by David Walls-Kaufman
The rise of Socialism in America has always fascinated me. Two key public figures typical of what many must have considered and gone through philosophically before and during the 1930s were Hemingway and Dos Passos, two good friends. Their friendship was damaged by the excesses of the Soviets during the Spanish Civil War and the murder of one of their good friends.David
Hemingway and I first crossed paths in 1918 as ambulance drivers in the Great War. I was an ambulance driver on the French side, and he was on his way to drive for the Italians fighting the Austrians. It took six weeks of training to learn how to operate all the levers and cranks in those old jalopies. I graduated Harvard cum Laude in 1916, and it was there that my politics became radicalized. I was the bastard son of a distant, rich New York corporate lawyer, and I felt then that the world could only be made fair for the poor through Communism.
Hem and I met again when we were both expats in Paris. He arrived in the Latin Quarter with his bride, Hadley, eight years his senior, with a small pension from her family that would help a struggling writer. Hem was a strapping matinee-idol with unbelievably straight white teeth and confidence that would make life just too easy. His lack of appreciation for others was going to be hard for the rest of us. I was medium sized with owlish eyes and e.e. always said no one looked more “foreign” at Harvard than did I.
If you charmed or pushed your way into our clique of Paris writers and painters, you became aligned in drink and bullshit with James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, e.e. cummings, Sherwood Anderson, and others. I lived on my small trust even after my first novel One Man’s Initiation in 1920 made me one of the new voices in fiction. Hemingway never went to college, became a cub reporter on the best paper in the Americas, the Kansas City Star, then went to Italy to get in the fight. He promptly got himself blown up by an artillery shell that made him an Italian war hero, then landed in Paris with all that momentum of story to slay us all with enviable charm, and fit right in with a crowd that had also read just about every book ever written. Hem read everything to compensate for his lack of a college education. I did because people smarter than I said a lot worth hearing.
“Dos, let’s sit at the Rotund again tomorrow and read to each other,” Hem said to me when he and Hadley and I parted ways at the Seine book stalls. I remember his smile that freezing day because he and I both liked to wear berets.
“Passages from the Bible again?” I said. “Yes, let’s.”
“I’ll write at The Dome until three then meet you.”
“How’s yours going?”
Hem browsed the Bible with an eye for titles to his work. He came up with great titles. But that’s why his titles tell you little about the story: The Sun Also Rises. A Farewell to Arms. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Across the River and Into the Trees. His titles bring lovely poetry, don’t they? Mine are more functional: USA, Three Soldiers, Manhattan Transfer. A lot of my early work was critical of free economics. Some of this was my father supporting me and my mother, but never acknowledging me, until the warmth opened up just before he died in 1917, as it often does in an outburst of emotional prescience from those with the shadow of the shadow on their faces.
“I’ve got some of ‘My Old Man’ for you,” Hem told me excitedly one day. He held the pages, written in thick pencil. I remember them shivering in the breeze as we sat at the Lilas with two Pernod between us. “Did you bring something?”
“I’ve got something.” I could see in Hem’s eyes the envy for me because I was already a published novelist.
“From the novel?”
“Actually an essay for a new Communist sheet.”
“Oh, Dos . . . That’s great!” He grinned as if I was silly. “Paying you anything?” Again, the smile over the deuce. He knew those Red sheets didn’t pay anything.
Hem and I got on so well partly from my plan to see the world by walking tour. Hem and Hadley loved to go along with me. I introduced him to Spain that way. I introduced him to Key West too, after my Florida walk in 1925 and I hopped a train for Key West that rolled over causeways on cerulean seas. Hadley and Hem came along on a walk through the Pyrenees ending in Andorra. Over 200 miles. A lot of that in the rain. Poor Hadley was miserable but uncomplaining, and Hem was sweetly upset for her discomfort. But that would change, as Hem loosened his hold on his appreciation of Hadley too.
Hem’s journalism made him great at grilling you about your expertise. He’d grill you for hours about roses or mending a sail or Roulette. I could tell he feigned interest while really he didn’t give two shits about you. He’d grin at me, knowing I saw through him and how we both enjoyed the writer’s hunt—for information, for wonderful, simple stories kicked over like a clod of manure in the paddock of life. My interest in people was made by my father’s disinterest in me. I understood Hemingway, and so he and I never got into awful fights like he had with everyone else. Until Madrid that is, in 1936. You don’t need perfect friends. Christ, if your family isn’t perfect, why hold your friends to a higher standard?
