It’s November 1960, and celebrated writer Ernest Hemingway is heading off on his annual shooting trip with friends. But this time, something is wrong. And as Hemingway rants about the Feds tracking his every move, those who know him best begin to despair. Eventually, he takes his own life – but it will be decades before the sinister truth is revealed.
Born in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, in July 1899, Hemingway was immersed in the arts from a young age. In fact, his musician mother Grace encouraged him to learn the cello – a skill that would later be reflected in his acclaimed writing. And in January 1916 his debut article was published in the high-school newspaper.
After graduating, Hemingway continued to pursue a career in writing, taking a job as a junior reporter for The Kansas City Star. And there, he began to hone the minimal, concise technique that would come to define him. Then, at just 18 years old, he signed up to support his country during World War I.
After a stint in Italy, Hemingway returned home to America a changed man. Needing to escape from his parents’ home, he moved to Canada to write for the Toronto Star Weekly. Eventually, the paper made him a foreign correspondent, and in December 1921 he left for Paris with a young wife, Hadley, in tow.
In Paris, Hemingway came into his own, rubbing shoulders with famous names such as Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. And although he continued to work as a journalist, he began longing for a writer’s life. Eventually, in 1925 he penned his first novel. Entitled The Sun Also Rises, his experiences of watching the bullfights in Pamplona, Spain, inspired it.
Released to rave reviews, the novel was the start of a celebrated career in literature. And over the next decades, Hemingway published a number of nonfiction pieces, short stories and novels. Today, works such as The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls are considered some of American literature’s greatest classics.
In 1939 Hemingway moved to Cuba, where he continued to write, eventually achieving international renown. And by the time that he won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1953, he was married to his fourth wife, the journalist Mary Welsh. Together, they lived at Finca Vigía, a 15-acre farm some distance outside the capital city of Havana.
Over more than two decades, Hemingway nurtured a love affair with the island, always returning despite a number of stints abroad. And during that time, he developed an interest in local politics, publicly congratulating Fidel Castro in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. However, when it seemed likely that their assets would be seized, Hemingway and his wife left the country and returned to the United States.
In 1959 Hemingway returned to Spain to work on a commission for Life magazine. Tasked with writing about the lives of Luis Miguel Dominguín and Antonio Ordóñez, two famous matadors, he invited his friend A.E. Hotchner along for the ride. But while the pair enjoyed their time in Europe, events soon took a darker turn.
The next May, Hotchner received a telephone call from Hemingway, who was back in Cuba working on the matador piece. Apparently, he had written more than twice the required amount – and the state of the manuscript was causing him much distress. Eventually, Hotchner went to meet his troubled friend.
In Cuba, Hotchner found Hemingway exhausted and worn out. However, he believed that the aging writer would soon recover. But when the pair met up again in November 1960 for their annual shooting trip, he could see that he had been much mistaken. By now, Hemingway had entered into a state of great paranoia.
When Hotchner disembarked his train at Shoshone, Idaho, he was met by Hemingway and Duke MacMullen, a mutual friend. But even though their custom was to stop for drinks before beginning the hour’s drive to the writer’s home in Ketchum, ID, the agitated Hemingway insisted that they get moving. Apparently, he believed that agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation were on their tail.
Understandably, Hotchner questioned his friend over what interest the FBI might have in him. “It’s the worst hell,” Hemingway replied, according to a 2011 article that Hotchner wrote for the New York Times. “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.”
According to Hotchner, Hemingway’s paranoia persisted after their arrival in Ketchum. Apparently, he asked Duke to “pull over. Cut your lights,” when he spotted two men working in a bank late at night. Confidently, he informed his companions that they were auditors from the FBI, busy inspecting his account.
Throughout the trip, Hemingway remained on edge. At one point, he asked to leave a restaurant where they were eating dinner – alleging that more FBI agents were spying on him. According to Mary, her husband had grown despondent, unable to work on his manuscripts and prone to destructive thoughts. Later that month, he was admitted to a psychiatric facility in Rochester, Minnesota, where he underwent a series of electric shocks in an attempt to cure him of his malaise.
However, the treatment did not seem to help, and by January 1961 Hemingway still believed that the government was spying on his every move. In fact, he told Hotchner that there was a bug in his hospital room. And although he was temporarily released, he attempted to kill himself four times before returning to the facility.
That June, Hotchner visited Hemingway again in hospital. There, the writer continued to claim that there were bugs in both his room and his car. Moreover, he began to bemoan the fact that he could no longer write or enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Eventually, he turned against his friend, accusing him of being an informant.
On July 2, 1961, Hemingway, who had been released from hospital, fatally shot himself inside his Ketchum home. At the time, there was lots of speculation over what could have caused him to end his life. Was he plagued by money worries, or had he been suffering from an incurable disease? However, the truth remained elusive until 1983, when University of Colorado professor Jeffrey Myers submitted a Freedom of Information request to the FBI.
Shockingly, it emerged that the government really had been keeping tabs on Hemingway for years. In fact, since the 1940s the FBI had surveilled the writer, largely due to his close relationship with members of the Cuban government. Moreover, the spying had continued into the 1960s, when agents had tracked him all the way to Minnesota. So had there really been a bug in his hospital room after all?
In 2011 Hotchner marked the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death with an article reflecting on his friend’s paranoia in later life – and how it might have been justified after all. He wrote, “I have tried to reconcile Ernest’s fear of the FBI, which I regretfully misjudged, with the reality of the FBI file. I now believe he truly sensed the surveillance, and that it substantially contributed to his anguish and his suicide.”