Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Goods on J. Edgar Hoover, #4


Salutations.  The Thanksgiving engorgement is winding down, a second  unseasonal blanketing of snow hit New Hampshire (along with a heavy influx of Republican aspirants), and football is getting serious.  Tremors in the stock market suggest a very long winter.

As that embattled movie J. Edgar struggles at the box office to justify its thunderous  publicity, I have a few retreating thoughts to offer about the Director and -- equally valid -- the organization he steamed together.  As I have tried to indicate, while I was pulling together source material for The Old Boys about the origins of the CIA and, later, for Bobby and J. Edgar, I spent a lot of time with veterans from both organizations.  Many ex and active CIA officers and special agents in the Bureau became friends over the course of the several decades I served on the board of the New England Chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.  Inevitably, these years of contact conditioned -- and I hope deepened -- my feeling for who these people were, what motivated them and where they drew their ethical and operational lines. I hope a lot of what I determined made its way into my no-holds-barred CIA novel, The Nature of the Beast.

When hit-and-run reviewers like David Corn accuse me of having gone "soft on Hoover" in Bobby and J. Edgar, what they actually seem to mean is that I have not totally corroborated the caricature of the Bureau's opinionated founder that seized the Left during the McCarthy era.  Hoover was in fact a complicated icon, like Robert Kennedy surprisingly emotional when it came to people he cared about, profoundly committed to preserving the status quo, and -- much more than Robert Kennedy -- respectful of the civil liberties of individuals.  He could be as ruthless as advertised when it came to maligning the likes of Martin Luther King, an activist he perceived as totally immoral, opportunistic, and perilous to the social order.  But when Richard Nixon called on his old friend Hoover to provide the storm troops for what could easily have turned into a coup, J. Edgar walked away, without a qualm. 

There is a fascinating book waiting to be written about a number of the graduates of Hoover's academy,  Bureau alumni who keep turning up to switch the tracks of history.  For example, consider the unlikely career of Guy Banister, once Hoover's Special Agent in Charge in Capone-heir Sam Giancana's Chicago.  Banister, who retired from the Bureau, breaks the surface of events the summer of 1963 in New Orleans running a private detective agency that supports Bob Kennedy's CIA-based spoiling operation against Cuba, Operation Mongoose.  Banister comes up with office space for Lee Harvey Oswald  that summer so Oswald can mount his provocative Fair-Play-for-Cuba campaign.  Giancana's primary fixer, Johnny Rosselli, stops by Banister's headquarters several times. Rosselli has been looking after odd jobs for Joe Kennedy for decades.  Banister and Joe Kennedy's accountant, Carmine Bellino -- another FBI graduate, for whom Joe arranged a White House office once JFK became president -- had shared a business partnership.  Connect the dots.

Another intriguing Bureau alumnus was Robert Maheu.  I got to know Maheu originally in 1992 when I was on the road flogging The Old Boys.  We shared a podium at the Library of Congress, and stayed in touch after that.  Maheu remembered J. Edgar fondly for having arranged a compassionate assignment for him when his mother was dying in Maine.  Once he moved on from the FBI, Maheu -- like Edward Morgan, another onetime special agent -- developed an extensive legal clientele on the fringes of the underworld.  When the CIA wanted a team of experienced assassins to bump off Castro, Maheu hooked the Agency up with Giancana, Johnny Rosselli and Santo Trafficante. Later on Maheu became briefly famous as the public presence of the pathologically reclusive Howard Hughes.  Maheu served as middleman when the mob sold its Las Vegas casinos to Hughes but kept its own operatives in charge, especially when it came to disposing of the skim.  Maheu supervised the arrangement.  Bob Maheu and Howard Hughes did not part happily.

 Hoover himself was careful to maintain the Bureau as an equal opportunity employer.  He himself dismissed the notion of a national crime syndicate until the end of the fifties.  There was a measure of cooperation between the Bureau and a number of the senior hoods, especially when it came to sharing the product of accomplished wiremen like Bernie Spindel.  Once Robert Kennedy became Attorney General the era of laissez-faire was over. 

Rest in peace, J. Edgar.  You are not forgotten.

