The FBI has an image. The clean-cut, dark-suit, sunglass, earpiece. The ones who are called in to help local police or when there is a serious crime.
It’s an image the agency has created from its inception by J. Edgar Hoover. But, whether for Hoover’s political gain or investigative purposes, the agency has gone beyond its initial scope on occasion. Hoover used the FBI to harass and bully any potential threats. The agency has used the newest technology to track, investigate and watch seemingly anyone it chooses.
Those in Hollywood are no exception.
The FBI targeted magazines that printed gossip about Hoover’s personal life. Then moved on to potential communists during the “Red Scare.” Now, the FBI seems to investigate any statement that comes its way or anybody in the national spotlight.
Even the so-called squeaky-clean seem to have found themselves under the FBI’s microscope. Celebrities such as Bob Hope, Helen Keller and John Travolta found themselves within FBI’s files.
The following 8-part series looks at the celebrities who found themselves in the FBI crosshairs, why and some jaw-dropping allegations about their personal lives.
Many of the files are available for public consumption through the FBI Vault.
Some investigations turned out to be warranted with criminal charges and convictions. Others seem nothing more than to harass and intimidate. Here are the FBI files of Hollywood from A-Z.
Singer Bobby Darin was among a group of stars caught in a “gay” extortion plot, according to FBI files. The extortionists set up their victims with juveniles, then — falsely claiming to be New York City police officers — demanded payoffs.
Although there’s no evidence that Darin, who died in 1937 at age 37, was gay, FBI agents scared him into talking to them when they told the stunned singer they’d found some of his monogrammed clothing in the blackmailers’ possession.
The Ex-husband of actress Sandra Dee, Darin was grilled by agents in his trailer at Universal Studios in Hollywood. He denied any involvement and claimed the blackmailers must have gotten his clothing after he’d donated it to charity.
According to the FBI, Darin was “traumatized” by the interview, knowing what the gay charges could do to his public image.
“Darin appreciated the way we handled the matter,” wrote an agent. “Any publicity of this nature, even though false, could harm his career.” Nobody was ever charged in the crime.
John Dillinger’s most famous exploit was the wooden gun jailbreak. But it was precisely this feat of daring and cunning that put FBI agents on his trail. On March 3, 1934, two days before Dillinger was to stand trial for the murder of a cop in East Chicago, Indiana., he and Herbert Youngblood, a fellow inmate at the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana., overpowered guards with what Dillinger later confirmed was a toy gum he’d carved with a razor blade from the wooden frame of washboard.
According to FBI files, Dillinger pulled out the prop — which looked like a .45 automatic — and got the drop on turnkey Sam Cahoon, who helped the two desperados force several prisoners into cells. Dillinger and Youngblood then headed for the jail’s main office, where they grabbed two machine guns and used them to overpower the rest of the guards.
The pair proceeded to the garage, where they stole Sheriff Lillian Holley’s Ford V8 four-door coupe, it was the fastest car available. Grabbing a couple of hostages, Dillinger and Youngblood sped out of the compound in a trail of dust and headed for the Illinois border. On the way, they stuck up three police stations to get more arms.
The news that Dillinger broke out of jail using only a wooden gun was a terrible embarrassment to local police — and to American law enforcement in general. Since September 1933, Dillinger and his gang terrorized the nation with a series of shoot-‘em-up bank robberies, jailbreaks and brushes with the law that left several patrolmen and FBI agents lying dead in pools of their own blood.
Yet despite all larceny and violence — which, by the end of his life, totaled four banks robbed, 10 men murdered, three police arsenals plundered and three jails broken out of — Dillinger didn’t fall afoul of J. Edgar Hoover until he drove Sheriff Holley’s car over the Illinois-Indiana state line. Doing that violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, meaning that the FBI could go after him.
And go after him they did — with a vengeance. Hoover put Special Agent Samuel P. Cowley on the case and told him, “Stay on Dillinger. Go anywhere the trail takes you. Take him alive if you can, but protect yourself.”
On July 22, 1934, Cowley and Special Agent Melvin Purvis from the Chicago office waited outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater, a movie house. Dillinger was inside seeing Clark Gable’s “Manhattan Melodrama” with his girl Polly Hamilton and her landlady, Romanian immigrant Ana Cumpanas, soon to become known as “The Woman in Red.” As prearranged with the FBI team, informant Cumpanas wore an orange skirt that looked red in the lights of the theatre marquee. When the agents saw her come out, they knew they had their man.
Dillinger, smelling a rat, dashed for the alley, pulling a pistol from his pants pocket. Three agents fired six shots and Dillinger’s career — and life — were over. Though public opinion was mostly favorable, not all Americans were pleased with the way the FBI had dispatched Public Enemy No. 1.
Hoover received an anonymous letter from Louisville, Kentucky., dated July 24, 1934, which is now part of the FBI file on Dillinger. It reads: “I wish to tell you and all the world that that I think more of John Dillinger’s dead body than I do of all the legislators of the United States simply because John Dillinger played in the open and didn’t care who knowed it.”
And F. R. Roberts of Pittsburgh, Pa., wrote on July 28, 1934: “Dillinger was practically the same as shot down in cold blood without a chance — almost the same as murder, in a legalized way.” Many refused to believe that Dillinger was dead, and rumors spread that the FBI had been duped into gunning his double. Conspiracy theorists continued to report sightings of the real John Dillinger for years.
