Book Review The FBI's Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau's Crusade against Smut by Douglas M. Charles
According to "Unlocking the Files of the FBI..." by Gerald K. Haines, since 1953 the FBI Bureaus "Fifty-nine field offices reported opening 37,631 cases..." related to the classification number 145, Interstate Transportation of Obscene Matter. So we can hardly expect Douglas M. Charles to discuss them all...But he did miss some mighty big ones.
Any new work exposing how the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover worked to subvert freedoms and rights guaranteed to citizens under the Bill of Rights is welcome, and particularly so when the topic is the spicy sauce of smut. From Playboy Magazine to the lyrics of "Louie Louie" the agency has a history of ignoring those rights and invading privacy as they go about it. Charles does a good job of sharing some of these abuses in the new book "The FBI's OBSCENE File: J. Edgar Hoover the the Bureau's Crusade against Smut" It is a university press publication, so you can expect a dry read...and that is what you get. As difficult as it must be for any writer to avoid smarmy double-entendre comments when discussing smut, the author manages it. Not to the reader's advantage.
Omitted is Bettie Page no less...in this day how can any book about obscenity avoid at least mentioning one of the most influential models of the century? Although the FBI "did not investigate Page" according to their website The Vault they have still posted no less than thirty pages of documents about her they created, including one placing Bettie in the room with riding crops and ping-pong paddles. I have written about it HERE and HERE. It seems to me one way to juice up a book on nearly anything would be to include Bettie Page, especially as the FBI documents indicate the hapless model is such a darn good story.
Also not "caught" is the story in my own modest (and self-published) book The Thousand Dollar Book which details as much as I could the story of the FBI confiscating 101 books from a bookstore owner in Milwaukee. One of the book titles for which a man was sentenced to prison in this sordid affair was "Bandit in High Heels!" That title alone is worth a paragraph in any book about obscenity and the FBI, whether Hoover dressed up in them or not.
Admittedly, I lack the bona fides of a scholar and am a mere ham-fisted writer...but even I can find and tell some interesting stories. There are over 30,000 such stories hiding in the FBI files, and finding a few more with some flavor shouldn't have been too hard.
To the author's credit, Edward Mishkin is mentioned, but only ONCE. Mishkin not only had an obscenity case go all the way to the Supreme Court, he was involved with the fascinating Nights of Horror books reprinted by Craig Yoe in Secret Identity.... but Mishkin shows up in only one paragraph of the Charles book and his name doesn't even appear in the index. I was hoping for more.
Likewise the New York Times reported story of 8 million "Tijuana Bibles" being confiscated in New York City by FBI agent P.E. Foxworth in 1942 is missing here. It was a huge, multi-city coordinated event by the Bureau, and certainly that would have generated at least some documents...plus Tijuana Bibles are funny! A missed opportunity.
The story of befuddled agents trying to decipher the lyrics to Louie, Louie is funny too, and Charles has that one. No quibble there. He has the FBI bothering Andy Warhol, but he certainly could have filled that story out. He has Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's porn collections. But those documents have turned up on The Smoking Gun website. He has various Republican administrations trying to stem the flow for political reasons, and he also tracks the inevitable, futile and ultimate failure of the FBI to quench anyone's thirst for smut. But with a few more good stories, this could have not only been definitive, it could have been more fun.
140 pages, 19 pages of footnotes. No Illustrations. University Press of Kansas 2012. No illustrations.
Reviewed by Jim Linderman
Note: in the original version of this post, I mentioned the FBI files on Steve Jobs and mistakenly said he had a porn collection. This was not true. Abbott and Costello had a porn collection and they are much funnier than Steve Jobs.
Why the FBI HAD a file on Steve Jobs is still a mystery, to me anyway. If a web-crawler sends you here to this article, you have found an inherent flaw in the design of the internet, and should disregard any mention of Steve Jobs.