By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009
When Beltway insider Jack Valenti died two years ago at age 85, he was playing the role of intermediary between Washington and Hollywood as the theatrical, snowy-haired president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
But back in 1964, Valenti was a Houston ad executive newly installed at the White House as a top aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson. And J. Edgar Hoover's FBI found itself quietly consumed with the vexing question of whether Valenti was gay.
Previously confidential FBI files show that Hoover's deputies set out to determine whether Valenti, who had married two years earlier, maintained a relationship with a male commercial photographer. Republican Party operatives reportedly were pursuing a parallel investigation with the help of a retired FBI agent, bureau files show. No proof was ever found, but the files, obtained by The Washington Post under the federal Freedom of Information Act, provide further insight into the conduct of the FBI under Hoover, for whom damaging personal information on the powerful was a useful tool in his interactions with presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard M. Nixon.
Johnson initially blocked the FBI from obtaining a sworn statement from Valenti or approaching the photographer, asserting that Valenti was "attracted to the women and not to the men," files show. But under FBI pressure, the president relented and approved an investigation of his close friend.
In the Washington of the early 1960s, allegations or proof of homosexuality could end a career. In October 1964, Walter Jenkins, another senior aide in the Johnson administration, was arrested for allegedly having sex in the men's room of the Washington YMCA. The news leaked just before the election, and Johnson, rushing to stem the political damage, quickly secured the resignation of Jenkins, then his longest-serving aide.
Even Bill Moyers, a White House aide now best known as a liberal television commentator, is described in the records as seeking information on the sexual preferences of White House staff members. Moyers said by e-mail yesterday that his memory is unclear after so many years but that he may have been simply looking for details of allegations first brought to the president by Hoover.
In Valenti's case, agents located the photographer and he confirmed that he had attended parties with Valenti and stayed at his apartment on two occasions. But he stressed that Valenti was strictly a platonic friend, records show. Historians have suggested that Hoover himself may have been gay and that the bureau's fascination with the sex lives of others was a manifestation of deeper currents in his psychology. Hoover never married and was a constant companion of his longtime FBI aide Clyde Tolson.
Valenti was a successful Texas businessman before joining Johnson in the White House in the hours after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. After three years in Washington, Valenti was named head of the Motion Picture Association, where he served as Hollywood's chief lobbyist from 1966 to 2004. His tanned face became a fixture on the annual Academy Awards broadcast.
The FBI file shows that a routine background check performed when Valenti joined the Johnson administration in 1963 turned up a series of picayune concerns. The file noted that Valenti's father and father-in-law had spent time in prison for embezzlement, and that his father-in-law had an "undesirable credit record" and had once been arrested for "being drunk."
A number of informants alleged that Valenti was good friends with a "top hoodlum and prominent gambler" in Houston, and agents suspected that the underworld figure had underwritten the cost of Valenti's wedding and a honeymoon suite at the Tropicana hotel in Las Vegas.
Most people interviewed praised Valenti, his morals and his social skills; one described him as "smiley" and "able to charm the horns off a billy goat."
Agents asked about Valenti's dating habits and quizzed his friends about whether they thought he had been faithful since he married Johnson's personal secretary the previous year.
One informant told agents that when Valenti was a bachelor, "he always dated extremely attractive women" and that "his only trouble with his female acquaintances was 'they all wanted to marry him.' "
The informant said Valenti told him he was waiting for the "real thing." When he met the woman who would become his wife in 1962, he was "very much in love." The informant added that all of "Valenti's relations with the opposite sex were moral in all respects."
Nothing discovered during the background check was solid enough to endanger Valenti's position as a special assistant to the president.
Then, in October 1964, a man whose name has been redacted from the records called an FBI official in New York. The caller encouraged the FBI to investigate Valenti "as a sex pervert," files show. "He based this request on the fact that he had read in the newspapers that Valenti swims in the nude in the White House pool."
A month later, the bureau found out that the Republican Party had hired a retired FBI agent to look into rumors that Valenti was attracted to men. The agents then focused on Valenti's relationship with the photographer, whose connections with Valenti had enabled him to photograph Johnson two years earlier, the memo said.
The agents learned that Valenti was a frequent party host in Houston, and the photographer often attended. An FBI memo dated Nov. 12, 1964, stated that the photographer "has the reputation of being a homosexual." The photographer and "Valenti have allegedly been having an affair for a number of years," the memo said.
Six days later, Hoover reported the allegations to the president. Johnson spoke to Hoover lieutenant Cartha D. DeLoach and asserted that "Valenti was all right; however, his judgment was faulty inasmuch as he felt Jenkins had been all right," files show.
DeLoach advised Johnson to have Valenti submit a sworn affidavit regarding his association with "this homosexual." Johnson demurred, saying Valenti had no need to defend himself.
"The President indicated that if I were to ask him if 'Lady Bird' were virtuous he would feel it would be unnecessary to reply, inasmuch as he knew 'Lady Bird' was virtuous," DeLoach wrote in a note. "The President stated that Valenti was attracted to the women and not to the men. The President also stated that in his opinion the FBI should not interview the photographer."
Seven days later, DeLoach pressed Johnson again and he relented. In the same conversation, a memo shows, they discussed a request from Moyers, then a special assistant to Johnson, that the FBI investigate two other administration figures who were "suspected as having homosexual tendencies."
On Dec. 1, 1964, the FBI interviewed the photographer. He said that he had "homosexual tendencies" and that he "engaged in homosexual activities on a 'discreet' basis." He added that he had once been arrested on a sex charge, but was so drunk at the time that he could not remember the circumstances.
The photographer said that he had known Valenti for about 15 years and that they had attended parties together, along with their female dates. The photographer told the agents that Valenti had "never engaged in homosexual activities and he does not have these tendencies," according to an FBI memo sent to Moyers.
"He said that he enjoyed Valenti's company very much on a social basis inasmuch as Valenti possessed a dynamic and very interesting personality. He said that he could never under any circumstances consider Valenti as 'sexually attractive,' but merely thought of him as a very charming and intelligent individual."
The photographer said he was sure that Valenti did not know he was attracted to men. At the end of the interview, the photographer was so distraught that he was "unable to make available a signed statement."
Hoover and Johnson were apprised, and the matter appears to have been dropped. The investigation did not seem to sour Valenti's relations with Hoover.
Two years later, Hoover sent Valenti his "heartiest congratulations" on the birth of his son. Two months after that, Hoover sent a letter of praise that was read at a testimonial dinner in Valenti's honor in Houston.
"Mr. Valenti's loyalty, devotion and dedication to the basic principles of this country have become hallmarks of the Federal Government," Hoover wrote.
Valenti responded that he would always treasure Hoover's remarks.
"Words are simply too frail to express to you adequately the depth of my gratitude for the magnificent letter," Valenti wrote. "This is something I shall always treasure."