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Did J. Edgar Hoover drive Ernest Hemingway to suicide?

July 4, 2011

Papa: Old and used up before his time, he's barely 60 in this photo.

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2011 12:18 pm

    I had always thought he was sick as you stated and may have even told he had lung cancer, though it was not talked about much back then. You were just sick. (same with aids back then). He was depressed and drank as his medication. Made it worse. He came off to me as a person who would of looked the FBI in the eye and said. “What the F—k do you want. He thought it time to travel.

  2. July 4, 2011 3:16 pm

    Michael Reynolds 5 volume bio of Papa is as definitive as they come and in the last book you would find, Chauncey, that Reynolds more or less agrees with you – the many blows to the head, the life-long love of liquor, the fear of never writing anything brilliant again, outliving his larger than life reputation – all contributed to the man’s suicide. One of the theories Reynolds throws out there is that if Hemingway could have kept drinking he probably would have lived longer, but without that crutch, that relief from his tormented mind and this tormenting world, the old man just couldn’t handle it. No shame in what he did. If you’re used up and done for anyway, why stick around and be a burden to others or yourself?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 4, 2011 10:57 pm

      Duff, I don’t find Hemingway an admirable character, and desire to emulate nothing about his life, but I do have to say the old SOB, messed up as he was, lived and died on his own terms. That’s something few people can truly say. In fact, he’s the only suicide I know of that I think is entirely justified. As you say, if you’re used up…

      Thanks for the report from the wilds of Reynold’s five-volume (!) bio. I am of course pleased to learn this paragon of biography agrees with me, because I tell you, I didn’t put nearly as much work into reaching that conclusion as he did. On the other hand, it seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? I’ve also read that Hemingway was manic-depressive — excuse me, bi-polar (unless they’ve already come up with a new name for it) — which I find possible, certainly, though not proven by any means.

  3. July 4, 2011 3:17 pm

    PS – forgot to say hoping y’all having a Happy Fourth!

  4. July 30, 2011 10:13 am

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  5. August 19, 2011 8:37 am

    It is my understanding that Kennedy pressured Hemingway to leave his beloved residence in Cuba just after the revolution. Kennedy felt an American icon of his stature living in Cuba (and openly praising Cuban culture) would send a wrong message to the world as the U.S. was gearing up for invasion (Operation Mongoose- Bay of Pigs), assassination of Castro, the Blockade, and in general, negative press about the early achievements of the revolution. Hemingway gave in reluctantly, and moved to Spain, I believe. But he was terribly distraught over this, having difficulty even sorting out what of his belongings to take. This was a huge upheaval for him, leaving his home. He was deeply attached to the Cuban people, and, I believe, his muses were most kind to him here. When he won the Nobel Prize, he gave it to the shrine of the Black Virgin, I believe. I had always wondered about his suicide, there seemed to be a missing piece. I agree with some of Mabe’s assessments, but I believe this is what pushed him over the edge. His downward spiral, or the last phase of it began with his departure from Cuba. In my opinion, he should have refused Kennedy’s request. In that act of personal integrity he might have found the strength to soldier through his depression a little longer, maybe even found the strength to continue to write.

    • August 19, 2011 8:40 am

      It is my understanding that Kennedy pressured Hemingway to leave his beloved residence in Cuba just after the revolution. Kennedy felt an American icon of his stature living in Cuba (and openly praising Cuban culture) would send a wrong message to the world as the U.S. was gearing up for invasion (Operation Mongoose- Bay of Pigs), assassination of Castro, the Blockade, and in general, negative press about the early achievements of the revolution. Hemingway gave in reluctantly, and moved to Spain, I believe. But he was terribly distraught over this, having difficulty even sorting out what of his belongings to take. This was a huge upheaval for him, leaving his home. He was deeply attached to the Cuban people, and, I believe, his muses were most kind to him here. When he won the Nobel Prize, he gave it to the shrine of the Black Virgin, I believe. I had always wondered about his suicide, there seemed to be a missing piece. I agree with some of Mabe’s assessments, but I believe this is what pushed him over the edge. His downward spiral, or the last phase of it began with his departure from Cuba. In my opinion, he should have refused Kennedy’s request. In that act of personal integrity he might have found the strength to soldier through his depression a little longer, maybe even found the strength to continue to write.

  6. March 3, 2012 7:56 pm

    he wasn’t imagining it. they have a 125 page file on him. http://vault.fbi.gov/ernest-miller-hemingway/ernest-miller-hemingway-part-01-of-01/view

  7. Many Cartman permalink
    January 8, 2013 5:46 am

    Wha you say to that, beatch?

  8. Themis Smith permalink
    June 2, 2013 5:23 pm

    I find it easy to admire someone so unique and talented (and rather hard to admire people who are distinguished only by their averageness). There are millions of alcoholics who don’t shoot themselves, so Occam’s razor doesn’t work here.

    As a person with 30 years experience in mental health research into the epidemiology of suicide, I’d say that one needs a better explanation than simply “underlying mental health issues.” The blog author is right to at least consider how real investigations can trigger problems in mentally unstable people – but to suggest that such things are not also proximate causes defies logic. Hemingway’s paranoia came from some underlying factors (the alcohol probably helped with those), but the final “push” came from somewhere.

    Personally, I think it had more to do with his finding out that his wife had rented an apartment in New York and was about to decamp. In real life, she had decided against leaving him after his first electroshock treatment (out of pity), and of course the ECT is another factor. Mental pain is real.

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