Everyone in Paris knew my politics. Communists were rare in the 1920s when money flowed like booze. The War made the United States the world’s money colossus. Europe was smashed, and Paris was so cheap we literally couldn’t afford to leave. Besides, we were busy pushing for the overhaul of language. We all felt it coming. We wanted to write like people spoke. The posing in writing created a huge emotional gap. Our desire to democratize language, the shock of the War, our dislocation as artists from our institutions—it echoed America throwing off England after the Revolution: Rejecting knee-breeches, the powdered wig, cutting our hair and shaking hands instead of bowing. All of us sought to capture a new immediacy and vitality in our writing. We knew one of us in Paris would get it.
I tried to interest my friends in Communism. It’s an easy sell. “Don’t you want to help the poor?” And they saw it. But they also saw the great strides made for the poor with unions and rising wages naturally following competition to keep worthwhile employees.
Attitudes didn’t change until the Great Depression. The explosion of poverty woke us up to the desperate need for Communism. People rushed to all us Communists, joining The Movement and infiltrating America and Europe with their new insight to bring fundamental change for the sake of the Have Nots.
Every university campus jerked awake with students flocking to Socialist radicalism. They went from lazily absorbing the classics and brooding longingly over their self-involved poetry to galvanized youths throwing off frivolity to grasp the controls of political power and undermine every institution that had lulled us to sleep regarding equality for all.
We saw it in the exciting election of a Socialist in Franklin Roosevelt. We winked at each other as we whispered stories about Roosevelt opening his Cabinet meetings with the warm salute of “Good morning, my fellow Socialists!” Communist Party USA members were appointed to prominent White House positions. And we knew what Stalin was doing blazing a trail of health and wealth for the impoverished of the Soviet Union.
Hemingway would sit and grin stupidly as we talked around him. It was the only time I saw him look stupid and doubt himself on what to think. This was because the fibrous ball of his soul, his art, was rooted in the enduring American reverence of the strong individual conquering a better life. Hem writhed in hatred for Roosevelt and how his vast welfare programs gradually turned vital people and families into cowed dependents of a numb bureaucracy.
“How does making people obligated to handouts help them in the long run?” he bristled. “We all know what’s down that road. It’s flat-out bribery!”
“It’s only temporary,” I argued, “to give them a leg up.”
It took me years to see past that one.
In 1935, Hemingway weathered the terrible hurricane and made his way from Key West on his new fishing boat, the Pilar, to Matecumbe Key where a Roosevelt public works program had lured over 800 hundred war vets with their wives and children for a government paycheck. The government knew how high a wall of seawater this awful storm might throw and lifted not a finger to get them north. Was it because the vets had angered Roosevelt in marches on Washington demanding he make good on Woodrow Wilson’s pension promises to them? Hem told me how he drove up to Matecumbe and came across the hundreds of bodies bloated into great, mottled pigs of corpses face down or face up in the water, like balloons with hands. The flies and the stink. The pop of bodies. Hem was livid. He wept. Those vets, their families, men who sacrificed so much in our War.
Hem roared at Roosevelt with the pen too. The article got a lot of attention from the Left, that thought this might be the chance to peel Hemingway from Capitalism. I couldn’t go so hard on Roosevelt since you can’t do that when you’re in camp with other Socialists. You see, it’s you and The Movement against the entire criminal world, the greedy, selfish nature of Man. The epochal struggle of history demands you can never weaken The Movement by criticizing a single member of it. Only our enemies can ever be made to look bad. If you don’t keep the story simple, stupid people might think we’re no better than anybody else.
Seeing Hem roil, my Communist friends watered at the mouth to score Hemingway, the top author in the world. Antonio Gramsci was piecing together his ideas on how to take down the West from within by The Movement subsuming control of education, the arts and entertainment to maneuver behind the credibility of these institutions to grow our crops in their fields. Already, anti-Capitalist messages emerged from Hollywood, and anti-Capitalist is switched in the human mind to pro-Socialist without our having to say a word. That technical divide between Silent movies and the Talkies is a fairly good timeline for when we began growing the prejudices against wealth and letting human nature steer those emotions. Movies from the 1920s portray an American morality on poverty and social evolution that says “The most robust Freedom grows us faster and better past human want.” After our takeover, movie morality insinuated: “Greed and racism have made the United States the most despicable nation ever, and only fundamental transformation and punishment of the old thinking will achieve the best expression of our humanity.”
