If you enjoy the supreme comedy of literary affairs, it makes perfect sense that the Paris Review was once a blunt instrument of the CIA. Arguably, there’s only so much damage one can do with a Robert Frost interview, but that didn’t stop the late Peter Matthiessen, one of the founding editors, from now and then leaving the office, or the Himalayas, to spy on supposed enemies of the United States. Matthiessen later said he had used the magazine as cover for some high-level snitching, but in the annals of writerly spies – and who isn’t a spy who frisks people for a living? – the white-shoe boys at the Paris Review appear to have been better at mixing martinis than naming names.
Graham Greene, you could say, had a spy’s soul, and the manners of a spy quite became him. In the autumn of 1953, when the Paris Review called at his flat in St James’s to interview him – for only the third in their ‘Writers at Work’ series – he behaved like a man being shaken down and fitted up. (The task in Greeneland is to hold onto yourself while everybody else is falling apart.) The novelist answers the phone, swerves questions, bamboozles all attempts to enter his enclosure, and slides around in his own darkness. Exactly 146 interviews later, John le Carré, our premier narrative spook-meister, exhibits, by his own admission, that knack whereby the memory fails and the lie takes over. There is something in his tone that advises us not to believe him too much. The interview took place in 1997, more than thirty years after he left MI6, but he admits to ‘a residual sense of loyalty’ and goes on to speak in that English way that can seem both an opening up and a closing down. ‘One of my jobs,’ he said, ‘was trolling through the displaced persons camps, looking for people who were fake refugees, or for people whose circumstances were so attractive to us from an intelligence point of view that we might consider returning them, with their consent, to the countries they came from.’
Very nice: ‘with their consent’. And so to Ernest Hemingway, whose adventures recorded by the military historian Nicholas Reynolds may not admit such subtlety. Reynolds is a former curator of the CIA Museum in Washington. Reasonably, the museum is a bit cagey and I am not very familiar with it but, one way and another, the collection has received quite a boost of late. In Hemingway’s day, and until fairly recently, the CIA officer’s job was to collect data and blank it all out. Nowadays, it comes pre-blanked, making things that much more difficult for the poor agent. Reynolds is almost nostalgic for a time of handlers, drops, and three-ring binders – the physical appurtenances of espionage.
Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy, his forthcoming book about Hemingway’s ‘secret adventures’, unearths a wealth of amiable nonsense about Hemingway’s life as a double agent, and the only surprise may be that Papa stopped at doubles when quadruples were on the horizon.[*] Indeed, previous research on the topic revealed that, in company with Colonel David K.E. Bruce of the Office of Strategic Services, he was responsible in 1944 for ‘liberating’ the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Master spies come in many guises, and the role of Dubonnet and gin in disabling the chief ideologies of the 20th century shouldn’t be underestimated, but Reynolds looks among the shadows and finds a Hemingway not seen before, a man out of control and out of focus, a man in bits.
He wasn’t natively political, but 1936 brought him out with his fists raised and his conscience alarmed. At the disbanding of the International Brigades, he was heartbroken, and Martha Gellhorn recalled him breaking down in Valencia. One can picture (as he might say) his pity (as he might call it) for brave men (as only he could conceive of them) loyal to the Spanish earth (as only he could eulogise it) sent home wounded, penniless and without papers. But the question is: did it make him kinky for Uncle Joe? Certainly, the Civil War had given Hemingway a soft spot for communist saboteurs – Edmund Wilson had swatted him as ‘the Hotel Florida Stalinist’ – but it also reconciled him to a few anti-fascist power brokers at home, such as the treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr, for whom Hemingway agreed to ‘look into’ the Chinese during a trip to China with Gellhorn, who was writing a piece for Collier’s in 1941. ‘Hemingway was flattered to be asked,’ Reynolds writes: ‘This was the kind of recognition he craved. In his mind he was more than just a novelist or a journalist: he was a sophisticate who understood how the world worked, and could use his understanding to shape events.’
Hemingway’s capacity for blunder was probably no greater than that of the averagely promiscuous novelist, but it’s singular, isn’t it, that he should have offered his services to Roosevelt’s men at the same time as he allowed himself to be recruited by Jacob Golos, an old Bolshevik pimping for the NKVD? And yet, in a world of spies, being two-minded may be more of an asset than being ideologically secure. Golos, it has been alleged, admired the even-handedness demonstrated by Hemingway in the writing of For Whom the Bell Tolls, which shows the human shortcomings on both sides. There’s a fair amount of ‘may have’, most likely’, ‘probably’ and ‘we must rely on conjecture’ in Reynolds’s account, but it seems, from fragmentary records in Moscow, that Hemingway was given the codename ‘Argo’ and that a copy of his latest novel was sent by diplomatic bag to the Lubianka.
Still, what is Hemingway alleged to have done as a spy? We know that, in 1937, at another hotel in Madrid, he had a drink – vodka and Spanish brandy – with that ‘representative of the diabolical Russia’, the NKVD chief Alexander Orlov. (Politics didn’t come up but they talked about their shared interest in guns.) Other evidence? That during the Second World War he set up a counterintelligence bureau in Havana. The American diplomat Robert Joyce told Hemingway’s biographer Carlos Baker that Hemingway was willing to pay for it himself. It is further alleged that he set up the Crook Factory, to keep an eye on enemy aliens in Cuba, and put his beloved, 38-foot fishing vessel Pilar out to sea as a scout for German U-boats. In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Hemingway wrote that he aimed to be ‘a secret agent of my government’ but when it comes to the Soviets, there’s a lot of ‘reaching out’ and alleged meetings, but facts about him actually engaging in operations are thin on the ground. He disliked the Truman Doctrine. He thought Joseph McCarthy was a shit. But he was nothing to the Rosenbergs, nothing to Whittaker Chambers, and among his many awards in those years he was never handed a subpoena. As for Castro: the great novelist and he met only once, when Hemingway handed him a cup for catching the biggest fish.
[*] Harper Collins, 343 pp., £20, April, 978 0 06 244013 6