To J. EDGAR HOOVER, Eleanor Roosevelt was "that Old Hoot Owl," a meddlesome libertarian, a communist sympathizer and a woman bent on demeaning his FBI and everything for which it stood.
To Eleanor Roosevelt, Hoover was a man whose zeal for order "sometimes smacked too much of Gestapo methods," a man who shadowed her friends, questioned her allegiance and threatened to undermine the principles for which she lived.
Such is the relationship as it emerges from the FBI's own 449-page file on Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. The file opens on the eve of World War II and closes more than 20 years later with Roosevelt's death on Nov. 7, 1962. Its contents, though released to an unnamed family member in 1976, have never before been made public.
The files are peppered with personal letters between Roosevelt and Hoover, telegrams, investigative memos, hate mail from the public and seething notes the FBI called "blue gems" -- Hoover's own handwritten remarks scribbled in the margins in blue ink.
The pages silhouette a clash not only between the nation's most active First Lady and the father of the FBI, but also between two different visions of America.
For Roosevelt, it was to be a forum open to all ideas about race, politics and lifestyle; for Hoover, a bastion free from communism and social disorder.
Roosevelt's biographer and friend, Joseph P. Lash, said in an interview that the FBI file confirms what a former assistant FBI director, William C. Sullivan, told him in the mid-1970s -- that "Hoover regarded her as a dangerous person." Lash was surprised when Sullivan spoke of "Hoover's absolute loathing for Eleanor Roosevelt."
The tenor of the distrust which Roosevelt and Hoover shared for each other is clear from the earliest letter in the FBI file, dated Jan. 24, 1941.
Roosevelt, then 57 and a resident of the White House for eight years, expressed outrage that the FBI was investigating Edith B. Helm, her social secretary -- and a woman biographer Lash calls "absolutely the acme of rectitude" -- and Malvina Thompson, her personal secretary. Said Lash,"God, the idea of them (the FBI) investigating Edith Helm and Tommy -- it's baffling. Incredible."
Hoover wrote Roosevelt that he had learned of her "concern" over the investigation of Helm, which he said had been ordered at the request of an official of the Council of National Defense (a prewar administration board). A chastened Hoover wrote Roosevelt that "no indication was given to us as to the identity of Edith B. Helm or the fact that she was acting in a secretarial capacity for you. . . .
"Of course had we known at the time the investigation was requested that Mrs. Helm was assigned to White House duties the inquiry would not have been initiated. I want to assure you that I regret the incident may have caused you any annoyance or concern," wrote Hoover in a "personal and confidential" letter of Jan. 24, 1941.
Roosevelt responded two days later:
"I am very much surprised by your letter about the investigation of Mrs. Helm. I am also surprised to learn that someone has been making inquiries about Miss Thompson at her apartment house as to when she comes and goes, how much company she has, etc.
"This type of investigation seems to me to smack too much of the Gestapo methods.
"The explanation that the investigation of Mrs. Helm is a mistake, seems to me to show inefficiency on the part of the person who ordered it . . . anyone who cared to avoid such a mistake would only have had to look at the questionnaire which Mrs. Helm filled out last summer to realize that she has been attached to the White House ever since we have been here, and incidentally her father and husband have been admirals in the Navy.
"I can not help resenting deeply the action in these two cases and if you have done this type of investigation of other people, I do not wonder that we are beginning to get an extremely jittery population," she wrote.
Hoover answered with a letter marked "Personal and Confidential by Special Messenger:"
". . . There has been no one more appreciative of the necessity for avoiding any attitude or indulging in any activities that might be construed as improper or un-American in the conduct of investigations than I."
"I deeply regret the resentment which this incident has caused you, and particularly the impression which I fear you have gained as to the position of the Bureau in this matter," he wrote.
But the matter was neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Ten years later, on April 4, 1951, Roosevelt questioned the training competence of some FBI agents during a radio interview:
"And I would even try to raise the type of people going into the FBI, because sometimes when I have heard of investigators, I have felt they were not always -- now this does not always hold good -- they were not always of the caliber to find out things, and I think it is quite possible that you might even have to raise the caliber of the people and the pay of those people that you had in the FBI."
Hoover ordered a transcript of the program "at once." He wrote the former First Lady on April 9:
"It will be very much appreciated if you will advise me of any facts you have, from your own experience or from the experience of friends, which specifically identify individual instances wherein our personnel was not of a high caliber."
Roosevelt replied: "I think I can give you some instances. For instance I know of someone who is a great reader and has always read on every side of all questions. He takes as a regular thing a number of controversial magazines and papers, not because he is in any way in favor of what they say, but because he wants to know what they say. Someone from the FBI visited him and picked up one publication and said 'This is a dangerous thing to have around' and proceeded to take it for granted that this man was in sympathy with such thinking.
". . . If you will look in your files, you may find the letter I wrote to you when the FBI checked up on Mrs. Helm. That is the type of thing that should be eliminated if possible."
In a note to Hoover dated May 23, 1951, Roosevelt promised, "I will, however, from now on when I hear anything (questioning the competence of FBI agents) get the facts and write you at once. . . . one of your men came to see me about someone and he was most correct, intelligent and business like."
Three days later Hoover put her name on a list of people who were not to be contacted by FBI agents "without prior approval" and "unless compelling reasons dictate otherwise. . . . This action is taken in view of her expressed antagonism toward the Bureau."
Roosevelt made good on her promise. Three months later she wrote Hoover of an alleged abuse by FBI agents.
Hoover also kept close track of Roosevelt's activities, including those with the black community.
