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Herbert Philbrick; Spy Wrote ‘I Led Three Lives’

<i> From Times Staff and Wire Reports</i>

Herbert Philbrick, who chronicled his years of spying on the Communist Party for the FBI in his best-selling autobiography “I Led Three Lives,” which became a popular television series, is dead at age 78.

He died Monday at his home in North Hampton.

In the 1940s, Philbrick joined the Massachusetts Youth Council, an organization that he thought advocated peace. He later recognized the group as a front for Communists and went to the FBI.

At the FBI’s request, Philbrick stayed in the organization, underwent indoctrination and training, and over a decade rose through its ranks.

As a top member of the New England chapter of the Communist Party, Philbrick fed the FBI information on the party’s efforts in the United States.

The name of his book was inspired by his separate, parallel lives as a family man working in advertising, a spy and a Communist. It was turned into a syndicated television series from 1953 to 1956, at the height of McCarthyism and the “Red scare.”

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In 1952, before it was published as a book, Philbrick’s story was serialized in 17 installments in The Times. A group of 15 Communist Party leaders on trial in Los Angeles for conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force tried unsuccessfully to block publication of the series.

In recent years, Philbrick had served as president of a nonprofit educational organization and lectured occasionally. He also wrote a monthly news bulletin and kept up to date on Communist and totalitarian government actions.

He continued to warn against the Communist threat to U.S. security. In 1964, he told Los Angeles reporters at a Biltmore Hotel news conference: “The Communists instigated the assassination of President (John F.) Kennedy through hate-filled propaganda.”

Philbrick’s lecture topics included “The Red Underground Today,” “Christianity versus Communism” and “Communism and Youth.”

When he traveled, Philbrick said in 1981, he booked plane and hotel reservations under an alias to protect against assassination attempts.

His underground activity became known in the late 1940s, when Philbrick testified as a key witness before the House Select Committee on Un-American Activities.

Television historians have called the “Three Lives” series, which starred Richard Carlson, “the most explicit political propaganda ever found in a popular dramatic series on American television.”

It had a documentary appearance, with Philbrick’s character narrating episodes, and opened with an announcer saying the program was the “fantastically true story of Herbert A. Philbrick, who for nine frightening years did lead three lives.”

Philbrick served as a consultant to the show, and the program had the approval of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, which reviewed the scripts.

Communist schemes portrayed in the series included sabotage of vital industries, drug smuggling and the indoctrination of America’s youths.

As material wore thin, one of the more outrageous plots involved Communists trying to undermine the U.S. guided missile program by converting vacuum cleaners into bomb launchers.


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