I helped Stalin’s New York handler, Goros, study and ponder on Hemingway and other authors. Hem’s code name was “Argo.” I talked to them at length about ways to appeal to Argo’s personality and ego, and we all agreed Hem’s reaction to the hurricane might open a way to exploit his sympathy for the worker. I helped form the League of American Writers (a Communist front group), and then put them in contact with Hem, and this led to him writing a piece for New Masses about the Matecumbe Key vets, and this led to an invitation for Hem to speak on Spain at the convention in New York. Hem accepted all of these offers, even though New Masses had savaged him a few years before for not writing “proletarian literature” that we were making all the rage in literary circles.
And, of course, as is ever the case with the superior preparation and coordination on the Left, with its vast Left-wing conspiracy, these Hemingway pieces were pre-arranged to unleash an army of imbedded Socialists to jump in ovation for Hemingway’s outstanding “conscience”, so to seduce the writer’s vanity, and demonstrate the built-in audience waiting for them if they will only say what we want them to.
All of us artists, critics, writers, celebrities in the 1930s got the word from Moscow that we should exploit the explosion in support we received from the Depression. We were told by very smart people to talk as if our ownership of the arts was a fete a complis. “You’ll lose all your friends,” is what people were saying. Our psychology was blunt. It was the same entry fee for urban Democrat politics. We were the smart ones.
I had been the early beneficiary of some of this. In the 1920s, the literary world was still actually liberal so that dissenting views like mine were published and appreciated. Each of my books showed “important” work: In Three Soldiers I attacked fighting for America by undermining the credibility of the American military brass. In Manhattan Transfer and my USA trilogy, I mocked an establishment built around material comforts. I had been out front on these Communist themes, and now arts and letters was catching up and respecting me for my pioneering.
Hemingway, on the other hand, starting in the 1930s, began tasting the shitty end of the critical stick. His themes of frank individualism, his leisure travel to Europe and Africa and Key West for sport fishing, bullfighting, for safari bwana big game trophy hunting—left critics unstirred for the first time. His treatise on bullfighting, Death In the Afternoon, was all but ridiculed when only three years before, in 1929, they called A Farewell to Arms the greatest love story ever told. I hated to see it. I took no good from this. He was a genius. Hell, A Farewell to Arms knocked All Quiet On the Western Front finally off number one on the bestseller list.
Hemingway had to at least take stock of the assets we had so quickly amassed on our side and how stingy we were with them. And what the hell—The Depression made us all sharply aware of the condition of poverty. Hoover hoped that the engines of commerce would rekindle and tow the country out of the ditch. It didn’t work. The vehicle was too terribly stuck. And Roosevelt rode in with a spectacular plan to prime the pump with Socialist money-throwing. But the shock and fear from The Crash exceeded even Roosevelt’s naivety. It wasn’t Roosevelt’s fault. This was a head blow like no other. The psychological impact of the first hit is always the worst. Roosevelt was at fault for his unwillingness to admit that Socialism’s above-down methodology had failed when by 1940 it still had not rekindled the engines. But intransigence is the essence of Socialism-Communism. The Depression was an economic coma, and a coma takes its own time to heal. No doctoring performs a miracle with it.
And so, we had a lot to think about after the War, and then the Depression. Our walking tours made us all fall in love with Spain, Hemingway especially. The Spanish poor were the most noble in his eyes, and the Left in Spain was rapidly bringing hatred to a boil. The high color of poverty in Spain sharpened a picture for Hemingway just as he saw how his writing would have a built-in audience if he just gave more thought to the concerns of labor and the Left. I didn’t like how canned all of this was. Why weren’t we fair and open if we were so good for people? The very idea of militarizing enlightenment is antagonistic to the human soul, to our curiosity, to the role of our imagination. I saw how the Moscow workbook was used to trick people into believing our ideology was flawless. But why pretend such a thing? Because you think people are so stupid that this makes them feel safe? Because you want to trick them into thinking governance or life appear simpler than they are? Isn’t there something reliably innate in our draw to a thing of worth that affirms our revulsion for lies? Won’t the need for propaganda prove we’re off the mark? Enlightenment is the last thing that should require bullying, force, lies, cover-up and propaganda. If it isn’t, life isn’t worth trying.
