingway would frequent the hospital. Hotchner visited Hemingway and tried to convince him that the government was not watching him. Eventually, Hotchner pushed too far, as his persistent efforts led Hemingway to turn on him. He now accused his friend of being an informant. This horrifying scene was depicted in the HBO movie, Hemingway and Gellhorn.
Hemingway’s treatment wasn’t getting him anywhere, so doctors decided to give him shock therapy. The terribly controversial method left the famous writer dizzy, and in the midst of his treatment, he grew more depressed and lost his lust for life.
Nobody knew why Hemingway killed himself
Hemingway was released again from the Mayo Clinic in late June 1961 and returned to his home in Ketchum with Mary. With his mental faculties diminished, his energy sapped, and a deep suspicion that he was being followed, on July 2, 1961 Ernest Hemingway used a gun to take his own life. He was 61 years old.
At the time, most people had no idea what took place, or why it happened. Speculation grew that he was in debt, or perhaps had an incurable disease. Details trickled in over time, but nobody could’ve ever guessed the truth: Hemingway may not have been ‘just paranoid’ after all. In 1983 the world learned the truth about the FBI’s relationship with America’s greatest author.
The FBI had a 125-page file on Hemingway
Nobody would know the truth for quite some time, not even Hotchner nor Hemingway’s wife. It wasn’t until 1983 when a professor at the University of Colorado named Jeffrey Myers filed a Freedom of Information request with the United States government for them to release their file on Ernest Hemingway.
The file, unsurprisingly starts in the early 1940s, when Hemingway worked for the FBI. But it goes on for over 120 pages (15 pages of which are redacted) and continues into the 1950s and 1960s. As it turns out, Hemingway was being watched by the FBI all the way up to when he was admitted into the Mayo Clinic.
The FBI was indeed following Hemingway
When the agent following Hemingway gave his report to then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, he said that Hemingway “was physically and mentally ill.” It was also revealed that Hemingway was being followed by FBI agents after he left Cuba because of his ties to officials in that country.
Hemingway was decidedly the biggest casualty of the FBI’s efforts, but Hotchner had a very difficult time accepting what he learned. In 2011 — 50 years after Hemingway died — he had this to say: “I have tried to reconcile Ernest’s fear of the FBI, which I regretfully misjudged, with the reality of the FBI file. I now believe he truly sensed the surveillance, and that it substantially contributed to his anguish and his suicide.”
Hemingway was mostly right
On November 3, 1959, Hemingway arrived in Havana to work on his Life magazine article and was greeted by a flurry of reporters. A memorandum from a confidential informant details the encounter and would spark surveillance of Hemingway up until the moment he died.
When Hemingway arrived at the airport, he said he supported the Castro-led communist uprising and was against Dictator Batista’s regime. He then did something outrageous: He kissed a Cuban flag that was closeby. The reporters urged him to do it again so they could get a photograph, but Hemingway refused. The action didn’t make the newspapers, but it did make it into his growing FBI file.
Hemingway made a powerful enemy
One of the notable concerns for the FBI was the fact that Hemingway kept using the word “our” when referring to the Cuban resistance. It made it look as though he was a part of it, and he didn’t help matters when he asked the Cuban people see him as one of them and not a Yankee.
The FBI took note of the fact that Hemingway’s comments were broadcast all over Havana and the country of Cuba. A memorandum from the ambassador’s office in Havana was sent three days after the interview to the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover, who had a habit of keeping files on anyone who could be considered a danger to the United States, started surveillance on Hemingway immediately.
At least 50 searches of Hemingway’s belongings
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had files on everyone from Martin Luther King to John F Kennedy. He had piles of dirt on everyone, ready to use in case they became an enemy of the state. After receiving the memo dated November 6, 1959, Hoover authorized surveillance, and the FBI conducted 50 searches over the course of the next 14 months.
