Tough Guy

When Raymond Chandler Gave J. Edgar Hoover a Hardboiled Snub

The long-time head of the FBI take not take insults well, and most people were too intimidated to try. But the creator of Philip Marlowe was made of tougher stuff.

Once when J. Edgar Hoover was dining in California in the late ’40s, he noticed mystery writer Raymond Chandler eating nearby. He sent a waiter over to invite Chandler to come to his table and dine with him. Irascible as always, Chandler sent a message back that if the director wanted to eat with him, then Hoover could make the trek to his table.

True to form, Hoover bellowed about having Chandler investigated. Whether he did so or not is conjecture, but had Hoover done a mail intercept on Chandler, who was a voluminous letter writer, then a file would have been started with possible repercussions.

For these letters, unpublished until three years after Chandler’s death, in 1962, painted neither a rosy picture of the FBI, or its allies, the Catholic Church and Joseph McCarthy as well as denouncing loyalty oaths.

In one 1952 letter, Chandler wrote of Hoover’s beloved Bureau:

“The FBI is a bunch of overpublicized characters, Hoover himself being a first rate publicity hound. The FBI throws up such a smoke screen that they make the public forget all the tough ones they never broke. Sometimes I wonder if they ever did break a really tough one.”

Even more astutely, Chandler guessed the truth about Hoover’s activities without having to leave his California home and seek proof in Washington.

“All secret police forces come to the same end. I’ll bet the s.o.b. has a dossier on everybody who could do him damage.”

On its own, this would have been damning enough. But despite Chandler’s recorded anti-Communism, in which he denounced the Communist Party for "shooting you in the back of the head for being 48 hours behind the Party line,” and his disgust with American Communists for defending Stalin, Hoover could have nailed Chandler with the writer’s attacks on one of the Director’s most cherished allies, the Catholic Church. In an era where rightists like Hoover regarded the only true anti-communism to be of the religious variety, Chandler’s attacks on the Catholic Church might have sealed his doom. He characterized the Church as having “fascist tendencies… who played ball with Franco in Spain,” and who “never in the history of the world has refused to play ball with any scoundrel… willing to protect and enrich” the Catholic Church.

Hoover would also have found criticism of his ally Joseph McCarthy, a dangerous charge to make in the early ’50s when the senator was at the height of his investigative power.

“A stevedore on the docks is more articulate than most senators and congressman are here. And McCarthy would last about the length of time necessary to uncover the cesspool,” Chandler wrote.

Hoover also could have uncovered Chandler’s disgust with having to sign an anti-Communist loyalty oath in order to work for CBS:

“My God, what is the country coming to? What are we afraid of?”

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Even in Chandler’s pretend scenario of being a Stalinist spy, with his “medals” for services rendered buried in his backyard, he still couldn’t resist portraying Hoover’s boys as inept. Rather than finding the “seventeen decorations from Stalin,” the FBI in this scenario would uncover only an innocuous note: “Good morning Chief.”

Knowing how Hoover pursued Hemingway for years when the writer denounced his beloved Bureau as an “American Gestapo,” Hoover no doubt would have expended the same energy on Chandler had he intercepted his letters. That he did not file away these meager tidbits implies that some reasonable soul at the dinner table the night Chandler spurned Hoover talked the Director out of it.

Ron Capshaw’s work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, Human Events, and The Washington Times.