AT THE FBI
By James Gordon Meek
an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in late 1957, the editors of the
hip satire magazine, MAD, answered a knock at the door of their
New York offices and were stared down by an agent of The Federal Bureau
of Investigation. Dressed in a requisite dark suit, the stern agent
expressed the Bureau’s consternation with a recent gag in the magazine.
The editors had concocted an anti-war board game that urged readers
to become “Full-fledged Draft Dodgers” by writing to FBI Director J.
Edgar Hoover for an official membership card. Yellow-bellies took the
bait, bombarding Bureau headquarters with mailed requests.
was not amused, and the agent ordered MAD to zip it about the
publisher William Gaines sat down at his typewriter on New Year’s
Day and began crafting a letter to Hoover. MAD had its own
glossary of expletives (Furshlugginer! Veeblefetzer! Potrzebie!)
but instead, Gaines chose diplomacy.
reference to you and your office was made in connection with a wholly
innocent and jesting article that was not in any way intended to offend
you,” he pecked out onto a sheet of MAD letterhead, telling
the FBI director to “rest assured that you will have no occasion for
concern on this subject in the future.”
editor, Al Feldstein, knew better. Two years later, the magazine’s
staff of radicals emptied both barrels at Hoover, the most powerful
lawman in America, ridiculing his conservative vindictiveness.
“If this was tweaking Hoover, I wanted to tweak him some more,”
what they always did to everybody who complained. They would apologize
profusely and say they’d never do it again,” says Maria Reidelbach,
author of Completely MAD, the magazine’s official history.
Apologies were really “a hit and run technique.”
and other revelations appear on the yellowing pages of the FBI’s file
on MAD, obtained by ATOMIC on the 50th anniversary of
the magazine following a Freedom of Information Act request. Like
a time capsule unearthed from a filthy sewage ditch on Madison Avenue,
the FBI file reads like something MAD’s geniuses would have
invented to lampoon Hoover’s fragile ego and his use of agents to
spy on enemies and critics.
pettiness is on full display in the files, which show how the feds
eyed a comic modeled after campus humor mags that picked on almost
every pop culture icon or celebrity of the last half-century while
creating a few icons of its own. Think of gap-toothed mascot Alfred
E. Neuman, whose “What, me worry?” credo was taken up by the 1960s
generation. Picture the dueling weasels of “Spy vs. Spy.”
Usual Gang of Idiots defied the comics industry’s self-imposed morality
code. They fended off angry mothers, Red-baiters, religious and political
extremists and law enforcement authorities, cranking out brutally funny
satire that had a noticeable impact on the way young people thought
about war, race, sex, society, pop culture and art. No American institution
was spared if it was unjust or hypocritical; and plenty of things were
parodied just for fun. Nothing was off-limits—except, apparently, J.
Agent Milton Jones—the same church deacon who spent a decade scouring
Playboy magazine for anti-Hooverisms—told the director MAD’s
draft dodger gag was “rather unfunny.” Worse, it was insulting. So
Hoover ordered his New York office “to advise pertinent officials
[at MAD] of the Bureau’s displeasure at this tasteless misuse
of my name.”
idiocy sounds like a figment of MAD’s imagination,” says Todd
Gitlin, a New York University sociologist, who wrote about the magazine
in his book, The Sixties.
“Deke” DeLoach, a retired Bureau official and author of Hoover’s
FBI: The Inside Story by Hoover’s Trusted Lieutenant, insists
the director, who died in 1972 after nearly five decades helming the
bureau, had good reason to keep tabs on MAD.
very protective of not only his name, but more-so the Bureau’s name,”
says DeLoach. “He felt that any slur on the Bureau was not only a
personal insult to him but it would injure the Bureau’s capability
of getting information from the public.”
Gaines, who served briefly in the Army during World War II, took over
his father Max’s comics business in 1947 when Max was killed in a
boating accident. Gaines became the king of horror comics, with titles
like Tales From the Crypt. Together with artist Harvey Kurtzman,
who later edited MAD, he cooked up pacifist comics during the
Korean War, which sometimes depicted combat from the Communists’ point
of view. The duo became targets of an FBI internal security and sedition
inquiry until agents determined the humorists weren’t card-carrying
after MAD was hatched in 1952, New York City cops arrested
a Gaines staffer for selling “disgusting” literature, according to
Reidelbach. By the time the FBI showed up at MAD’s offices
in 1957, the editors “were used to getting visited,” she says. “I’m
sure it was an event for them for that to happen.”
Gaines promised Hoover that MAD wouldn’t target him, in March
1960, the magazine ran parody ads for Hoover Tonic (“There’s no health
improver ... like J. Edgar Hoover”). A few pages over, MAD
imagined the TV show, Stories From the Files of the FBI, hosted
by “the Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux.”
DeLoach lets a chuckle slip at mention of the gags. But 42 years ago,
his deputy Milton Jones wanted the FBI to “severely admonish” MAD.
Hoover scrawled in the margin of a memo: “Ignore these jerks.”
Hoover’s investigations did little to hamper the success of the satirical
magazine. What began as a subversive product of New York liberals
touting a barely cloaked contempt for pop culture in the 1950s eventually
morphed into a monument to the very thing MAD’s creators loathed.
