The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures

D.G. Hewitt - July 20, 2018

Over the decades, the FBI has worked tirelessly to keep America safe from subversive influences. To achieve this, it keeps close track of individuals it suspects could be a threat to national security, building up comprehensive files on them. However, it’s not just criminals and politicians who have been the objects of FBI scrutiny over the years. Celebrities, scientists and cultural figures have also been investigated by the G-Men, including some of the most notable individuals in modern American history.

In some instances, these historical figures were suspected of being Communist spies. Others were viewed as potential Nazi secret agents. At the same time, some major figures were viewed with suspicion due to their views on Civil Rights or American foreign policy and war. Quite simply, if the Agency had reason to believe a famous figure wasn’t a ‘true American’, they would start a file on them.

Thankfully for the history fan, most of these files have now been released by the FBI, even if it might have taken some time and effort to get them to open up their archives. So, here are just 11 famous figures from history who had an FBI file on them, justified or not:

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
The FBI even succeeded in getting Charlie Chaplin banned from returning to America. Time Out.

Charlie Chaplin

To his adoring fans, Charlie Chaplin was a lovable clown. His silent films, most of them released in the 1920s, were enjoyed by millions and made him not just a household name and major celebrity, but a very rich man and one of the most powerful figures in all of Hollywood. But could ‘The Tramp’ have had a more sinister, anti-American side? The FBI certainly thought so, which is why they hounded him mercilessly and eventually succeeded in banning him from the country that had made him a star.

In all, the FBI amassed 2,000 pages of notes on Chaplin. Ever since he first emerged as a bona-fide Hollywood superstar, the Agency’s Director J. Edgar Hoover had suspected that Chaplin harboured Communist sympathies. The file noted that, even after living in the US for more than 30 years, the actor had declined to take American citizenship, plus it detailed his friendships and working relationships with several other left-leaning individuals. Most damningly, Chaplin had spoken at the Los Angeles branch of the National Council of American Soviet Friendship in the early 1940s. Here, he stated that: “There is a great deal of good in communism. We can use the good and segregate the bad.”

As the years passed, the FBI had even more to put in their ever-expanding Charlie Chaplin File. In 1942, Agency agents named Chaplin in four indictments related to a paternity case brought against him. While the star was acquitted on all counts, it was a PR disaster, with the FBI succeeding in turning public opinion against him. When Chaplin finally got back to work in 1942, he was met with widespread criticism, not least due to his open support for the Soviet Union – at that point America’s ally against the Nazis. He continuously stressed that he was not a Communist, but to no avail.

The FBI even asked Britain’s MI5 for evidence they could use against Chaplin. Perhaps he had been meeting with Soviet agents in London? Again, they found nothing. However, there was enough innuendo and suspicion surrounding Chaplin to ensure that, when he was travelling in 1953, the FBI could succeed in getting an order banning him from entering back into the United States. Chaplin could have challenged the order. Instead, he chose not to and to live in Switzerland instead, away from the media glare and political accusations. “I have been the object of lies and propaganda,” he declared. Chaplin lived in a mansion overlooking Lake Geneva until he died in his sleep on Christmas Day in 1977.

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
The FBI tried, and failed, to find evidence of Marilyn Monroe’s Communist sympathies. Cosmopolitan.

Marilyn Monroe

Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, Marilyn Monroe grew to be one of the most iconic figures of the 20th centuries. She was an actress, model and sex symbol. She married playwrights and had an affair with a President and was just as well known for her personal life as she was for her movie work. However, was there a hidden side to Monroe? In the 1950s and 1960s, the FBI worked tirelessly to try and find out. Despite her public persona as the ultimate All-American Girl, J. Edgar Hoover suspected that the Blonde Bombshell may have had communist sympathies.

The detailed dossier the FBI compiled on Monroe makes for fascinating reading. Above all, it shows just how paranoid and suspicious American society was at the time of the McCarthy trials. Not only did many in positions of authority believed that there were ‘reds under the bed’, they sincerely thought that many stars of stage and screen, Monroe among them, were actively working to undermine American values through culture.

For the most part, it’s simple guilt by association. While her involvement with the Kennedys, both the President and his brother Bobby, was flagged up as a possible security risk, it was her closeness to certain known lefists that really got the FBI’s attention. Most notably, the files state that Monroe had a “mutual infatuation” with Frederick Vanderbilt Field. He had exiled himself from the US for political reasons, living in Mexico and open about his socialist views, and so, when the actress met up with him while shopping for furniture in Central America, the Agency’s agents became very suspicious indeed. Similarly, her marriage to Arthur Miller, a known socialist sympathiser, was seen as proof that she had, in the words of one page of the FBI file, “drifted into the Communist orbit”, with some even believing the whole wedding was a sham and smokescreen.

