Hemingway, the spy

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy
Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961
Nicholas Reynolds
384 pages; Rs 667

The dust jacket describes Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy as an “international cloak-and-dagger epic” and a “stunning untold story of a literary icon’s dangerous secret life”. Nicholas Reynolds, a former marine, CIA officer and military historian, probably did not contribute to this breathless text — his style is more prosaic. Still, the book should come with a very American statutory warning: Curb your enthusiasm. 

Writer, Sailor … cannot be called sensationally revelatory — nothing here to match, for instance, Margaret Thatcher’s dramatic unmasking in 1979 of Anthony Blunt, distant relation to the royal family and former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, as a wartime Soviet spy, part of the infamous Cambridge Five, who had been granted immunity in 1964 in return for his confession. 

This book is a by-product of research by Mr Reynolds, historian for the CIA Museum, on the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), forerunner of the CIA. It began with an “offhand connection” between an OSS operative and Ernest Hemingway, who had already established his reputation as an iconic writer of leftist sympathies, in “liberating” the Ritz bar in Paris from the Germans in August 1944. This led to a trail through declassified OSS files and KGB dossiers smuggled out by the intelligence officer Alexander Vassiliev. 

“After a few months of work, I started to see the outline of a Hemingway portrait that was very different from the others I had known,” he writes. “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 key revelation here is that Hemingway agreed to spy for Stalin’s NKVD, forerunner of the KGB, in 1940. This was, recall, in the aftermath of the Soviet dictator’s great purges — well-covered in the western press — and at the height of the collaboration with Adolf Hitler via the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and a good example of the ideological blindness that afflicted many western leftists at the time. The approach was made by the notorious Jacob Golos, head of NKVD’s New York station, and handler of the far more famous Elizabeth Bentley, who headed the spy ring that leaked details of the research on the atom bomb to the Soviets. 

In Mr Reynolds’ recreation, the meeting and the tradecraft are the stuff of authentic spy fiction. Indeed, this would have been sit-up material had Hemingway been given the opportunity to act upon it. The available evidence suggests he didn’t, though not for lack of inclination. His innate adventurism and the implacable anti-fascism that drove him to fight on the Republican side of the civil war in Spain and produced his masterpiece For Whom the Bell Tolls would have ensured that. Why the Soviets chose not to activate this star recruit will not be known until Vladimir Putin lifts the embargo on declassifying wartime KGB files. 

Had Hemingway been an active for the Soviets, he would have been a double agent, since he dabbled in amateur intelligence work for his own country. During World War II, he convinced the US embassy in Havana to allow him to run a bunch of irregulars known as the Crook Factory to spy on Germans on the island with reluctant acquiescence from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. J Edgar Hoover never did think much of him.

He also collaborated with naval intelligence, using his famous fishing boat Pilar to watch for German submarines off Cuban coast. After the Allies invaded France, Hemingway acted as an unofficial recce officer for the American troops, scouting the road ahead of the liberation of Paris. He proved unexpectedly good at this, his writerly eye and combat experience in Spain equipping him with a unique sense of observation. Later, he provided the same service for an infantry regiment as it fought its way to the German border. 

Much of this was self-indulgent adventurism, and didn't amount to much. His third wife, the journalist Martha Gellhorn, observed with more than a little truth that his Pilar expeditions were an excuse to booze with the boys. His exploits in France — where correspondents were forbidden from participating in military activities — earned him an investigation and reprimand. 

The concept of writer as spy is hardly unique, if we recall Graham Greene, W Somerset Maugham, Malcolm Muggeridge, John Le Carre or Frederick Forsyth. But the Nobel Prize winner’s past Soviet links undoubtedly contributed to the delusional paranoia that overtook him at the height of the McCarthy-era witch-hunt, though he never came under its purview, and eventually led to his suicide.  

This is an affectionate biography offering an incremental addition to the adventuresome CV of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, whose punchy, abbreviated prose launched more than a thousand imitators. It is no less readable for all that, if only because it presents for fans reminders of the fierce intelligence and untamed Rabelaisian persona — four marriages and a distinctly Trumpian approach to women, among other things — that underwrote Hemingway’s prodigious creativity. Above all, Writer, Sailor… will make you want to pull out your dog-eared copies of Hemingway classics and devour them again.

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