THE FBI FILES OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE
FBI Foolishness: Security Matter C
From CROSSWINDS (later Crosswinds Weekly)
New Mexico’s largest alternative newspaper, July 1997, p. 7
Copyright 1997 Crosswinds Inc.
New Mexico prides itself on its tolerant spirit, its diverse political scene and the many different racial backgrounds represented hereabouts. But there was once a time in the Land of Enchantment (in much of the country, for that matter) when merely holding liberal political views and entertaining foreign guests in your house could prompt an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
It happened to the famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
This revelation comes from O’Keeffe’s FBI files, obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The file was heavily redacted by the FBI, which traditionally declines to comment on FOIA releases. Many pages, some of which were stamped CONFIDENTIAL, were withheld on grounds of personal privacy or national security, while portions of others were blacked out.
Given the propensity of the FBI under long-time director J. Edgar Hoover to gather files on public figures who committed no crimes, the O’Keeffe file is remarkably thin. Two-thirds of its 150 pages deal with a 1980’s investigation into forgery of her art.
But then there was this little matter of strange politics and strange men.
The scrutiny of O’Keeffe came at a time of great Cold War nervousness. In 1948 former Vice President Henry Wallace had run for President on the ticket of the Progressive Party. This entirely legal organization was widely viewed by conservatives as a stalking horse for the Soviet Union and anti-American sentiments. Sen. Joseph McCarthy kept tensions alive with his claims of Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. In June 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed after being convicted of involvement in a Russian spy ring focusing on Los Alamos NM, where the world‘s first nuclear bomb was developed during World War II.
Four months later, the FBI’s Albuquerque office opened its file on O’Keeffe, who lived in Abiquiu, NM, 25 miles due north of Los Alamos. On October 29, 1953, an FBI special agent wrote that, in the course of another investigation, an informant said that O’Keeffe “was the only person in Abiquiu who was pro Wallace in the ’48 election.” O’Keeffe, the informant said, “replied that she believed in Wallace’s theory that we should have closer relations with Russia.” The names of both the agent and the informant were deleted.
The agent recommended that “a case be opened” and that O’Keeffe “be checked out.” One reason: “the closeness of Abiquiu to Los Alamos.” The file was labeled “Security matter – C.”
The C stood for Communist.
Two weeks later, the FBI’s Albuquerque office reported on its initial inquiry. O’Keeffe “frequently entertains guests of foreign extraction in home; that she voted the ‘Progressive Ticket’ in the 1948 elections, and that, according to informant, she is ‘ultra-liberal’ in her thinking, i.e., ‘her political philosophy doesn’t sound entirely American.’ ”
Agents apparently had been watching the mail in and out of Abiquiu, because the file contained a blacked-out list of persons with whom she “maintained correspondence” in New York, France and Arizona. Again citing “the proximity of Abiquiu, New Mexico to the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) installation at Los Alamos,” the author said the office was “desirous of knowing something about the background” of O’Keeffe, and asked for help from New York, where O’Keeffe maintained a home, and Washington, D.C.
More dish came in. Four days later, another report from Albuquerque said that one of the guests who stayed in her Abiquiu house “appeared to be either Chinese or Filipino, but who did not speak any English.” On another occasion, “during the Fiesta in Santa Fe,” O’Keeffe had “a gentlemen guest in her house in Abiquiu.”
At the time O’Keeffe was 65 years old and a widow.
In December, the FBI headquarters in Washington reported that it had “no identifiable derogatory information” in its files concerning O’Keeffe or anyone with whom she had corresponded. New York said it, too, had nothing on O’Keeffe. Its files did have a few tidbits on some of her correspondents, most of which the FBI blacked out when it provided the file. But from what was released, it appears that New York wrote that one writer was a friend of someone who was the uncle of someone else who had been the subject of a German espionage case in New York.
Clearly the O’Keeffe matter was on the wane. Bureaucracy brought its end. On February 3, 1954, the FBI agent in charge of the Albuquerque office wrote the special agent handling the O’Keeffe matter that the case was in a “delinquent status” and had to be “cleared up” within two weeks. No fool, the subordinate did just that two days later, with a single piece of paper. “It is recommended,” he wrote, “that this file be closed at the present time, or until such time as information is received that is of a substantial nature.”
That’s the last entry in O’Keeffe’s files concerning this investigation.
How accurate was the FBI’s Cold War scrutiny of O’Keeffe? Well, in every single reference, bureau agents misspelled her name—with one F.
William P. Barrett, formerly the Special Projects Editor of Crosswinds, is a veteran writer for national publications. Other stories he has authored or co-authored for Crosswinds: our list of New Mexico’s 40 Largest Private Landowners, our list of New Mexico’s 25 Richest Persons, and our list of Six Crash Sites Attributable to the Roswell Incident.