Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 by Nicholas Reynolds (William Morrow, $27.99, 384 pages)
Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy by Nicholas Reynolds chronicles Ernest Hemingway’s time as a spy and his involvement in politics on the world stage during the years 1935 through 1961.
As to credibility, Reynolds was a Marine for 30 years, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and eventually became the curator of the CIA Museum. He references 107 primary sources and each chapter is replete with citations to support his claims.
While Writer, Sailor is almost certainly factually accurate, I am not certain this book entirely succeeds.
The book chronicles some aspects of Hemingway’s personal life such as his downward spiral into depression, his four wives, and his extremely excessive alcohol intake; though this is not news, nor is it the main point. Reynolds also tries to tie some of Hemingway’s writing to his wartime experiences, particularly with For Whom the Bell Tolls and his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and then his final book, The Old Man and the Sea. He also name drops quite a bit. For example, correspondence with Archibald MacLeish and his friendship with John Dos Passos are frequently referenced. The book tells of Hemingway’s love of Cuba and briefly alludes to some interactions with Batista and Castro. But, again, there is not much new ground covered here.
What would be considered new ground for most is Hemingway’s dalliance with the Soviet NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, and involvement with the American OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. Hemingway was not a Communist, and perhaps not even a Socialist, but he hated Fascism and during the 1930s was disappointed in America’s lack of resolve to fight against it. He was particularly upset with the Pearl Harbor attack, which he believed was due to complete negligence on the part of the American government.
Hemingway’s travels during this time are discussed. How he managed to get around on both official and personal business is interesting at times. One of the most interesting stories is the chapter on Pilar, Hemingway’s cabin cruiser, and its role as a spy ship in 1942 and 1943. This would prove to be the most significant of Hemingway’s wartime adventures.
Most Hemingway buffs and literary scholars would find nothing of interest in this work. But while it succeeds in chronicling his adventures – and there are some interesting tidbits to be gleaned among the way, the truth is that Hemingway’s involvement as a spy did not seem to lead to any major intelligence that impacted the outcome of the war – or particular battles – in any way. If so, it was not evident in the pages of this book.
Recommended, with the reservation that the book seems to promise more than it delivers.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Dave Moyer is a public school district superintendent and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.