Monday, January 22, 2007

Biography of an Enigmatic G-Man

Alston Purvis has achieved a remarkable thing: write a son’s perspective of a “hero” father with neither biased glorification nor unveiled animosity. The Vendetta: FBI Hero Melvin Purvis’s War Against Crime, and J. Edgar Hoover’s War Against Him (PublicAffairs, 2005) is a deeply personal documentary, reflection, exposé and quest for answers. When he set about the five-year task of assembling The Vendetta, Alston wasn’t sure what to make of his father—the stellar young Bureau of Investigation agent who was at the center of nationwide hunts for John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and company in 1934. The son, now head of the graphic design department at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, agonized over whether to embark on the research at all, and wondered where it might lead if he did.

The Vendetta, co-authored with Alex Tresniowski, spans the whole life of the elder Purvis (1903-60), born in the town of Timmonsville in South Carolina’s tobacco country. It sketches his school years, which included a very brief stint as quarterback on the University of South Carolina football team, and his early career, which included a likewise brief stint as a lawyer. More detail is given to his later life and mysterious death—logical, since the lawman’s last years paralleled the son’s upbringing. From beginning to end, the book reflects Alston’s yearning to understand the intriguing father to whom he was never especially close.

Essentially, though, the book’s focus, as reflected in the subtitle, is on the relentless bitterness FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover developed toward his one-time friend and star agent. Until his father’s dying day, Alston maintains, Hoover did what he could to torpedo Purvis’ post-bureau career opportunities.

Joining the Bureau of Investigation (later known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation) in 1927, Purvis cracked his first assignment, an interstate car theft buried in cold case files in Dallas. He caught the eyes of his superiors and, very quickly, of Hoover himself. He raced through a series of promotions to crucial positions in pivotal field offices. In 1933 he became point man in Chicago, the center of gangland. Within months, however, as the heat was being turned up on Dillinger and his cronies, Hoover’s opinion of Purvis soured. In stark contrast to Hoover, Purvis was dapper, genteel and charismatic, increasingly popular with reporters. Even as Dillinger, Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and other "most wanted" miscreants were being run to ground, one by one, Hoover subtly was stripping Purvis of his authority and reprimanding him for petty breaches of bureau protocol (some of questionable veracity).

By July 1935, Purvis had been subjected to so much humiliation that he resigned. For several years he basked in the glow of the media and was engaged commercially to endorse everything from breakfast cereal and shaving razors to automobiles. In 1938 he returned to South Carolina and married. He bought a radio station and newspaper, dabbled in other business ventures, served as an Army officer during World War II and was appointed legal counsel to various government committees. Significant advances eluded him, however, as Hoover used his influence to ruin Purvis’ best opportunities.

It’s obvious to readers that much of The Vendetta was painful for Alston Purvis to deal with, reviving unpleasant and, ultimately, devastating memories. He wrote the book, he explains, because someday his own young son will want to know all about his famous grandfather. The Vendetta should prove engrossing to a general readership and undoubtedly will be absolutely riveting to those within and close to the family.

A nagging mystery explored in the book is the nature of Purvis’ death in February 1960. He shot himself at his Florence, SC, home. A Colt .45 automatic from his extensive gun collection—a pistol once used by a little-known gangster—was lying close at hand. The initial suspicion was suicide; just as likely, it’s now believed, was accident. Key people who knew him assert that had Melvin Purvis decided to kill himself, he wouldn’t have done it that way, with that particular gun. Ross Beard, a firearms expert and author who as a teen-ager was engaged to maintain Purvis’ collection, is convinced Purvis was examining the pistol. Purvis had agreed to loan the relic to a friend and apparently was unaware it was partially loaded with tracer bullets.

A lesser mystery is who, exactly, was in charge of the Chicago Bureau office in 1934 when Dillinger, Floyd and Nelson all fell. Hoover personally bestowed “the major portion of the credit” for Dillinger’s death on Agent Samuel Cowley—a close colleague of Purvis—to whom Hoover had given certain authority superceding that of Purvis. Hoover later referred to Cowley as the unsung mastermind behind Dillinger’s apprehension, while condemning Purvis for allegedly currying the media’s attention. Most accounts point to Purvis as the commanding agent “on the ground” at the scenes of Dillinger and Floyd’s separate deaths, while it was Cowley and agent Herman Hollis who mortally wounded Nelson in a hellish rural shoot-out that October, and who both died in the line of fire.

The life and career of Hoover himself continue to raise questions even after varied posthumous studies have gone to great lengths and depths to demonize him. In The Vendetta, Alston Purvis refrains from joining the Hoover-bashing bandwagon generally. The scope of his mission is to air the personal persecution his father endured at the hands of the director.

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