Sunday, January 12, 2014

Suspicious Minds


Herbert Mitgang, who died this past November at 93, was an editor, journalist, non-fiction writer, novelist, playwright, and TV documentary producer. He was also a member of the New York State Bar. Man, does a law degree open up doors or what? I mean, it's not like a diploma from The Academy of Radio and Television Broadcasting gets you a seat on the Supreme Court ("Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commision"--right after this quick word from our sponsor!") I want to focus on Mitgang the non-fiction writer and a book he came out with in 1988.





J. Edgar Hoover was head of the FBI from 1924 until his death at 77 in 1972, a period which spanned both Republican and Democratic administrations. Among his self-appointed duties was keeping files on thousands of Americans, some of them prominent members of both Republicans and Democratic administrations. This is one guy who didn't lay awake at night worrying about losing his job. He also kept files on prominent writers, files that Mitgang managed to get a hold of through the Freedom of Information Act. Here's a page from Ernest Hemingway's file:




Well, I should hope that physical and mental illness would be considered a problem. Those of you familiar with Hemingway's prose style can only speculate on what drove him to seek psychiatric care. Was he having nightmares about adverbs? Was he beset by a sudden, inexplicable urge to turn a phrase? We may never know for sure. The FBI sure didn't. They didn't know a lot of things.  I had a remarkably easy time finding out who George Sevier may have been through Google. He was  Hemingway's family doctor back in Idaho. Except his last name was Saviers with an a and a second s. No wonder Hemingway was concerned about registering under an assumed name. He was afraid the G-Men would fuck up the spelling. Notice, too, that the document's lower right hand corner is stamped "crime research." Guess that makes him criminally insane! Whatever he was, Hemingway seemed rather conscious of the FBI. Imagine his conversation with the staff after checking into the Mayo Clinic:

HEMINGWAY: The FBI! They're after me, doc! Everyone says I'm stark raving mad! But I'm not! Why, I've never been that descriptive in my life! It's the feds, doc! You gotta do something, doc! You believe me, don't you, doc?!

ATTENDING PHYSICIAN: Of course I believe you, Mr. Hemingway, I mean, Saviers (nurse, prepare the sedative.) Now, how about signing this copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls? It's for my brother-in-law. He fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

HEMINGWAY: The FBI is following my every move! They're everywhere, I tell you, everywhere!

NURSE: Gosh, I guess what they say is true about there being a thin line between creativity and madness!

FBI AGENT: How do you spell Sevier again?

In case you're wondering about the blacked-out sentences, decades after Hemingway's death, the FBI still felt they had to hide certain things, for fear of giving away Bureau methods and procedures (rumor has it that Special Agent Tolson, undercover as a candy stripe nurse, kept pestering the author about Alice B. Toklas. Meanwhile, another agent had questions for the attending physician concerning his brother-in-law.)

Hemingway eventually did receive electroshock therapy. He was released, and three months later...


You'll note the sub-headline calls it an accident, claiming he was cleaning a shotgun. That was just a cover story. As his wife later admitted, Hemingway committed suicide. Nobody was too surprised. After all, he was so delusional toward the end.




Speaking of delusions...

...here's some more tidbits gleaned from Hoover's files:

Dorothy Parker: Another suicidal writer, though one who ultimately died of natural causes ("Razors pain you/Rivers are damp/Acid stains you/And drugs cause cramp...") Parker thought Spain could do a lot better than Francisco Franco and said so. The FBI disagreed and kept her under surveillance for 25 years. They finally interviewed her in 1951, reporting she was "nervous." Well, duh! If two guys in trench coats and sunglasses showed up at your house, how calmly would you take it? Her file also said she dressed neatly. See? Those Algonquin Round Table types weren't so dissolute after all. Parker's file was said to be 900 pages long, with 100 held back. So what's in that 100? I'm told by a source that I can't reveal that Parker's celebrated quips went right over the agents heads ("whore to culture? Hmm...")

 
Norman Mailer: According to his file, he went on a talk show in 1960 and said there were only two religions left in America: the FBI and medical science. This understandably raised the ire of J. Edgar Hoover. As far as he was concerned, the FBI was the only religion left in America.

