Of the many and varied official files that the FBI has declassified into the public domain, certainly one of the most intriguing is the dossier on Ernest Hemingway – without doubt one of the finest novelists of the 20th century. And the author of such classics as A Farewell to Arms (1929); For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940); and The Old Man and the Sea (1951). But, it’s not Hemingway’s literary career that’s under the microscope today. That would be far too down to earth! Nope. Instead, the subject is how and why Hemingway became a secret operative of the FBI. To a degree, at least.
Under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI has declassified a 122-pages-long file on Hemingway, which makes for notable reading. Of course, condensing in excess of 100-plus-pages into an article is no easy task. However, there are some genuine nuggets of material in the file that are worth noting. The collection makes it clear that Hemingway was perceived by at least some in the FBI as a person who could offer assistance to the cause of intelligence-gathering. His time spent in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and his time living on the island of Cuba, both caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover.
On the other hand, Hoover was not at all comfortable. A 1942 document from the FBI tells us the following: “While in Spain during the Spanish Revolution, Hemingway was said to have associated with Jay Allen, of the North American Newspaper Alliance. It has been alleged by a number of sources that Allen was a Communist and he is known to have been affiliated with alleged Communist Front organizations. In the fall of 1940 Hemingway’s name was included in a group of names of individuals who were said to be engaged in Communist activities. These individuals were reported to occupy positions on the ‘intellectual front’ and were said to be engaged in Communist activities.”
None of this went down well with Hoover. However, in early October 1942 – when he was living in Cuba – Hemingway made an approach to the FBI to offer his services as, in effect, an undercover agent. The FBI noted that Hemingway had become friends with Consul Kenneth Potter and the Second Secretary of Embassy, Robert P. Joyce. In a memo to Hoover, R.G. Leddy – the FBI’s legal attache at Havana – wrote that “…at several conferences with the Ambassador and officers of the Embassy late in August 1942, the topic of using Hemingway’s services in intelligence activities was discussed.”
Hoover continued to have his doubts, but he did see the logic in bringing Hemingway on-board. Files reveal that, although Hemingway wished to get further involved with the FBI, at least a month prior to the events of October 1942, he was already spying for the American Embassy. FBI files make that very clear: “Early in September 1942, Ernest Hemingway began to engage directly in intelligence activities on behalf of the American Embassy in Havana. He is operating through Spanish Republicans whose identities have not been furnished by which we are assured are obtainable when desired.”
The document continues: “[Hemingway] advised that he now has four men operating on a full-time basis, and 14 more whose positions are barmen, waiters, and the like, operating on a part-time basis…[Hemingway]…wishes to suggest that his interest thus far has not been limited to the Spanish Falange and Spanish activities, but that he has included numerous German suspects.”
Again, matters became fraught: yes, apparently, Hemingway was in a position to do good work. Or, so it seemed. However, that shortly after his espionage work began, Hemingway introduced the aforementioned R.G. Leddy to a friend as “a member of the Gestapo” did not go down well! Hoover’s blood-pressure was ready to go through the roof. He wrote of the “complete undesirability” of having Hemingway on-board, noting that “Hemingway is the last man, in my estimation, to be used in any such capacity,” and adding that his “sobriety” was “certainly questionable.”
On top of that, as the files demonstrate, Hemingway proved to be no James Bond. FBI Assistant Director Tamm called him a “phony.” Records show that Hemingway incorrectly put Prince Camillo Ruspoli – an Italian fascist interned by the Cubans – as being present at a lunch at the Hotel Nacional in honor of the new Spanish Charges d’affaires, Pelayo Garcia Olay. Also, a “tightly wrapped box” left at the Bar Basque and acquired by one of Hemingway’s operatives was believed by Hemingway to contain “espionage information.” It did not: when it reached Robert P. Joyce, it was found to contain “only a cheap edition of the ‘Life of St. Teresa.'” No-one was impressed. Hemingway was “irritated.”
The FBI was soon done with the acclaimed writer. Back to Assistant Director Tamm: “The Bureau has by careful and impartial investigation, from time to time disproved practically all of the so-called Hemingway information.” The FBI washed its hands of him. There are, however, indications that Hemingway’s work in the field of espionage did not end there. Consider the following from 1943 FBI documents on Hemingway:
“At the present time [Hemingway] is alleged to be performing a highly secret naval operation for the Navy Department. In this connection, the Navy Department is said to be paying the expenses for the operation of Hemingway’s boat, furnishing him with arms and charting courses in the Cuban area.” On this same matter of the Navy, the FBI recorded the following on June 23, 1943: “[Hemingway] is on a special confidential assignment for the Naval Attache chasing submarines along the Cuban coast and keeping a careful observance on the movements of the Spanish steamers which occasionally come to Cuba.”
In view of these latter revelations, perhaps, one day, we’ll see even more classified files on Ernest Hemingway finally become unclassified.