Burton Hersh

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Goods on J. Edgar Hoover #3


Yes, again, a round with the J. Edgar movie.  I suppose I'm gnawing away on this bone because of a longstanding conviction that even a filmed interpretation of an event or an individual, even an out-and-out biopic, demands fidelity to the established body of history behind it.  In the November 14 New Yorker, David Denby notes that this film came out of a collaboration between Clint Eastwood and "the activist gay screenwriter of 'Milk.'"  That may elucidate a lot of the movie's focus on the slippery and ultimately undefined relationship between Hoover and his longtime associate director, Clyde Tolson.  But it does not explain away the pattern of gross historical misreadings, the repeated and apparently wilful ignorance of facts on which much of the plot is hung.

Last week I cited -- one example among a number -- the scene in which Hoover purportedly appeared before Attorney General Robert Kennedy and threatened to expose his brother the president as an adulterer who did not scruple to conduct an affair with a seasoned prostitute -- Ellen Rometsch in real life -- most likely an East German spy.  The affair was verifiable, I dealt with it in detail in Bobby and J. Edgar.  But it was Bobby who kowtowed before Hoover to get him to intervene with a Senate committee on the point of conducting an investigation because articles hinting at the involvement by the respected Clark Mollenhoff were starting to appear in the Des Moines Register.  Robert Kennedy in effect kidnapped Ellen Rometsch and shipped her back to Germany with an aide.  When I was writing Bobby and J. Edgar I spent a day with Bobby Baker, Lyndon Johnson's trusted sidekick, who pimped for dignitaries on both sides of the aisle, and he showed me letters from the heartbroken Ellen, back in Germany, that testified to John Kennedy's versatility as a lover.

Hoover got JFK off the hook that summer of 1963, but after that there was no more White House talk of replacing the Director.  The previous summer Hoover had answered Robert Kennedy's pleas and stepped in to confiscate the telephone records that proved that Bob had been in touch with Marilyn Monroe -- in fact, had quarreled with her in her house in Brentwood -- hours before her mysterious death.  FBI records document this. If Eastwood's screenwriter wanted genuine drama, how was he going to top that?

A late scene features J. Edgar dictating that famous letter -- "King, there is only one thing left for you to do--"
which urged King to end it all rather than accept the Nobel Peace Prize and then find himself revealed as an habitual consorter with loose -- white -- whores.  Hoover had the proof, and indeed his flunkies in the Bureau had repeatedly attempted to plant this evidence in the newspapers.  The problem was, the Kennedy brothers disliked King and his rabble-rousing as much as Hoover did, and Bob Kennedy had granted Hoover explicit permission to bug and tap the offices and motel rooms of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  All this would haunt Bobby once he ran for president.

As is suggested in Bobby and J. Edgar, Hoover himself was far too adroit to dictate a letter like the one he is shown composing in this movie, urging suicide on King.  The chief of counterintelligence at the Bureau at the time, Ray Wannall, told me that Hoover's Assistant Director for Domestic Intelligence, William Sullivan, had caught that duty.  At that stage Sullivan could be depended on whenever the skies were darkening, most notably during the exposed hours after JFK's assassination, when Hoover was determined to cover the Bureau's tracks.

What I am attempting to suggest here is that the truth about Hoover is a lot more intriguing than anything that made it into this mottled movie version.  Read and find out.

Burton Hersh

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Goods on J. Edgar Hoover, #2


OK, you can exhale, here it is.  My reading on the heavily ballyhooed J. Edgar film out of the Clint Eastwood monolith.  Saw it last night, the first screening once it was released around here.

I guess you'd have to call my verdict mixed.  What I liked best was the effort by the producers to deal with Hoover's life in a serious manner, not present a Hollywood caricature of him solely as a cross-dressing sex freak with a machine-gun delivery obsessed with hunting down nonexistent Communists and making Martin Luther King's life as ugly as possible. Throughout my career I have known well hundreds of FBI veterans, competent and dedicated people, lawyers usually, and I have never known any of them to bad-mouth their controversial founder.  Researching Bobby and J. Edgar I spent days at a time with insiders from Hoover's inner directorate, from Deke DeLoach to Courtney Evans to Ray Wannell.  The picture I got from them was of a frequently troubled boss utterly dedicated to his organization and its men, something of a pushover, who deployed associate director Clyde Tolson to crack the whip or fire agents when Hoover couldn't find it in himself to bear down too hard.  At least a little of this comes over in this movie.

What I liked least was the structure of the movie itself.  It really is hard not to suspect that the producers were overtaken by their release date, and picked whatever had any dramatic coherence off the cutting room floor and spliced it in willy-nilly.  Much of the detail is sloppily researched. An extended takeout on the Lindberg kidnapping in the thirties is interrupted by a face-off between Hoover and Attorney General Robert Kennedy the summer of 1963, during which Hoover pushes paperwork at the startled Kennedy confirming evidence of a liaison in California between JFK and an East German hooker under the control of the Stasi.  (This actually happened, although not in California, and it was Bobby who went to Hoover over the matter to get the FBI director to use his enormous clout with Congress to head off a Senate investigation of the president -- conf. Bobby and J. Edgar.)

