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The Mysteries of Hemingway

By Leonardo Padura Fuentes, Juventud Rebelde, July 30, 2011

A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.

Ernest Hemingway

50 years after his death the mysteries surrounding the writer’s relations with the FBI and the possible connections of the federal agency with his suicide are still being unveiled.

Those who have held in their hands the famous FBI file on Ernest Hemingway affirm it contains 124 pages, 15 of which even today are still held back “in the interest of national defense”. Of the remaining pages, 40 are covered with black ink except for their greetings and signatures, and several more are practically illegible. Between the readable and those crossed out in black, it is possible to determine that the file holds information on Hemingway gathered between 1942, during the 2nd World War and 1974, almost 15 years after his death.

The existence of 15 censored and 40 carefully crossed-out pages, the permanence of others which barely repeat innocuous information about the days when Hemingway chased German submarines along Cuban coasts, and finally the fact that the writer was a subject of interest for FBI investigations even after his death, at least suggest how problematic the relationship must have been.

The legible documents imply that Hemingway, who in the years of the Spanish Civil War had harshly criticized the federal agency, decided to collaborate with what he would call “the American Gestapo” from September 1942 (while he was already residing in Cuba) with two main objectives: to inform on the activities of the members of the Spanish Falange and Nazi followers on the island, and to launch a search for German submarines to discover where and, above all, who was providing the fuel they needed to sail the Caribbean waters.

The connection is established through the US Embassy in Havana and the person who would receive the information was the “Legal Attaché” R.G. Leddy, an FBI man with little sympathy for Hemingway as reflected in the comments with which he sprinkled his reports. For example, one where he remembers the writer “was actively linked to the Republic during the Spanish Civil War” and another where he jots down the fact that in 1940 he had joined “a general campaign to slander the FBI after the arrest of certain individuals in Detroit for their alleged violations of the Neutrality Act due to their activities in the Spanish Civil War”, and he goes on to affirm that “he has been accused of sympathizing with communism.”

Under the wing of the FBI, Hemingway, with his protagonist mania, organized and directed a network of “amateur” informants, but this collaboration would last for only seven months until the 1st of April 1943 when the Ambassador cancelled it on the grounds that the information provided by the writer had been “in almost all cases worthless”. In fact, the reason for laying off Hemingway as a spy must have been the fact that his activities had become dangerous, because they included spying on General Manuel Benítez, Chief of the Cuban Policía Nacional, a man who enjoyed the complete trust of the then constitutional President Fulgencio Batista, “Cuba’s strong man”.

Hemingway had crossed the line and the Director of the Agency, Hoover himself, tried to set matters straight and wrote in 1942, “Any information you have related to lack of trust in Ernest Hemingway as an informant must be discreetly reported to the Ambassador. In this sense it must be remembered that Hemingway recently provided information related to the refueling of submarines in Caribbean waters which turned out to be unreliable.” Hoover also dropped within his comments, political judgments on the writer and others of a personal nature referring to his addiction to alcohol, in a typical operation to undermine Hemingway’s credibility.

A hypothesis that could explain these reactions of the FBI would be that the hunting operation for German submarines would have placed Hemingway on the road to a dangerous revelation. Although there are still no documents as evidence, the suspicion that General Manuel Benítez, from his position of Chief of Police, could have been in charge of selling fuel to the Germans is quite feasible. It is a fact that the Nazis were refueling their submarines in several Cuban ports and there is no doubt that an operation of such magnitude could not have been carried out without the acquiescence of the army (Batista) and the police (Benítez)…

On May 30, 1960, Hemingway was admitted to the Mayo Brothers Clinic, as recommended by a New York psychiatrist. Hemingway had been compelled by his friends to see the psychiatrist, mainly because he had complained that the “Feds” were following him. Seemingly this “persecution mania” had reached its peak during his visit to Spain in 1959, but then when he reached New York, he again started feeling that the eyes of the Feds were on him. His wife Mary Welsh and some friends believed such feelings were a symptom of the writer’s paranoia.

The treatment prescribed at the famous clinic was to subject him to a series of between 15 and 20 electroshocks which wiped out his capacity to write. This procedure known as electro-convulsive therapy was reserved for hopeless patients. A few days after being discharged, in a deep depression, he committed suicide on July 2, 1961 in his Idaho cottage. He was 62, but was so devastated he looked like a very old man… The fact that his widow, the only person with him in his Idaho house when he died, has for years denied the fact that her husband committed suicide is at least unsettling.

Documents released in 1984, revealed that in fact the writer was being followed and watched by agents acting on orders of Hoover who a few years before had considered Hemingway as “Public Enemy #1”. What was the reason for the preeminence granted to the writer by the FBI?

In the 50’s the FBI learned that Hemingway was planning to write a book about the agency. Documents of the Bureau reveal the fear, particularly Hoover’s, that the book could have damaged the image of his agency, and most of all expressed judgments about his person. The existing animosity against Hemingway was then increased and the Director of the FBI spread the image of a drunk and pathetic Hemingway, with communist-leaning ideas. Perhaps we’ll never know if Hemingway actually began that book. What is certain is that as he made Finca Vigía his residence for 20 years, the house was full of papers belonging to the writer. A few months after the suicide, his widow travelled to Havana and took away the most valuable paintings and the documents she considered important. During her stay she made a bonfire with a huge amount of papers. What did Mary Welsh burn? Only she herself knew. Maybe some of the clues to the persistent FBI surveillance of Hemingway went up in smoke among the trees of Finca Vigía.

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