In February 1970, a top aide to President Nixon warned J. Edgar Hoover that a new reporter in town, Jack Nelson, was said to be gunning for the FBI.
Hoover took the advice to heart.
“Keep an eye on these characters,” the FBI director wrote his subordinates, referring to Nelson and two of his editors at the Los Angeles Times. “They are up to no good.”
As reports on Nelson’s activities poured in from FBI field offices, Hoover would scribble comments across the bottom. The more he read, the more vitriolic he became.
“Nelson is a mental case,” Hoover wrote on one memo.
“He is a rat,” he scrawled on another.
“A lice-covered ferret.”
For two years in the early 1970s, Hoover nursed an obsession with the new reporter in the nation’s capital. His agents pumped journalists for dirt on Nelson. He put Nelson on the bureau’s list of “untouchables,” reporters who were to receive no cooperation.
He even called Nelson a drunk and demanded that he be fired.
Hoover’s animosity toward Nelson was no secret. But FBI records released recently under the Freedom of Information Act reveal, for the first time, what fueled his fixation:
Hoover was convinced — mistakenly — that Nelson planned to write that the FBI director was homosexual.
By 1970, Hoover had enjoyed nearly half a century of invincibility at the helm of the FBI, outlasting seven presidents.
Nelson, who arrived in Washington that year at age 42, owned a Pulitzer Prize and a reputation for fearless reporting on the civil rights movement, including FBI abuses in his native South.
Now, he trained his attention on the 75-year-old Hoover, whose health had begun to fail and whose hold on his job was being questioned.
Nelson wanted to know how much money the director had earned for his anti-communist bestseller “Masters of Deceit.” He asked about Hoover’s armored cars and his office carpeting.
He also inquired about Hoover’s confidant, Associate FBI Director Clyde Tolson, including whether Tolson had worked on the book on bureau time. Hoover and Tolson, both bachelors, were inseparable, lunching every noon at the Mayflower Hotel. They were rumored to be lovers.
Biographers and historians have yet to resolve conflicting accounts of Hoover’s sexual orientation. There is no indication Nelson had any interest in the subject, and he never wrote about it. Nevertheless, he became the focus of Hoover’s anxieties.
As he had done with other perceived enemies, Hoover began compiling a dossier on the reporter.
John Fox, the FBI’s in-house historian, said Nelson arrived on the scene at a time when Hoover was feeling vulnerable. A published report that the director was gay could well have ended his career, and that possibility — unfounded or not — had Hoover on edge.
“He saw it as an attack on his manhood,” Fox said. “He was a single man and in a powerful position, and he resented it. He saw it as an attack on his influence and power and all that he stood for.”
Hoover has remained an object of fascination since his death in 1972, the subject of several biographies and a new film, “J. Edgar,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Nelson, though never a celebrity, was already an influential and respected journalist when Hoover became preoccupied with him. A native of Alabama, Nelson got his start as a reporter at the Biloxi Daily Herald in Mississippi. While still a teenager, he drew notice for his reporting on corrupt officials and gambling payoffs and became known as “Scoop.”
He idolized the FBI. In the summer of 1949, when Time magazine put Hoover on its cover, Nelson applied for a job with the bureau. He was offered one, but decided to stick to journalism.
At the Atlanta Constitution, Nelson won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 1960 for exposing abuses at a state mental hospital. The Los Angeles Times hired him five years later, and he added to his reputation with unflinching coverage of the violent suppression of voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala.
He reported that FBI-paid provocateurs were involved in civil rights abuses in Mississippi, and in a book about the Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina, he said three FBI agents had watched state troopers fire on black students and had later denied they were even present.
In the eyes of Hoover and his supporters, Nelson was an enemy.
That view was reinforced by a lengthy article Nelson wrote soon after arriving in Washington in 1970. It described the FBI’s involvement in a sting operation aimed at Ku Klux Klan members in Meridian, Miss.
The idea was to catch the Klan in the act of preparing to bomb a Jewish leader’s home. But the operation went awry, ending in a gun battle in which local police killed one of the Klan members, a woman. The FBI denied any role in the affair.
The newly released records show that Clark R. Mollenhoff, a former Washington reporter and columnist who was then special counsel to Nixon, wrote Hoover on White House stationery that Nelson was planning another “highly critical series of stories on the FBI.”
Mollenhoff said: “This reporter is very persistent and will undoubtedly be influenced to some degree by the strong anti-FBI views of Ed Guthman, national editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Dave Kraslow, who is manager of the Washington Bureau.”
