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

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.

On at least 12 dates in 1964, FBI agents approached confidential informants to ask about the novelist, but not one of the sources could offer any "current" information, the file shows.

A 1967 memo examined Mailer's purported trip to Havana that year to observe a conference of the Latin American Solidarity Organization. The memo makes passing reference to investigative files it maintained on others who reportedly attended the conference, including writers Nat Hentoff and I.F. Stone. Hentoff told The Post that he did not attend the conference; Stone is deceased.

Another memo from 1967 lists a wedding reception that Mailer attended. The following year, the file shows, Mailer contributed a sketch to a literary auction that brought in a top bid of $32.50. The bureau learned of the gift because it was reported in the New York Times.

In 1969, at Hoover's direction, an agent prepared a five-page, single-spaced review of Mailer's book "Miami and the Siege of Chicago," about the 1968 political conventions. The review carefully itemized all six references made to the FBI.

"It is written in his usual obscene and bitter style," the agent wrote. "Book contains reference to . . . uncomplimentary statements of the type that might be expected from Mailer regarding the FBI and the Director."

Another memo similarly noted that during a 1965 talk in Berkeley, Calif., Mailer's comments were "interspersed with vulgar remarks."

A 1970 memo lists the name of an individual who had included Mailer as a reference when he applied for a job with Time Inc., a full 16 years earlier. Authorities redacted the individual's name before releasing the file to The Post.

Hoover died in 1972, but Mailer retained the bureau's interest.

In 1973, a former FBI administrator told the bureau he had been contacted by Lloyd Shearer, an editor at Parade magazine, who said that Mailer had just finished a book about Marilyn Monroe. The former FBI man said it would allege that an FBI coverup helped conceal the circumstances of the sex symbol's death in 1962.

Shearer said the book would allege that FBI agents had gone to the telephone company in Santa Monica, Calif., and removed a "paper tape" of Monroe's calls.

The FBI memo went on to say that "a number of individuals in the Los Angeles Office recall hearing stories and gossip outside the Bureau at the time of Marilyn Monroe's death to the effect that she had made some calls to Bobby Kennedy shortly before her death, but that discreet inquiry in this office and a review of our indices revealed no confirming facts and certainly no indication of any Bureau involvement as alleged by Mailer."

The FBI wrestled with how to handle Mailer.

"The Bureau may desire to explore what avenues might possibly be utilized which would result in the allegation being removed from Mailer's book," the head of the FBI's Los Angeles office wrote. But the bureau ultimately concluded that public actions by the bureau "would merely serve to feed the fires of publicity, which Mailer is attempting to stoke."

Bobby Kennedy, who it has been long speculated had a brief affair with Monroe, was U.S. attorney general and Hoover's boss at the time of her death. An FBI memo in 1973 stated that allegations of an affair in gossip magazines "were branded false and no factual support existed for them."

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