Did J. Edgar Hoover drive Ernest Hemingway to suicide?
After 50 years, Hemingway pal A.E. Hotchner finally thinks his friend might have been hounded to death by the FBI. Riiight. To paraphrase a popular modern saying: Just because they’re after you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.
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Since Boswell sidled up to Johnson no writer has made better use of famous friendships than Hotchner, who was also best buds (and business partners) with Paul Newman. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In an essay in Friday’s New York Times, Hotchner recalls the last months of Hemingway’s life, and regrets that he didn’t give credence to Papa’s anxieties over supposed FBI surveillance.
“In the years since, I have tried to reconcile Ernest’s fear of the F.B.I.,” writes Hotcner, “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.”
In fairness to Hotchner, his reminiscence is well-crafted and affecting, presenting a portrait of the aging literary lion descending into a premature toothless old age and finding, at age 62, nothing to live for. Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun on July 2, 1961.
When Hotchner tries to comfort his friend, Papa lashes out: “What does a man care about? Staying healthy. Working good. Eating and drinking with his friends. Enjoying himself in bed. I haven’t any of them. You understand, goddamn it? None of them.” (Apparently Hemingway talked just like he wrote.)
But Hotchner’s attempt to pin Hemingway’s suicide on the FBI is feeble and unconvincing. His account of his friend’s wild-eyed anxiety about being followed during an Idaho hunting trip, his certainty the feds were combing his bank accounts and tapping his phone, homes and cars come across as what Hotchner took them for at the time: the paranoid ravings of a mentally unstable man.
True, the release of the FBI’s Hemingway file in the 1980s did reveal that J.Edgar Hoover began keeping tabs on Papa as early as the 1940s, apparently suspicious of his “ties to Cuba,” where he had a home. Evidently, Hemingway was followed at times, his phones were tapped.
But to ascribe Hemingway’s suicide, even partially, to intrusive surveillance violates Occam’s Razor: So many simpler, more convincing explanations lie close at hand.
For example: 1) Hemingway was a very heavy drinker, possibly an alcoholic, and as we well know today, alcoholism, depression and suicide are frequent fellow travellers.
2) Hemingway suffered a number of severe blows to the head over the course of his life, from a bathroom skylight that fell on him in Paris, to his escape from a burning plane in Africa by using his head as a battering ram. As we now know from the study of retired NFL players, multiple concussions greatly increase the likelihood of dementia, depression and suicide.
3) Depression and suicide are a Hemingway family affliction. His father shot himself, likewise his brother Leicester, also a writer. His sister, Ursula, plagued by depression and cancer, used pills, as did his granddaughter Margaux — on the 35th anniversary of Hemingway’s death.
4) Finally, maybe we should just take Hemingway at his word. In his 62 years, he’d lived the adventurous and productive life he wanted, packing in more experience than most men who last until 100. Like Gus McCrae in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, he was an active man who did not care to live a diminished existence.
Seen in this light, Hemingway’s decision to kill himself becomes almost (if not quite) rational.
So with all respect to Hotchner: Thanks for the memories (and the salad dressing!), but if Papa had not been depressed, deranged, damaged, drunk and used up, no amount of FBI surveillance could have gotten to him.