Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy
Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935 – 1961 Nicholas Reynolds HarperCollins, $37
Against today’s backdrop of collusion, tampered elections and cyber warfare, it may seem strange to be glorifying a Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning American for his efforts to spy for the Russians – but in many ways that’s exactly what a new book on Ernest Hemingway claims to do.
Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy draws on background material from the FBI and NKVD (Russia’s embryonic KGB around the time of World War II) to reveal Hemingway as not just the familiar gun-toting, larger-than-life author of For Whom the Bell Tolls and liberator of the Ritz bar, but also as a man whose anti-fascism and disillusionment with US politics took him towards espionage on behalf of Communist Russia.
Author Nicholas Reynolds is as thorough as he can be with his sparse sources but his former lives as an officer in the Marine Corps and CIA, as well as military historian for the CIA Museum, allow him credible conjecture in painting a slightly refreshed portrait of one of the 20th century’s most well-rounded figures.
What’s clear is that Hemingway-thespy wasn’t much called upon.
Yes, he played for both sides – so long as that side was fighting fascism; yes, during and after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War he had relationships with communist agents; yes, he had ‘‘a secret relationship with the Soviets’’ when he and his journalist wife Martha Gellhorn visited China in 1940; and, yes, the Soviets touched base with him when he returned to Cuba from Europe in 1945.
But there are no real classified, cloak-and-dagger information drops – instead, from the rise of fascist Germany in the 1930s through to the Cold War, we see Hemingway as a man more willing to play out his own ‘‘boys’ own’’ fantasies driven by machismo and liquor, than an idealist aiming to bring down an empire.
Case in point is the ‘‘sailor’’ element of the book – notably Hemingway’s much-loved 38ft fishing launch, Pilar. The burly, bearded Hemingway is shown steaming the small boat, which he called a ship, into the debris left after the hurricane that hit Key West in 1935, as well as chasing German U-boats around in the Caribbean in 1942. He even enlisted players of jai alai (a Basque version of petanque) in case there was ever any need to lob hand-grenades at enemy vessels.
Towards the end of his life, his involvement in espionage – according to Reynolds – played more on his paranoia than his bravado as the Cold War tensions led the US powers-thatbe to test the loyalty of those who had sided with communism when it had stood up against the rise of fascism.
As politicians held hearings to uncover Red spies, Hemingway was telling friends he was no traitor and showing how the changing political tide had left him vulnerable.
He agreed that for some of his deeds ‘‘you could be hanged now but in no one of which I was ever disloyal to my country’’.
Reynolds’ work is a colourful telling of the story of an already colourful character – but is also a good lesson in how history can warp and sheer political motivations.