So, The New York Times is good for something after all.
This morning I read an op-ed piece by A.E. Hotchner called “Hemingway, Hounded by the Feds.” Hotchner was Hemingway’s friend for more than a decade. He adapted many of Hemingway’s stories and novels for television and film, and they traveled all over the world together. He’s written several books about Hemingway.
The piece begins,
“Early one morning, 50 years ago today, 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.”
Hotchner writes about the last year of Hemingway’s life, when he fell into depression and paranoia. He describes a particular trip to see Hemingway in Idaho. Hemingway had been through a difficult time, particularly editing an article on bullfighting for Life Magazine. Hotchner had helped him with it, assuming he was only tired and would be his old self again soon.
“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.
‘They tailed us all the way. Ask Duke.’
‘Well . . . there was a car back of us out of Hailey.’
‘Why are F.B.I. 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.'”
Sounds like mental illness, doesn’t it? That’s certainly what everyone assumed. Hemingway may have assumed it himself. He was eventually admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
“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.”
Hemingway repeatedly tried to commit suicide. Eventually, he succeeded. Hotchner mourns what happened to his friend.
“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 F.B.I. was after him, that his body was disintegrating, that his friends had turned on him, that living was no longer an option.”
It’s a terrible story, a terribly sad story. But you have to get to the end of the article. It goes like this.
“Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the F.B.I. 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 F.B.I., which I regretfully misjudged, with the reality of the F.B.I. file. I now believe he truly sensed the surveillance, and that it substantially contributed to his anguish and his suicide.”
You see, it’s not a sad story anymore. It’s a story about a man who saw the reality of his life and the world around him more clearly than anyone else. A man who knew. It’s a story that makes me angry.
And it makes me think the following. If you’re a writer and you think what you’re doing is not that important, remember that all totalitarian societies attempt to control their writers. I know this first-hand, remember. I was born in a society were books were censored, where letters were intercepted and read, where the government listened to telephone calls. Where citizens were under constant surveillance. I understand why, living in this society, you might think writing is not that important. Why it doesn’t much matter what you do. But writing is not a game, not a hobby, not a job, not even a career. It’s a calling. Next time you’re absorbed in whether or not writers should self-publish, or the future of the publishing industry, or any of the questions that seem to get so much attention, think about what it is we’re doing, as writers. Telling the truth, as we see it. Telling the world what it is, what it could become, what it should be. That’s what we are called to do.
And J. Edgar Hoover, I wish I believed in Hell so I could tell you to rot in it.
Requiescat in pace, Ernest.