Ernest Hemingway and the Feds

Today is the fiftieth anniversary since Ernest Hemingway’s death. Hemingway is one of my favourite authors, having read The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms, and A Moveable Feast.

There is a really great op-ed piece in The New York Times, written by A.E. Hotchner, Ernest Hemingway’s friend for many years. In the piece, he recounts the last years of Hemingway’s life, during which he suffered from depression and paranoia. It is a quite sad read, but a necessary one.

What was the cause of Ernest Hemingway’s death (suicide)?

There were many differing explanations at the time: that he had terminal cancer or money problems, that it was an accident, that he’d quarreled with Mary. None were true. As his friends knew, he’d been suffering from depression and paranoia for the last year of his life.

A.E. Hotchman, the author of the op-ed, reveals his relationship with Hemingway:

Ernest and I were friends for 14 years. I dramatized many of his stories and novels for television specials and film, and we shared adventures in France, Italy, Cuba and Spain, where, as a pretend matador with Ernest as my manager, I participated in a Ciudad Real bullfight. Ernest’s zest for life was infectious.

After their annual pheasant shoot, Ernest Hemingway did not stop at a bar opposite the station, as he usually did. The exchange follows, revealing his paranoia:

Ernest was anxious to get on the road. I asked why the hurry.

“The feds.”


“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.”

This was a disturbing revelation, given by Hemingway’s wife Mary to the author of the op-ed:

He often spoke of destroying himself and would sometimes stand at the gun rack, holding one of the guns, staring out the window.

The following exchange is revealing:

I visited him in June. He had been given a new series of shock treatments, but it was as before: the car bugged, his room bugged. I said it very gently: “Papa, why do you want to kill yourself?”

“What do you think happens to a man going on 62 when he realizes that he can never write the books and stories he promised himself? Or do any of the other things he promised himself in the good days?”

“But how can you say that? You have written a beautiful book about Paris, as beautiful as anyone can hope to write.”

“The best of that I wrote before. And now I can’t finish it.”

But the best paragraph from the op-ed is this response from Ernest Hemingway, after A.E. Hotchner suggested Ernest Hemingway retire:

“Retire?” he [Hemingway] said. “Unlike your baseball player and your prizefighter and your matador, how does a writer retire? No one accepts that his legs are shot or the whiplash gone from his reflexes. Everywhere he goes, he hears the same damn question: what are you working on?”

A conclusive stance by the author:

This man, who had stood his ground against charging water buffaloes, who had flown missions over Germany, who had refused to accept the prevailing style of writing but, enduring rejection and poverty, had insisted on writing in his own unique way, this man, my deepest friend, was afraid — afraid that the F.B.I. was after him, that his body was disintegrating, that his friends had turned on him, that living was no longer an option.

But as it turns out, Ernest Hemingway’s fears weren’t for naught. His suspicions were spot-on. It is regrettable that he chose to end his life the way he did.

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.

If you’re a fan of Hemingway and his writing, this piece is a must-read.

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