J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director for forty-eight years, and he was also an author–a bestselling author. His Masters of Deceit, published in 1958 by Henry Holt, spent thirty-one weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and sold more than 250,000 copies. In paperback it sold more than 2 million. But dealing with the director presented unique challenges for Holt. The special relationship is documented in the FBI’s 234-page Henry Holt file, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Claire Culleton, who writes about it in her new book Modernism on File: Writers, Artists, and the FBI, 1920-1950 (edited with Karen Leick).
The FBI’s Holt file is unique among the millions of files at bureau headquarters: it does not contain the usual reports on an individual’s left-wing sympathies and activism but rather information about the firm and its efforts to woo Hoover as an author. The company began courting Hoover when he was known to be agitated about the 1950 publication of the first book critical of the FBI: The Federal Bureau of Investigation by Max Lowenthal. A senior Holt official–his name is blacked out–knew how to get Hoover’s attention. The Lowenthal book “makes me a little sick,” he wrote to the director. “This book should not have been published…. when we are fighting for survival, as God knows we are today, there are certain irresponsible views that need not and should not be expressed.” Because of the Lowenthal book, “it is of the utmost importance that an accurate, considered book evaluating the importance of one of our last strongholds against Communism (the FBI) be presented to the public by a responsible publisher.” He modestly suggested that Holt fit the bill. He also suggested that the author should be Hoover.
Most authors do a little research on potential publishers of their work, but Hoover had something no other author did: the world’s biggest file system, containing confidential reports gathered by professionals over decades. The Holt file includes a five-page memo that agents prepared for Hoover, reporting on their search for “derogatory information.” The report was pretty clean: in 1946, six years earlier, one Holt employee had attended a meeting of the Independent Citizens’ Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions–“a communist front.” As for the company president, Edgar Rigg, “Indices NYO negative on Rigg” (“NYO” was the New York office of the FBI).
The report also noted that Clint Murchison “is listed in Poor’s Register as a Director of the Company” who owned 22 percent of it. That was important. Murchison, a right-wing Texas oilman, was a friend of Hoover and of his top assistant at the bureau, Clyde Tolson. Murchison owned the Del Mar racetrack and a hotel near San Diego, where Hoover and Tolson were regular guests. He was also a funder of the John Birch Society, but the report didn’t mention that. Murchison’s presence guaranteed that the firm had no left-wing influence.
That report apparently cleared the way for Hoover. There’s nothing in the file about the book manuscript or the editing process, but after Holt published Masters of Deceit, it spent a number of weeks in the number-one spot.
What author doesn’t want to see his work translated? In 1959 Tolson wrote to Holt president Rigg, “Dear Ed: When [name blacked out] visited Mr. Hoover this morning, he expressed an intense interest in seeing that a paperback edition of ‘Masters of Deceit’ printed in the Spanish language is published in Latin American countries.” A few months later Maestros del engaño: revelaciones del director de la FBI was published in Mexico. Japanese, Mandarin and Portuguese translations followed. By 1966 Hoover’s translation projects had become truly wild: the FBI file contains a letter from Holt reporting on “the sale of rights” for translations of his work into “Assamese, Bengali, Burmese, Gujarati, Kannaba, Laotian, Marathi, Punjabi, Pashtu.”
The year after Holt published Masters of Deceit, a new anxiety arose at the bureau over the firm’s plans to merge with publishers Rinehart and Winston. Many authors today can identify with Hoover’s concerns about changes in his publisher’s ownership and management, but once again, they can’t do what Hoover could. His agents checked up on Rinehart and Winston, reporting that there were no black marks for the Winston Company, but that Rinehart had published Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham, which blamed comic books for juvenile delinquency. The problem was not the book but its author: “A confidential informant of unknown reliability in 1953 said Wertham espoused and follows the Communist party line.” Also, “during a hearing on a writ of habeas corpus in the Julius Rosenberg case, Wertham testified that in his opinion incarceration of Ethel Rosenberg in the Death House at Sing Sing was cruel and inhuman treatment.” That was bad, but Wertham was the only bad author in the Rinehart stable, so Holt, Rinehart and Winston published Hoover’s next book, A Study of Communism, in 1962.
Of course, publishers have always catered to their bestselling authors. One of the differences here is that because of FOIA, we can document the Hoover-Holt relationship, while the cringing letters sent by other publishers in response to brusque author demands remain hidden in company file cabinets.
There’s nothing wrong with a government official checking a publisher’s politics before signing a contract. But when the FBI monitored the political views of publishers’ employees and authors, it violated their right to privacy and threatened their freedom of expression.
Today Henry Holt publishes many writers on the left, including Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Mike Davis and Chalmers Johnson–all of them bestsellers. Almost nothing like their work was published, by Holt or any other mainstream publisher, in the era of Masters of Deceit. The book business has changed for the worse in many ways since the 1950s, but this broadening of debate is clearly a change for the better.