And then came the Nazis. The “Fascists,” repellent for encouraging division among races, rather than what I was doing which was division based on politics. And the chessboard was Spain. Just when Hem saw the Spanish poor as the best people in the world. And Hem also liked war, and a fight, and he loved feeling superior to other people maybe more than any of us do. To me, that’s the problem in so much of this. The word “Fascism” became a sort of incantation that gave ready access to that deep desire to think ourselves superior to others. Impossible-to-handle emotions crept up in short order all because Stalin feared Hitler for his rival designs on Europe. The Nazis were Socialists who hated Commies and had no illusions about who they were, and they had wiped out Stalin’s cells in Germany and would do the same everywhere else. Worse, the economic crash caused by Communism impeded Stalin’s military build-up, while the economic miracle Hitler brought Germany raised a nightmare for Stalin. And so, Stalin sent down marching orders for all of us to bully our home governments to hold off the Nazis to help him. It was detestable, for we were no longer patriots of our own countries. We were now patriots of World Communism, and we would sacrifice even our own homelands to protect Communism, which was Stalin.
We rallied as befit the threat to Stalin. Our verbiage and energy were so effective that the Nazi stigma lasts to this day, while the Communist monstrousness slips by with a hall pass. Hemingway, spoiling for a fight, spoiling for better reviews, became particularly spirited. This was when he talked to Goros, and Goros got him to agree to the lowest level of cooperation with us—to give us information, always the first step. In return we lured him with what Hemingway relished—inside dope, access to top political people and circles, where he could feel self-important and listened to. To his credit, Hemingway never completed the loop.
In the meantime, political hatreds so poisoned Spain that it was clear the fighting would be odious. Because Franco knew what the sides were capable of, and if Spain fell over the cliff to the Left then genocide would ensue. Franco sat in the middle with Stalin and Hitler on either end of the board, each seeing the chance for a trial run with all sorts of guns and tanks. We knew Stalin had already murdered 20 million even though the New York Times wouldn’t print it. Their reporter, Walter Duranty, a Communist, had even won the Pulitzer for hiding the truth about the genocide in the Soviet Union. Hitler threatened the Jews, while we Socialists were well on our way against all who wanted free enterprise. Hitler was the bad guy, Stalin the good.
Jose Robles and I were there in New York when Hemingway appeared with his new lover, and Communist, the red hot journalist Martha Gellhorn, to warn the world about the rise of the Nazi threat. “The democracies need to wake up to the Fascist threat!” His incongruous, squeaky voice grated in the cheap acoustics of the hall. “The Fascists will use Spain as a springboard to the rest of Europe!”
I didn’t look at Jose Robles standing next to me in the stage wings. I had already gone too far with him saying my piece about how Nazi Fascism hated all who opposed its agenda to gain German conquest over the world, while our Global Fascism hated all who opposed our agenda to gain Communist conquest over the world. Jose was my Spanish translator and fellow Communist. I had risked making this joke after two times when our eyes met and we both recognized in the other a doubt about a person or a slogan someone repeated.
I remember searching for a sign in the way Jose’s hands clapped for Hemingway at the big speech to the North American Committee for Spain, a front group. I tried to decipher his mental state from his clapping, how hard he clapped. I wondered if Jose had said anything about my joke. Waiting in the wings for my turn to speak, I wondered. Me, one of the most valuable Communist assets in the United States.
And then war opened in Spain.
I went there, Hemingway went there, Gellhorn went there. All we Commies flocked to Spain to be part of it. Gramsci was daring to call out Stalin and say that his Socialist genocide in Russia was not the method Communists should use for conquest in the future because the genocide wasn’t working. Communism was failing, Gramsci said, because of Christianity. Communists needed to take over the Means of Education in countries to supplant the Christian values with Communist values and, as I said, grow our crops in their fields. Gramsci showed the way to make elementary schools and entertainment our beachheads as we hid ourselves there to pivot from battlefields and firing squads to focusing the minds of their children on our truth. This peaceful approach gave me hope, because this strategy said to me that we were going to win by peaceful means rather than our usual means of fostering political bigotry, leading to intimidation.