Ultimately, despite all their suspicions, the FBI found no definitive proof that Monroe was indeed a communist. As one file entry of 1962 stated, she held views that were “positively and concisely leftist”. However, if she was “being used by the Communist Party, it is not general knowledge among those working with the movement in Los Angeles.” The FBI files on Monroe were released under the Freedom of Information Act in the 1980s and have since been made available for anyone to read on the Agency’s own website.

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
John Lennon and Yoko Ono protested against American wars, earning the FBI’s suspicion. Wikimedia Commons.

John Lennon

As one of the Beatles, John Lennon enjoyed worldwide fame and success. The group were adored by millions and, while seen as being a bit racy by the parents of many of their teen fans, were generally regarded as harmless. When Lennon left the band and embarked on career as a solo musician and artist, however, he became increasingly political. It’s no surprise that his anti-war and anti-capitalist sentiments would arouse the suspicions of the FBI. By the time of Lennon’s murder, the Agency had complied a file some 281 pages on the superstar, even if much of it was unsubstantiated gossip and innuendo.

The surveillance began in December of 1971, just a few weeks after Lennon had moved to New York with his wife Yoko Ono. Lennon sang a couple of songs at a rally organised in support of John Sinclair, an anti-war activist who had been sentenced to 10 years in jail for possession of just a small amount of marijuana. FBI agents were in the audience that night, and they were taking notes. From that day on, they kept a close eye on the Liverpudlian. Rather than the usual concerns of communist leanings, the G-Men were worried about Lennon’s anti-war rhetoric. After all, this was a man who argued that Americans needed to ‘Give Peace a Chance’. What’s more, there were also genuine concerns that the singer could undermine President Nixon, including his chances of re-election.

As well as putting him under surveillance, the FBI also referred his file to the Immigration and Naturalization service. However, despite the best efforts of the FBI to have Lennon deported from the US, he succeeded in getting his Green Card in 1976. Even that, however, didn’t deter the Agency and they kept tabs on Lennon and his wife right up until the singer was murdered in December 1980. The historian Jon Wiener spent 14 years to force the FBI to release all the files they had kept on Lennon. He even had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to have the documents made available, only succeeded almost 20 years after Lennon’s tragic death.

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
J. Edgar Hoover and Walt Disney were regularly in contact. Wikimedia Commons.

Walt Disney

Most of the time, the FBI made files on celebrities they believed to be Communists or at least Communist sympathizers. But Walt Disney’s massive FBI file was different. This time, the Hollywood superstar was actively working with the Agency to weed out ‘un-American’ elements in the entertainment industry. What’s more, Disney reported directly to the top man, J. Edgar Hoover himself.

The vast majority of the 750 pages of information the Agency had on Walt Disney were compiled between 1954 and 1966. Some of the more intriguing documents include one from 1955, the year in which Disney opened his first theme park. It was ‘Uncle Walt’ himself who proactively offered the FBI free rein of the entertainment complex and even mooted a special zone or exhibition celebrating the work of the G-Men. What’s more, the file also shows just how close Disney and Hoover became over the years. They would regularly speak over the phone, sharing their thoughts on the movies and TV shows of the day.

Over the years, Disney dedicated several episodes of the hugely-popular Mickey Mouse Club children’s TV show to the FBI, promoting the Agency in a good light and even attempting to instil ‘true American values’ in its young viewers. Other revelations from the file include the fact that Hoover managed to get some Disney content altered, most notably a movie called “That Darn Cat”, which was changed to show the Agency in a better light. Before long, Disney was submitting film ideas and scripts to agents for feedback and even approval.

Once again, it was a Freedom of Information request, this time submitted by the writer and biographer March Eliot, which uncovered the giant dossier the FBI compiled on one of America’s most famous businessmen and entertainers in the early 1990s. However, some 200 pages of the whole file were heavily redacted, meaning we will likely never know just how closely Disney worked with Hoover, and whether he named names and had careers – maybe even lives – ruined due to suspicions of ‘anti-American’ beliefs.

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
The Agency long believed Albert Einstein was a spy in their midst,. El Mundo.

