An American crime story.
Written by The Gordons, who were the tandem of spouses Gordon Gordon and Mildred Gordon, FBI Story follows Agent John Ripley as he investigates the disappearance of a woman named Genie. She's wanted for theft by the FBI, and by the Los Angeles police as a person of interest in a murder case. Ripley finds that he and the missing woman have a lot in common, a fact revealed by his perusal of her bookshelf and diary. Is she really a criminal or just a desperate woman in deep trouble? As the investigation unfolds and the search spans the entire United States, we learn that other people are after her, including a millionaire American fascist who looks like Hitler and rants about the master race. Eventually Ripley uncovers jewel thievery, treason, and the mysterious Genie herself.
Originally published in hardback on the heels of World War II in 1950, FBI Story delves deeply into the weariness and cynicism of combat vets, of which Ripley is one, yet all the agents are unswervingly dutiful and honest. Considering the fact that the novel is dedicated to J. Edgar Hoover, one could be excused for branding it propaganda. In fact, Gordon Gordon was an ex-FBI agent and had J. Edgar Hoover approve his work. Even so, FBI Story is generally considered a good read. It was later turned into a movie starring James Stewart and Vera Miles. The Bantam edition of the book is from 1955 with uncredited art, and the Corgi one appeared in 1957 with Mitchell Hooks on the cover chores.
Just when you thought you’d heard the worst about J. Edgar Hoover.
Yale University historian Beverly Gage has found an uncensored version of a threatening letter sent to civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover personally engineered. The letter, which she found as part of research into an upcoming Hoover biography and which has been confirmed as his handiwork, features a fake disgruntled supporter taunting and chastising King, and later urging him to commit suicide. The suicide part is unspoken, but the letter states:
King there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. [snip] You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal self is bared to the nation.
Hoover’s brainstorm was that King would be so afraid of having his marital infidelity exposed that he’d rather die than see his reputation ruined. When King publicly declared that the FBI and Hoover were after him, the cackles of laughter from the mainstream press and general masses reached the mountaintops. And yet, as so often happens in history, it turns out the government had, in fact, acted far beyond its legal mandate, or even everyday sanity. We now know that under Hoover the FBI harassed not only King, but other political figures, various activist groups, and even harmless Hollywood performers. But this letter represents an incredible new low. More tidbits:
King, like all frauds your end is approaching.
Your “honorary” degrees, your Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards will not save you.
Satan could not do more. What incredible evilness.
There’s more, but you get the gist. The word “evil” is used six times in the one page screed. To imagine the FBI reduced to such an act of impotent cowardice astonishes, but desperate times call for desperate measures—as one of only a few official apartheid nations left in the world at that time, the U.S. was taking a beating in international circles. Scenes of unarmed protesters attacked by German shepherds had played on television sets around the planet. A change had begun that some of the most powerful entities in America wanted stopped. But no smears, no threats, and not even the murder of numerous civil rights activists, including King, could stem the tide.
That swell reached a high water mark. But unhealed wounds, social polarization, regressive lunacy, and political opportunism eventually rolled it back. Today, pundits tell credulous audiences numbering in the tens of millions that the bestowing of equal rights to African Americans wasa mistake. Worse, in just the few minutes we spent looking around the internet for a bit of material to write this post we ran into so many defenses of Hoover’s actions that it made us wonder if it was 1965 again. J. Edgar would have liked that. But what he wouldn’t have liked is that his enemy is a global icon while he's a historical embarrassment.
Sing-Sing the body electric.
This True Detective from November 1939 features a cover painting of mobster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, whose flight from authorities had taken him from the U.S. to Mexico, and then to Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Cuba, and across the ocean to England, France and Germany. Buchalter had begun his career in organized crime by shaking down pushcart operators in Brooklyn, and had risen through the ranks of the criminal-controlled fur industry by doing every type of dirt imaginable, from issuing threatening phone calls to garment union activists to throwing acid in a competitor’s face. Eventually he was running a criminal empire that stretched to both coasts, and was acting as head of the infamous assassination squad Murder, Inc.