Stalin talked about murdering Gramsci. But Gramsci was only talking these ideas at the time and his thinking mirrored the concerns of many who were afraid to speak out. And all of us in Spain waited on pins and needles. Remember, Stalin had called to Moscow the Swedish experts on race differences and Stalin listened intently to their findings. He asked them to stay in Moscow three days while he weighed their research that so fascinated Hitler. On the fourth day, Stalin announced his decision that Soviet-style Global Socialism would reject the race theories and that Global Socialists were superior to other people not by virtue of our race, but by virtue of our Marxist views. Acceptance of Marxism should determine who wins or loses, lives or dies, not race differences. All of us breathed a huge sigh of relief, because now we still had this clear distinction between us and Hitler’s Nazi Socialists. And Stalin, with his usual flourish, finalized his decision on race by executing all the Swedish experts whom he had invited to Moscow.
My orders from Moscow were for me to travel and write to raise American money for the war effort. I called on American Communists to join the “Lincoln Brigades” to go and fight in Spain. The name was another Soviet masterstroke.
The war in Spain set brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. Russian and German military advisors rushed in. Stalin’s atrocities from the Ukraine surfaced in Spanish towns and cities with the wholesale slaughter of prisoners even after they surrendered. So much for old fashioned chivalry and love of countrymen. As if they weren’t defenseless countrymen and children of God at all, but dried weeds to be scythed and burned from a field. But that’s what “class warfare” looks like. Wasn’t “Capitalism” the goiter Marx told us must be burned from the human corpus?
Our genocide was soon answered in kind by Franco. Franco was militarily brilliant, and desperate to stop us, and the war didn’t go well for our side. In Madrid and Barcelona, I saw the Soviet NKVD start rooting out the “wreckers”, “traitors” and “spoilers” who were causing our side to lose. In my travels, I saw the Soviets begin using techniques that pinched our troops between two forces where maybe the most ugly might very well be the ones at their back. This, in the Soviet mind, would cow civilian resistance. Our terror gave rise to what the other side called a “fifth column,” where civilians kept their true feelings in deep check to keep from being swept up in the Socialist cyclone of salt and burn. Soon enough, what emerged was that the war machines built by fifteen years of Soviet purges and Socialist Five-Year Plans were plainly inferior to the German. And in outrage, the Soviets kept rounding up the little people.
A sack of disgust came up in my innards, while I saw my old friend Hemingway falling more into admiration for the Soviet no-nonsense. Maybe he could detect a difference in the two Fascisms. I think he was smitten by raw Russian pugilism on the battlefield and behind it.
“The Soviet’s are the only ones who can beat Hitler!” he roared at an English journalist innocently repeating arguments from back home on staying out of the war. “It’s the Fascists, goddamnit! We have to beat Fascism!”
“Fascism, fascism, fascism,” I said. “It’s all I ever hear.”
I left Spain to raise more money. When I returned to Valencia, Jose had vanished.
I knew the Soviets had picked him up a couple times to talk to him. His face was pretty beat up after the last. But why did they suspect Jose of anything? Back in Madrid, I made demands after Jose at The Chicote, the bar-central for The Movement:
“Where’s Jose? Who last saw him?”
You know something’s wrong when, each time, you get a different answer. The sinking light in the eyes. The withdrawal of the pupils. Finally, I got this:
“You should quit asking, Dos.”
I got this point-blank from a world famous lady journalist.
“What do you mean I should quit?” I was amazed; Robles was a close friend to us all and a loyal Communist.
“You should just quit snooping around about Jose,” she repeated. Her pupils didn’t even budge. As if Robles’s life had been only a shadow.
“It’s not important to you when one of our friends just disappears?” I challenged her.
“The Cause is more important, John.”
“He’s part of The Cause!”
Her lips tensed into a frown. She gave me a shrug. “Jose came under suspicion, Dos. They brought him in a couple times for questioning.”
“Suspicion of what? Jose’s as solid as any of us!”
Again, that arrogant insinuation with the mouth. Again, as if a life is a shadow.
“Look. This is shit. Where’s Jose? Everybody in this goddamn bar, everybody in Madrid, will vouch for Jose! He’s solid. . . . Is he here? Is he in Valencia? Who has any proof that he did anything, and when can I talk to him?”
She looked around uneasily. “Don’t make a scene!” She bumped her arm into mine like this was a performance. The bar was packed as usual and rife with cigarette and pipe smoke.
