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A New Book Dives Deep into The Life of Ernest Hemingway, The Spy

newsletter March10

Nicholas Reynolds

In 2010 I was the historian for ‘The Best Museum You’ve Never Seen’, the CIA Museum, which winds through the corridors of an Eisenhower-era building secluded on a secure campus in Northern Virginia. We were getting ready to install a new exhibit on the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s first central-intelligence agency, dating to 1942. I was tasked with finding out everything I could about this experimental organization. This included researching the company roster.

Hastily pulled together to fight the Axis, OSS was an odd creature — at once a collection of men and women from the upper crust of society on America’s east coast, and a magnet for astonishingly talented and creative people from all walks of life, from Wall Street lawyers to Hollywood filmmakers to freebooters and soldiers of fortune, even the future chef Julia Child. In OSS they could almost literally design their own adventures. Few of them were attracted to the less tolerant cultures of the regular Army and Navy.

My head swimming in research, I made an offhand connection one day that would lead to uncharted waters. I remembered reading in the past that Ernest Hemingway and Colonel David K.E. Bruce of the OSS had ‘liberated’ the bar of the Ritz in Paris from the Germans in August 1944. Now I wondered if there was more to the story. Hemingway would not have been out of place in OSS. He loved secrets, and the edge they gave him. He craved action, but was not cut out for conventional soldiering. He moved easily between social and economic classes—and across borders. I thought to myself that he had a lot in common with many of the men in the spy business whom I had met or read out. So had he been an OSS spy of some sort? What was the full story about Hemingway and intelligence in World War II?

I proceeded to check every source I could find.  The only reference at CIA pointed to a declassified OSS file, now in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland outside Washington, DC. No one at the Archives could lay hands on the file, initially deepening the mystery and leading to many frustrating hours with finding aids in old-fashioned three-ring binders in a back room. There were even a few sources that were still indexed on 3 x 5 cards that no one else wanted to see. In the end, a friendly Hemingway scholar shared copy of the OSS file that he had unearthed in 1983. But I did find other tantalizing traces of once secret OSS, FBI, and State Department files.

After a few months of work, I started to see the outline of a Hemingway portrait that was different from the others I had known. The writer had—almost obsessively I thought—tried his hand at various forms of spying and fighting on two continents from 1937 on, before and during World War II. The way stations were varied, often exotic: the battlefields of Spain, the back streets of Havana, a junk on the North River in China. He seemed to gravitate to men and women who operated on their own in the shadows. At one point his third wife Martha secretly lobbied OSS to put him on the payroll. Deputy directors and branch heads considered her request, assessing his potential in frank handwritten notes on the margins of transmittal letters. And then I learned something that surprised me: he had signed on with another intelligence service, one that did not fit the conventional narrative of his life. That service turned out to be the Soviet NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the predecessor of the better-known KGB that, despite its name, operated both at home and abroad during the Cold War.

I stumbled on the NKVD connection when checking to see if I had covered all the bases in my OSS research. I looked in unusual places for any references to Hemingway and intelligence.  On a fateful day I pulled off the shelf a 2009 book co-written by an estranged former KGB officer, Alexander Vassiliev. The work featured a sub-chapter that incorporated verbatim excerpts from Ernest Hemingway’s official Soviet file that Vassiliev had smuggled out of Russia. Vassiliev’s evidence was solid. The records of Hemingway’s relationship with the NKVD showed that a Soviet operative had recruited Hemingway ‘for our work on ideological grounds’ around December 1940, at a time when Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron hand and was aligned with Hitler under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—to say nothing of the bloody purges that had started in 1934 and were continuing with no end in sight.

A lifelong Hemingway fan, I felt like I had taken an elbow deep in the gut when I read that he had signed on with the NKVD.  How could this be? He had always had many friends on the Left, but he had never subscribed to communism (or any other ideology).  The characters he created embodied so many American values we still cherish: truth, bravery, independence, grace under pressure, standing up for the underdog. His voice was uniquely American—and revolutionary.  He had changed the course of American literature in the 1920s. Weeks before he embarked on this new relationship in late 1940, he had published one of the century’s greatest political novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Why would such a man sign on with Stalin’s henchmen? And why would he do it secretly, which would mean hiding the truth from his friends, families, and readers? His greatest work, after all, came from sharing, not hiding, his life experiences.

Now I was hooked. After finishing work on the OSS exhibit, I went in search of answers to the questions that troubled me. Was there some mistake—perhaps in translation or transcription?  If not, how could this have happened?  How did the recruitment fit into the bigger picture?  And what did it mean for the Hemingway legacy?

The principals were dead—Hemingway’s Soviet recruiter died in Greenwich Village on Thanksgiving Day in 1943 (like more than one of his capitalist enemies, he had a heart attack after the big meal); Hemingway himself committed suicide in 1961. His closest confidantes were almost all gone. I realized that, for the most part, I would be relying on the printed word like the Soviet record, never officially declassified, along with private papers and letters meant for only one set of eyes. I hoped I would find enough information in archives and libraries to understand what had happened. And so I set out on a quest, day after quiet day, in reading rooms all over the country, from San Diego to Seattle, Washington to Boston. Early on I immersed myself in the Hemingway papers at the JFK Presidential Library. While I paged through his correspondence—he was almost as great a letter writer as a novel writer—I sat in a room that overlooked the cold waters of Boston harbour but was decorated like his living room in tropical Cuba, complete with animal skins and, on a table next to the sofa, what looked like a real pitcher of Daiquiris until you tried to pour it.

All my life, even before CIA, I have always wanted to uncover the backstory.  Research has always been seductive for me. It felt right for one visit to the archives to lead seamlessly to the next.  One more obscure book about the Spanish Civil War, or World War II, or the Cold War was never enough.  And so, over the next three years, I filled in the outlines of the new Hemingway portrait from my unusual sources that now included such things as the private papers of an NKVD general in the US National Archives, those of his FBI handler in another Washington archive, the records of a dispute with his lawyer that seemed at first glance to be about copyrights. A little-known cache of Hemingway letters, read under the dour gaze of John Foster Dulles at the Princeton University Library, was surprisingly revealing when put into  context.

Ultimately I concluded that Hemingway’s dalliance with the NKVD, and the political attitudes that explain it, made an important difference in his life and work, one that has been overlooked until now.  It influenced many of the decisions he made during his last fifteen years: where he lived, what he wrote, and how he acted. This chain of events even played a role in his suicide in 1961. Much of the drama played out in his mind, where he magnified it out of proportion. The chapters of the Cold War—the Red Scare, the Cuban Revolution, and, two months before his death, the Bay of Pigs fiasco—made things worse for him. He did not understand politics and intrigue as well as he thought he did, and for long stretches of time overestimated his ability to control himself and others, even to change history. In the end, he began to understand his limits, and came to the tragic conclusion that the only way to reassert control was to kill himself.

That is the story I tell in this book.

(From Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 by Nicholas Reynolds. Copyright © 2017 by Nicholas Reynolds. William Morrow Publishers. Excerpted with permission. Buy the book here:


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