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.)
Requesting an FBI “name check” was a serious move, invoking an official procedure established in the 1950s by presidential Executive Order 10450, issued by Dwight Eisenhower. Even today Name Check (capitalized by the bureau) has its own FBI webpage. A Name Check request requires “a search of the FBI’s Central Records System Universal Index.” FBI Name Checks are used for security clearances and also for immigrants’ applications for green cards, among other things.
Of course in the age of metadata, when billions of phone calls and e-mails are collected by the NSA, the FBI’s Universal Index of the J. Edgar Hoover era seems laughably small. But it was state-of-the-art at the time. When Mildred Stegall submitted an FBI Name Check request in 1967, LBJ was basically asking J. Edgar Hoover, “What have you got on Gore Vidal?”
Why was LBJ asking—and why on May 4, 1967? “Apparently Vidal appeared on the ‘Today’ show this morning,” FBI agent Sterling B. Donahoe explained to Cartha DeLoach, “and made some vicious remarks” about LBJ and the Vietnam war. Vidal now “detested” LBJ, in the words of biographer Fred Kaplan. Vidal had written a few weeks earlier about “what a disaster it was for the country to have that vulgar, inept boor” as president. The White House request said “no active investigation is desired but…as much detailed data as is available…should be furnished. If necessary the office covering his place of residence should be contacted…and we should be particularly alert to any public statements he has made.”
Those particular “vicious remarks” of Vidal’s have apparently been lost to history. I couldn’t find any tape of The Today Show from 1967 (although Vidal’s archives at Harvard include three folders labeled “fan mail” he received in response to that appearance). At the time, Vidal was on a book tour promoting his new best-selling novel Washington, D.C., which included a barely veiled critique of Kennedy. The previous fall Vidal had done a lecture tour of campuses, including seventeen in California, where he talked about the war and about America as an imperial nation. The campus audiences, Kaplan reports, “were astoundingly large, irrepressibly enthusiastic, especially in California, where he realized… that he was immensely popular with college students.”
Although LBJ would withdraw from his own re-election campaign, that would not happen for another year. At this point, May 1967, everyone assumed he would be running again. So LBJ wanted to find out what the FBI had on this Gore Vidal.
The FBI Search Slip for the Name Check indicates that twenty-five different files were checked. Several were marked with the result “NP”–“not pertinent”–and several with the menacing initials “SI” (Security Index—people considered by the FBI to be potentially dangerous to US national security). The bureau’s findings were summarized in two pages, starting with a crucial statement: “Mr. Gore Vidal…has not been the subject of an investigation by the FBI”—the most important single sentence in Vidal’s FBI file. He had a file, but that contained only clippings and correspondence about him.
LBJ was informed that Vidal was “a writer and author of several books as well as a contributor of articles to various nationally distributed magazines,” as well as “a Democratic-Liberal candidate for the US Congress in 1960.” So far, all true—and no doubt also known to LBJ’s people. Next came The Daily Worker quote describing The City and the Pillar as a book about “the physical adventures of a male homosexual.” Then came another quote, from the left-wing National Guardian, reporting that Vidal was scheduled to speak in 1961 at a New York City “rally to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee,” which he had “severely criticized” in a column for the New York Herald Tribune. Then the news that a “confidential source” reported six years earlier, in 1961, that Vidal “was associated with the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee.”
The FBI also provided LBJ with a brief version of the story of Vidal’s relationship with Bobby Kennedy, based on “recent information coming to our attention,” which “tends to indicate that he has developed an antagonistic attitude” toward the Kennedy family. The source of this “recent information”? Vidal’s own writings. The bureau report describes a review Vidal wrote of William Manchester’s book Death of a President, quoting his line describing the Kennedys as “ruthless and not very loveable after all.” The FBI report also refers to the just-published article in Esquire magazine “in which Gore Vidal attacks the Kennedy family, particularly Senator Robert Kennedy.” No doubt the Vidal-Kennedy story was well known to LBJ, as it was to many Americans at the time.
So the Gore Vidal FBI file didn’t tell LBJ anything about Vidal that wasn’t public information, and it doesn’t tell us anything new about him. It tells us LBJ turned to the FBI in search of dirt on one of his critics, but we already knew he (and the other presidents) did that. It tells us the FBI kept files on writers on the left, and that it functioned as the J. Edgar Hoover Admiration Society—but we already knew that.
The most interesting things in the file are those letters to J. Edgar Hoover from Vidal haters that the Director dismissed with a polite brush-off. The letters suggest something about the mind set of right-wingers in Cold War America. They all contain the same message: “Dear Mr. Hoover, I’m a loyal American, you’re a great American, and Gore Vidal is neither.” One 1961 correspondent, Fred Devine, went to the trouble of transcribing an interview of Vidal’s on a radio station in Philadelphia. J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t interested, but it’s probably the only source we have for what Vidal said on the Frank Ford Show. In 1964 somebody whose name has been withheld complains that Vidal on TV “was extremely critical of the Director.” The writer concluded, “May I now tell you that I thank God that you are in charge…. I feel all would be lost without your vigilance.” But from 1960 to 1970, the period covered in the file, there are only half a dozen letters complaining to the FBI about Vidal.
A file of only thirty-five pages: that must have disappointed Vidal when he saw his file. A file that contained no secrets—that, he would have said, was disheartening. And only half a dozen letters complaining about him. With a twinkle in his eye, he would have called that fact a crushing blow.
View the Gore Vidal FBI file HERE.
Also of interest: Gore Vidal’s State of the Union: The Nation’s Essays 1958-2008 and I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics: Interviews with Jon Wiener.
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