Albert Einstein

These days, Albert Einstein is popularly remembered as an eccentric genius. As well as being one of the greatest minds of all time, he was good-natured, modest and often self-deprecating. All of this means that he is remembered with fondness, even by those with little or no knowledge of physics. However, it wasn’t always like this. From 1932 onwards, the FBI kept a detailed dossier on Einstein, believing him to be a “radical” and even a potential security threat.

It was towards the end of 1932 that Einstein moved to the US with his wife, Elsa. Far from keeping his head down and staying quiet, the scientist was outspoken on many of the most pressing social issues of the day. Above all, he argued vociferously against not just racism but nationalism too. Then, later on in life, Einstein also became a vocal critic of the dangers of nuclear weapons. All of this combined to make him, in the eyes of the FBI, a potential subversive.

Between 1932 and Einstein’s death in April of 1955, the FBI compiled a fie some 1,427 pages long on the scientist. Some agents genuinely believed that he was a spy, working for the Communists. As one 2002 book revealed, they would monitor not just Einstein’s phone but those of his colleagues and friends in the hope of gaining some crucial evidence to back up their suspicions. G-Men even went through Einstein’s trash searching for clues. This hunt for proof of Communist sympathies became even more intense in the 1950s, especially when Einstein used his celebrity status to appeal for leniency for the Rosenbergs, who had been arrested for espionage and sentenced to death. He also called on his fellow scientists to refuse to testify before the subcommittees organised by Senator Joseph McCarthy, again making him appear even more suspect in the eyes of Hoover and his colleagues.

By 1953, the McCarthy-led campaign against Communist infiltrators in American society had come to an end. Surveillance on Einstein was eased and then brought to an end altogether. Two years later, Einstein died at the age of 76. A few days after his death. Hoover personally ordered the file on the scientific genius to be closed and put away. It remained hidden away from public view for around 30 years. Now, however, it can be read online on the FBI’s own website.

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
The FBI compiled a file on Jimi Hendrix following his arrest in Canada. Paris Match.

Jimi Hendrix

Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix was never suspected of being a Communist. But, nevertheless, some establishment figures certainly thought he might be a threat to ‘the American way of life’. Not only did he play rock music, he was also a known drug user. So, when Hendrix was arrested in 1969 in Toronto for possession of a small amount of marijuana and the Canadian authorities asked the FBI to help them find an excuse to deport him from the country, the G-Men were only too happy to help.

So, Hoover’s men got busy trying to find something incriminating their colleagues across the Canadian border could use. As the FBI’s own file shows, they looked into Hendrix’s history. However, they came up virtually empty handed. Sure, the Agency did uncover the fact that eight years previously the rock god had been stopped for driving a car without the owner’s permission, but that was it. Any evidence of past drug-related misdemeanours simply couldn’t be found. Nevertheless, the FBI did go ahead with making a full file on Hendrix and then sharing it with the Canadian authorities.

In the end, all the charges facing Hendrix in Canada were dropped. Despite their best efforts, the investigators couldn’t prove that the drugs found in his luggage were put there by him. The FBI file, then, turned out to be something of a waste of time. Today, therefore, it’s one of the least interesting of celebrity files. But still, it is useful in showing just how seriously the Agency took the job of monitoring rock and pop stars and just how worried they were that this new generation of musicians might be a bad influence on the American youth.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the FBI file on Hendrix is the section addressing rumors that he would put LSD tabs in his bandana. These would steadily dissolve during the course of his epic concerts, keeping him tripping and the music flowing. While the Agent who wrote the file acknowledged that this could be possible, no evidence was found that Hendrix ever did this. Hendrix died suddenly in September of 1970 in London. The file was promptly closed, and it can now be viewed in its entirety on the FBI website.

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
Andy Warhol attracted the FBI’s attention through his movie making efforts. Wikimedia Commons.

Andy Warhol

In his day, Andy Warhol was, for many Americans, a shocking, controversial figure. From his New York City studio, he transformed the art world, making himself a major celebrity in the process. His paintings sold for significant sums of money, and they continue to be among the most valuable artworks in the world today. However, Warhol didn’t just paint. He was also a filmmaker, and it was one film project in particular which grabbed the attention of the FBI.

