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An FBI director with a grudge

J. Edgar Hoover had it in for Jack Nelson from the moment the L.A. Times journalist arrived in Washington. The longtime FBI director was convinced that Nelson planned to write that he was homosexual.

November 06, 2011|By Richard A. Serrano, Los Angeles Times
  • J. Edgar Hoover, right, led the FBI for nearly 48 years, outlasting seven presidents. Toward the end of his career, he developed an obsession with Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson, left.
J. Edgar Hoover, right, led the FBI for nearly 48 years, outlasting seven… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Washington — In February 1970, a top aide to President Nixon warned J. Edgar Hoover that a new reporter in town, Jack Nelson, was said to be gunning for the FBI.

Hoover took the advice to heart.

"Keep an eye on these characters," the FBI director wrote his subordinates, referring to Nelson and two of his editors at the Los Angeles Times. "They are up to no good."

As reports on Nelson's activities poured in from FBI field offices, Hoover would scribble comments across the bottom. The more he read, the more vitriolic he became.

"Nelson is a mental case," Hoover wrote on one memo.

"He is a rat," he scrawled on another.

"A jackal."

"A lice-covered ferret."

For two years in the early 1970s, Hoover nursed an obsession with the new reporter in the nation's capital. His agents pumped journalists for dirt on Nelson. He put Nelson on the bureau's list of "untouchables," reporters who were to receive no cooperation.

He even called Nelson a drunk and demanded that he be fired.

Hoover's animosity toward Nelson was no secret. But FBI records released recently under the Freedom of Information Act reveal, for the first time, what fueled his fixation:

Hoover was convinced — mistakenly — that Nelson planned to write that the FBI director was homosexual.

By 1970, Hoover had enjoyed nearly half a century of invincibility at the helm of the FBI, outlasting seven presidents.

Nelson, who arrived in Washington that year at age 42, owned a Pulitzer Prize and a reputation for fearless reporting on the civil rights movement, including FBI abuses in his native South.

Now, he trained his attention on the 75-year-old Hoover, whose health had begun to fail and whose hold on his job was being questioned.

Nelson wanted to know how much money the director had earned for his anti-communist bestseller "Masters of Deceit." He asked about Hoover's armored cars and his office carpeting.

He also inquired about Hoover's confidant, Associate FBI Director Clyde Tolson, including whether Tolson had worked on the book on bureau time. Hoover and Tolson, both bachelors, were inseparable, lunching every noon at the Mayflower Hotel. They were rumored to be lovers.

Biographers and historians have yet to resolve conflicting accounts of Hoover's sexual orientation. There is no indication Nelson had any interest in the subject, and he never wrote about it. Nevertheless, he became the focus of Hoover's anxieties.

As he had done with other perceived enemies, Hoover began compiling a dossier on the reporter.

John Fox, the FBI's in-house historian, said Nelson arrived on the scene at a time when Hoover was feeling vulnerable. A published report that the director was gay could well have ended his career, and that possibility — unfounded or not — had Hoover on edge.

"He saw it as an attack on his manhood," Fox said. "He was a single man and in a powerful position, and he resented it. He saw it as an attack on his influence and power and all that he stood for."

Hoover has remained an object of fascination since his death in 1972, the subject of several biographies and a new film, "J. Edgar," directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Nelson, though never a celebrity, was already an influential and respected journalist when Hoover became preoccupied with him. A native of Alabama, Nelson got his start as a reporter at the Biloxi Daily Herald in Mississippi. While still a teenager, he drew notice for his reporting on corrupt officials and gambling payoffs and became known as "Scoop."

He idolized the FBI. In the summer of 1949, when Time magazine put Hoover on its cover, Nelson applied for a job with the bureau. He was offered one, but decided to stick to journalism.

At the Atlanta Constitution, Nelson won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 1960 for exposing abuses at a state mental hospital. The Los Angeles Times hired him five years later, and he added to his reputation with unflinching coverage of the violent suppression of voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala.

He reported that FBI-paid provocateurs were involved in civil rights abuses in Mississippi, and in a book about the Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina, he said three FBI agents had watched state troopers fire on black students and had later denied they were even present.

In the eyes of Hoover and his supporters, Nelson was an enemy.

That view was reinforced by a lengthy article Nelson wrote soon after arriving in Washington in 1970. It described the FBI's involvement in a sting operation aimed at Ku Klux Klan members in Meridian, Miss.

The idea was to catch the Klan in the act of preparing to bomb a Jewish leader's home. But the operation went awry, ending in a gun battle in which local police killed one of the Klan members, a woman. The FBI denied any role in the affair.

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