July 5, 2011

Did the FBI hound Hemingway to death?


A.E Hochner, left, duck-hunting with Ernest Hemingway in idaho in 1958

July 1st was the 50th anniversary of the day Ernest Hemingway ended his life, and in a New York Times op-ed column to mark the day, Hemingway’s long-time friend and biographer A.E. Hochner offers a new theory as to why the author killed himself: he was driven nuts by the FBI.

As Hochner notes,

There were many differing explanations at the time: that he had terminal cancer or money problems, that it was an accident, that he’d quarreled with Mary. None were true. As his friends knew, he’d been suffering from depression and paranoia for the last year of his life.

But the situations was increasingly exacerbated by Hemingway’s belief — and the disbelief of his friends, including Hochner — that he was under constant FBI surveillance and that bureau head J. Edgar Hoover was out to get him.

Hochner says Hemingway first told him of his suspicions when he went to visit Hemingway at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, and Hemingway picked him up at the train station in someone else’s car:

“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.”

We rode for miles in silence. As we turned into Ketchum, Ernest said quietly: “Duke, pull over. Cut your lights.” He peered across the street at a bank. Two men were working inside. “What is it?” I asked.

“Auditors. The F.B.I.’s got them going over my account.”

“But how do you know?”

“Why would two auditors be working in the middle of the night? Of course it’s my account.”

On another occasion, writes Hochner, Hemingway phoned him from a mental institution, where he was undergoing electro-shock therapy for his depression, to say that he thought the phone at the hospital had been bugged.

And on the last day he ever saw Hemingway, Hochner writes, “he turned on me. I was just like the others, pumping him for information and selling him out to the feds. After that day, I never saw him again.”

But long after Hemingway’s death, Hochner came across some startling information:

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,” Hochner concludes, “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.”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.