by | May 11, 2021 | Mystery Minute | 10 comments

by Z.J. Czupor

He was a complicated cat and a skilled obfuscator. He was an author, a movie script writer, a suave pipe-smoking spymaster, a defender of the law—and a breaker of the law.

Journalist James Rosen called him a “passionate patriot; committed Cold Warrior; a lover of fine food, wine and women; incurable intriguer, wicked wit and superb storyteller.”

A Prolific Author

As an author, he was prolific. He wrote eighty novels, mostly spy thrillers. They were published in paperback with covers that featured women in various stages of dress, or undress. But he didn’t like the covers for he thought they “cheapened the contents.”

He said he followed James M. Cain’s diction of “slapping the reader in the face within the first ten pages.” Other writers who most influenced him were Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and John Dos Passos.

The New York Times called his debut novel East of Farewell (1942), “the best sea story of WWII.” Written at the age of 28, the novel earned him a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Creative Writing (1946). He beat out Gore Vidal and Truman Capote.

Because he was a CIA employee, he wrote under several pseudonyms including Robert Dietrich, R.S. Donoghue, David St. John, Gordon Davis, and John Baxter. Most of his novels were characterized as “predictable concoctions of espionage and sex in exotic settings.” He earned $20,000 a year from his writing. He also wrote twenty-five novels under his own name—E. Howard Hunt (1918-2007).

Yes, that E. Howard Hunt, who was infamous for his role in the Watergate Scandal of 1972.

Born in Hamburg, New York in 1918, Everette Howard Hunt, Jr., graduated from Brown University proficient in Latin, Greek, and Spanish, and a degree in English. During WWII, he served in the U.S. Navy; The Army Air Force; as a war correspondent for Life magazine; and the Office of Strategic Services, (OSS), in China. The OSS was a cloak and dagger unit—the front runner to the Central Intelligence Agency. He served as the CIA’s Chief of Covert Action in Japan and Chief of Station in Uruguay and in Mexico City.

Between 1942–1972, Hunt wrote thirty-six novels, of which twenty-three were published by paperback houses. He said, “I had just married and needed more than my government salary, so I began writing for Gold Medal (Books). Money was the motive, plus my own pleasure in writing for an appreciative mass audience. I could do a book in two to three weeks, working part time, so it was no strain at all, and the rewards were prompt.”

E. Howard Hunt during his imprisonment at the Federal Prison Camp, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, 1978. Credit: Michael Brennan/Getty

A Prolific Covert Agent

As a CIA agent, Hunt conducted a wide range of espionage and covert actions including:

  • Assisting Cuban exiles in the failed “Bay of Pigs” (1961) operation to overthrow Fidel Castro.
  • Helping plot the overthrow of Guatemala’s duly elected communist president, (1954).
  • Assisting in the subterfuge that helped Bolivians murder the Argentine revolutionary leader Che Guevara.
  • Running anti-Soviet propaganda campaigns in the Balkans.
  • Investigating Senator Edward Kennedy’s possible extramarital affairs, and the incident where Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in Sen. Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts in July 1969. Nothing came of the investigation.
  • And many more.

After he retired from the CIA in 1970, he worked as a writer for the Robert R. Mullen Company, a public relations firm, and CIA front company. From there he was hired as a $100/day consultant to work on Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, where he joined the White House Special Investigations Unit.

The Watergate Scandal

In the spring of 1972, he organized the bugging of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. But the bungled operation resulted in his arrest along with his fellow operative G. Gordon Liddy and five other burglars. Three months later, the gang, aka, “The White House Plumbers,” was indicted on federal charges. The break-in led to the greatest scandal in American political history of its time and the downfall of Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Hunt then pressured the White House and the Committee to Re-Elect Nixon for $120,000 in cash to cover the gang’s legal fees, for family support, and expenses. As a result, large amounts of money were passed to Hunt and his accomplices to ensure their silence, and for them to plead guilty. That December, his wife, Dorothy, was carrying $10,000 in $100 bills but was killed in a United Airline plane crash along with forty-three other passengers. Foul play was suspected but never proved.

The Washington Post and The New York Times investigations broke open the payoff scheme, which resulted in the beginning of the end of the cover-up and what we now know as “The Watergate Scandal.”

In 1973, Hunt was convicted of burglary, conspiracy, and wiretapping which got him thirty-three months of prison time. He spent time in thirteen federal prisons, where he was beaten, robbed, suffered a stroke, and worked hard labor on a cattle farm. While in prison, his sons turned to drugs and his daughters became estranged from the sons.

His daughter, Kevan Hunt Spence, who grew up to be a lawyer, said, “Our life as we knew it came to an explosive end. Our home was lost. Our financial security was lost. Our mother was dead. Our father was in prison.”

