Ex-CIA operative claims Ernest Hemingway was a spy

by Nicholas Reid / 04 May, 2017
Ernest Hemingway in Cuba with Fidel Castro. Photo/Getty Images

Ernest Hemingway in Cuba with Fidel Castro. Photo/Getty Images

But the evidence is flimsy.

The new book about Ernest Hemingway comes titled Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy. Writer? Sure. Nobody can deny that Hemingway was a writer. Sailor? Well, sort of, though most of his sailoring meant tooling around in a launch on the Caribbean, indulging the rich man’s sport of big-game fishing.

Soldier? Not really. Young Hemingway drove ambulances in World War I and was mainly an observer, journalist and propagandist in the Spanish Civil War. In neither was he truly a combatant. But you can give him points for the real service he did the US Army in France in 1944, when he linked up with the French Resistance, helped find a safe route for the Allies to Paris and even fired a few shots.

But it’s the “spy” part that creates problems. Oxford-trained historian and former CIA operative Nicholas Reynolds has found good evidence that, in 1940, Hemingway agreed to do some snooping for Joseph Stalin’s NKVD – the precursor of the KGB. Reynolds’ sources are KGB files, CIA files, numerous informants and an impressive bibliography.

There’s just one snag. Nowhere does Reynolds show that Hemingway did any spying, had access to secret information or gave such information away. What Reynolds really shows is that Hemingway was all too ready to give the benefit of the doubt to Stalin’s USSR. He was never a communist, but he put some pro-Soviet spin in propaganda articles he wrote. He was, in effect, what the old Communist Party would gracelessly dub “a useful idiot”, occasionally peddling the party line to the wider public.

Reynolds traces Hemingway’s NKVD contacts to the Spanish war, where Hemingway misread communists as the most zealous fighters against Franco. He failed to see that Stalin’s men were actually undermining and weakening what remained of the Spanish Republic by their own brutality. As a committed anti-fascist, Hemingway couldn’t break the habit of seeing Soviet Russia as a positive force, and then suffered huge depression when more realistic views of the regime appeared.

Reynolds’ account of him in the 1950s is truly pitiful. Hemingway retreated into non-controversial writing, such as his worst novel Across the River and Into the Trees and his apolitical novella The Old Man and the Sea. He drank. He suffered paranoia. He thought the Feds were out to get him. He killed himself.

I’m not offended that Hemingway was a blowhard, boozer and bullshit artist. These might even be assets for a novelist. What is sad is the man’s delusion that he knew more about the world than he really did. And his failure to see that he’d been used.

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, by Nicholas Reynolds (HarperCollins, $37)

This article was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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