Portrait of Ernest Hemingway, 1918.
Undercover: Ernest Hemingway
"Papa" Hemingway yearned to get into the fight, and with the "Crook Factory" he managed to succeed.
By Sidney Allinson
Soldier, war correspondent, bullfighter, big-game hunter, and dedicated womanizer -- famous novelist Ernest Hemingway managed to live out many of his macho fantasies in real life. Less well known is his brief career as an amateur spy and submarine chaser in World War II.
In the summer of 1942, America's most famous writer was frustrated. Pacing the grounds of his Cuban villa, Finca Vigia, he often drank wildly as he chafed at his inability to secure an acceptable assignment covering action in a combat area. While trying repeatedly to land a suitable newspaper contract overseas, Hemingway decided there was plenty for him to do locally to combat America's enemies on land and sea.
He began making plans for an ambitious counterspy ring to operate in Cuba, to uncover, or preferably assassinate, enemy agents there. Also, he determined eventually to take on the even more aggressive role of U-boat hunter. Ignoring proper U.S. intelligence channels, which were then controlled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Papa" Hemingway used his high-level connections to quickly launch his private war. He approached his friend Robert P. Joyce, first secretary at the American Embassy in Havana, the Cuban capital. Joyce was probably already active in intelligence work, as he later joined the Office of Strategic Services. Hemingway explained his fitness for undercover work, claiming he had organized a fifth column network in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. His main motive, though, was probably the simple wish for adventure, danger and the use of firearms.
Soon, in August 1942, Hemingway was given official backing by Spruille Braden, the U.S. ambassador to Cuba and an admirer of his books. Braden was a vocal anti-Fascist, so unusually outspoken for a diplomat that he was known as "Cowboy." On his own initiative, Braden began to advance government funds to Hemingway for secret operations under the covert designation "Crime Shop." Delighted, the burly, bearded novelist went into the spy business. He immediately renamed his band the "Crook Factory," and used that as its code name from then on. He lost no time hiring a diverse crew of tough if unlikely recruits -- gunrunners, fishermen, gamblers, playboys, pimps, prostitutes, renegades, bartenders and sundry drinking buddies. They included Don Andres Untzain, a priest who had served as a machine-gunner with Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. At the height of his activities, Hemingway had no less than 26 amateur spies on his payroll in Cuba -- six full-time operatives and 20 undercover part-timers.
The flamboyant writer enthusiastically put his motley spy ring to work scouring the island for German operatives. At the time, Cuba actually did warrant extra vigilance. Although nominally an ally, having declared war on the Axis soon after Pearl Harbor, Cuba was still curiously lenient toward Axis citizens. The island nation was also an ideal potential jumping-off point for enemy spies, located right on America's doorstep and only a half-hour by air from Key West, Fla. Numerous agents of both German military and naval intelligence and of the Sicherheitsdienst, the SS Security Service, had entered Cuba using forged passports that falsely identified them as Spanish nationals. These had been obtained with the help of some of the 3,000 pro-German Fascists on the island.
Havana was the most popular spy center. Its international colony, important harbor and closeness to American oil-shipping ports attracted some of the most dangerous spies. Wartime Havana was a strident, wide-open city, a colorful tropical city of cha-cha music and laughter, with widespread, grinding poverty for many amid incredible wealth for a pampered few. It was a pulsing, booming, unabashedly amoral place -- not a bit like the drab "socialist paradise" run by Fidel Castro today. But in 1942, Cuba was under a different style of repression, the brutal dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista. His ruthless regime encouraged every gangster and business exploiter to operate freely under the protection of a generally corrupt police force, so long as a fat share of the take was skimmed off for top officials. There was a constant supply of graft from American sugar and fruit interests and U.S. Mafia-run rackets exploiting the hedonistic tourist trade.
Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia, Cuba. (National Archives)
Hordes of U.S. citizens visited Havana, eager to taste the fleshpots that catered to every vice and sensual pleasure -- cheap rum and drugs, no-limit gambling dens, pornographic shows, and thousands of pathetic five-dollar streetwalkers available everywhere. Tourists jammed luxury nightclubs, like the lush Tropicana, where 50 long-stemmed chorines danced naked to erotic rumbas. This, then, was the rowdy hunting ground for Papa's Crook Factory, and its members set to work in it, from the swank hotels along the wide Prado to military clubs, embassy parties, casinos and sleazy dockside dives. Their operations were often personally directed by Hemingway from atop a stool in his favorite headquarters, the Floradita Bar, on Calle Obisco near Morro Castle.
Hoover And Papa
Soon, though, news of those covert operations reached the outraged ears of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. Angrily, he ordered that all his 16 special agents in Cuba keep an eye on "these dangerous amateurs." He wrote an irate memo to the FBI's special agent in charge in Havana, instructing him to thoroughly investigate and, if possible, discredit the booze-loving novelist, "whose sobriety is certainly questionable." The puritanical lifelong bachelor Hoover resented Hemingway's well-publicized success with women. He took particular umbrage when Hemingway boasted that his third and newest wife, Martha, had helped him procure weapons and political support through her personal friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. But the object of all that envy was not in the least intimidated by the surveillance of his old enemy. Hemingway had earlier incurred Hoover's wrath and accusations of being a Communist by his support of leftist causes in the Spanish Civil War.
The extent of his raffish outfit's official funding was reported to an increasingly jealous Hoover by the embassy's "legal attaché," the usual designation then for FBI agents working under diplomatic cover. Special agent Raymond G. Leddy kept a very close watch on Hemingway and sent weekly reports to his boss in Washington. In April 1943, Leddy wrote that Hemingway was receiving "in excess of $1,000 a month, paid direct from the embassy here." That was hardly lavish financing, even by World War II standards, and Hemingway added a good deal more money to the secret fund from his own pocket. Underfunded or not, his score of amateur agents claimed to have tracked down and silenced a half-dozen clandestine radios being operated by Nazi sympathizers on the island. That allegedly was done by simply putting out the word that henceforth anyone caught signaling U-boats would have his throat slit. Even a proverbial "beautiful Russian spy" fell into their net. Consuelo Radom was a Russo-Mexican call girl who pandered exclusively to Allied naval officers. She was suspected of supplying pillow talk tidbits about convoys to a German coffee merchant, a known agent of the Marine Nachrichten Stelle (Naval Intelligence Service). Within days, Consuelo was so effectively harassed by Crook Factory threats that she fled the island in fear for her life.
All these melodramatic events evidently thrilled Papa Hemingway. Once a week he translated his agents' reports, drove into Havana by a roundabout route, entered the building next door to the U.S. Embassy through a ground-floor shop, then climbed four flights of stairs that led to Bob Joyce's office. The reports he brought were of varying degrees of importance. Joyce later remarked: "Of course, much of their intelligence was fabricated. If their reports were sensational, they were paid more -- $20 instead of $10." Yet there must have been some useful wheat among the chaff, since Hemingway's reports were taken seriously by G2, military intelligence in Washington. They intervened to overrule one of Hoover's many attempts to have the Crook Factory terminated.
Next: Crook Factory
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