The FBI's 15-Year Campaign To Ferret Out Norman Mailer

Author Mailer, right, came to the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1962 for comments in an Esquire article referring to Jacqueline Kennedy as an excessively soft-spoken first lady.
Author Mailer, right, came to the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1962 for comments in an Esquire article referring to Jacqueline Kennedy as an excessively soft-spoken first lady. (Associated Press Photos)
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By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In the summer of 1962, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was scanning his morning Washington Post when an item on Page A15 caught his eye. Norman Mailer's most recent article in Esquire magazine had mocked Jacqueline Kennedy for, among other things, being excessively soft-spoken for a first lady.

Hoover scribbled a note: "Let me have memo on Norman Mailer."

Over the next 15 years, FBI agents closely tracked the grand and mundane aspects of the acclaimed novelist's life, according to previously confidential government files. Agents questioned his friends, scoured his passport file, thumbed through his best-selling books and circulated his photo among informants. They kept records on his appearances at writers conferences, talk shows and peace rallies. They noted the volume of envelopes in his mailbox and jotted down who received his Christmas cards. They posed as his friend, chatted with his father and more than once knocked on his door disguised as deliverymen.

Then the agents headed back to the office to file multiple copies of long reports stamped CLASSIFIED and SECRET and SUBV. CONTROL, apparently referring to a program to watch suspected subversives.

The FBI file's existence remained publicly unknown until last week, when the FBI responded to a one-year-old Freedom of Information Act request from The Post. The bureau released 165 pages of its 171-page file on one of America's best-known authors and social critics.

Mailer died of kidney failure on Nov. 10, 2007, at the age of 84. He was a towering and combative figure in both literature and popular culture. He first won acclaim in 1948 with the publication of "The Naked and the Dead," a partly autobiographical novel about World War II. He went on to publish more than 30 books and twice win the Pulitzer Prize -- for "The Armies of the Night" in 1969 and "The Executioner's Song" in 1980. He also wrote and directed movies, and co-founded the Village Voice.

The bureau's first confidential memo on Mailer, dated June 29, 1962, noted that the writer "admitted being a 'Leftist' " and said that he had described the FBI as a "secret police organization" that should be abolished. An informant claimed that Mailer had been invited to a 1953 reception at the Polish Consulate in New York, though it was unknown whether he had attended. The memo quoted Louis Budenz, a former managing editor of the Daily Worker who broke with the Communist Party in 1945, as saying Mailer was a "concealed Communist."

Although other informants would refute that claim, it was repeated in FBI files year after year, apparently serving as the grounds for investigating Mailer as a suspected subversive. The file noted that agents did not approach Mailer directly to confirm the allegation, because the writer had "been critical of the FBI in public appearances and an interview might be embarrassing to the Bureau."

Mailer's anti-establishment antics during the 1960s amounted to waving a red flag at Hoover. In 1963, Mailer wrote -- as paraphrased in an FBI memo -- that the bureau had done more damage to America than the Communist Party. That same year, a magazine quoted Mailer as calling Hoover "the worst celebrity in America." Many of the FBI's investigative findings came directly out of newspapers or Mailer's writings.

On Sept. 28, 1964, an FBI agent called Mailer's father claiming to be a friend. The father supplied his son's address and confirmed, as recounted in the FBI file, that Mailer was "self-employed as a free-lance writer from his residence."

Five months later, an undercover agent seeking to confirm that Mailer had moved knocked on the author's door in Brooklyn, N.Y., explaining that he was looking for a family that had lived there in the 1950s. Later that year, an agent impersonating a deliveryman knocked on the same door to confirm that Mailer had returned from a European lecture tour.

On Aug. 10, 1966, an agent noted that Mailer's mailbox was overflowing. The agent unsuccessfully tried to reach Mailer and his father. After claiming to be an acquaintance of Mailer's in a call to one of his friends, the agent learned the writer was summering at his house in Provincetown, Mass.

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