On Jan. 24, 1944, Hoover wrote a "Confidential" letter to President Roosevelt's adviser Harry L. Hopkins, warning that Eleanor Roosevelt was planning to address a black church in Detroit in an area recently rocked by racial riots. Apparently, Hoover's letter was intended to keep her from delivering the speech.
Another memo, dated March 17, 1943, records a "rumor" that Roosevelt had insisted upon having black "attendants" with her for the launching of the aircraft carrier Yorktown in Newport News. When an unnamed admiral refused the request, she "swept into the car in 'huff,' " the memo notes.
The Roosevelts' departure from the White House in April 1945 certainly did not remove her from Hoover's watchful eye. His agents continued to track her activities and travel and monitor her attitude toward communists until the early 1960s.
In a July 14, 1951, column, published as a "red scare" swept the nation and congressional investigations were discovering "communists" in every walk of life, Roosevelt warned against "the establishment of a Gestapo in our midst, and the curtailment of the right of free speech and free association."
Hoover took the remark as a personal affront to his own and the FBI's efforts to identify and round up communist infiltrators. Beside Roosevelt's article, which was placed in the FBI file, Hoover penned: "I often wonder whether she is so naive as she professes or whether it is just a blind to lull the unsuspecting. H." Elsewhere he wrote that she was "still naive, or perhaps blind."
When Roosevelt noted in an uncharacteristically tough speech that the Soviets respect only "strength," Hoover thought that perhaps she had come to her senses, "but not before doing much harm."
A Nov. 2, 1945, memorandum from an unnamed FBI agent in Boston to Hoover detailed Roosevelt's attendance at a party, her discussion of a planned trip to the Soviet Union and her possible endorsement of a book entitled "I Saw the Russian People."
The memo, based upon an informant named "Miss Winter," continues: "Mrs. Roosevelt is alleged by Miss Winter to have stated that the Russian people and government should know that she had been and will continue to be sympathetic to their problems and aims, and would, if she were permitted to tour the country freely, write no adverse criticism of it upon her return to the United States."
In 1946, FBI agent E. A. Soucy informed Hoover of Roosevelt's endorsement of a Howard Fast novel, 'The American," for the Literary Guild. Fast had been "identified as a pro-communist author," the memo noted.
In 1954, FBI agents in New York reported that an unnamed government employe had seen Roosevelt entering the same building that housed the Communist Party.
An August 1957 memo in the Roosevelt file, from FBI agents in Washington to Hoover, records that "the attached blank memorandum has been classified 'confidential' because of the sensitive nature of the investigative technique involved."
One month later, in a memorandum marked "for the information of the Director," FBI assistant director Alan H. Belmont reported that Roosevelt had spoken over Moscow radio: "Mrs. Roosevelt's appearance and statements on the Moscow radio should provide communist propagandists with fresh material for their campaign."
Belmont added: "Communist propaganda appears in many guises. It is transmitted throughout the world in many ways. Perhaps the most insidious method used for its transmittal involves the use of dupes."
On June 30, 1958, a biography of Roosevelt was inserted in a file captioned "Communist Infiltration of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People."
In December 1958, Roosevelt's newspaper column angered officials of the American Legion, which she had criticized. Upon reading the response of the Legion to Roosevelt's column, Hoover wrote, "A devastating reply but I doubt it will have any effect on the old hoot owl and her clique."
Roosevelt was aware that her stand against the anticommunist frenzy of the late 1940s and 1950s had opened her to attack. In an Oct. 6, 1947, letter to Hoover, she wrote:
". . . Congressman Clarence J. Brown of Ohio is alleged to have accused me of having an intimate friend who was a number-one Russian spy and that I tipped her off as to impending action.
"Congressman Brown insists he made no such statement but my information comes from a reporter who was present at the meeting where Congressman Brown spoke.
"Naturally, I know my intimate friends who are few in number, so I am anxious to know if anyone is using my name in a way which I would not approve.
"I also realize that I am 'fair game' in politics!"
But if Roosevelt took such criticism as "fair game," Hoover took each remark challenging his political views as a personal assault on himself and his bureau.
"She can't help but make snide remarks about us," Hoover wrote in April 1950 when Roosevelt, in her newspaper column, compared a loutish figure in a play to a "kind of super FBI man."
In 1951 Roosevelt criticized Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the fervent anticommunist, "because he smears people without the slightest regard for the facts." Beside the news clipping of her remarks, Hoover wrote, "She has done exactly this in her attacks on the FBI & when I call on her to produce facts she was unable to do so. H."
In the margin of a Feb. 6, 1951, FBI memo in which the bureau declined to assist Roosevelt in an inquiry regarding the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hoover scribbled in the margin: "Right. I certainly am not doing any research work for Mrs. R. H."
Hoover's animosity for Roosevelt apparently continued even after her death on Nov. 7, 1962. An FBI memo of Nov. 8, 1962, records that the Mutual Broadcasting System invited Hoover to take part in a radio memorial service for Roosevelt. The caller from the radio network, a man named LaVie, suggested that if Hoover was unavailable, some other FBI spokesman would do.
An FBI spokesman told LaVie that "the Director was out at the present time and that his return was indefinite. He further told him that it would be impossible for someone else to be a spokesman for the FBI," according to the memo.
The spokesman "advised that should Mr. LaVie call back we will indicate that the Director is still out and will not return in time for the 3:05 p.m. broadcast."
The "absent" Hoover, however, may have been present throughout the exchange, approving of how it was handled. "Right. H.," Hoover wrote at the bottom of the memorandum.