In 1936 Buchalter went into hiding after he became aware that criminal charges were being prepared against him. Not long after he dropped out of sight, he was indicted for smuggling an estimated $10 million in heroin into the U.S. from Hong Kong. The FBI printed a million posters and displayed them in every post office, police station, and federal building in America. All this attention was a problem for U.S. mob bosses, and so with characteristic unsentimentality, they decided Buchalter had to surrender. Convincing him was not difficult. While he undoubtedly had the flair and intelligence to dodge the feds indefinitely, living in another country away from the old neighborhood and away from the hundreds of underlings who respected him was not his style. Buchalter was a mobster through-and-through. To him, an anonymous existence, even in a tropical paradise or cosmopolitan foreign capitol, was little different from being in prison.
Buchalter’s associates got word to him that if he came back to the U.S. he would be able to surrender personally to J. Edgar Hoover. Surrendering to the Feds meant he would not face a more serious group of charges brought by Manhattan D.A. Thomas Dewey. But it was wishful thinking. The federal charges were rapidly followed by Dewey’s charges and Buchalter earned a fourteen-year jolt in the pen. His legal team hoped tohave the sentence reduced via appeals and procedural maneuvers, but when a snitch fingered Buchalter for ordering the murder of a candy store owner named Joe Rosen, he was tried for the killing, convicted, and sentenced to execution. By some estimates Buchalter had been responsible for a thousand murders as head of Murder, Inc., but all it took was one to seal his fate. Louis "Lepke" Buchalter was electrocuted in Sing-Sing prison's famous "Old Sparky" electric chair on March 4, 1944, perhaps while realizing life on a beach in Costa Rica hadn’t been so bad after all.
All the fame, none of the fortune.
National Enquirer from the week of July 24 to 30, 1960, with cover star Jean Seberg sporting the pixie look that helped make her an international phenomenon. Seberg is a person we haven’t written about yet, but it’s no stretch to say her story is one of the most interesting in cinema history, involving J. Edgar Hoover, the Black Panthers, and suicide. We’ll be spending a lot of time on her tragic story down the line.
When Hush comes to shove.
There’s a veritable smorgasbord of sin on the cover of this March 1956 Hush-Hush. The magazine starts by outing former German tennis star Gottfried von Cramm’s affair with actor Manesse Herbst back in the mid-1930s. Von Cramm had already been jailed in Nazi Germany for the Herbst affair, and before that had been blackmailed by Herbst for enough money to relocate to Palestine, so the Hush-Hush story must have felt like having a vulture land on him after he was already picked clean. Luckily, he had just married serial bride Barbara Hutton (who you may remember from our post a while back on the amazing Porfirio Rubirosa), and since she was the richest woman in the world at the time, we doubt von Cramm's social life was seriously crimped by Hush-Hush's homophobic rehash.
The bit on Adlai Stevenson is of similar nature—he was closely monitored by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who periodically leaked false rumors that Stevenson was gay. The Hush-Hush story reads like a smear, but no actual files are produced because, well, they were top secret. It wouldn’t be until 2007 that a declassification of Hoover’s files revealed that FBI agents followed Stevenson for thirty-five years, sometimes even tailing him internationally. In they end they discovered nothing, except perhaps that Hoover was obsessed with homosexuality, for reasons that are yet to be fully determined, but for which there are plenty of interesting theories.
Harry Belafonte gets a spotlight as well, but for political reasons. By 1956 he was a leading figure in the American civil rights movement and was highly critical of U.S. domestic and inter-national policy, and so Hush-Hush does what any respectable red-baiting scandal rag would do—suggest he was brainwashed by communists. While the story is pure baloney, it did turn out to be prescient in one sense—Belafonte did begin explicitly endorsing communist ideals, and remains a supporter of Fidel Castro and other leftist leaders today.
