When the latest issue of Playboy magazine arrived at FBI headquarters each month, they really did read the articles.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Playboy file, the nation's elite crime-fighters had a decades-long obsession with the magazine. Agents in Washington ripped through the glossy pages of each issue throughout the 1960s. Supposedly they weren't interested in the centrefolds; they scoured features for cracks aimed at FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover or the bureau.
"I knew somebody was buying it for more than the pictures," Playboy founder and editor-in-chief Hugh Hefner said in an interview with APBnews.com.
The 213-page dossier on Playboy was recently sent to APBnews.com by the FBI -- appropriately, in a plain brown wrapper -- in response to a U.S. Freedom of Information Act request.
The magazine, founded in 1953, first caught the attention of agents two years later when Playboy ran a science-fiction piece about G-men spying on the solar system. But it was Hefner's outspokenness that sparked the most intense monitoring of the publication.
Hefner took a jab at Hoover in the February, 1963, issue. A column, called "Playboy Philosophy," spelled out the magazine's editorial credo and criticized Hoover for his stand against pornography, which Hefner said was meant to divert public attention from the FBI's failure to get rid of the Mafia.
Hoover's reaction to the published affront was an ominous note to his subordinates: "What do we know of H. M. Hefner?"
For more than a year, agents not only read every word of the magazine, but they summarized each issue for Hoover and his deputies. Milton A. Jones, chief of the crime-records section, was in charge of the Playboy file.
Jones found little direct criticism of the FBI in the magazine during 1963. After reviewing the February, 1964, issue, he told officials that while there was no mention of the feds, vigilance was necessary.
Because of Hefner's alleged contempt for the FBI, Jones wrote that "[Hefner]has potential material for again attacking the Director's statements."
Playboy editor Gretchen Edgren, who has authored or co-authored three books on the magazine's pictorial history, said Jones was probably just stoking Hoover's fire.
"This has absolutely all the earmarks of a guy who is enjoying what he's doing, and wants the director to keep him doing it, so he's sucking up to him," Edgren speculated. "It sounds like a perfect job. It's not like going out and shooting people."
But it is doubtful Jones took joy in perusing Playboy, said Cartha (Deke) DeLoach, a former agent and author of Hoover's FBI: The Inside Story by Hoover's Trusted Lieutenant.
DeLoach said his former subordinate was a church deacon and a "sombre, straight-laced individual who had the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of his life" and probably loathed the racy assignment.
He added that the FBI never conducted surveillance of the magazine's staff, including Hefner, whose file will not be released unless he consents to it or dies. The Playboy file was simply the product of Hoover's distaste of anything negative being said about him publicly, DeLoach said.
"He was very sensitive of criticism," he said. "If it was about the organization or him, he would want to dig into it."
Told of the extent to which agents shovelled, Hefner confessed another secret.
"The irony for me personally, of course, like a lot of other people growing up in the 1930s, was that Hoover was one of my heroes," Hefner told APBnews.com. "I saw [James]Cagney in G-Men. I bought all of the highly successful propaganda."
The written synopses of Playboy issues ceased in early 1964, but the close monitoring of the publication and written summaries of specific articles, interviews and humour continued intermittently until Hoover's death in 1972.
Though the FBI began its Playboy fixation by looking for potshots at Hoover, the bureau's priorities flipped over the years when agents took potshots of their own at the magazine's "subversive" content, the files reveal.
In the only document stamped "TOP SECRET," Jones analyzed a 1964 interview the magazine did with controversial lawyer Melvin Belli. A flamboyant defender of celebrities and infamous characters like Jack Ruby, who killed alleged John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, Belli was not gentle about the FBI and cursed Hoover's men for perceived injustices.
Jones fired back -- albeit in a classified memo -- characterizing Belli as a "two-bit Barnum and Bailey barrister."
Hefner cackled over the alliteration. "Very colourful, salty writing," he said.
Jones also said the Belli interview was "a case where the director and the Bureau can well be proud of its enemies." Informed in 1966 that Belli again was interviewed by the skin magazine, Hoover scrawled in the margin of the report: "Playboy has sunken to a new low."
Little else published in the magazine during the sexual and cultural revolution of the sixties escaped harsh assessments by the FBI.
The once-secret memos show the bureau derided other controversial public figures interviewed by Playboy, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., labeled a "false prophet;" social critic Lenny Bruce, called a "foul-mouthed so-called comedian;" and civil-rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, faulted for his "pop-off behaviour."
Jones bunched Playboy editors together as "moral degenerates" who published "high-priced trash."
Nat Lehrman, a former editor, associate publisher and president of Playboy's publishing operations who joined Hefner's company in 1963, chuckled at the FBI's swipes.
"We thought we were very moral," he said. "We really thought we were doing great things for society."
Not so, thought the bureau.
"They would probably like nothing more than to entice the Bureau into a verbal tiff over their scurrilous writings," Jones wrote in October, 1964. "Ignoring these garbage collectors appears to be the best means of putting their rantings in proper perspective."
The editors had no idea FBI officials teemed with so much vitriol over their magazine, Lehrman said. Few employees approved of Hoover's grasp on power, yet none were willing to put it in print.
"We were very liberal, but we didn't take on the FBI," Lehrman said.
He remembered one occasion when Hefner called him in the middle of the night about a story submitted by a writer who bad-mouthed the bureau.
"He woke me up and said, with his voice cracking, 'What are we doing? Why are we attacking the FBI? Don't you realize what that can get us into?' " Lehrman recalled.
Hefner says he does not recollect that incident, but doubts it happened. After Playboy took on organized religion in the sixties -- which was "more powerful than any law-enforcement organization" -- Hefner did not fear Hoover's FBI, he said.
Nevertheless, Playboy rarely touched the government institution outside of a rare satirical reference.
Jones, who died in 1994, took the magazine to task for its trademark "smart-aleck" style.
In a 1965 memo, he critiqued a parody of folk-music ads. A satirical ad for a folk album highlighted the fictional hit song The Ballad of J. Edgar Hoover, sung to the tune of We Shall Overcome, and published by a company called "Scratchy Records."
Jones reported to his superiors that FBI files contained no record of the "alleged company."
A 1966 cartoon in Playboy depicted Hoover saying, "There will soon be 200 million people in this country and we have dossiers on 185 million. I must close this gap." The "ridiculous" joke was unworthy of public response, Jones advised his FBI bosses. Hoover agreed.
Whatever mutual contempt the FBI and Playboy shared, it was not as if the magazine had not attempted diplomacy. In 1963, the same year Playboy unknowingly faced the most direct FBI scrutiny, company officials mailed Hoover an honorary "VIP" key to the multimillion-dollar Playboy Club in New York. But the gift was not acknowledged, and the director never opened any locks.
"Hoover was a stickler for morality," said DeLoach, now retired from the FBI and living in South Carolina. "He was just a two-fisted, deeply religious guy who loved the FBI and loved power. He had an ego and vanity and wanted to hang in there. And he did."
Hefner was less charitable about Hoover's "corrupt and hypocritical" morality and the investigations it fostered. For decades, the magazine's edgy journalism often covered sinister aspects of American society, government and culture. He said the FBI file bolsters the reputation of many of the articles in Playboy.
"Much of what Playboy has stood for, and what I have stood for, has stood the test of time," Hefner said. Then he whispered, "We were on the side of the angels." Reprinted from the Web site APBnews.com. Log on to the site to read the entire FBI file.