Parallel Lives: Jose Antonio Roman, Jr., Ernest Hemingway and the FBI


There is a fact about Hemingway that few people know, and that is that for most of his life  he was surveilled by the FBI. As people have come to realize, that surveillance, along with other factors such as injuries to his head, years of heavy drinking, and his feeling that he had “lost it” as a writer,contributed to the evolution of his paranoia, depression, and finally, his suicide.

Hemingway attracted the attention of the FBI during WWII while he was living in Cuba.  He devised a  plan together with the then-U.S. ambassador in Havana, Spruille Braden, to keep an eye on Spanish citizens residing in Cuba who had connections with the fascist Franco government in Spain.Hemingway suspected that they were trying to turn  Cuba to the Fascist cause.For the purpose of thwarting their plans Hemingway, a longtime foe of Fascism, set up a network of spies loyal only to him who worked around the clock, spying on their targets and thus preventing them from taking further action.

However, some elements in the FBI considered him not so much an anti-Fascist as a communist sympathizer After he reported a sighting of an enemy submarine in Cuban waters, which couldn’t be confirmed by official channels, his spy network was shut down and the FBI focused more on him and his contacts with the former Spanish Republicans.  He was even at that point fully aware that FBI officials were assigned to monitor him.  He referred to these agents as “Franco’s Iron Cavalry” and a bunch of “Nazi mediocrity.”. Thus, the file which is today open to the public was kept on him for the most of his life.

For twenty years Hemingway lived in and loved Cuba.  Not matter where he wandered or where he roamed, he always returned to her.  Duringthe time he lived in Cuba, 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.

Among his many friends, he had one named AEHotchner, his hunting buddy and the man who would be his biographer.  Hemingway called on him when he was having problems finishing a piece with the word limit required.  Hotcher found Hemingway exhausted and worn out. However, he believed that the weary 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.  He found an old man living in a state of extreme mental illness and paranoia.  Hemingway was absolutely convinced that  the FBI was following him, surveilling his every move, tapping his phones and ransacking his things.

Hotchner recalled that when Ernest and their friend, Duke MacMullen met him at the station to drive him out to Ketchum, they “did not stop at the bar opposite the station as we usually did because Ernest was anxious to get on the road. I asked why the hurry. ‘The Feds.’  He continued “‘It’s the worst hell. 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.’

A few months later Hemingway’s wife would be prompted to admit him to a mental hospital where he received electric shocks until he couldn’t remember who he was anymore. He killed himself shortly after his 36th electric shock.

In the 1980s, Hemingway’s FBI file was released following a Freedom of Information request by Jeffrey Myers, an academic then at the University of Colorado. The file demonstrated a keen interest in Hemingway which began with  his wartime attempts to set up an anti-fascist spy network and persisted until he entered the Mayo Clinic in 1960.   The FBI admitted they were following Hemingway and ransacked his belongings.It was proven that his phones were tapped and that his correspondence was monitored.

There were other contributing factors’ it was not just the surveillance which Hemingway had been aware of and endured for so many years.  As he and his wife were flying over the Congo, his plane was struck an abandoned utility pole and “crash landed in heavy brush”. Hemingway’s injuries included a head wound while Mary broke two ribs

Hemingway’s psychiatrist would conclude that late in life, Hemingway had developed symptoms of psychosis likely related to his underlying affective illness and superimposed alcoholism and traumatic brain injury.

Once he reached his sixties, Hemingway found that he could no longer write. In the spring of 1961, he was asked to contribute something brief to a presentation volume for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Just a single sentence. He couldn’t do it. “It just won’t come anymore,” he told a close friend,  crying as he said it.

His friend and biographer, AE Hotchner sadly admitted,  that it was not just Hemingway’s belief that the best days of his writing career were over, his glory days were behind him, but also, the fact that he was aware of this surveillance that drove him to commit suicide.  What Hotchner and others had previously regarded as paranoia, was not that at all.  Hemingway had been absolutely right.

Jose Antonio Roman, Jr. was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, into a family which was unique in the sense that it was neither working class or without status.  His mother’s father owned a large furniture factory.  His mother had been educated to be a teacher.  While his father’s family had no such petite bourgeois background, his mother had a great deal of status in the Santurce community.  She was a “bruha” a witch of sorts, who knew how to evoke the blessings of saints to help people with their problems:  how to acquire money, or get back a lover, or regain health.  Her fame brought her fortune, and both gave her high aspirations for her son, Jose Antonio.  She set her mind on the idea that he would woo and win, Petra, the only daughter of the furniture factory owner.

