Monday, September 3, 2012

Why Ronald Reagan Had the FBI Spy on His Daughter

       Seth Rosenfeld published an opinion piece in the New York Times (September 1, 2012) entitled “Reagan’s Personal Spying Machine.” It is based on his new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power (New York, 2012). He tirelessly gained access to previously secret FBI files to show how extensively Ronald Reagan used the FBI in spying on student radicals in the 1960s. Rosenfeld also turned up a gem in the FBI files: Ronald Reagan used the FBI to check out the man who was living with his wayward daughter, Maureen.  Maureen was “the first daughter,” the child of Ronald Reagan’s first marriage to Hollywood actress, Jane Wyman. After they divorced, they sent their two children to boarding schools and apparently saw them very rarely. A junior college drop out, Maureen was twenty years old and had invited a married traffic cop to live with her at her rooming house in 1961. J. Edgar Hoover himself approved the investigation. The Bureau assigned three agents to check the guy’s police department record, talk to the cleaning lady at the rooming house, and pose as an insurance agent while questioning other tenants. They relayed their information to actor George Murphy, a friend of Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan who had initiated the investigation on behalf of the parents.  Rosenfeld’s point is that the FBI was engaging in gumshoe detective work as a favor to Reagan, who had allowed them to hunt Communists in the files of the Screen Actors Guild.

            There is no doubt that this kind of FBI field work is a historic first, the first time national police had been used to check on a cohabiting girl’s living arrangement. But where there is checking up on a girl’s boyfriend, it usually turns out that Mom, not Dad, is the truly watchful one.  Maureen’s autobiography, First Father, First Daughter (1989), a very honest memoir of a rebellious and courageous feminist, trying to reconcile with her somewhat distant father, makes it clear that the sexual revolution for girls from good families was occurring by the early 1960s, not a few years later, as previously believed. The FBI notes indicate that “Jane Wyman wishes to come to Washington to perhaps straighten out her daughter” and wanted a background check of the policeman and “concerning the relationship.”  By the early 1960s mothers (my own included) were calling the dorm at odd hours to find out if their daughter was there and sending letters threatening to disown daughters who continued to live with their boyfriends (not mine thankfully). Jane Wyman seems to have been a bit ahead of her time, as was true for her daughter, Maureen.

            When the boyfriend secured his divorce, Maureen married him in a small ceremony in their living room of a friend’s house. Mom, not Dad, refused to attend the wedding. Ronnie and his wife Nancy were there.

             Apparently Maureen never knew about the FBI surveillance. Mom and Dad had been right to be worried about her boyfriend. Prone to jealous rages, her groom repeatedly kicked and beat her about the head and the face.  Showing up at work black and blue, she claimed to have bumped into doors and fallen down stairs. Her husband was forcing her to have sex, even when she refused him. Even after she separated from him, she had to move five times because her ex was stalking her and threatening to kill her. Maureen had been ashamed about the abuse and had not told her parents about it. They did not learn the story of her marriage until they read the manuscript for her book. She said that the incident had made her the “person I am today.” Maureen recounted a painful episode (with the name of her first husband discreetly not mentioned) because she has become an advocate for public funding of shelters for domestic violence, even challenging her father’s Attorney General, Edwin Meese, who had wanted to cut such funding in 1985. She wrote that she thought her story could help other battered women know that there was “someone who survived her ordeal.” There is a political story to be told here, but let’s make sure that we tell it with the family and sexual politics added.