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.