Behind Hemingway's fear of the FBI

The New York TimesJuly 6, 2011 

Early one morning, 50 years ago, while his wife, Mary, slept upstairs, Ernest Hemingway went into the vestibule of his Ketchum, Idaho, house, selected his favorite shotgun from the rack, inserted shells into its chambers and ended his life.

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. 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. Ernest's zest for life was infectious

In 1959 Ernest had a contract with Life magazine to write about Spain's reigning matadors, the brothers-in-law Antonio Ordez and Luis Miguel Domingun. He cabled me, urging me to join him for the tour. It was a glorious summer, and we celebrated Ernest's 60th birthday with a party that lasted two days.

But I remember it now as the last of the good times.

In May 1960, Ernest phoned me from Cuba. He was uncharacteristically perturbed that the unfinished Life article had reached 92,453 words. The contract was for 40,000; he was having nightmares.

A month later he called again. He had cut only 530 words, he was exhausted and would it be an imposition to ask me to come to Cuba to help him?

I did, and over the next nine days I submitted list upon list of suggested cuts. Eventually he grudgingly consented to cutting 54,916 words. I got on the plane back to New York knowing my friend was "bone-tired and very beat-up," but thinking he simply needed rest and would soon be his old dominating self again.

In November I went out West for our annual pheasant shoot and realized how wrong I was. When Ernest and our friend Duke MacMullen met my train at Shoshone, Idaho, for the drive to Ketchum, we did not stop at the bar opposite the station as we usually did because Ernest was anxious to get on the road. I asked why the hurry.

"The feds."

"What?"

"They tailed us all the way. Ask Duke."

"Well ... there was a car back of us out of Hailey."

"Why are FBI 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."

We rode for miles in silence. As we turned into Ketchum, Ernest said quietly: "Duke, pull over. Cut your lights." He peered across the street at a bank. Two men were working inside. "What is it?" I asked.

"Auditors. The FBI's got them going over my account."

"But how do you know?"

"Why would two auditors be working in the middle of the night? Of course it's my account."

All his friends were worried: he had changed; he was depressed; he wouldn't hunt; he looked bad.

Ernest, Mary and I went to dinner the night before I left. Halfway through the meal Ernest said we had to leave immediately. Mary asked what was wrong.

"Those two FBI agents at the bar, that's what's wrong."

The next day Mary had a private talk with me. She was terribly distraught. Ernest spent hours every day with the manuscript of his Paris sketches - published as "A Moveable Feast" after his death - trying to write but unable to do more than turn its pages. He often spoke of destroying himself and would sometimes stand at the gun rack, holding one of the guns, staring out the window.

On Nov. 30 he was registered under an assumed name in the psychiatric section of St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minn., where, during December, he was given 11 electric shock treatments.

In January he called me from outside his room. He sounded in control, but his voice held a heartiness that didn't belong there and his delusions had not changed or diminished. His room was bugged, and the phone was tapped. He suspected that one of the interns was a fed.

During a short release he twice attempted suicide with a gun from the vestibule rack. And on a flight to the Mayo Clinic, though heavily sedated, he tried to jump from the plane. When it stopped in Casper, Wyo., for repairs, he tried to walk into the moving propeller.

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."

I told him to relax or even retire.

"Retire?" he 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?"

I told him he never cared about those dumb questions.

"What does a man care about? Staying healthy. Working good. Eating and drinking with his friends. Enjoying himself in bed. I haven't any of them. You understand, goddamn it? None of them." Then he turned on me. I was just like the others, pumping him for information and selling him out to the feds. After that day, I never saw him again.

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 FBI was after him, that his body was disintegrating, that his friends had turned on him, that living was no longer an option.

Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the FBI 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.

In the years since, I have tried to reconcile Ernest's fear of the FBI, which I regretfully misjudged, with the reality of the FBI file. I now believe he truly sensed the surveillance, and that it substantially contributed to his anguish and his suicide.

I was in Rome the day he died.

I did not go to Ketchum for the funeral. Instead I went to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, one of his favorite churches, and said goodbye to him there. I recalled a favorite dictum of his: Man can be destroyed, but not defeated.

A.E. Hotchner is the author of "Papa Hemingway" and "Hemingway and His World."

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service