Rex Stout: In 1965, Stout came out with a new Nero Wolfe mystery titled the The Doorbell Rang. A wealthy matron (I've never known any that were described as impoverished) buys 10,000 copies of The FBI Nobody Knows by Fred J. Cook (a real book published in 1964) and sends them to influential people, including members of Congress. Now she finds her phones have been tapped, her friends and employees interviewed, and that she's being followed. She wisely skips the Mayo Clinic and instead contacts the corpulent shut-in detective Nero Wolfe, and his assistant Archie Goodwin, who does the actual legwork, and asks them to put a stop to all the harassment, which, being fictional, they're able to do. Unfortunately for Stout, he was as non-fictional as Cook's book, and had to undergo much the same grief as his made-up matron. However, he may have been harassed all the way to the bank as the already-popular writer's new mystery received much attention in the press. A mortified FBI referred all questions about the book to the Crime Records Divisions, before deciding some time later that Stout was "just a bearded beatnik looking for publicity." Crazy, man.

Dashiell Hammett: Widely acknowledged as the creator of the "hardboiled" detective story (as opposed to Agatha Christie, who was more sunny side up.) According to Raymond Chandler, Hammett "took murder out of the vicar's rose garden and gave it back to the people who were really good at it." However, the FBI at the time seemed less interested in murder, whether committed in a vicar's rose garden or elsewhere, than communism. Was Hammett a communist? Hard to say. If you google "Hammett" and "communist" you'll get any number of web sites, operated by both lefties and righties, that matter-of-factly assert that he was indeed a fellow traveler. Yet the FBI (or the Army, who also kept a file on Hammett after he re-joined the service during World War II) couldn't say for sure. The problem has to do with so-called "front" organizations. Hoover believed, or said he believed, that Russian spies were coming to our shores and taking advantage of our First Amendment by setting up groups like the League of American Writers or the Civil Rights Congress that lefty types like Hammett then joined, whether they (or the FBI, for that matter) knew for sure were independent of the Party or not. There's also the question of what exactly makes a communist a communist. Do you actually have to carry a card, or is it simply enough to agree with them? How does one distinguish a communist from a socialist. Or a syndicalist? Or a liberal? It's certainly doable, except the FBI didn't. You can always just restrict your definition of communism to some Russian governmental system where a dictator packs anyone off he doesn't like to a gulag in Siberia, if he doesn't "purge" them first. If the FBI had taken that definition and ran with it, that'd be fine by me. But, no, Hoover cared less about gulags and purges than egalitarianism, which some at the time felt, however naively, communism represented. Especially during the Great Depression, when the Party got what should have been recognized as a rather understandable increase in membership. As did all the front groups. If subversives were exploiting real problems like racism and poverty, what exactly was one supposed to do? Pretend such problems didn't exist, as Hoover would have preferred? Of course, you could have always settled for the Democratic Party (except the FBI kind of kept tabs on them, too.) As for Hammett, he spent a couple months in prison for refusing to tattle on fellow members of one of those front groups, which still didn't quite prove he was a communist. The FBI eventually came to the conclusion that he may have deliberately not joined the Communist Party--in order to do the Communist Party's bidding. In the end, Hammett proved as elusive as a jewel-encrusted bird painted black.

Here's an odd fact not in Mitgang's book that I came across just now. J Edgar Hoover opposed the Communist Control Act of 1954, which outlawed communism in the United States. His reasoning was that it would just drive communists underground. As well as further muddy the definition. Also, by this time, 1,500 of the 5000 member Communist Party USA were FBI informants, thus propping up the organization financially. Hoover didn't want all that money to go to waste. He had accountants to answer to, if no one else. The Act itself was something of a bust. After all, it just didn't ban communists who carried cards saying they were communists, but those who agreed with communists, too, except what constituted agreement was vague, intentionally vague, so as to cast the widest net possible, until law enforcement officers realized that they would have to arrest every person who had ever bitched about the wealthy, which was basically every person who wasn't wealthy themselves. The jails simply weren't big enough. In case you're wondering when this act was repealed or ruled unconstitutional, um, it wasn't. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you're reading this and you're a communist, you're breaking the law.


The Manhattan headquarters of the outlawed Communist Party USA, just waiting to be raided.

Lillian Hellman: the famed playwright (and Dashiel Hammett's longtime girlfriend) once said, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." The FBI would have preferred that she got them off the rack. Jane Fonda once played Hellman in a movie. Hoover was dead by then, but if word of the casting reached the hereafter, I can just hear him shouting "SEE? I TOLD YOU!"

