Seventy years ago today, the F.B.I. filed a report on Langston Hughes. The bureau’s gripe with the poet began in 1940 when he spoke at a luncheon for the International Union of Revolutionary Writers in Pasadena, California. An advertisement for the event featured Hughes’ poem “Goodbye Christ,” which got the F.B.I.’s attention with lines that denounce Christ, saying he should be replaced by “Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.”
In April 1943, the F.B.I. also took issue with a speech Hughes delivered at the W. Federal Street branch of the Youngstown Y.M.C.A. The bureau official reporting on the event wrote of Hughes.
This person is an “alleged” poet, reader, etc., but in reality he is a Communist Party propagandist delivering his lectures in negro YMCA’s and under the auspices of intellectuals.
Later that year on November 5, the F.B.I. compiled an internal security report on Hughes, bringing attention to the poems “Goodbye Christ” (they note that their copy was “secured from the Enemy Alien Squad [and the] New York City Police Department”) and “One More ‘S’ in the U.S.A. Workers Sons” (“To make it Soviet,” as the poem explains).
During this time, the F.B.I. and the United States at large were obviously embroiled in the Cold War, but it’s still astounding to learn that a few poems could be considered a priority in terms of national security. A section of the report even insinuates that measures were taken to prevent the poetry’s circulation.
And Hughes was hardly alone. Here are six more writers whose strange F.B.I. files will take you by surprise:
Truman Capote: Suspected Communist/Confirmed Gossip
The F.B.I. ostensibly kept records on Capote for being “a supporter of the Cuban Revolution,” based on his association with The Fair Play for Cuba Committee. When asked why he supported the FPCC, Capote told the F.B.I., “my step father is Cuban.” The bureau also took an interest in the author because he accompanied a black cast performing “Porgy and Bess” in the Soviet Union.
But Capote’s F.B.I. file may have actually been the result of the author’s lust for gossip. Capote himself admitted to spreading rumors about F.B.I. Chief John Edgar Hoover’s supposed homosexual relationship with friend Clyde Tolson. He went as far as telling a magazine editor about the affair and almost wrote an article about it titled, “Johnny and Clyde.” “It got Hoover upset, that much I know,” Capote said. “And it got me … about 200 pages in an F.B.I. file.”
Dorothy Parker: Suspected Communist/Confirmed Philanthropist
Parker’s file began in the 1930s, according to The New York Times, when an anonymous source reported she was contributing to a communist movement. Parker’s work with the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, which the House Un-American Activities Committee considered an anti-Catholic communist front “masterminded by Jews,” also caught the F.B.I.’s attention in the 1940s, following a number of events to raise funds for medical supplies, ambulances, hospitals and orphanages to assist refugees of European fascism. The F.B.I. went so far as to save the entire guest list of JAFRC’s “Free People’s Benefit Dinner” at the Beverly Hills Hotel on July 2, 1942.
Altogether, the bureau kept a watch on Parker for 25 years, during which it accumulated a 1,000-page dossier on the author.
Henry Miller: Suspected Nazi Sympathizer/Cult Leader
Henry Miller earned the first 10 pages of his F.B.I. file for supposedly expressing Nazi sympathies during a guest lecture at Dartmouth College: “Subject believes Nazis are decent people and that he likes collaborationists.” The F.B.I. caught wind of this through Albert Kahn, who had attended the lecture, harassed Miller and written an article in The Daily Worker insulting the “phony writer” for being a fascist, anti-Semitic propagandist and a former labor spy. On more personal notes, Kahn claims that Miller’s “first wife supported him by being a prostitute” and that the professor who had invited Miller to speak was “a devoted member of the Miller cult.”
That last assertion triggered a chain of accusations about the “Miller Cult.” An article in Harper’s entitled “The New Cult of Sex And Anarchy” portrayed Miller as a Big Sur guru. Another piece appeared in the San Francisco Examiner a month later, titled “Group Establishes Cult of Hatred in Carmel Mountains” and identified Miller as a cult leader.
Despite the accusations, all the F.B.I. was able to dig up from witnesses was that Miller was “strictly the artistic type” and “could very easily be called ‘screwball’ by people who didn’t understand or appreciate his writing.”
William Faulkner: Suspected Blackmail Victim/Adulterer
The F.B.I. has an entire file based on several strange phone call received by William Faulkner’s wife Estelle in 1956 and 1957 regarding her husband. One of the callers identified himself as A.B. Stein, claiming that he had information regarding Estelle’s husband and a Jean Stein that could be had for $500. (William was known for having extramarital affairs, and Jean Stein may have been no exception.)
William Faulkner told the F.B.I. that he had a hunch it may have been a young writer whom he had offended in the past and claimed that he and Jean Stein were just close friends with “mutual interest in radio, television and literary matters.”
“Roy” Bradbury: Suspected Communist/Tourist
Not only does the F.B.I. accidentally refer to Ray Bradbury as “Roy” for the first five pages of his file, but they spend 40 pages investigating his potential trip to Cuba. The F.B.I. suspected Bradbury had attended the Cultural Congress of Havana five years after President Kennedy’s ban on travel to the embargoed nation. The file notes that Bradbury told the F.B.I. he did “not possess informant potential, in view of his occupation as a freelance science fiction writer.” However, the F.B.I. continued to view him as a threat, noting his significant influence as a writer and as a guest of a Women’s Legislative Action event in 1968. In true F.B.I. fashion, there’s also a thorough biography of Bradbury that goes as far as to trace his ancestors back to their arrival in Salisbury, Massachusetts in 1630.
The investigation was eventually closed after the bureau examined Bradbury’s passport file and found that he had never applied to travel to Cuba — let alone actually travelling to Cuba. The F.B.I. also recognized that Bradbury had been “extremely successful in the writing field.” (Props!)
Charles Bukowski: Suspected (Confirmed?) Dirty Old Man
This past September, Bukowski.net published all 113 pages of Charles Bukowski’s F.B.I. file. Bewildered by the U.S. postal worker’s “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column in Open City, the bureau had begun following Bukowski, gathering as much information as they could to prove the writer’s self-proclaimed title as a “Dirty Old Man.” But besides arrests for public intoxication and a wedding in Vegas, most of what the feds dug up wasn’t so scandalous. The word from Bukowski’s neighbors was that he was “an excellent tenant” who kept to himself and didn’t have many visitors.
Alas, what’s most disappointing about these files — besides the incredibly intrusive methods employed by a government agency to investigate the beliefs, actions and associations of private citizens — is the lack of literary analysis from the F.B.I. After all, these dossiers beg the question: What did Hoover make of the colloquial, stream-of-conscious style of Langston Hughes’s “Goodbye Christ?” Were the agents assigned to Faulkner more fond of As I Lay Dying or The Unvanquished? In acknowledging “Roy” Bradbury’s successful writing career, had a field agent appreciated Fahrenheit 451 — and if so, could he taste the irony?
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in unFold, The Leaf Unturned and Italics Mine. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese.
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