Moral Low Ground


A.E. Hotchner: F.B.I. Surveillance Drove Ernest Hemingway to Suicide

When author A.E. Hotchner saw Ernest Hemingway literally going mad over what latter believed was constant government surveillance, he thought his best friend and collaborator had lost his mind.

The fall before Hemingway’s death, Hochner met him in Idaho for their annual pheasant hunt. Hemingway was a mess. He thought FBI agents were watching his every move: his phone was bugged, ditto his car, his mail was being searched. The great author saw feds everywhere, even in a bank they drove by and at the bar of the restaurant they dined at in Idaho.

“It’s the worst hell,” Hemingway told Hotchner. “The goddamnedest hell.”

Just after Thanksgiving, 1960, Hemingway checked into a psychiatric hospital in Minnesota where he was given electric shock “therapy” 11 times. But his “delusions” persisted. His room was bugged. The phone outside his room was tapped. One of his interns was an FBI agent. He tried to kill himself– twice.

Hemingway decided to check into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. On the way there, he tried to kill himself multiple times. Once there, there were more electroshock treatments. But no matter what drastic measures were taken, Hemingway couldn’t shake those blasted feds from his head.

After the greatest American novelist of the 2oth century blew his own brains out with his favorite shotgun on July 2, 1961 at the age of 61, Hotchner still thought his friend had been paranoid and delusional.

“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 FBI was after him, that his body was disintegrating, that his friends had turned on him, that living was no longer an option,” Hotchner, now 91 years old, writes in the New York Times.

Then, decades later, the FBI revealed that it had indeed stalked Hemingway. Longtime Bureau boss J. Edgar Hoover, a loathsome man, had apparently taken a keen interest in the writer because of his visits to Cuba and his attempts to form an anti-fascist spy network called the Crook Factory. Writes Hochner: “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 FBI, 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.”

The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was a frighteningly powerful institution more befitting the Soviet Union than a supposedly free society like ours. Among those who the Bureau snooped on were John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr., two true Princes of Peace in an obscenely violent time. That our government would do this belies its incessant trumpeting of freedom and democracy. That our own official institutions would drive one of the greatest novelists humanity has ever known to suicide demonstrates our nation’s contemptible disdain for the common cultural treasury of mankind.

Hemingway on his boat, Pilar, during happier times.

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  1. Constance CappelJuly 6, 2011 at 1:06 amReply

    Yes, Hotchner, who I met before Hemingway’s death at Maggie and Larry Williams house in Westport, Conn., is right about this. Mary Hemingway told me that Ernest tried to walk into an airplane propeller on the plane taking him from Kethem to the Mayo Clinic.

  2. Gerald BakerJanuary 23, 2012 at 7:01 pmReply

    I’m currently reading Professor David Lester’s book “Fixin’ To Die.”

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