Among the great American authors of the 20th century, if not the greatest, Ernest Hemingway was not only known for his terse, minimal style but also his adventurous, larger-than-life persona. Yet in his last decade, he only wrote two works while his robust health declined to the point that he chose to end his life. Why did he enter this twilight zone?
It was the pressure of his actions as a "premature anti-fascist" at the beginning of World War II that weighed on him in the hysteric atmosphere of "the Red Scare" in the US as the Cold War flared up, contends Nicholas Reynolds in this riveting, hitherto unknown account of the literary icon's latter life.
Stressing the author's "involvement with mid-twentieth-century spycraft was far more complex, sustained, and fraught with risks than has been previously understood", he reveals before a "complex set of secret relationships" with various American agencies, Hemingway had even agreed to cooperate with the Soviet NKVD.
And how, to what extent and what its consequences were is the story that Reynolds unveils here with verve — and balance — for he is no sensationalist. Having substantial proof as well as credentials for his claim, he shows the truth is more nuanced than the bare revelation would have us believe (Hemingway fans especially have no reason to fear).
A historian turned Marine turned CIA operative who ended up as the historian of the CIA Museum, he tells us that this book originated when he, researching for an exhibit on CIA's World War II-forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), "made an off-hand connection one day that would lead to deep waters".
Remembering reading earlier that Hemingway and an OSS colonel had "liberated" the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris from the Germans in August 1944, he wondered if there was more to the story.
Reynolds started digging among every source he could find and after a few months found the outline of a very different portrait of Hemingway, noting that the "writer had — almost obsessively I thought — tried his hand at various forms of fighting and spying" from 1937 as well as during World War II. The settings were "varied, often exotic: the battlefields of Spain, the backstreets of Havana, a junk on the North River in China".
And it was then he came across the surprising fact that Hemingway "had signed on with another intelligence service, one that did not fit the conventional narrative of his life" — the predecessor of the KGB.
And while it was like an "elbow deep in the gut" for the lifelong Hemingway admirer, Reynolds persevered till he found as much of the story as possible, as well how this influenced Hemingway art and even life — and death.
It begins with Hemingway setting out in September 1935 on his new cabin cruiser to Florida's upper Keys to help survivors of the one most powerful hurricanes to hit America, and how this influenced his political outlook. Taking an extensive look at his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, which would be reflected in some of his best work, before coming to his "recruitment" by the Soviets (he was codenamed "Argo"), it then takes a detour into some unexpected territory.
We follow Hemingway visiting China in 1941, where he met Chiang Kai-shek but also Chou En-lai, his espionage and combat contributions in the Cuba and the Caribbean, and then, as war correspondent in France following D-Day. However, the story picks the high gear subsequently when the House Un-American American Activities began probing communist sympathisers in 1947.
This, as Reynolds shows, along with later Cold War episodes like the US-Cuba acrimony soon after Fidel Castro came to power on the island, made Hemingway despairing and paranoid, and started his decline till the time he picked up that shotgun that July morning in 1961.
But more than the view of the writer's secret life, the book's significance lies in showing how fanatical patriotism, demonising an opponent and anyone who may even have had the slightest contact with him and constant calls to demonstrate loyalty can even wreak havoc on the strongest. Are these worth it?
Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway's Secret Adventures, 1935-1961; Author: Nicholas Reynolds