Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Culminating, Superb "Miss Gandy"

Last night I saw the new, nearly perversely static Clint Eastwood-directed movie, J. Edgar. Sitting through this bizarre film (awards for makeup and costumes, for sure), it was hard not to think about my father's FBI records, some 800 pages on Sidney Kaufman gathered over nearly forty years, especially given that Helen Gandy and Clyde Tolson were the two supporting characters in the film. Here is some of what I wrote about them in The Memory Of All That:

"There is a marvelous rubber-stamped list of names of FBI personnel to whom copies of the Kaufman documents were circulated. This was their work; this is what they got up every day to do — process this Confidential, Classified, Secret, and Top Secret information about my father. I like to imagine them, sitting at their desks, typewriters clacking and phones ringing in the background, like a newsroom. There is much to do, fresh reports on the Subject: Sidney Kaufman to pore over, there is new information gathered by SA [redacted] or reported by “[redacted], an informant who has in the past furnished us with reliable information” (or even better, information provided by the occasional “[redacted], an informant who has in the past furnished us with reliable and unreliable information”). Presumably there were reports written about these reports. Individuals must have been assigned to analyze and come to conclusions about the information that had been so painstakingly compiled about the Subject: Sidney Kaufman. Meetings must have occurred, decisions must have been made about further interviews with informants reliable and unreliable, and all those pretext phone calls must have been scripted and scheduled. And all of the reports were typed up, copied, circulated, and filed with all the other accumulated Sidney Kaufman information.

By the late sixties, the rubber-stamped copy list had been streamlined to simple names, but I must admit to a preference for the more traditional earlier iterations, when each name is given the honorific “Mr.” and then there is the culminating, superb “Miss Gandy.” This list of names reads:
Mr. Tolson
Mr. Boardman
Mr. Nichols
Mr. Belmont
Mr. Harbo
Mr. Mohr
Mr. Parsons
Mr. Rosen
Mr. Tamm
Mr. Sizoo
Mr. Winterrowd
Tele. Room
Mr. Holloman
Miss Gandy

I really love this list, which changes only slightly through the years of documentation of Sidney Kaufman’s activities. It is a sequence of names rich in possibility, yet, seeing it repeat throughout the pages of these files, it becomes reliable and familiar, like a wallpaper pattern or a melody. The names, when seen again and again, start to have a delightful rhythm and inevitability that invite memorization, like the presidents of the United States, or Latin declensions.

The roster of FBI employees who were copied on the steady flow of classified information about Sidney Kaufman over all those years is intriguing. Clyde Tolson was Associate Director of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover’s sidekick. Lou Nichols and Alan H. Belmont were Assistant Directors. John P. Mohr was head of five FBI divisions; he was the number three man after Tolson in FBI hierarchy. Alex P. Rosen was the FBI supervisor on the John Dillinger case and on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Joseph A. Sizoo was in the Domestic Intelligence Division. E.A. Tamm was an Associate FBI Director. Frank C. Holloman was s supervisor in the FBI Headquarters in the Crime Records Section, the Fugitive Desk, Plant Survey Section, Special Intelligence Section, Informant Section, and the Records Division.

“Miss Gandy” was Helen W. Gandy, J. Edgar Hoover’s ferocious and devoted executive assistant for fifty-four years. It is known that over a period of months following his death in 1972, she destroyed tens of thousands of pages of his “personal” files thought to contains the fruits of illegal wiretaps and a vast array of incriminating information about numerous public figures and government officials and their family members, as well as detailed reports from the spies Hoover maintained in every White House administration. Her devotion to the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover was that of a nun’s devotion to the Church and the Pope. Their relationship was decidedly odd; Hoover never once called her by her first name. Her mother was painted by Thomas Eakins.

J. Edgar Hoover is not on this list, because just about every document in my father’s files is a memo to The Director. The FBI surveillance of Sidney Kaufman that began in 1936 and apparently ended in 1972 is almost identical to the span of Hoover’s FBI Directorship."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Forest for the Trees

Not being able to see the forest for the trees is a truism we all know. But until last week's devastating storm swept through Connecticut, leaving some 20 inches of snow, tens of thousands of damaged trees, and downed power lines all over, I hadn't thought very much about the phrase in a literal sense.

Our house is in a heavily wooded spot, and we had terrible damage here. The oaks and maples were still in full leaf, which is why they were so susceptible to damage, as the leaves were like sails in the high winds, and they also held the snow and ice, which would have slipped through bare trees with less impact.

In my five days of dark and cold (and no water either, because we are on a well that requires electricity to run the pump), even as I began to deal with the aftermath, arranging for the downed trees to be cut up and cleared, identifying the broken trees with dangerous hangers (which need expensive attention, thus the need to triage -- tree-age -- and only do the work on the trees near the house, leaving the trees on our wooded hillside as they are, though some of them are so damaged they will probably come down through the winter), I realized I have spent years not seeing the trees for the forest. Only at a moment like this, as these massive oaks and maples are tilted and strewn and broken in jarring new ways, do I really see each tree.

My only source of warmth, the roaring fires I built each evening in our fireplaces (it's an 18th century house with four fireplaces that throw heat nicely), were made with the cut, dried, and stacked logs of wood from other trees we have lost through the years. I depended most of all on chunks of oak to burn steadily through those cold nights.

I couldn't work during the power failure. I really depend on electricity. These days, people have taken to calling books "physical books" to distinguish them from e-books (the way an ordinary clock is now an analog clock as opposed to a digitial one), but for a long while they have also been called "dead tree books," too. I am sure there is a useful metaphorical lesson in here somewhere.