Guthman had previously served as an aide to Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, whom Hoover detested. Kraslow had brought to light FBI wiretapping at Las Vegas casinos.
Reports from FBI field offices hammered away at the theme that Nelson and The Times had it in for Hoover.
Wesley Grapp, head of the bureau’s Los Angeles office, called the paper a “melting pot of garbage” and said The Times “was out to get the director, Mr. Tolson, me, and any other official they could pick up the slightest bit of gossip on.”
In June 1970, a reporter for an Alabama newspaper told agents that Nelson had been sent to Washington to write “derogatory” articles about Hoover.
The reporter, whose name was redacted, told the FBI that at a conference in Cambridge, Mass., a drunken Nelson had “indicated he had a statement from somebody in the ‘Department’ stating that Mr. Hoover was a ‘homosexual’ and that he was planning to use this information in the article,” according to an FBI memo.
The reporter added that he had “nothing but the highest regard for the FBI and Mr. Hoover,” the memo said.
According to another memo, three reporters for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin told the FBI that Nelson “is out to destroy the FBI.”
The Times soon felt repercussions. When FBI agents arrested black radical Angela Davis in October 1970, the bureau alerted all major news organizations except the Los Angeles Times.
“When you get rid of that son of a bitch with a vendetta against the FBI, we’ll cooperate with you,” FBI spokesman Thomas Bishop told a Times editor, the records show.
By January 1971, Hoover was sufficiently concerned about Nelson’s intentions that he brought the matter up with Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, his boss. “We have received several recent reports reflecting extensive efforts on his part to embarrass the FBI and me,” Hoover wrote.
In a second letter to Mitchell that month, Hoover said Nelson drank excessively and had boasted of his intention to write “that I am a homosexual.”
Hoover continued: “While I have no reluctance to stand on my record and to let the facts of both my personal and official life speak for themselves, I nonetheless wanted you to have this background information regarding stories that should soon appear.”
Two months later, an FBI spokesman reported that he had blown off a request from Nelson for information regarding five bureau employees.
“Right,” Hoover wrote approvingly. “This jackal Nelson is to be given nothing.”
When the director received a memo informing him that a group of former agents called “Friends of Hoover” had turned down Nelson’s request for an interview, Hoover jotted “excellent.”
A top FBI official in New York described stonewalling Nelson, and Hoover scribbled “properly handled.”
In the summer of 1971, Nelson covered a White House ceremony honoring Hoover. A top bureau aide, J.P. Mohr, delighted in the irony.
“I’ll wager Nelson was most reluctant to write this column,” Mohr wrote.
“It really must have burned him up!” Hoover replied.
Nelson was not cowed, however. In August 1971, he wrote about Hoover’s expensive fleet of cars, including a bulletproof limousine. A copy was sent to Hoover, who scribbled on it: “Some more of Nelson’s venom.”
In October of that year, Robert D. Nelson, vice president and general manager of The Times (and no relation to Jack Nelson), met with Hoover at FBI headquarters, hoping to clear the air.
The effort was unsuccessful, and two weeks later Kraslow sat down with the director. In a recent interview, Kraslow, now 85, said Hoover complained bitterly about Nelson’s supposed plan to identify him as a homosexual.
“The spittle was running out of his lips and the corners of his mouth,” Kraslow said. “He was out of control.”
In a written account of the meeting from 1971, Kraslow said Hoover had threatened to sue Nelson for criminal libel “should such a lie ever appear in print,” and “he was careful to point out it was not intended as a threat, but as a promise.”
“I defied him to produce any informant who would stare me in the face or who would stare Jack Nelson in the face and say that Jack Nelson had on any occasion intimated that Hoover was a homosexual,” Kraslow wrote.
Kraslow refused to fire Nelson. Rather, he asked his reporter to write a rebuttal, which was sent to Hoover.
“I emphatically deny that I have at any time under any circumstances ever said or remotely suggested that Mr. Hoover was a homosexual,” Nelson wrote on Oct. 19, 1971.
The reporter also challenged Hoover’s assertions that he drank too much. “Those are serious charges for the director of the FBI to level against a man, especially in conversation with his employer. They are the kind of charges which, if substantiated, could wreck a man’s career.”
They did not wreck Nelson’s. He went on to become chief of The Times’ Washington bureau and one of the most respected journalists in the capital. He died in 2009 at age 80.
Hoover was found dead on the floor of his bedroom in May 1972, the victim of a heart attack. A week later, he would have marked his 48th anniversary as head of the FBI.