“I don’t give a damn who’s watching!” I glared around at the crowd. From the glances all around I knew I was not alone in my fear about what happened to Jose. Those of us who had been around knew what could happen. “Is he here? Is he in Valencia?” Everyone with whom I made eye contact did not look down because they seemed to be staring at something other than real life. “Do the Russians have him in the basement?” The basement was the headquarters of the NKVD. I looked past my lady friend because she was obviously choosing to lie for them. “What if it was one of us? Do we want to be so easily forgotten?”
The only thing that moved was the cigarette smoke.
I left the Chicote and strode up the street to the Hotel Florida where we smiled all year about how the Russians ran their political terror operations from the basement. It had all been very hush-hush and “politically” exciting knowing that Russian friends we drank with, and that gave Hem caviar and vodka, were going the distance for the advancement of civilization. I was too angry to be afraid. They had pinched a good man, twice, maybe three times. It wasn’t Robles’s fault the war was going badly. Who were these Stalinist fucks to steal the authority from thin air to snatch a man off the street or out of a bar and play games with his life and limb?
“Is Orlov here?” I asked the NKVD soldier who cracked the rear door. Alexander Orlov was the Madrid Station Chief who was chummy with Hem.
“No,” he lied in heavy accent. “He is not in.”
“Tell him John Dos Passos wants to talk to him again.” I had already spoken with Orlov about Jose. Now, I knew he’d probably lied to me.
The soldier fumbled a shrug and shake that emphatically promised nothing.
“Is Jose Robles in there?” I pointed within. He gave me a bullshit half-shrug and upward eye tilt as he faked going through the Rolodex of people brought into our torture rooms. “You’ve questioned him, though, right?”
“No. No. No one by that name coming in.”
“I know you questioned him twice already. Right? You’ve questioned him?” I spoke accusingly to make the leap over the wall of his bad English and bullshit. He kept faking me off, and so I left angrily. I wanted to think, so I headed back to my pension and sat on the bed, my khaki uniform shirt soaked with sweat. The army-style shirt served rugged double duty in the field, and under a tweed suit jacket for speeches in front of gawking intellectuals who love anything wrapped in English tweed. My face and chest howled in damp heat as I thought of these bastards stonewalling me like I’d never done anything for them and their cause.
A polite knock arrived on the foot-thick oak of my door. “It’s open.”
Martha Gellhorn stepped in meek and mild with Arturo the owner of the Toledo bar. They were stuffed with empathy for my feelings for our missing friend.
“We all know how you feel, Dos,” Martha whined, hand wringing. She even sidled up her sex appeal by slipping onto the flouncy mattress next to me. She set both her hands on my hairy right wrist. I watched our wrists and forearms together under the soft reach of my bedside lamp, our shoes on the rag rug on the floor. “Sometimes people lose their way. They break ranks and turn on the side of right.”
“You and I both know how these people do things, Martha.” We knew, unlike Hem, because we’d been around. I knew Jose was no traitor because I had expressed my own doubts point blank and his eyes remained sympathetic yet rock steady. “They rounded him up a few times, and we all know the Russians are over-cautious, over-zealous. They—talk to a lot of people.” I chose “talk” instead of a more impolitic verb. “This is all breathlessly fun and exciting, the world of spies. But now its time to join ranks and get our friend back.”
For some unfathomable reason, Gellhorn hated this idea. “We can’t do that, John. This is war. We’re fighting for something important!” Martha’s blue eyes urged me to see. Arturo was right there with her, but rather more understanding with me.
“Why does our fight mean we give up our friend, Martha?”
“We can’t question—”
“If we can’t question, is it worth serving?”
Martha slapped her hands angrily onto her meaty white knees. She was unwilling to even consider my point. She puffed out any more arguments she was going to waste on me, stood up, patted me patronizingly on my shoulder and strode to the door. She was pissed the old honey pot sex ruse hadn’t softened me. But I knew the game. That’s why we so badly wanted Hollywood, and celebrities. “We’ll leave you to recompose yourself, John. Make sure you see the larger picture, and quit making everybody upset.” Arturo crept behind her and lightly brought to the brass latch in the door.