Jose’s heart lay otherwhere…with a prostitute named Kitty who  worked the brothels of San Juan.  From the moment he was with her, until the day she died, there was no one else but her for him.  However, ever the obedient son, he courted and won the hand of Petra. Less than one year later, their first child, a daughter named Petrine, was born, and less than a year after that, Jose Antonio Roman, Jr.

Jose, Sr. of course, went to work in his father in law’s factory, where he learned to be a carpenter.  His father in law hated him, and not even the birth of his grandchildren mediated that hatred.  He degraded and humiliated Jose, Sr. at every opportunity.  Fed up with the daily dose of degradation, tired of a loveless marriage, and longing to see the world beyond the shores of Puerto Rico, Jose joined the Merchant Marines as ship’s carpenter.  He would never return to Santurce and somewhere along the way, he became a member of the seaman’s union and converted to Communism.

Not so many years later, Jose, Jr. would go to live in his father’s house, with his father’s second wife, the unforgettable Kitty, and his numerous siblings He would be sent to live with his father as a result of the brutal beatings he had received from his mother’s lover.  Beatings directed to his skull, which gave him concussions so bad, they caused blood to run out of his ears.

In his father’s house he rejoiced in his father’s love, and in his place as his father’s firstborn son.  Part and parcel of that position was that he would willingly and joyfully follow in his father’s footsteps.  By the age of l7 he could become a master carpenter, and even before that he would become a dedicated Communist and a dues paying member of the Provisional Organizing Committee of the Communist Party.  Also, from the day he went to live with his father, he would be surveilled by the FBI.  That and his traumatic brain injuries, would  lead him, as they did Hemingway, into the depths of paranoid schizophrenia and eventually,  to take his own life.

When I first met him, I was struck by his good looks, his masculine body, his surety.  It took one moment for me to know that this man would be the father of my children.As far as I was concerned,  his fate and destiny were sealed, forever intertwined with mine.

When I first met him, he was living in the basement of a building…where he had a bed, an antique piano, and strung out on a clothesline, a beautiful wardrobe of clothes.  I asked him why he was living in a basement; after all, he was a master carpenter, he had a union job, he made good money.  He said to me, quite matter-of-factly, that he was a Communist and was hiding from the FBI.  “They go to my job you know.  But they tell my company not to fire me because they want to know where I am.  But they do not know where I live.”

We got married and went on a short honeymoon.  When we came back our neighbors all rushed to tell us that the FBI had been there asking about us.  They were told not to tell us.  Wherever we went, wherever we moved, they were there.  When we left apartments, they came in after us.  I would see them, sitting in cars parked in front of our house day after day.    For at least a decade, they followed us.  Eventually, like Hemingway, Jose would descend into the depths of paranoid schizophrenia.  He began to hear voices telling him to go to places where political confrontations were taking place.  He began to be gone for longer and longer periods of time, so that I, the wife of a highly skilled union worker, found myself, with one young child and expecting another, living on welfare in a fifth floor tenement walkup in the drug infested part of New York City known as “Alphabet City.”    Soon I began to get phone calls from mental hospitals around the country asking me for money.

I got a divorce.  I went on with my life.  Got an education, a profession, remarried, had another child, got divorced again, started a successful business, became a writer.

Two years ago, my oldest daughter by Jose, contacted me to tell me that her father – she referred to him as Jose Roman, had committed suicide.  His body had been broken by accidents and worn out by years of working as a carpenter, and he could no longer hold a hammer.  He was homeless and living in a homeless shelter.  He had become a drinker.  And when the shelter told him he had to take his possessions out of the basement or they would have them put in the streets, he made a most exquisite noose (it was noted in the police report) and hung himself.

Mary Metzger is a 74 year old semi retired teacher. She did her undergraduate work at S.U.N.Y. Old Westbury and her graduate work In Dialectics under Bertell Ollman at New York University. She has taught numerous subjects, from Public Sector Labor Relations to Philosophy of Science, to many different levels of students from the very young to Ph.D. candidates, in many different institutions and countries from Afghanistan to Russia. She has been living in Russia for the past 12 years where she focuses on research in the Philosophy of Science and History of the Dialectic, and writes primarily for Countercurrents. She is the mother of three, the grandmother of five, and the great grandmother of two.




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