Among the many novels Hunt wrote, his favorite was The Berlin Ending (Berkeley/Putnam, 1973) for he said it allowed him the opportunity to fictionalize several espionage cases of which he was aware. And the book helped him to externalize his own Watergate plight just before imprisonment.

When Hunt went to prison his publisher and critics thought his literary reputation would suffer and his readers would forget him. Just the opposite happened—his sales soared. Books written under his pen names were re-issued as written by E. Howard Hunt, “the former CIA agent and Watergate conspirator.”

Hunt also wrote three non-fiction works including his memoir, American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond (John Wiley, 2007), co-authored by Greg Aunapu; Give Us This Day (1973) his first-hand account of the Bay of Pigs debacle; and Undercover: Memoirs of a Secret Agent (1974).

Was He or Wasn’t He?

Aside from his literary prowess and criminal history, there are many conspiracy theories linking him —erroneously and maliciously—to John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Several books and articles claim Hunt was in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and implicated him in a conspiracy to kill JFK. In 1978, Hunt denied knowledge of any conspiracy and said “no comment” when asked if he was in Dallas on that day. He sued media outlets for libel, prevailed, and was awarded $650,000 in damages. In 1983, the case was overturned on appeal due to an error in jury instructions.

In his later years, Hunt filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors and struggled to pay legal fees of $800,000. He lived quietly with his second wife, Laura Martin Hunt. In those last years, he lost his left leg to arteriosclerosis and suffered from lupus, cancers of the jaw and prostrate, gangrene, and loss of hearing.

Six months before his death, he confessed to his two sons that he wasn’t involved in the plot to kill JFK. But he claimed to know who was. He scribbled notes implicating then Vice President Lyndon Johnson and several rogue CIA operatives were involved in the plot to kill Kennedy. He claimed the plot originated in Miami and was to take place there, but Johnson moved the venue to Dallas where he (Johnson) could control the security scene.

Hunt also claimed that a Corsican Mafia assassin fired the fatal shot from the grassy knoll near Dealey Plaza in Dallas. He told his sons he had deleted these references from his memoir, on the advice of his attorney to avoid possible perjury charges. Hunt’s attorney Bill Synder said, “Howard was just speculating. He had no hard evidence.” The Los Angeles Times said it examined the materials offered by the sons to support the story and found them to be “inconclusive.”

Hunt once said, “I would say this in terms of my career, that my career provided me with everything that I wanted, and I think a man is fortunate if he can say that at the end of his life.”

E. Howard Hunt, Jr. died of pneumonia in Miami in 2007. He was 88. His many adventures inspired the character “Ethan Hunt,” the protagonist in the Mission Impossible films.

Author’s Notes: This Mystery Minute title plays off the title of John le Carré’s spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1974). David John Moore Cromwell (1931-2020) wrote under the pseudonym of John le Carré and based his title off the nursery rhyme “Tinker Tailor” (c. 1475).

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  1. Karna Small Bodman

    What an incredible summary of E. Howard Hunt’s life as a CIA operative, and especially as a prolific author of 88 thrillers–and being able to pen a bestselling story in 2-3 weeks! Amazing. Thanks for all of these details that have not been widely known – and for contributing such interesting items to our Rogue site here!

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thank you Karna. Having lived through the Watergate years, it was interesting for me to dig into in Hunt’s background and character which made him all that more real. He was definitely a complicated and creative man.

  2. Jenny Milchman

    A completely novel (pun) person to me. What a story!

    • ZJ Czupor

      Jenny, glad you enjoyed the story. I was amazed at all he accomplished — good and bad. I can’t imagine the ethical and moral dilemmas a CIA agent must face every day and continue to do his/her job while maintaining stoic professionalism to their oath. Tough duty. BTW, I liked your pun.

  3. Gayle Lynds

    What a fascinating story … achievement & disgrace, and a wickedly talented man. I didn’t remember his wife’s death, with all the money she was carrying. And I’d forgotten how successful his writing career was after prison. Thank you ZJ for another really interesting tale!

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thanks Gayle, glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Lisa Black

    That is amazing–I never knew any of that!! Oddly, what I’m curious about is why he wrote under so many pen names. Nowadays a publisher would want you to pick one and build up a following.

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thanks Lisa, my understanding is that Hunt used those pen names when he was still an active agent with the CIA and considering all the espionage he was involved with I’m guessing he wanted to remain anonymous.

  5. Carla Neggers

    Quite a life! I knew he wrote but had no idea it was that much or the other details here. One of those life stories we couldn’t make up.

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thanks Carla. He was, indeed, an interesting and complicated man.