Author Gore Vidal in December 9, 1974. He tossed barbs in all directions as he discussed Hollywood unions, politics, lecturing and publicizing books during an interview in Los Angeles. (AP File Photo)
The first page of Gore Vidal’s FBI file, released by the bureau after his death a year ago on July 31, is not about his political activism, his critique of the National Security State or even about his homosexuality. The first page, from 1960, says he made disparaging remarks about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The problem: Vidal’s play The Best Man (a satire of Washington politics with characters loosely based on real political figures) had just opened on Broadway, and the assistant special agent in charge of the New York City office sent a memo to Cartha DeLoach, Hoover’s right-hand man, informing him that the play contained “an unnecessary, quite unfunny and certainly unfair jibe [sic] at J. Edgar Hoover”—according to a show-biz columnist for a daily newspaper.
The bureau snapped to, informing DeLoach that “a Special Agent will attend this performance tonight” and that his report would be transmitted promptly. Indeed it was the supervisor of the New York FBI Office who was sent out on this mission. After seeing the play and taking notes, he filed his report: “The only reference to the Director [always capitalized] is when one play character—presumably Vice President Nixon—says to another—presumably Harry Truman, ‘J. Edgar Hoover considers you to be one of the most moral and religious men ever to be in the White House.’ The man replies with a sarcastic inflection, ‘I’ll reserve my opinion of J. Edgar Hoover for a posthumous memoir.’ ”
That is the disparaging remark that inspired the FBI to open a file on Gore Vidal. The agent assured the Director that “the crack came out fast and fell very flat,” and that at an earlier performance, “the audience booed.” On a routing slip, the report was checked off by Clyde Tolson and seven other high officials of the FBI. It was initialed by the Director himself.
Who was this Gore Vidal? DeLoach is informed that he seemed to be “a male homosexual.” The source of this information may surprise some: The Daily Worker, the official publication of the Communist Party USA. FBI Agents were obsessive readers of The Daily Worker. The relevant story was The Daily Worker’s 1948 review of Vidal’s novel The City and the Pillar—actually a hostile, a bitter attack on the book as “crude” and “primitive” in its portrayal of “the ‘delights’ of homosexuality.”
The Vidal FBI file totaled thirty-five pages, many of them letters from right-wingers complaining to Hoover about political statements Vidal made in print or on TV. Hoover replied to most of those with a polite brush-off. But there is one apparently innocuous letter with a fascinating back story: a 1967 “request for a name check” from “Mrs. Mildred Stegall.” Mildred Stegall was a key aide to President Lyndon Johnson. She’s best known, in the words of the Austin Statesman, as the person who “secured his secret White House telephone recordings in a West Wing vault only she could open.” (Lady Bird overruled her after Watergate, which is why we have the tapes now.)