I got up and swung toward the tall window, and suddenly thought of Hem. He hated the Fascists and wasn’t a Communist and this stuff with Jose’s disappearance had to drive him crazy too. Together we had star power that the Madrid and Valencia NKVD and no one else on the Left could stand up to. I rushed up the Paseo Del Prado to the Palace Hotel where Hem held court in his double-room suite paid for by his North American Newspaper Alliance expense account. The usual round-the-clock gang filled the suite with talk and cigarette smoke. The “gang” consisted of international journalists, visiting celebrities, and officers from the Brigades. On the antique console table stood the bottled goods and the huge canned ham with the top pried up with ragged edges so that anyone passing could use a field knife to cut a big slice and stick it between bread.
“Hem’s in Barcelona,” Walter Duranty told me. He had just arrived and looked a little out of it as he held a bottle of Hem’s Jim Beam for himself. “Martha just left to drive all night to catch him there.”
I was annoyed. I wondered if Duranty would make his New York Times 1932 Pulitzer-winner influence of any help. I quickly caught him up on the story. At first he looked stricken and concerned, but then when I put Jose last in the Russian’s hands, his feelings congealed. He wanted no part of this. . . . Duranty, hero of the little man.
“Jose could be down in that basement right now, Walt,” I said.
“This shit happens.” The bottom of the bottle flashed coldly as he tilted it up.
I returned to my room. During the night I started to fear if our old friend was even still alive. In the morning I was making a plate of bread and cheese when one of the old waiters we all knew from the Chicote leaned in at the door and jerked his head for me to come along outside.
“It’s already over,” he said regretfully. He removed his smudged wire spectacles and wiped them with the end of his necktie, one side of the lens at a time. “I hear he disappeared for good over a week ago.”
The news was so abrupt, and he was so casual, I wanted to choke him. “On whose orders?”
The slouched shoulders lifted high, begging off. “They took him in four times. They had—” He didn’t want to say what they did. “They say they began to fear he knew too much of their tactics. Maybe he was too upset to remain a good comrade.” He shrugged meekly and looked off through his half-smudged lenses up the street. Not with paranoia, but in the way of an elderly boulevardier. “So, they—”
“When? When did this happen?”
He shook his sad face. “I haven’t seen him since ten days ago. I heard things right around that time.” He appraised me all over my face with deep sympathy. “I’m sorry, Comrade. He was a good comrade. With so many friends it shouldn’t happen.”
“But why Jose? Did someone denounce him?”
“No one denounced him. Because they cover it up, it must have been for nothing, yes? Which is worse.” He lifted his fingertips as if wanting to brush my sleeve, but he left the gesture upright like a flag of sad futility over the whole affair. “I’m sorry, Comrade.” He shrugged goodbye and made his way back toward the Chicote and I knew he would stay below the Gran Via to avoid the sniper fire. The Chicote would be crowded with soldiers and journalists at this hour. And they maybe would question where he had gone off to. He didn’t want to get himself denounced.
I got no reply when I cabled Communist friends in New York and Paris exposing how I was being obstructed and lied to. I wanted at least to claim Jose’s body for his family. Orlov was avoiding me and so I knocked on the NKVD door to make a nuisance. Orlov finally talked with me in the door, blocking the way. He claimed his men never saw Jose after they questioned him the one time a month ago. He said no one denounced him and Jose did nothing wrong that he knew of. The usually friendly NKVD officer didn’t smile at me flatteringly now the way he did with us literary lights. His grey eyes were petulant, impatient, resenting having to hold my hand over this stupid political rumor.
Two days later, Hem was back and took me aside at a public conference the Russians were throwing. His wide, handsome face held indulgent irritation for my meddling. He averted his eyes a lot as we walked for privacy to the Plaza Mayor which was filled with tents for the Brigades. Hemingway closed his eyes and squinted with acute regret, though I sensed his feelings were not so much for our friend.
“Are you a coward, Dos?” he said, palm open. We had stopped away from the smoky cook fires. Around us, we could make out the rubble and holes punched in ancient buildings from artillery. “You know these guys! They have to protect us!”
“How does what they did to Jose protect us?”
He squinted again, not wanting to hear it. “Come on. We’ve been in two wars, you and I. You know what we’ve seen. This is the way strong leadership is. We have to be tough!”
“Hem. They don’t give a shit about civil liberties!”
“They’re the only ones helping win this war! They’re the only ones who can beat Hitler!”
“And is this what we’re left with after Hitler?”
Pebbles crunched as Hem spun on his foot like a man shot, trying not to hear me come out against the Party. “Dos. Come on. We can’t say stuff like that.”