- The FBI's Hollywood Files from A-Z: Why Judy Garland, Patty Hearst and Michael Jackson appear in cases
- The FBI's Hollywood Files from A-Z: John Lennon, Liberace and JFK find themselves the targets of agents
- The FBI's Hollywood Files from A-Z: How Muhammad Ali, Lucille Ball & Jonny Carson ended up in the crosshairs
The royal wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles came under intense FBI security after an individual threatened to send them a gift containing a bomb, documents show.
An Annapolis, Maryland, woman overheard a man say he’d mailed the device before the couple’s July 1981 nuptials. The female who alerted authorities said the man called the explosive a “wedding present.”
Agents quickly tracked down the alleged suspect at his home. The investigation was dropped after the man swore he’d spoken “sarcastically.”
J. Edgar Hoover’s secret files on Sammy Davis reveal for the first time why the FBI chief allowed the legendary entertainer to face a lifetime of death threats without any help from the Bureau’s zealous legion of agents.
Long concealed files secured through the Freedom of Information Act show that Hoover, a fierce foe of racial equality and the civil rights movement, was appalled by Davis’ romance with movie actress Kim Novak.
And he wasn’t the only one. When Davis was kidnapped by two mafia thugs who threatened to cripple the multitalented entertainer unless he broke off his relationship with the blonde film goddess, Hoover personally banned his agents from investigating because, he said, an official complaint had never been filed.
Instead of seeing Davis as a victim, Hoover looked upon him as a subversive symbol of the moral decay he believed was eating away at America.
One of the earliest threats against Davis — and one of the first whispers linking him with the Mafia — came in 1956, when the FBI monitored a broadcast in which king of gossip Walter Winchell revealed a Miami gangster wanted to fit Davies for concrete shoes over a $7,000 debt. “No further investigation was contemplated by the bureau,” the file states. The documents also reveal that even after David talked about the real reason behind his terrifying 1959 kidnap ordeal, Hoover refused to act.
A defiant Davis had been dating — and talking about marrying — Novak, even though their interracial romance was provoking howls of protest from friends and strangers alike. But the kidnapping was the final straw — especially since the FBI refused to take action — and the tension-riddled relationship soon fell apart.
Davis went on to marry another blonde beauty, Swedish sensation May Britt. But as before, the interracial love affair unleashed a torrent of threats — this time from hate-filled Nazi disciples of Adolf Hitler. Davis could never be sure if his concerts would be picketed by “storm troopers”; at one 1960 show in Washington, D.C., American Nazi Party supremo George Lincoln Rockwell personally led the howling mob outside.
When the FBI once again declined to come to his aid during the incident, the Candy Man took to always packing a pistol beneath his well-cut jackets.
Ever since Amelia Earhart, America’s most famous female pilot, vanished without a trace in 1937, the FBI has received many letters concerning her whereabouts.
In 1932, Earhart, 34, earned her niche in aviation history as the first woman and second person (after Charles Lindbergh) to fly the Atlantic solo. She disappeared on the most dangerous leg of her headline-grabbing flight around the world, over 2,000 miles of open water in the Pacific.
Many experts believe the flight was doomed from the start. “Her aircraft was marginally equipped and hastily prepared,” says historian David Kennedy. “Her navigator, Fred Noonan, was a notorious drinker who had to guide her across the Pacific to Howland Island, a speck of land described by a friend of hers as the size of [the] Cleveland airport.”
She never made it. Radio distress signals were heard for three days, then stopped.
What became of her? A day after Earhart vanished, a nurse from Ashland, Kentucky., told the FBI she’d picked up her signals over short-wave radio saying she’d crash-landed on “Mulgrave” or “Millie” Atoll (there is, indeed, a Mili Atoll near the Marshall Islands) and “stated their food supply was good.” In 1994, a U.S. Army officer even described to the FBI a conversation overheard in a Philippine hotel between two Japanese that Earhart was still alive and was being detained at a hotel in Tokyo.
Three years later, the Bureau received an intriguing memo from Australia’s director general of security saying that Elieu, a Pacific islander who had worked for a native trader named Ajima, claimed “that Ajima had said that a plane had come down with an American woman in it, and had been picked up by Japanese and taken back to Japan.” Ajima said the plane had landed on Majuro Atoll — could Majuro and Mulgrave be one and the same?
In 1989, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery found an aluminum navigator’s bookcase on uninhibited Nikumaroro Atoll. About 3350 miles north of Howland Island. The case was sent to the FBI, which included: “Nothing was found which would disqualify this artifact as having come from the Earhart aircraft. “Since then, investigators have found fragments of aircraft wreckage, a medicine-bottle cap and parts of a woman’s size-9 shoe.
Things took a dramatic turn when Richard Jantz, director emeritus of the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, reexamined the data gathered in 1940 from skeletal remains discovered by a British expedition to Nikumaroro. The bones had been analyzed in 1941 and, based on their size, were determined to be those of a man.
Jantz ran the previously collected data — the bones are long gone — through a computer program and concluded that the remains “likely” belonged to Earhart. But he also acknowledged the original measurements might have been incorrect. Without the bones themselves, the enduring mystery may never be solved.
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