Cloistered recently among the shelved books at Barnes & Noble, I read the jacket blurb of Nicholas Reynolds’s new book on Ernest Hemingway, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy, and burst into laughter. When you laugh loudly at the publisher’s description of a book that isn’t supposed to be funny, it probably presages a problem for the author.
I wasn’t laughing at the author’s bona fides as they are impressive. That of being a historian at the CIA Museum and a onetime U.S. Marine Corps colonel and of having been trained at one of the world’s great universities, Oxford.
What made me laugh, and should be an embarrassment for Mr. Reynolds, is publisher William Morrow’s wet-behind-the-ears blurb-writer stating that the author “began to uncover clues” of Hemingway’s “spycraft” in 2010. One good thing about being old is possession of a long memory. Someone should tell the William Morrow blurb-writer that Hemingway’s work as a “spy” was disclosed in 1954(!) in an Associated Press story under the headline “Hemingway Helped Spy, Saboteur Hunt.” The story was widely carried in American newspapers. His publisher dim-wittingly made Nicholas Reynolds look at best like a Johnny-come-lately on the subject and at worst like a fool by boasting that he “began to uncover clues” of Hem’s spying in 2010, which, even if you suck at arithmetic, you can figure it's in excess of a half-century after it was disclosed.
For the author's sake let’s hope the publisher changes this sophomoric blurb in later editions.
I’d write a review of Mr. Reynolds’s book, which I am sure he worked diligently on, but cannot. I didn’t buy it because I noticed other “problems” in the blurb, which is supposed to entice you into buying the book not putting it back on the bookstore shelf. While these didn’t make me laugh they tended to suggest the book was too superficial for a person who has read a lot on Hemingway. For instance, the blurb mentioned material that can also be found in a 106-page confidential FBI file on Hemingway that author Jeffrey Meyers pried out of the agency in researching his 1985 biography, Hemingway. Much colorful detail about the great storyteller’s spying activities (for the U.S. government) still makes Meyers’s biography of particular interest. The new spy book’s blurb seems to rehash this FBI stuff, which reminds me of a rule of writing: if you know the dog is brown, does it really matter how many different ways you say it?
The blurb also suggests Hemingway might have been a commie spy by stating Reynolds discloses Hemingway’s “troubling recruitment by Soviet spies to work with the NKVD, the forerunner to the KGB.” Even in pre- and post-war America when J. Edgar Hoover suspected everybody of being a Red, the FBI was unable to unearth proof Hemingway was a communist, let alone spying for them. The bureau’s Hemingway file details his “associations” with communists. Which was understandable. Many fighters on the loyalist side against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War were communists who were supported by the Soviets, and Hemingway knew and drank with them. There is no question commie fronts in the U.S. duped Hemingway into signing petitions and lending his famous name to their letterheads. Which brings me to the main reason I passed on Mr. Reynolds’s Hemingway spy book, released in March. The blurb tried to boot-strap him into being a communist by making a big deal of his “wartime meeting in East Asia with communist leader Chou En-Lai, the future premier of the People’s Republic of China.”
Well, if he met a friend of Mao’s he’s a commie, right? Not hardly.
Anybody who reads the account of the Chou En-Lai meeting in Martha Gellhorn’s excellent (and funny) 1978 memoir, Travels with Myself and Another, knows she and husband Ernest Hemingway’s meeting with Chou was perfunctory. She recalls a lot of merriment happening but little substance because, as she puts it, “we didn’t know who Chou was.” Her husband showed scant interest in Chinese politics, and failed to ask Chou any salient questions about the communists. Plainly, at this time (1941), but for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Spanish Civil War (which he featured in For Whom the Bell Tolls), Hemingway didn’t give a rat's patoot about politics and communists, Chinese or otherwise. He didn't want to go to China but his journalist wife dragged him along, as she had been assigned to write a magazine story on it.
Now for a nit picky footnote on the spy book. The full title of Nicholas Reynolds’s work is Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures 1935-1961, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy. I might mention that the only “secret” thing Hemingway did in 1961 was to quietly walk past his sleeping wife Mary’s bedroom on the morning of July 2, get his favorite Boss shotgun and kill himself. While I’m on it, how cleverly original is the title considering the title of the real spy classic by John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1974?