That’s an average of about three per month, and the listings don’t indicate what the searches were. Were they bank records? Were they telephone tapping? Were they bugging his car? The truth is we don’t know. What we do know is that Hemingway wasn’t entirely crazy, and the wily, old writer was more astute than those close to him thought. It gets worse.
A most egregious letter
Hemingway was declining rapidly, and his time at the Mayo Clinic was not helping. Hotchner was on the outs with Hemingway and that left only Mary to try and keep him together. Hemingway insisted that he check in under a false name to try and hide from the FBI, but his doctor told him that it wasn’t necessary.
The matter came up in a letter from Hemingway’s doctor, whose name has been redacted, and the Director of the FBI. In it, the doctor is asking Hoover for permission to lie to Hemingway about the FBI investigation “inasmuch as this worry was interfering with the treatment of Mr. Hemingway.” In other words, the doctor-turned-informant knew the FBI’s surveillance was negatively impacting his treatment, but they continued with it anyway.
The Crook Factory
The FBI watched Hemingway right up until the point when he committed suicide, but nobody knew about it until years later. A Freedom of Information request in 1984 shocked the world when it was revealed that not only was Hemingway involved with the FBI during WWI but that he ran a group called “The Crook Factory.”
A book of the same title was published in 1999 and fictionalizes some of Hemingway’s deeds. But what the FBI file revealed, and the book talks about, is Hemingway’s efforts to keep German and Spanish spies out of Cuba during WWII. It wasn’t until Jeffrey Myers’s 1983 Freedom of Information request was filed that the truth about how the FBI turned on Hemingway came out.
Castro issues stamp with Hemingway’s face on it
In 2011, when Hotchner made the comments that he believed the FBI contributed to Hemingway’s death, people began to see the scope of what the FBI had done. But there was still one more entry into the file that is of particular concern and reveals the diabolical nature of an FBI Director fully committed to his actions.
In 1963 the Havana government, now under the complete control of Fidel Castro, issued a stamp that had Hemingway’s face on it. After Hemingway died, Mary made a deal with Castro to allow them to seize their house in Cuba (Finca Vigia) in exchange for all the writings in the vault. That was last of it…until the stamp came out, and Mary became concerned about the image of Hemingway on a communist stamp.
Mary Hemingway attempts to clear his name
On January 6, 1964, a journalist named Quentin “Quent” Reynolds wrote a letter to FBI Director Hoover on behalf of Mary Hemingway. Evidently, Mary chose the right man for the job, as Reynolds was a former war correspondent and journalist and was also on a first-name basis with the FBI Director.
In the letter, Quent describes a situation that was very troubling to Mary, as the Cuban government was looking to capitalize on the fame of Hemingway, and the relationship he had with the communist government. The FBI surely saw Hemingway as a communist sympathizer, but according to the Quent, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
When Mary allowed the Cuban government to seize Finca Vigia in Cuba, according to Mary, Castro “made some sort of shrine out of the house.” This was doubly concerning because, “That, plus this stamp, is apt to persuade people to believe that Hemingway was a big Castro man.”
Quent goes onto explain that Hemingway only met Castro for five minutes, and much was made of that encounter. He also said that Hemingway was more against Batista, a Fascist than he was pro-Castro. He wanted Hoover to know that neither Ernest, nor Mary, or any of their children, had sanctioned the stamp or the use of their home for the Castro government. Hoover’s response was sinister.
Quent was humble in his letter if not fully apologetic, in that he was sorry to trouble “Edgar… with something so trivial.” But Quent got a response three days later from the Director himself. His name is comically redacted, as only “Edgar” appears between a crossed-out initial and blackout the last name.
In the letter, Hoover explains: “I can certainly understand Mary Hemingway’s concern…” and “You may be certain this will be made a matter of official record.” But what it doesn’t say is that this was a moot point, because Hoover had already decided Hemingway was a communist sympathizer and did not take the opportunity to apologize to Mary for what he had done…nor for that which could not be undone.