“We’re all better than this. Our loyalty deserves more than this. We both know what’s been going on, and we didn’t say anything. We kept our mouths shut for the important work part, and we kept hoping things would get better. But they’re getting worse. These people fool you with chants about helping the poor. But I’ve been to Russia. They aren’t helping the poor. And if they go this long showing no basic affection for giving the benefit of the doubt, for plain decency—then what is this all for?”
Earnest listened, and heard. “It’s war, Dos. And if you turn your back on this—every critic in New York will lay waste to you. You’ll lose all your friends! How are you going to make a living as a writer?”
“I don’t think war ever stops for some people,” I said. And, yes. Maybe we were headed into another Dark Age when artists could only portray what The Religion let them.
“What if we were in Germany having this discussion, Hem? Would you be telling me to shut up and just keep helping?”
“It’s not the same thing, Dos. Please. Please see it.”
“Frankly, I don’t. And I’m disappointed you don’t.”
We stood in the sandy lane of the park soaking in the brutal effort of each of us trying to make the other see. I fixed on trying to catch his gaze, desperate to win his talent and name so that we could denounce this garbage for what they were. All the years hiking trails, Key West, showing each other the world, flooded back. I could see his heart was pinned by the camaraderie in the violence that men and women can sometimes find a rationalization for, and become addicted to. And, he knew the easy glory and fame they had ingeniously stockpiled to bribe whomsoever stood silently by their sexy new take on Man’s Inhumanity to Man.
A horn raked my insides thinking that Hem might stick.
I tried a last time. “I’ve been piecing it together for awhile: They introduce the Good by claiming to be against the death penalty and poverty; but you find in time they are simply for using the death penalty on only one crime—challenging them for political power; and they support poverty so long as it’s for anybody and everybody but themselves. This is too much, Hem. It is so big and damnable that it defies seeing when so many ordinary people don’t know it’s behind them.”
Hem gave me a clever, cold look for a very long awhile, then said:
“Don’t be such a cry baby, Dos.”
When I walked out of the park he called after me:
“They’ll hate you, Dos. You’ll never publish another word.” The last thing he said was, “I can already read the reviews on your book! . . . You want to hear?”
I packed up my room, my typewriter, my socks, a sandwich, and left Madrid. I hitched rides to our lines where I knew of another writer-thinker I wanted to compare notes with, named George Orwell. Orwell, loyal to the Socialist ideal for a long time, was now having a tough time himself as his own group was being accused of being traitors by the NKVD. The charge was based solely on a power squabble. Yet Orwell and his wife were now hiding out. Reluctantly, I parted ways with him, and the two of us joined in a fight to expose a threat that always lurks when people refuse to question. Thankfully, Spain won its war over the Left, probably preventing the bloodbath for a million Spaniards, yet somehow putting the war forever in the column of misdeeds until what prevails is a more objective take on Twentieth Century history. I will know that day has come when I see genocide by the Left count for something, when Fascism is Fascism, when Stalin and Mao are history’s worst villains, with Adolf Hitler third or fourth behind Genghis Khan, or maybe even fifth, behind the Tai Ping Rebellion. Orwell went on to write classics on the monolith. Regrettably for us all, his talent blinked out just after 1984 was published.
Hemingway feared for his reputation when in the 1950s America briefly woke up to the takeover, and the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover uncovered the extensive effort to rewrite American education and entertainment, and American scientists thinking it was a good thing to give Stalin the bomb. Hem lost his beloved farm in Cuba to Castro in 1959, and didn’t trust them enough to stick around even after all he’d done for them.
Publishing changed more each year as I heard the voice of modern society fall in synch with too-familiar slogans. The new moral message could be read like the map of a losing war by anyone who knew what to look for. The movies went from framing universal truths to framing tired political truths. Traditional America was now “courageously” depicted as the demon. The new “hero” always exposed Old America to The New York Times, and together they breathlessly exposed the “hate and hypocrisy” to the hippies who were unwittingly helping the gigantic reptile egg of a new, political One Percent birth from America’s own ass.
To me, it was humanity lifting the revolver to its own brain. But, in this case, the patient never dies. They wake up and see what they’ve let their unquestioning do. Each day I lived after Spain, I moved more to the Republican Party and the side that knew how to evaluate freedom until one day when the patient woke up again.