Robert E. Sherwood: The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) was listed in his file as "prematurely anti-fascist", meaning he spoke out against Adolf Hitler prior to America's entry into World War II. Still, it's good to know there's an expiration date for that kind of thing.

Bill Mauldin: The Pulitzer Prize cartoonist first came to fame during the World War II with his popular "Willie and Joe" cartoons that appeared in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, about two battle-weary infantrymen who crack wise as bullets whiz about them. After the war, Mauldin turned toward more traditional editorial cartoons, one of which criticized lynchings. I don't know that the FBI ever had a "prematurely pro-civil rights" designation, but Hoover disapproved. What happens in the South, he felt, should stay in the South.

Sinclair Lewis: The Nobel Prize-winning (we're moving up in terms of prizes, huh?) novelist once put out a book titled It Can't Happen Here about a dictator taking over the U.S. Hoover normally wouldn't have had a problem with that, except Lewis made it sound like a bad thing.

Alfred A. Knopf, Sr: The publisher contacted the FBI sometime in the 1930s to see if one of their agents could write a popular book on crime detection methods. Hoover, always looking for ways to publicize his bureau (gossip columnist Walter Winchell was a close friend) eagerly agreed to cooperate. Then he suddenly backed off, and opened a file on Knopf to boot. That Knopf was Dashiell Hammett's publisher may have been part of the problem. That's all right. Sam Spade had his own crime detection methods. 

Truman Capote: 200 pages in his file, many of them blacked out, though the phrase "Truman Capote supports the revolution" stands out. Presumably the revolution in Cuba that brought the Castro boys to power. Why should the ostensibly effete author of Breakfast at Tiffany's care about that? As Mitgang writes, Capote was "more of a social than a political activist." Except that social activism ultimately took the form of salacious gossip. In 1975 and '76 Esquire published four stories by Capote that were actually chapters in an upcoming (and, as far as anyone knows, uncompleted) novel called Answered Prayers, which dished the dirt on his rich and famous friends. Or, rather, fictional characters based on his rich and famous friends. If you weren't invited to the Black-and-White Ball, you probably wouldn't know who the hell he was talking about. However, they knew. When it came to character defamation, Capote made Hoover look like Oprah Winfrey. He said who was sleeping with who, and, in the case of one network executive, who was cleaning up after who. After these stories were published, you can bet the invitations to black tie dinners stopped coming. People have long wondered why Capote turned on his jet set pals. Now that his FBI files reveal him to be a subversive at heart, we may finally have a clue. Could it be that Answered Prayers was in fact an attack on capitalism, Truman Capote's own Communist Manifesto? If so, it's a much more entertaining read than anything Marx and Engels have to offer. Hustlers of the world, unite!

Allen Ginsberg: He saw the best G-men of his generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical trench coated, dragging themselves through the literati streets as dawn looking for the angry gotcha.

So, that's what the FBI was up to back in the day. All the files I mentioned are now declassified (except for the blacked-out parts) and available online. As I said before, some are hundreds of pages long, and, given the agents stilted writing style, not always easy to read. You may prefer Herbert Mitgang's more concise summaries. Except that Dangerous Dossiers came out a quarter of a century ago, and I don't know that it's still in print.

Maybe someone at the the NSA can lend you a copy.









 
 
 








7 comments:

  1. Wow ! interesting post.
    I know/knew ? about J. Edger Hoover but I wonder if he started out protecting the nation (?) and then dropped into a form of madness of his own.

    cheers, parsnip

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    1. Well, parsnip, why Hoover behaved as he did is worth a post on its own. I'm not sure to what extent the FBI is supposed to "protect the nation". I think that's why we have a Pentagon. The FBI does have a number of important a jobs to perform, namely enforce federal criminal laws, and solve criminal activity that take place across state lines. And, of course, catch enemy agents. Problem is, Hoover considered enemy agents to be anyone whom he disagreed with. The real madness may be that he was allowed to stay in that post for so long, and aquire so much power. Thanks for commenting.

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  3. I'm a Communist, and I'm breaking the law. Except in Nevada, where it was recently repealed, or whatever.

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    1. A communist who lives in Las Vegas. Hmm...

      Are you in favor of collective gambling?

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  4. Oh, and another great post! This one was particularly interesting to me.

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    1. Thank you, Jim.

      I'm a progressive/liberal Democrat myself, and that as far to the left as I'm able to go. I'm too much of a loner to ever embrace communal living. Especially if I have to share the remote.

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