In 1965, Paul Letersky was just 22 years old when a chance encounter in a federal building in the nation’s capital led to a job with the FBI. One year later, he was handpicked to be part of J. Edgar Hoover’s personal staff. During the eight years he worked for the bureau, Letersky observed first-hand the FBI director’s idiosyncrasies, as well as the savvy leadership that kept him in charge of the country’s top crime-fighting office for 48 years.
Letersky, who lives in Nehalem, shares his memories of the two years he worked directly for Hoover in The Director: My Years Assisting J. Edgar Hoover, due out this week from Scribner. ArtsWatch talked with him about his experiences. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Early in the book, you write that none of the men around Hoover would ever fill his shoes. What do you mean?
Letersky: His entire history. The fact that he sat in the director’s chair for 48 years. When he died … I saw a revolving door. The federal [Civil Service] Retirement Act required employees to leave by age 70. An executive order by [President] Johnson gave Hoover an exemption to that act. Fourteen directors and/or assistant directors have been in the office in the same amount of time he was the director.
You tell a sad tale of Walter Winchell, “the most influential newsman in America.” Winchell was at one time a close friend of Hoover’s, but eventually Hoover would have nothing to do with him. You were the guy charged with handling Winchell’s calls. Was that difficult for you?
It really bothered me, because Hoover used Walter Winchell for two or three decades, and Winchell really promoted him in his column. He had thousands and thousands of readers. He and Hoover were very good friends. When Winchell lost his job, he could no longer provide information to Hoover, and he started drinking. When he called, you could tell, his words were all slurred — Winchell was the voice of The Untouchables; that voice was so distinct — Hoover wouldn’t take his calls. As a matter of fact, Hoover told me, “Don’t even announce the call.” The last time I did, Hoover asked me, “Is he drunk again? Tell him I’m out.” He became persona non grata. I felt really horrible about it. I felt Hoover betrayed a friend. That bothers me to this day.
Tell us about the ties Hoover gave you for Christmas.
They were Italian silk. Back then, ties were very narrow. One was gray and one was multi-colored blue and they are quite ugly. I’ve never worn them. I have them hanging in my closet as a memento. He told me he bought them in New York. He was really a dapper dresser. Here’s what I figure: Why would he spend time shopping for Christmas presents for me? He probably had an agent pick out a few neckties and throw it on his expense report. That’s my theory. But they were from him. Expensive, but ugly.
You mention numerous examples of unethical and illegal behavior that went on through the FBI — anonymously sending Martin Luther King Jr. videos of his sexual exploits, calling people’s friends to “out” them as communists. In hindsight, was that necessary?
We all participated. We thought it was in the best interest of the country. So, we drank the Kool-Aid and did some of that stuff. When you look it at the end of the day, there’s a fine line between national security and political activism and that line is pretty blurred. We really thought we were doing what we did for the better good. If everybody believed that way, we’d have chaos and anarchy. We had authority and we violated that authority.
Hoover had some interesting relationships with numerous presidents. How do you think he’d have gotten along with recent presidents?
He’d find a way. If anything, Hoover was probably the best political poker player there was. If I had to describe him in a couple of words, I’d say he was the greatest bureaucrat of all time. He served eight presidents and 16 or 17 attorneys general. How do you do that if you’re not a great bureaucrat?
He had a clear plastic paperweight on his desk and inside the plastic was a coin. It was embossed on both sides, a donkey on one; an elephant on the other. When I put his papers on his desk, if the first visit was from a Democrat, I had to make sure the donkey was showing, and if the next was Republican, I had to go in and flip it. That’s how precise he was. That’s a perfect example of how politically astute he was.
The most haunting story in the book is the arrest of a soldier who went AWOL during the Vietnam War, whom you describe as “the kid with the thousand-yard stare.” Today, he’d be treated for PTSD. That story broke my heart. Is there anything you’d have done differently?
It broke my heart, too. I wanted to leave him at home. Honest to God. My problem with the war was that the selective service was discriminatory. You were exempt from service if you were a full-time student or had a certain job. But the kids who were AWOL didn’t go to college. They were basically homesick. Basically nonviolent. It was a horrible situation I couldn’t tolerate. I requested and was given a reassignment.
You include a long list of celebrities the FBI kept files on, including Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Lucille Ball, Walter Cronkite, Elvis Presley, even The Monkees. Who would make that list today?
You. You could be on the other side as a reporter and have your articles perceived as slanted in a way that you supported certain groups. Things haven’t changed too much. Most of them, in all fairness, there wasn’t much derogatory stuff. You made the file because you’re a bridesmaid at a wedding of a famous actress and there was an article about the wedding. All of a sudden you are in the FBI file. To my knowledge, he never used any of those files to extort anyone. Ever. Even when JFK was having an affair with a girl who was having an affair with a guy in the Chicago mafia.
You left the bureau in 1973. What took you so long to write this?
I think it has a lot to do with the events of the last decade. I saw history repeating itself. I thought it was important to bring in not only a memoir of how Hoover was known to me, but the historic aspects. I was initially going to write a book just for my grandchildren. I wanted them to know what their grandfather did. The ‘60s and ‘70s were probably the most turbulent time in our country, aside from the Civil War. We had our hands full. There was corruption in the government. I just thought maybe I can bring some of these things to everyone’s attention.
After the FBI, I was head of security for United Airlines. I worked on the Unabomber case, Cuban hijacking cases. I became a vice president of Pan Am dealing with terrorism and working with Scotland Yard. I’ve lived a very adventuresome life.