PEN/ACLU event. “Something to Hide” Kirsch Auditorium, MIT, 21 October 2015

This is one of the texts I read at last night’s PEN/ACLU program. It is shocking on so many levels:

This is a reading from Hemingway’s friend and biographer, A.E. Hotchner: an excerpt from his essay in the New York Times in 2011. It speaks for itself.

In November 1959 I went out West for our annual pheasant shoot. When Ernest and our friend Duke MacMullen met my train at Shoshone, Idaho, for the drive to Ketchum, we did not stop at the bar opposite the station as we usually did because Ernest was anxious to get on the road. I asked why the hurry.

“The feds.”

“What?”

“They tailed us all the way. Ask Duke.”

“Well … there was a car back of us out of Hailey.”

“Why are F.B.I. agents pursuing you?” I asked.

“It’s the worst hell. The goddamnedest hell. They’ve bugged everything. That’s why we’re using Duke’s car. Mine’s bugged. Everything’s bugged. Can’t use the phone. Mail intercepted.”

We rode for miles in silence. As we turned into Ketchum, Ernest said quietly: “Duke, pull over. Cut your lights.” He peered across the street at a bank. Two men were working inside. “What is it?” I asked.

“Auditors. The F.B.I.’s got them going over my account.”

“But how do you know?”

“Why would two auditors be working in the middle of the night? Of course it’s my account.”

All his friends were worried: he had changed; he was depressed; he wouldn’t hunt; he looked bad.

Ernest, Mary and I went to dinner the night before I left. Halfway through the meal Ernest said we had to leave immediately. Mary asked what was wrong.

“Those two F.B.I. agents at the bar, that’s what’s wrong.”

The next day Mary had a private talk with me. She was terribly distraught. Ernest spent hours every day with the manuscript of his Paris sketches—published as “A Moveable Feast” after his death—trying to write but unable to do more than turn its pages. He often spoke of destroying himself and would sometimes stand at the gun rack, holding one of the guns, staring out the window.

On Nov. 30 he was registered under an assumed name in the psychiatric section of St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minn., where, during December, he was given 11 electric shock treatments.

In January he called me from outside his room. He sounded in control, but his voice held a heartiness that didn’t belong there and his delusions had not changed or diminished.

His room was bugged, and the phone was tapped. He suspected that one of the interns was a fed.

During a short release he twice attempted suicide with a gun from the vestibule rack. And on a flight to the Mayo Clinic, though heavily sedated, he tried to jump from the plane. When it stopped in Casper, Wyo., for repairs, he tried to walk into the moving propeller.

I visited him in June. He had been given a new series of shock treatments, but it was as before: the car bugged, his room bugged. I said it very gently: “Papa, why do you want to kill yourself?”

“What do you think happens to a man going on 62 when he realizes that he can never write the books and stories he promised himself? Or do any of the other things he promised himself in the good days?”

“But how can you say that? You have written a beautiful book about Paris, as beautiful as anyone can hope to write.”

“The best of that I wrote before. And now I can’t finish it.”

I told him to relax or even retire.

“Retire?” he said. “Unlike your baseball player and your prizefighter and your matador, how does a writer retire? No one accepts that his legs are shot or the whiplash gone from his reflexes. Everywhere he goes, he hears the same damn question: what are you working on?”

I told him he never cared about those dumb questions.

“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.” Then he turned on me. I was just like the others, pumping him for information and selling him out to the feds.

After that day, I never saw him again.

Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the F.B.I. released its Hemingway file. It revealed that beginning in the 1940s J. Edgar Hoover had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba. Over the following years, 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.

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