Proof of that was the circulation climbing to two million. Gaines
died in 1992, after selling MAD to a company that changed hands
numerous times (at one point it was owned by anti-Communist crusader
Roy M. Cohn) and is now part of AOL-Time Warner. Kurtzman died in
every major Hollywood release was deliciously diced up by the magazine
through the decades. Television also was a frequent target. A send-up
of Hogan’s Heroes became the controversial Hochman’s Heroes—instead
of American GIs in a POW stalag one-upping the Nazis, MAD set
the sitcom in Buchenwald’s concentration camp with gaunt prisoners
barely filling striped uniforms.
of MAD’s content was derived from social outrage. In the 1960s,
MAD hammered conservative “Super-Patriots,” including cops
in the right-wing John Birch Society. A MAD cartoon had staffer “Bob
Ross” confronting “Police Officer Wright,” who insists he’s not bigoted.
“To me, a person is a person,” Wright says, “and that goes double
for anybody of an inferior race or creed!”
letter to Hoover, a MAD subscriber said he stopped buying the
magazine because of its liberalism, while offering a defense of his
conservatism. “The kids who live on my left snicker at me among themselves.
Little Natasha says: ‘My daddy says he is a nut. He voted for Mr.
Goldwater, whoever he is,’” whines the 1965 letter. “Little Lucy who
lives on my right likes me because I say funny things and I do not
talk to her about politics and I buy Girl Scout cookies from her.
This is Free Enterprise. Her daddy must be a square.”
were other critics of MAD’s “humor in a jugular vein.” The
early issues influenced counterculture cartoonists, such as Robert
Crumb, but when editor Kurtzman was replaced by Al Feldstein in 1956
the magazine lost some fans. “After Feldstein took over, MAD
gradually became more and more childish and adolescent …probably a
deliberate marketing strategy,” wrote Crumb in his 1997 memoir (which
is, coincidentally, filled with childish and adolescent pen and ink
laments having to “crawl out from under” Kurtzman’s shadow, but insists
the magazine became edgier in the 30 years he proudly guided it to
success. MAD’s influence certainly was trans-generational.
My mother read it as a teenager in the 1950s; and as a young artist
growing up in the ’70s, I pored over each new issue until it fell
apart in my hands.
everybody’s mom was a MAD reader. “Dear Mr. Hoover” letters
arrived from churches, Boy Scout troops and school kids demanding
to know if MAD was communist propaganda. A concerned parent
penned, “Our PTA wishes to take up the cudgel against MAD.”
(Take up the what?) And a writer in 1961 asked Hoover, “Does
the Constitution require that we permit communist publications such
as this to undermine and defame our nation’s purpose and strength?”
never accepted paid advertisements because they would be confused
with MAD’s parodies. “It costs millions of dollars to produce
this type of magazine and the single copy cost is only 25 cents, which
leads me to believe that someone is subsidizing the cost,” observed
the suspicious director of The Greater Knoxville Youth for Christ
some 40 years ago.
letter at the FBI accused impish Alfred E. Neuman of being a Soviet
stooge. (“What, me Red?”) The sleuths at the FBI noted that “the Alfred
E. Neuman mentioned in correspondent’s letter is a fictional person
whose picture usually appears on the front of the publication.” However,
half the real bodies in Gaines’ employ were “Red-diaper babies raised
in Communist homes,” says Reidelbach. So if the FBI and others suspected
them, “They were right — MAD was genuinely subversive.”
strangely, Hoover wouldn’t say it. When the 6th graders of Indianapolis
School No.79 wrote to ask about MAD’s alleged Communism, the
FBI director replied: “I would like to suggest that in considering
this magazine, you give careful thought to its objectives and content.”
City Mothers United for Decency bashed the mag, along with the ladies
of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, who stood up to evil with their Citizens
of Decent Literature Committee. Said one, “Many of our teachers feel
that the MAD magazine is catering to communistic principal.
I know many of the articles leave you with a doubt as to what’s what.”
that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover spied on publications
like MAD and Playboy for criticizing or poking fun at him,
one would think the man who led the Bureau for 48 years
had no sense of humor. Not so, says one longtime aide.
was a great practical joker,” reports Cartha “Deke” DeLoach,
who served as Hoover’s top lieutenant.
occasionally having philandering friends tailed and photographed
with their mistresses, sometimes just the suggestion of
adultery was enough to get a rise. DeLoach’s wife once threw
a fit after Hoover mailed a picture of a bathing beauty
to the family beach house with the inscription, “Darling,
I can’t wait to see you again!”
anyone ever play a gag on the director? “No, you didn’t
dare do that,” says DeLoach.
as a retort to these self-proclaimed pundits, in 1961, MAD
spoofed school textbooks with Pfinsterian Penmanship, a title
that explained how to craft an extortion letter. One case subsequently
reported stated that someone was using the form letter to threaten
Los Angeles-area wrestlers; another case involved a 12-year-old in
Seattle trying to shake down his mom for a grand.
personally ordered agents back to MAD’s offices to warn the
editors to straighten up—or else. “The completely irresponsible
conduct of this magazine in this instance must be vigorously protested
and the highly undesirable influence upon impressionable individuals,
particularly children, must be forcefully brought home,” Hoover wrote
to his New York street agents, who got a lasting promise to behave
from editor Feldstein.
I was visited by the FBI, I realized that these guys were humorless.
So I tried to humor them by seeming to acquiesce to their wishes,
then closing the door and giggling,” says Feldstein, a Western painter
who now lives on a Montana ranch.
MAD pokes fun at warfighting President George W. Bush and even
(gulp!) accepts paid advertising. Although still rife with punchy
satire, the magazine is no longer the root of controversy it once
was in a more conservative era. Still, when informed that MAD
had reached its diamond jubilee, Deke DeLoach offers a Hoover-esque
reaction: “That’s too bad.”
article originally appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of ATOMIC