J. Edgar Hoover and me: How I was spied on by the FBI
Clint Eastwood's film obscures the fact that Hoover's obsession with
sniffing out so-called subversives terrorised America
by Clancy Sigal
The Guardian (U.K.)
Friday 2 December 2011
I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil son.
– Judi Dench as J Edgar Hoover's possessive mother in the Clint Eastwood film
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's long time chief, J Edgar Hoover,
almost was a member of my family. In the 1920s, during the infamous
scare" Palmer Raids, agents of his newly-formed Bureau of
Investigation arrested, beat up and tried to deport my immigrant
father for "criminal syndicalism" (union organising).
Combatively anti-labor, reflecting the director's prejudices, Hoover's
"G-men" also tried stemming the 1930s union upsurge, in which both my
parents were vocal rank-and-filers, by threatening militants and their
sympathisers and feeding dirt to employer groups and anti-union
newspapers. During the second world war, the FBI split their energies
between tracking down the few Nazi spies and much greater number of
home-grown radicals and union redhots – no real difference between
them Hoover could see except that the Bolshevik menace would always be
uppermost in his mind. My mother, cousins and favorite uncle all
became fodder for Hoover's extraordinary card-index system.
From the time I was 16, and later during the cold war, the FBI
me for 15 solid years, even – illegally snooping – when I emigrated to
England. How could I make these fedora-wearing, smartly-suited snoops
understand that, influenced by a James Cagney movie, I had been a
Junior G-Man myself by sending in Quaker Oats boxtops? I proudly wore
my tin badge and pinned to my wall J Edgar Hoover's commendation
letter to me.
It's all coming back to me because I've just seen Clint Eastwood's
draggy, so-darkly-lit-it's-hard-to-follow, superficially detailed but
essentially untruthful case for the defense of America's Himmler as a
homosexually repressed mama's boy. I'm a fan of Leonardo di Caprio
but, hey, come on, you don't send a boy to do a very, very weird man's
job, even with the best makeup artists in the world. The script, by
Dustin Lance Black, who did such a great job with Milk, is an
obscurantist mess of voice-over and backtracks and flash-forwards,
everything but the kitchen sink is dragged in – Emma Goldman!
The Lindbergh baby! – but dramatic and even factual truth is left out.
The FBI got into my personal life when I was still in high school – I
was a "comsub(versive)" on their 3x5in file cards, until decades later
– a blow to my ego – I was demoted merely to a "comsymp(athiser)".
Along the way, I was tagged as the lisping, lefthanded (in other
words, gay) ringleader of "The Cell With No Name", which in reality
was a small group of poker-playing guys who met on Friday nights to
dream up anti-Senator McCarthy leaflets and – big mistake, this prank
– pretending on my tapped phone to be spies named Iranoff, Buljanov
and Kopalski. (Leave it to these then-predominantly Mormon agents
never to have seen the Billy Wilder comedy Ninotchka.)
If you were young and single, as I was, you could always skip town or
else try verbally fencing with the
agents in a vain attempt to pry
open their secrets, even as they tried getting you to inform on
others. Ratting on friends was the sine qua non of J Edgar's obsession
with compiling lists.
In a Los Angeles ruled by informers, and popular fear of a nuclear
third world war, with the city encircled by Nike missiles, the FBI's
aim wasn't really to ferret out national security threats so much as
to create an atmosphere of fear, shame, degradation and humiliation.
You got the Nation magazine or IF Stone's Weekly mailed to you in a
plain brown wrapper (almost always ripped open before you saw it),
and, ipso facto, you were a Soviet spy or were handled as if you were.
"Come on in, Clancy. Help us clean up our files. Eugene and Lois did.
Don't be a party-pooper."
The minds of ordinary FBI agents reflected its director's Manichean
brain fever. On the door step, they were unfailingly courteous (except
tried to ram your car and drive it off a beach road);
absolutely lacking the humour gene; meticulous about tiny details like
license plate numbers; and hayseed-ignorant of "context" or of
anything much beyond J Edgar's emotional horizon.
Eastwood's movie portrays Hoover as a hard-driving patriotic
bureaucrat, a file-card prodigy, his heart bloated by sexual
repression and poisoned by dreams of revenge against both the
(potentially rebellious) lower class and the (potentially traitorous)
upper class. Stalin in a Panama hat, in fact.
What is not portrayed is the gut-aching fear that Hoover, in his
fantasias, instilled in hundreds of thousands of Americans – a real,
felt terror at the time – and the injuries he and his agents dealt to
so many lives. Among my friends, intense FBI pressure created
suicides, heart attacks, miscarriages, divorces, broken careers and,
What do you say
about a man who masterminded the persecution of Albert
Einstein and Martin Luther King and, reportedly anxious abut his own
racial ancestry, threw roadblocks in the way of the civil rights
movement, and invented Cointelpro to foment assassination and violence
on the left and among African American groups?
The movie does show that presidents from FDR to Nixon were terrified
of Hoover's "confidential files" (raw gossip) mainly about their, or
their wives', sexual deviations. (One of Eastwood's more effective
scenes has Nixon delivering a eulogy at Hoover's death while his
henchmen frantically search bureau files for incriminating data.)
Hoover, who loved socialising with movie stars, was a little skittish
about being seen to investigate Hollywood, instead funneling his
unsubstantiated files (on Jean Seberg, Charlie Chaplin, etc) to lower
orders of snoop, such as Senator Joe McCarthy, to whom he was
mentor, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, to which he
secretly gave incriminating documents.
I was lucky and irresponsible. My own assigned agents, "Mutt and Jeff"
(I never knew their real names, no calling cards then), made me feel
temporarily important at a time when nobody but Mr Hoover and his
elves paid attention to the American left. For reasons too involved to
go into, Jeff and I "double-dated", each of us trying his best to
"turn" the other. Socially, a disaster for both of us.
Inheritors of the FBI director's strange tics – he fired or sent into
exile chauffeur-agents, driving his bullet-proof Cadillac, who made
roadway left turns – the FBI was, and is, an ossified bureaucracy
where, today, whistleblowers are punished and whose most recent
speciality is entrapping stupid, Jihad-infatuated Muslim youth with
the use of agent-provocateurs and then, with a true J Edgar flair
self-promotion, announcing that yet another "terror threat" has been
Incidentally, I take it back about the FBI being detail-oriented, like
its founder. I'm not lefthanded.