Title: East of Farewell
Author: Howard Hunt
Hunt, E. Howard (1942). East of Farewell. New York: A. A. Knopf
- Electronic copy from HathiTrust http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006602168
Date Updated: January 17, 2017
Comments by Rachel Donadio
When E. Howard Hunt died last month [January, 2007] at 88, he was remembered as the longtime Central Intelligence Agency officer who helped organize the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and served jail time for orchestrating the Watergate break-in. Less well known is that Hunt was once a promising literary writer.
Like so many in the first wave of C.I.A. men, Hunt, a Brown graduate, worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, then headed to Europe in 1948, where he traveled in the Paris-Vienna orbit of other literary-minded Ivy Leaguers working in government jobs, some covertly. He spent much of the ’50s in Latin America, and left the agency in 1970, having been sidelined in the ’60s after the Bay of Pigs mission went awry. But before all that, while still in his 20s, Hunt published short stories in The New Yorker and Cosmopolitan, then a showcase for serious fiction.
Not exactly on a par with Nabokov and Cheever, whose work was appearing in The New Yorker at the same time, Hunt instead imitated the hard-boiled Hemingwayesque style in vogue in those years. “I thought of the North Atlantic, where I’d rolled around on a tin can for almost a year,” he wrote in “Departure,” a story about soldiers waiting to be sent home from the South Pacific, published in December 1943. “That had been tough, too, but there was always Boston or New York or Norfolk at one end of the line and Reykjavik or Londonderry at the other. At least they were places. Towns, cities, villages with people and pubs and stores and shops and girls who looked like girls you’d seen before.”
Hunt’s first novel, East of Farewell, published in 1942, when he was 23, was also a fictionalized account of his time on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. Hunt recalled his surprise when the prestigious publisher Knopf agreed to take it on. “Amazingly to me, the work was quickly accepted,” Hunt wrote in his memoir, American Spy, which is scheduled to appear in March [see footnote]. “Reviews were all I could have hoped for, but I couldn’t compete with the real-life war blaring in the newspaper headlines and newsreels. Sales were not good enough to escalate me to full-time author.”
The New York Times reviewer called East of Farewell a “crashing start for a new writer.” Critics weren’t so fond of Hunt’s fourth novel, Bimini Run (1949), a love triangle set in the Caribbean. The Times found it “lifeless and unexciting,” but it sold 150,000 copies and Warner Brothers bought it for $35,000, a fortune at the time. In 1946, Hunt had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and had gone to Mexico to write a novel, “Stranger in Town,” which sold well in paperback. That year, two other up-and-coming writers were denied the same fellowship. “The only thing Truman Capote and I have in common was Howard Hunt beat us out for a Guggenheim,” Gore Vidal recalled in an interview. “That sort of summed up my view of prizes and foundation work; they would instinctively go to the one who was least deserving.”
In 1948, Hunt went to Paris to work for the Marshall Plan, ostensibly distributing aid through the Economic Cooperation Administration. There, Hunt crossed paths with another former O.S.S. man, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. In his 2000 memoir, A Life in the Twentieth Century, Schlesinger recalled that Hunt had “attracted attention” in the E.C.A. “as a certified published novelist.” “I did not much like him; he seemed on the sneaky side,” Schlesinger wrote. In a recent telephone interview, Schlesinger said he hadn’t read any of Hunt’s books, but reiterated that he found him “a sneaky character.” In his 1974 memoir, Undercover, Hunt was similarly dismissive of Schlesinger, seeing him as part of “the E.C.A.’s ambivalent attitude toward Communism.”
Indeed, Hunt’s hard-line views increasingly put him at odds with the more genteel anti-Communist liberalism prevalent within the C.I.A. in those years. It was a stance he shared with William F. Buckley Jr., who joined the C.I.A. after graduating from Yale and worked undercover for Hunt in Mexico City, one of the first agency men posted there in the early years of the Cold War. Beyond politics, the two men also shared a taste for good food and wine, often dining at what Hunt said was “then the only good French restaurant in Mexico City.”
In an interview, Buckley recalled that Hunt was remarkably prolific. “He did have a reputation for simply holing up on a Wednesday morning and then finishing the book by the weekend,” Buckley said. “But he never discussed it. That was a completely discrete operation.”
Back in Washington after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Hunt wrote increasingly pulpy, glamorous espionage fantasies, far removed from the drudgery of his actual duties. In a column last month, Buckley recalled that Allen Dulles, then head of the agency, told Hunt—who wrote more than 70 novels—that he could continue to publish his fiction without clearance, as long as he used a pseudonym. (Hunt’s noms de plume included John Baxter, Robert Dietrich and David St. John.) “Hunt handed me his latest book, Catch Me in Zanzibar, by Gordon Davis,” Buckley wrote. “I leafed through it and found printed on the last page, ‘You have just finished another novel by Howard Hunt.’ I thought this hilarious. So did Howard. The reaction of Allen Dulles is not recorded.”
It was Hunt’s time working for the C.I.A. in South America—when he helped overthrow the leftist president Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 and later became station chief in Montevideo, Uruguay—that caught the attention of Norman Mailer, who included a fictionalized portrait of Hunt in Harlot’s Ghost, his 1991 novel about the C.I.A. In one scene, Mailer describes a dinner at an agency safe house in Key Biscayne. “I used to engage the place occasionally during the pre-Pigs period, but Howard occupies it now, and demonstrates for me that there are amenities to agency life,” the narrator says. “We had a corkeroo of a repast, polished off with a Château Yquem, served up—I only learn of their existence at this late date—by two contract agency caterers, who shop for special occasions, chef it forth in haute cuisine, and serve it themselves.”
“I found him fascinating,” Mailer said of Hunt in a recent interview. “Not in a large way but as a man of middle rank in intelligence. He was so full of virtues and vices and airs and vanities that I thought he made a marvelous character.”
Vidal called Hunt’s prose “overheated, slightly dizzy.” In a comprehensive analysis of Hunt’s work published in The New York Review of Books in 1973, Vidal introduced the eccentric theory that Hunt might have written the diary that was found in the car of Arthur H. Bremer, the unemployed busboy who in 1972 attempted to assassinate Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. “I was fairly convinced after reading the diaries very carefully when they finally came out that he must have had a hand in them,” Vidal said recently. “I’m still convinced of it. There are similarities in the style.”
Vidal’s essay appeared in the heat of the Watergate scandal. No longer with the C.I.A.—he later said he quit the agency because it “was infested with Democrats,” although by then his C.I.A. career had pretty much run aground—Hunt was working in public relations and still writing novels when he got a call from another Brown alumnus, Charles Colson, then special counsel to President Nixon. Colson recruited Hunt to help wiretap the Democratic National Committee headquarters and organize the break-in.
When the scandal broke, Buckley offered Hunt the services of his personal attorney for his Watergate trial. But in his column, he offered a scathing assessment of his former boss. “Hunt had lived outside the law in the service first of his country, subsequently of President Nixon,” he wrote. Hunt had invented himself through his novels, but even in the largest sense, his fictions were at odds with the truth. In the end, Buckley wrote, “Hunt, the dramatist, didn’t understand that political realities at the highest level transcend the working realities of spy life.”
For an extensive review of all of H. H. Hunt’s books, see Maelstrom (1948)
 Hunt, E. Howard (2007) with Greg Aunapu; foreword by William F. Buckley, Jr. American Spy: My Secret History in The CIA, Watergate, And Beyond. Hoboken, NJ : John Wiley & Sons