Nicholas Reynolds takes on the story of one of America's great authors in "Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy, Ernest Hemingway's Secret Adventures, 1935-1961" (William Morrow, $27.99).
The Tribune caught up with Reynolds, who'll appear at Powell's City of Books, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 7, for his thoughts on his book:
Tribune: You're a former CIA agent and curator at the CIA Museum when you start to uncover strands that suggest Ernest Hemingway was working as a spy for both the U.S. and the Soviets before and during World War II. So, can you set the stage, what was going on at the time you started to write the book?
Reynolds: I was researching something else about World War II for the museum and I kept finding all these Hemingway tracks, and I asked, "What's this?" and I started pulling on the strands.
You know the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA) was established in 1942 and at its peak it had 13,000 people — and Ernest and his brother, Lester, and his son, Jack, all found their way independently to it. And I thought, imagine the odds. But I was most interested in Ernest. He kind of sucks the air out of all the rooms he goes into.
Tribune: So until this book, no one else made the case you're making here?
Reynolds: I'm a lifelong Hemingway, buff and this is something I had never heard of. We all knew he led an adventurous life. I certainly never expected that he'd signed up with Stalin's henchmen. I thought surely someone else has touched on this.
When I saw no one had, I appointed myself to do that work, one step at a time. I did read one journal article, and I wondered if this story even had legs. You know, Ernest was a great letter writer, almost a better letter writer than a novelist or short story writer. I found traces of his relationships with the Soviets there, a sort of attitude.
Tribune: What was going through your mind? Did you keep it to yourself or talk about it with others?
Reynolds: There were others guys who had written sort of big picture intelligence histories, of course. And I went to the Hemingway Society, which meets every two years or so. You don't have to be a Ph.D. to join it, and I gave little papers about this and nobody noticed.
They were polite, they weren't abusive, but just not that interested. It was two ships passing in the night. I keep expecting to get angry letters that say this guy is full of it. But most reviews have been positive.
Tribune: How did your view of Hemingway change?
Reynolds: I didn't have a really well-articulated view of him. I knew I liked him. That he was a man of few words. The guy who lived life without adjectives. So I had to develop a more sophisticated view of him. I still do read and enjoy him, but I do draw a line between how he lived and his books.
In "For Whom the Bell Tolls" he was so evenhanded, it's not black and white, the nuance makes it a great book. In his private life he forgot that, and there is this vitriol in his letters.
Joe Stalin gets the benefit of the doubt well into the '50s, when things about him are really starting to crop up. And the same with Fidel Castro. Castro took power and started shooting people in show trials.
Reporters from The New York Times and British TV were there and we have Ernest saying, "Well, you know they're just purifying themselves." So I was a little disappointed in that side of him.
Tribune: Is there still more to uncover about his movements?
Reynolds: There's probably a file somewhere in Cuba. Totalitarian states are very good organizers, and they're methodical. I would love to see that file. I bet it's a big, fat file that goes back to the early days, and it probably also deals with the period he lived there. That's where the next book is. I won't be able to go, but a Canadian Hemingway scholar would be able to.
Tribune: What did you do for the CIA?
Reynolds: I'm basically a dilettante. I have a Ph.D. in history and I was in the Marine Corps for a while. For 12 years I worked in D.C., and for some of those years I did resettlement work. I've done five years at the museum writing the back stories and some of the material for the exhibits. I also spent a few years in the Office of the Inspector General of the CIA reading mission statements. Not running investigations, just seeing if the machinery was working right. These days I'm a full-time writer, and I volunteer for CASA (court appointed special advocate.)
Tribune: There are two parallels to today's headlines — Russians meddling in our recent election and ties to former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Reynolds: Yes, well a quick run-down. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 — Western Democracy says, "Oh this is terrible!," and no one talks to the other until 1933 when we establish diplomatic relations under Roosevelt. And then they flood the place.
They're so interested in the United States, it's so foreign to them, and they sense that it will be an important place, and they want influence. I mean envelopes of cash to U.S. congressmen with, "Here's how we want you to vote on this."
Generally, we are more naive. Flynn should have gotten a lot smarter before he did this thing. There are good reasons we have conflict of interest laws. The easy spy cases are the classic espionage cases when someone steals a file from a vault. Influence peddling is murkier. Let's say they did all that WikiLeaks stuff — I don't know much about computers — but the posting and reposting of information through bots, it should make us all really uncomfortable.
Tribune: How did these secret adventures affect Hemingway?
Reynolds: I think it did terrible things to his mentality. I would have liked him to have said before he died, "I had this flirtation in the '40s, and I want to tell everyone."