- Courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential library and museum
- According to the FBI’s files, Ernest Hemingway tried to convince the agency that he saw a German submarine off the coast of Cuba during World War II.
There are many ways to honor great writers—award them prizes, name streets for them, or best of all, buy and read their books.
To that list let me add another: Open a secret file and fill it with info gathered by the FBI.
This is my way of saying that I've spent the better part of the last couple of days plowing through pages of FBI files on famous and infamous Chicagoans gathered by Bob Herguth, intrepid investigative reporter for the Sun-Times. (You can page through it yourself by going to the Sun-Times website.)
Before I dig deeper into what I found, a word or two about Mr. Herguth.
The dude's a little, oh, I wouldn't say kooky. More like obsessive. And I say this with all due respect as someone kooky enough to spend 15 years (and counting) writing about TIFs.
A few years back Herguth decided to gather some FBI files, and he's been methodically gathering them ever since. Think of it as his hobby. Hey, man, it beats fantasy football.
He's gathered files on mobsters, church leaders, politicians, and activists including Mayor Richard J. Daley, organized crime boss Sam Giancana, Muhammad Ali, Congressman Abner Mikva, and so on and so forth. He's got 125 files and counting, with more coming in all the time.
If you want to know more about Herguth and his quest, check out our recent conversation from my podcast.
Apparently, the FBI will turn over a file so long as the subject is dead. Though parts of many files are blacked out, and I wouldn't be surprised if they omitted the real good stuff altogether.
As I said, I've spent the better part of several nights reading through them, and I got a little dizzy from staring at the screen. I went straight to the writers. Mainly, I wanted to see what a writer had to do to get the FBI's attention. Apparently, not much.
The FBI had a file on Mike Royko, the great columnist who died in 1997. In it was a copy of a letter from someone in Cleveland, upset over a 1969 column in which Royko chastised the FBI for spreading salacious dirt on Martin Luther King Jr.
Writing directly to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (man, I'd love to see his file), the reader in Cleveland says: "I am sending you some clippings you may want to read . . . I am with you one hundred percent on everything you do . . . I would love an autographed picture of you if possible, to put over my fireplace."
Guess the Royko reader in Cleveland figured it would pay to butter Hoover up. It worked, as Hoover's response is also in the file: "I am forwarding . . . one of my photographs, which I have autographed to you. I am returning the communications you send since I know you would want to keep them."
You know, just in case the Royko reader in Cleveland wants to hang it over the fireplace with Hoover's autographed picture.
The Sun-Times also has the FBI file on Ernest Hemingway (he was born in Oak Park, so that makes him a Chicagoan, more or less). The funniest parts are when some unknown agent describes Hemingway's unsuccessful efforts to convince the FBI that he saw a German submarine off the coast of Cuba, where he was living during World War II.
The agent was skeptical in part because Hemingway "is known to have personal hostility to the FBI on an ideological basis, as he considers the FBI anti-Liberal, pro-Fascist and dangers as developing into an American Gestapo."
Say this for Hemingway—he was never shy about speaking his mind. Even to the FBI.
Not surprisingly, the FBI also snooped on Saul Alinsky, the radical activist of the 50s and 60s, who literally wrote the book on organizing (make that two books—Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals).
An unidentified FBI agent filed a report based on a speech Alinsky delivered in 1969 in Rhode Island: "A confidential source who has furnished reliable information in the past . . . stated that 'the talk was rambling and disjointed with the basic theme of obtaining power through community action' and by 'inciting municipal jitters' to gain financial goals for the impoverished."
That sure sounds like Alinsky.
The agent goes on to write: "Alinsky at one point stated, 'It isn't that I don't like the establishment, I hate their guts.'"
My guess is the feeling was mutual.
Reading through the files reminded me of a story I heard years ago from the late Paul Newey, an investigator for the Cook County state's attorney's office.
Newey knew all about the FBI and its files due to the years he'd spent in law enforcement. Near the end of his life, he was diligently digging through some files on a Chicago gangster when, to his dismay, he discovered a report from an FBI agent about ties between well-known gangsters and Mayor Richard J. Daley's chief corruption investigator.
The gangsters were talking about killing Newey because his investigations were getting too close.
When he read the report, Newey was outraged because 1) the mobsters were talking about killing him; 2) Mayor Daley's chief corruption investigator was, in fact, a confederate of the very mob he was supposed to be investigating; 3) the FBI knew all of this and never bothered to tell him; 4) all of the above.
I wrote a story about Newey—which I urge everyone to read. After that, the FBI probably opened a file on me.
I'll bet they have one on Herguth, what with all his poking around in their business.
Perhaps years from now one of Herguth's as-of-yet-unborn grandchildren—who shares that Herguth journalistic gene—will send in a request to the FBI, secure grandpa's file, and deposit it on the Sun-Times site. Which, by then, will no doubt include several thousand dossiers.
That would put Herguth right up there with Royko, Hemingway, and Alinsky—pretty good company to keep.
Keep up the good work, Bob. v