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Public Culture 15.2 (2003) 287-294

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The FBI Files

Arnold Mesches


The FBI started shadowing me on 5 October 1945. They stopped, according to the abridged files I received through the Freedom of Information Act, somewhere in the early part of 1972. The special agents (SAs) wore the usual variety of cropped hair and suit and tie like the shadowers seen on TV. They'd phone on the pretext of selling car insurance, or they might inquire about enrolling in a drawing class ("Do you use nude models?"). They tapped phones. They snapped your picture at protest marches, at demonstrations for peace, at art openings or just as you were coming in and out of your studio. But, more often, they received their reports from paid special informants (SIs) or special employees (SEs): a model or two who posed for you and your class, a student who joined you for beer and pizza after class, a close neighbor whose children played with yours, a fledgling artist whom you helped get into an exhibition, a comrade in a meeting, an asshole buddy you trusted with your heart and being, a confidant whose life's torments were deeply intertwined with your own, or a trusted friend who had sat next to you at a funeral. A lover or two. The informer's weekly reports said that I was the "leader of the youth division of the American Youth for Democracy" and the "chairperson" of its art club while I was a design student at Art Center School in Los Angeles (October 1944-November 1945); that I worked as a set illustrator on a Tarzan movie; that I was arrested for picketing and jailed, with eight hundred others, during the Hollywood strike of 1946-47; and that I applied for membership in the Communist Party (2 November 1948). The agents queried my students about what I lectured on; described a mural I created for the Mine, Mill, and Smelters Union; and helped get me fired from a teaching job in the fall of 1949. They knew what papers and magazines I subscribed to, that I was a charter member of former vice president Henry Wallace's Independent Progress Party in Utah, that I returned to Los Angeles in June 1950 to teach at the University of Southern California. Someone reported that I was a member of the Hollywood Arts, Sciences and Professions Council (a group believed to be linked to the Communist Party). Someone reported the cars I drove and where and when my children were born, that I earned my living as a "commercial artist"; as an art teacher; as a filmstrip artist; as the "art editor for Frontier, a magazine unfavorable to the FBI"; as a lunch truck driver; as an exhibiting artist; and as the director of an art school that (horrors!) "showed a Czech film." They even tailed me when I juried an art exhibition with Edward G. Robinson. One wonders how they made him turn informer during the blacklist days. One informer said that I "must be a Communist" because I "dressed like a Communist": The subject "only wears rolled up blue jeans with paint spatters, a T-shirt, and an old jean jacket." [End Page 288]

My studio was broken into on 6 August 1956. An informer, later exposed, guided the special agents to the drawings and paintings I was doing on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. They robbed me of art supplies, a cheap radio, and over two hundred works. They left me my books. Interestingly enough the pages dated three months prior to and three months after the robbery were deleted from the over 760 file pages I received.

Not that the pages they sent were so revealing. After three years and a $54 Xerox fee, they arrived about a year and a half ago. All the pertinent data—the informers' names, who those close comrades actually were, who I was in bed [End Page 289] [Begin Page 292] with—had been black-markered out. What intrigued me the most, aside from the nostalgia they generated, was how the sheer aesthetic...