Richard Lance Keeble examines a new biography of Ernest Hemingway – and the light it may throw on his mysterious meeting with George Orwell in 1945
Orwell’s meeting with Hemingway:
The mystery deepens
Mystery has always surrounded Orwell’s encounter with the American novelist, Ernest Hemingway, in Paris in March 1945. A recently published biography of Hemingway may provide some new clues.
According to Carlos Baker, author of the first Hemingway biography (1972), the two met at the Paris Ritz where the American was staying while reporting on the closing months of the Second World War. Orwell was also in Paris, staying at the Hotel Scribe, covering the war for the Observer and Manchester Evening News.
Based on a letter Hemingway wrote to the critic Harvey Breit on 16 April 1952 (so more than two years after Orwell had died), Baker records Orwell saying that he feared the communists were out to kill him – and asked for the loan of a pistol. Hemingway duly gave him a .32 Colt that Paul Willerts had given him. Orwell departed ‘like a pale ghost’. The story is repeated in Hemingway’s memoir, True at First Light, published posthumously in his centennial year, 1999, and in the autobiography, Dante Called You Beatrice (1960), by the poet and friend of Orwell, Paul Potts. But in all his writings, Orwell never mentioned the meeting.
Did the meeting ever happen? John Rodden and John Rossi go through all the evidence meticulously – and, in the end, remain doubtful (2009). Both Hemingway and Potts were prone to fabrication: could the story have emerged from the novelist’s desire to associate himself with a writer whose fame was beginning to outstrip his own? Was Potts desperate to associate himself with a great man?
But if the encounter did take place, it would fit into Orwell’s pattern of behaviour in Paris. Most of the men he met were, in some way, linked to intelligence. Malcolm Muggeridge had been assigned by British intelligence to keep watch on the comic novelist P. G. Wodehouse who was suspected of having Nazi sympathies following his broadcasts in the summer of 1941 from Berlin for the American CBS network. Orwell had written an article in defence of Wodehouse in February just before leaving on his reporting assignment (though it was not published until July in the Windmill magazine) and so was probably pleased to be introduced to the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster by Muggeridge.
Orwell also met the philosopher (and fellow old Etonian) A. J. ‘Freddie’ Ayer, in Paris for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) who were particularly concerned about the danger of a communist coup. Most evenings in Paris, Orwell dined with Harold Acton whom he had known vaguely at Eton and who was working as a press censor for SHAEF (the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force), then based at the palace of Versailles.
Perhaps the closest clues to Orwell’s possible intelligence links lie in his extremely close friendship with David Astor, the millionaire Observer journalist whose father owned the newspaper and who was to be its celebrated editor from 1948 to 1975 (Cockett 1991). Astor’s intelligence ties went back as far as 1939 when he did ‘secret service stuff’, according to his cousin, Joyce Grenfell (Macintyre 2014). He served in the early part of the Second World War in naval intelligence alongside Ian Fleming (later author of the James Bond spy thrillers) and later with the covert Special Operations Executive (SOE). Thereafter, he always maintained close links to intelligence.
Was Orwell’s war reporting assignment a cover for an intelligence mission of some kind? Dorril, in his seminal history of MI6 (2000), reports that, in 1944, Astor was transferred to a unit liaising between SOE and the resistance in France, helping the French underground in London spread the word to groups throughout Europe. While in Paris, perhaps inspired by Astor, Orwell attended the first conference of the Committee for European Federation, bringing together resistance groups from around Europe. The French novelist and editor of Combat, Albert Camus, was amongst those present. Astor was later adamant that Orwell had no intelligence links (Keeble 2017).
Yet, evidence provided in Nicholas Reynold’s new biography of Hemingway (2017) may support the view that his encounter with Orwell was in some way linked to intelligence work. Reynolds suggests that Hemingway was actually first recruited as an agent by Russian intelligence, the NKVD, in 1940. But his ties to the Soviets quickly lapsed and, thereafter, Hemingway worked closely with the American Office of Naval Intelligence in Cuba and then with the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, forerunner of the CIA) in Europe after D-Day. Always addicted to intrigue, Hemingway, while in Cuba, had created an informal ‘counter-intelligence bureau’ (which he called the ‘Crook Factory’) to hunt and report on suspicious characters in Havana and throughout Cuba. In another scheme, Hemingway used his fishing boat, the Pilar, to hunt for German submarines in the Caribbean.
In France, the OSS Operational Groups, to which Hemingway was tied, were concentrating in 1945 on supporting and training resistance groups. Could it have been to discuss these activities that Orwell sought out the American novelist? We will never know.
Baker, Carlos (1972) Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Harmondsworth: Penguin
Cockett, Richard (1991) David Astor and the Observer, London: Deutsch
Dorril, Stephen (2000) MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations, London: Fourth Estate
Keeble, Richard Lance (2017) Covering Conflict: The Making and Unmaking of New Militarism, Bury St Edmunds: Abramis
Macintyre, Ben (2014) A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, London: Bloomsbury
Rodden, John and Rossi, John (2009) The mysterious (un)meeting between George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, the Kenyon Review, Vol. 31, No. 4. See https://www.kenyonreview.org/journal/fall-2009/selections/john-rodden-and-john-rossi/
Reynolds, Nicholas (2017) Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, London: HarperCollins
Richard Lance Keeble is chair of The Orwell Society
and joint editor of George Orwell Studies