In the film, once the yelling subsides, the entire incident is left to hang there and the action returns to the thirties and the apprehension of Bruno Hauptmann, the alleged Lindberg kidnapper.  The uneven adoption of a variety of cinema-verite and arbitrary docudrama techniques, stitched together by voice-over, helps confuse the proceedings. This sort of chronological jumping around happens repeatedly; for somebody unfamiliar with at least the outlines of Hoover's career the result has to be gathering disorientation.

What holds the film together is the progression of the inchoate love affair between Hoover and Clyde Tolson.  This is nicely handled.  How far the two of them went is still a matter of dispute; the scene in which Hoover blurts out that he has been going to bed with Dorothy Lamour in Los Angeles was born and died, I suspect, in the screenwriter's imagination.  Forever a little panicked about Hoover's propensity for blackmail, Bob Kennedy assigned the head of his Organized Crime Section, William Hundley, to bug Hoover's home and office and catch him off base.  "We tried to prove that Hoover was homosexual," Hundley told me.  "That was all bullshit.  You can never be sure, you know what I mean, but I think he was some sort of a eunuch."

Hoover's performance added up to a lot more that a chronic outbreak of right-wing phobias.  When heavy-industry instigators behind the Liberty League and the German-American Bund approached Major General Smedley Darlington Butler to lead a coup against Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover had his people infiltrate the plot and break it up.  Thirty years later, when a resurgent Ku Klux Klan threatened to terrorize the South and undermine the recently enacted Voting Rights Act, Hoover's FBI tore the Klan apart.  I have often reflected that, had there been an FBI in place in Germany to keep the Brownshirts under control, Hitler would never have made it.

In a fundamentally vapid and poorly informed review of Bobby and J. Edgar in The New York Times in 2007, the staffer for Mother Jones, David Corn, concluded that "Hersh goes soft on Hoover toward the end."  He may have had something there.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Goods on J. Edgar Hoover, #1

Dear Countryclients,

The drums are beating, closer every day, and within a week or so the Clint Eastwood saga, J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover will burst across our movie screens.  As it happens, along with Robert Kennedy, the high-powered, cold-blooded founder of the FBI carried a lot of the essential action in my controversial 2007 book Bobby and J. Edgar.  Joe Kennedy was almost always within earshot, usually on the telephone.

My double biography is still in print.  Details as to how exactly Marilyn Monroe died and who orchestrated the shooting of Jack Kennedy, and how, have sustained the buzz.  The book recently moved up from #40 to #20 nationally in the Biography and Memoir category in the Amazon system.

With Bobby and J. Edgar coming back onto cycle I thought it might be a good time to contact the current publisher of the book, Basic Books, and volunteer to help out with whatever publicity the firm thought might be appropriate to spur sales.  The president there got right back, promised to do whatever he could, and headlined the book in his company's current release to bookstores.

This response was noteworthy because it was so unusual.  Publishing today is moribund, barely twitching at its most exalted moments.  Most of the important houses have been gutted of competent staff.  Replying to my publisher at Basic Books I unloaded -- with characteristic diplomacy -- my urgent concerns.  I started out by pointing out what a shell game most publishers were playing with agents and writers.  "The result of all this for writers," I pressed on,"since many agents have become quite cavalier when it comes to tracking down [royalty] specifics and sending along checks, has been to make a difficult profession impossible. The mid-list talent that ultimately supports the industry and produces the durable classics is in the process of giving up wholesale.  It is obviously in the process of being replaced by underpaid reporters and marginal academics engaged to research 'hot' subjects and then turn over their notes to purported editors, often hired at starvation wages from outside the house, who produce the mediocre manuscripts now flooding the outlets. The increasingly alienated reading public finds the results unreadable and will not buy books, for good reason.  Starving out genuinely talented professional writers can only eventuate in the extinction of publishing itself."

All this was venting, of course, but it was also an effort to alert a responsible executive in an increasingly troubled industry as to how it felt from the point of view of that shrinking cadre of committed  literary professionals whose world is drying up around them.  Perhaps the dinosaurs will go last.  But they'll go too, and soon.

More on Bobby and J. Edgar shortly.