Moving along, Ann Woodward was a respected New York City socialite who shotgunned her husband dead in the fall of 1955, apparently believing him to be a burglar. There had been a series of robberies in her neighborhood, so her story made sense, but the fact that she had fired twice raised a few eyebrows. Hush-Hush happily throws a little fuel on the fires of suspicion by dredging up some marital strife and implying the shooting wasn’t an accident. But a grand jury felt differently and failed to issue an indictment. Twenty years later, Truman Capote wrote a book about the shooting and minced no words in voicing his suspicions that Woodward was a murderer. Woodward committed suicide soon thereafter, supposedly in despair that her past had been aired out again.
As always, there’s plenty more dirt and dish we could discuss, but we’ll stop for now because we already have more tabloids than we’ll probably ever be able to post. In fact we just bought fifteen rare copies of the National Informer from an auction site and they only cost us two dollars apiece. And of course we also have a giant folder of tabloids we’ve downloaded. Probably the only way to use them all would be to launch a tabloids-only site, but who has the time? Not us, sadly. More on Hush-Hush later.
And while you're at it can you nuke me a cinnamon roll?
Put together by co-directors Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty, the documentary Atomic Café consists entirely of 50s and 60s-era film clips—many of them U.S. Army-produced—compiled into a sometimes hilarious, but ultimately devastating indictment of the American government’s deliberate (and successful) attempt to control public opinion about the nuclear bomb. It features archival footage of everyone from Ronald Reagan to J. Edgar Hoover, all of them doing their part to manipulate the citizenry, and shows us government-produced public service films so filled with fallacies you marvel that people were capable of believing them. Our favorite moment comes when an obese man is shown falling in his shower to illustrate that daily life has plenty of risk, thus there’s no need to fear a nuclear bomb. And we also get a doofus turtle named Bert advising us to duck and cover in the event of an attack, which is pretty glib advice coming from a creature born with nature’s bomb shelter on its back. But the most revealing and poignant part of this film is seeing America’s elation at having an atomic bomb turn so quickly and so overwhelmingly to terror upon learning the Soviets had figured it out too. The Atomic Café opened in the U.S. today in 1982.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1954—Communist Party Outlawed
In the U.S., during the height of the Red Scare, President Dwight Eisenhower signs the Communist Control Act into law. The new legislation bans the American Communist Party, and prohibits people deemed to be communists from serving as officials in labor organizations.
1968—France Explodes Nuke
a two-stage nuclear weapon, codenamed Canopus, on Fangataufa, French Polynesia.
1942—Battle of Stalingrad Begins
The Battle of Stalingrad, perhaps the most pivotal event of World War II, begins. It lasts for more than six months, spread across the brutal Russian winter, and ends with two million casualties. The Russian sacrifice reduces the powerful German army to a shell of its former self, and as a result Nazi defeat in the war becomes a simple matter of time.
1979—Alexander Gudonov Defects
Russian ballet dancer and actor Alexander Borisovich Godunov defects to the U.S. The event causes an international diplomatic crisis, but Gudonov manages to win asylum. He joins the famous American Ballet Theater, where he becomes a colleague of fellow-defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, and later earns roles in such Hollywood films as Witness and Die Hard.
1950—Althea Gibson Breaks the Color Barrier
Althea Gibson becomes the first African-American woman to compete on the World Tennis Tour, and the first to earn a Grand Slam title when she wins the French Open in 1956. Later she becomes the first African-American woman to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
1952—Devil's Island Closed
Devil's Island, the penal colony located off the coast of French Guiana, is permanently closed. The prison is later made world famous by Henri Charrière's bestselling novel Papillon, and the subsequent film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
1962—De Gaulle Survives Assassination Attempt
Jean Bastien-Thiry, a French air weaponry engineer, attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle to prevent Algerian independence. Bastien-Thiry and others attack de Gaulle's armored limousine with machine guns, but after expending hundreds of rounds, they succeed only in puncturing two tires.
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