Warhol’s FBI file is relatively short for a celebrity, totalling just 80 pages. And much of it is devoted to a single issue: the filming of Lonesome Cowboys in 1968. Entitled drily, “Interstate Transportation of Obscene Matter”, the file was concerned with rumors that Warhol would include explicit sex scenes or other offensive material in his movie. As well as the script, FBI agents investigated the backgrounds of the film crew, noting with obvious distaste their long, ‘hippy’ hair and sandals. What’s more, the all-male make-up of the crew was seen as suspicious by some agents and also included in the file.

Additionally, the file is also made up of witness statements. These came from interviews the Agency carried out with people involved with the film, including those farmers whose ranch was used for the location. In the end, however, while the main author of the report concluded that the male members of Warhol’s cast “displayed homosexual tendencies and conducted themselves towards one another in an effeminate manner,” they could find no real evidence of obscenity. Thus, the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York declined to press ahead with a proposed prosecution.

After this brush with the FBI in 1968, Warhol was left alone by the Agency for the rest of his life. What’s more, when the file was eventually made public in the spring of 2011, it was only posted on the FBI website for a few weeks. According to the Agency, there was not sufficient public interest in the case to merit keeping it up. The full file is, however, still available to find online, showing another side to Warhol and highlighting the conservative attitudes to him and his work.

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
The FBI feared Tesla’s ‘Death ray’ invention could fall into the wrong hands. Wikipedia.

Nikola Tesla

In September of 2016, the FBI finally released the substantial file it has on Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-born inventor and businessman. Tesla had died in a New York City apartment in January 1943 at the ripe old age of 85. Almost straight away, the Agency’s agents rushed to his property. They reportedly carried away two truck loads of documents, including notebooks and other material. All of this was added to the information the FBI already had on the inventor of the AC electricity supply system.

Above all, when the file was finally made public, some 73 years after Tesla’s death, it showed just how eager the FBI was to get their hands on his research. Just as importantly, the Agency’s agents went to great lengths to keep his pioneering work out of other people’s hands. In particular, one letter, addressed to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, mentions Tesla’s “death ray” invention. The note warns Hoover that the proposed weapon could be of “vital importance” to the U.S War Department, though it could also be useful to “other nations now controlled by dictators”.

The Director was also advised that the FBI should keep a close eye on Tesla when he lived in New York. More specifically, the documents show that agents were concerned about the inventor’s nephew, who they feared could steal his research and try and sell it to America’s enemies. But perhaps what’s most interesting about the FBI file on Tesla is what it doesn’t contain. In the decades after his death, conspiracy theories emerged alleging that the US government was keeping his “death ray” technology a closely-guarded secret. In the end, however, there was no real Death Ray, as the file makes clear. Interestingly, the MIT scientist who looked over Tesla’s research papers and concluded they would be of no use in the creation of a superweapon was a certain John Trump, the uncle of the future President.

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
Bettie Page helped the FBI out in their investigations into the pornography business. Pinterest.

Bettie Page

Bettie May Page was the ‘Queen of the Pinups’; famed for her dark hair, bright blue eyes and provocative poses. She found fame as a model, including through work for early editions of Playboy magazine, plus she was also a muse and fashion icon. Page was also an FBI informant, as a file released by the Agency following a Freedom of Information request revealed. While she may have been the victim of speculation and innuendo herself, she obviously was willing to work with the G-Men to give them a unique insight into the underground pornographic scene of 1950s America.

Page’s involvement with the FBI came about following a police raid in Harlem in 1957. The New York City cops discovered a cache of ‘obscene material, in the raided apartment, including pornographic magazines and photos as well as lengths of rope and other bondage tools. The police asked the FBI for their help in finding out whether or not this was being used as a porn studio and, if so, who was making the material and, just as important, who was buying it. Happy to help, the FBI needed expert assistance, and so Director J. Edgar Hoover leaned on Page for her insider knowledge.

The file revealed the extent to which Page cooperated with the FBI. She informed them that “she had never heard of that type of photography being made in Harlem”. Moreover, she revealed that the pictures of her in ‘obscene’ poses had been produced in private photography studios. That, however, was as far as the unusual working relationship between Hoover and Page got. By 1958, page had started drifting away from the pinup world. By the end of the decade, she had renounced the lifestyle completely, due in no small part to her conversion to Christianity.

Bettie Page died in 2008, having lived long enough to see her revival in popular culture. She has been widely cited as an influence by numerous rock, pop and movie stars, while the FBI file, discovered and released in the spring of 2010, added a new layer to her already-fascinating – though often troubled – life.

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
The FBI were convinced that German-born actress Marlene Dietrich was actually a Nazi spy. Al Jazeera.

