Chronicling Ernest Hemingway's Relationship With The Soviets

Mar 18, 2017
Originally published on March 18, 2017 11:08 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You'd think it might be hard to find new insights into one of the most famous lives in literature, but Nicholas Reynold's new book does just that - "Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway's Secret Adventures," which reveals a secret that a writer who stripped them from the lives of others concealed in his own - that he'd offered to be a spy for Soviet intelligence and tried to spy for the U.S., too, during World War II.

Nicholas Reynolds, a former historian at the CIA Museum, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

NICHOLAS REYNOLDS: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: I'll explain in the interest of full disclosure, I'm on the Hemingway Council. Now, Hemingway is perhaps the best known American novelist. And even before he wrote "For Whom The Bell Tolls," he went off to witness the Spanish Civil War and crossed from being a journalist into a participant, didn't he?

REYNOLDS: Absolutely. So Hemingway before the Spanish Civil War was largely apolitical. And it was only in the Spanish Civil War that he starts to develop his own signature brand of politics. And if I had to characterize them in two or three words, I'd say anti-fascism is the governing idea there.

SIMON: And that wound up putting him in touch with elements of the Soviet espionage establishment?

REYNOLDS: That's exactly right. In Spain, on the anti-fascist side, the only serious support was from the Soviet Union. On the fascist side, that is, the nationalists, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were supporting Francisco Franco.

SIMON: What did the Soviets potentially see in Ernest Hemingway, do you think?

REYNOLDS: So this was a guy who was a powerful propagandist. This was a guy with entree into the halls of power. The Soviets, I don't think, knew exactly what they wanted from Ernest, but they said this is a man with good enough potential. Let's see if we can get him to agree to work with us, and then we'll find exactly what his potential is. Maybe it's continue to slant news in our favor. Maybe it's just to help out and make introductions to people who could help us further.

SIMON: They've flattered him with a code name, didn't they?

REYNOLDS: They did. They gave him Argo, and Argo was a good codename for him that - in calling forth the sailor in Greek mythology.

SIMON: But let me understand this. Did any money change hands? Did any information change hands?

REYNOLDS: No money changed hands. Soviets used the word ideological recruitment, which, in this case, it was about an agreement on parts of the political ideology of the Soviets and their program and what Hemingway was willing to do. So there was an overlap there. It's in the antifascist realm. We have a passage in the Soviet file that says, no, it has not produced any significant political information.

SIMON: The United States and the Soviet Union were on the same side during World War II, and this is where your story enters Hem's aspirations to be useful to U.S. intelligence, too. I am fascinated by Hemingway's idea to weaponize jai alai players.

REYNOLDS: (Laughter) that's - yeah, that's got to be one of a kind. I can't imagine anybody else in the history of jai alai who has come up with the idea. But...

SIMON: Yeah. The whole idea is that if they ever on his fishing boat encountered a German sub, here's what they'd do.

REYNOLDS: They would - they - so the Germans would come close. The idea that the German submarine, which, you know, by any standard outweighed, outclassed, outgunned, outmanned, the Pilar, would come close and ask for, barter or steal at gunpoint fish. And at that point, the jai alai players would lob hand grenades down the conning tower of the German submarine. At the same time, other members of Ernest's crew would fire machine guns. And then Ernest even had a satchel charge, which was kind of like a small footlocker with handles on each end. And they would lob that onto the deck of the German submarine.

SIMON: A great movie but never quite happened.

REYNOLDS: Never quite happened, which is good for us because I think it would have ended badly for Ernest.

SIMON: United States in the post-war era was in the grip of a fear that we now put the label McCarthyism on it. And there were scores of writers and directors and actors and artists who lost their livelihoods. Was Hemingway fearful that he would be exposed for having had this whatever you call it with Soviet intelligence 10 years before?

REYNOLDS: So let me be very precise here. He was concerned that he would one day be called in front of a committee and have to explain what he had done earlier. He never came out, and this is in letters that he wrote mostly to his friend Buck Lanham, a U.S. Army officer.

He never said, I'm worried that they're going to find out that I signed up with the NKVD in '40, '41. But he came pretty close to that. He said, you know, I've done odd jobs for the Soviets, any one of which could wind me up in front of a committee or worse.

SIMON: At the time, Ernest Hemingway took his life in 1961, he was - not a metaphor - he was seeing spies under his bed and in the cupboard. Is it possible that even in his textbook paranoia, Ernest Hemingway was right, and the FBI was trying to develop information against him?

REYNOLDS: I think no. And I base my argument on what's in the FBI file. And if Hemingway were under investigation, the file would reflect that word - investigation - and it would be with a view to prosecuting of something.

After his death, the last word in the file is written by J. Edgar Hoover himself. And Hoover says, I know Hemingway was not a communist. It's in his own handwriting in the file. And he says, I - he was just a rough, tough guy, and he was always for the underdog.

SIMON: Nicholas Reynolds' new book, "Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway Secret Adventures." Thanks so much for being with us.

REYNOLDS: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.