Marlene Dietrich

Though she was born and raised in Germany, even making her name as a movie star in her native land, Marlene Dietrich moved to America and sided with her adopted homeland in the Second World War. She carried on making films but entertained the troops too. According to Dietrich, this was her way of helping out in the fight against Hitler. But still, some people continued to doubt which side she was on. The FBI certainly did. They feared she might be a Nazi spy, as the bulky file they built up on the superstar shows.

It was the Agency’s Director, J. Edgar Hoover, in particular who feared there could be a Nazi spy operating in the heart of Hollywood. From 1942 up until 1944, Hoover ordered that Dietrich be followed everywhere she went. He also had his agents open her mail in the hope of finding evidence to prove his suspicions. Of course, none was ever found. In fact, Dietrich did more than most to prove her loyalty to America. In February of 1944, she agreed to spy on the land of her birth. While in Europe, supposedly on trips to entertain the American GIs, she would gather information on possible subversive activities and report back to her spymasters upon her return.

But, while the FBI’s investigations failed to turn up any evidence of Dietrich being a Nazi agent, they did learn a lot about her personal life. And much of this ended up in the file. The agents who followed the Hollywood actress noted that she was “promiscuous, albeit in a rather cool and glamorous manner”. They also noted, with evident alarm, that Dietrich not only enjoyed affairs with male actors, she even had liaisons with women.

Today, 150 pages of the FBI’s file on Dietrich are available for the public to read. Frustratingly for the historian, however, part of the file was destroyed in 1980, 12 years prior to her death. Could these pages have shed more light on what information she learned while spying for the Americans in Europe? Could they even have shown whether the US government ever took Dietrich’s comments about wanting to help assassinate Adolf Hitler seriously? Sadly, we’ll never know. Dietrich died in 1992, aged 90, having lived a fascinating and complex long life.

The FBI Kept Files on These 11 Famous Figures
The FBI started looking more closely at Jackie Robinson after he retired from baseball. FBI.gov.

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson retired from baseball at the beginning of 1957, when he was aged just 37. After the intense pressure that had come from being the first African American to play in Major League Baseball, he might have chosen to enjoy an easy life. However, Robison had other ideas. He became actively involved in politics, and more specifically in the civil rights movement. Because of this, the FBI became suspicious. Which is why they compiled a sizable dossier on him, detailing everything from his suspected political beliefs to his known associates and even his personal relationships.

The Agency opened its file on Robinson in 1966, even if some agents had been suspicious of his motives for some years before this. This was around the time where the baseball legend became an active supporter of the Civil Rights movement. And, when he helped open a new center of the International Workers Order in Harlem, the FBI really started taking notice. According to some informants, the International Workers Order was a Communist organization, intent on undermining the American government and American values.

Despite all their efforts, the FBI never found any evidence that Robinson was a threat to American society. In fact, as the file makes clear, the sporting superstar was actually opposed to some extreme Civil Rights groups and was socially conservative on a number of issues. Moreover, Robinson even refused to speak out against the Vietnam War, leading some African American groups to criticize him for selling out his own people.

In his later years, Robinson became a vocal anti-drugs campaigner. His own son was an addict and had died in an automobile accident at the age of just 24. By this stage, the FBI had closed its file on him. The Agency had concluded that, though he was undoubtedly a pioneer and changed the face of professional sports forever, Robinson was no radical and certainly no threat to the American way of life. He died in 1972 at the age of just 53 and his FBI file can be viewed on the Agency’s own website.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Touring J. Edgar Hoover’s monument to Jackie Robinson.” Martin Schram, Knoxville News Sentinel, April 2016.

“FBI files reveal attempt to prove Dietrich was spy.” Kate Connolly, The Guardian, May 2002.

“Bettie Page, FBI Consultant.” The Smoking Gun.

“FBI wanted Tesla’s ‘death ray’ invention for War Dept, documents show.” Russia Today, September 2016.

“New Details Emerge From the Einstein Files: How the F.B.I. Tracked His Phone Calls and His Trash.” Dennis Overbye, May 2002.

“Disney Link to the FBI and Hoover is Disclosed.” The New York Times, 1993.

“Uncovering The ‘Truth’ Behind Lennon’s FBI Files.” NPR.org.

“What’s Inside the FBI’s Secret File on Marilyn Monroe?” Esther Zuckerman, The Atlantic, December 2012.

“MI5 spied on Charlie Chaplin after FBI asked for help to banish him from US.” Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, February 2012.

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