A column in the Times today leads with this arresting headline, “Was Ronald Reagan a secret snitch?” The question comes up, the writer John Meroney says, because the San Jose Mercury News recently published an article revealing that Reagan’s FBI files describe him as a “confidential informant” starting in the 1940s, around the time he lived along the Sunset Strip.
Reagan, his wife, Jane Wyman, and their two children lived at 9137 Cordell Drive [map], a house they built and which is still there, although it has been remodeled extensively. Reagan was an FDR liberal at that time, and was said to have devoted as much time or more to his union leadership role as he did on his acting career.
The Mercury News article in November described Reagan’s interaction with the FBI like this:
As a budding politician in Hollywood’s acting community after World War II, Ronald Reagan served as a confidential informant for the FBI, according to records released by the bureau.
The FBI documents, obtained by the Mercury News in a freedom-of-information request, show that Reagan — identified as “T-10” — kept agents informed about pro-Communist influences in the Screen Actors Guild and other Hollywood organizations.
The reports show that he and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, provided the FBI with the names of actors whom they believed were members of a clique with a pro-Communist line.
Rusty Brashear, [an Obama] White House spokesman, said FBI officials had told him that Reagan’s involvement with the bureau was “very minor.” “Apparently, it was little more than those people who had been contacted by HUAC. I’m not sure that this reference to confidential informant is quite what it sounds like.”
The documents also reveal that Reagan, who was then president of the guild, disagreed with the tactics of the House Un- American Activities Committee (HUAC) in attempting to rid the movie industry of Communists.
In one interview with the FBI, the documents show, Reagan criticized the attempts of a committee of producers and actors to fire Communists from film work.
“Do they expect us to constitute ourselves as a little FBI of our own and determine just who is a commie and who isn’t?” he asked an FBI agent.
Meroney, who is writing a book about Reagan’s Hollywood years, objects:
Communism … emerged as the driving force behind the [FBI’s] interest in Reagan, but not for the reason you’d think. In 1946, Reagan, then a SAG officer, vocally resisted communists as they tried to sway the guild and destroy the stagehands union. (SAG and the stagehands had been bulwarks against party infiltrators.) For this, Reagan became a marked man, and the FBI knew it. In an incident that probably appears in redacted sections of his file — but which he disclosed in his memoir — FBI agents appeared at his house on Cordell Drive, informing him of a secret Communist Party meeting where the keynote was “what to do about that son-of-a-bitching bastard Reagan.”
As an “informant,” Reagan couldn’t add much to the bureau’s existing intelligence because he wasn’t a Communist Party insider. It operated covertly, holding its meetings in secret. Communists used aliases and code numbers. They shielded themselves behind fronts. And in truth, the FBI’s strongest information came from whistle-blowers among party factions, and from undercover FBI agents and operatives.
But if Reagan wasn’t providing the bureau with juicy details about communists, what is in the file? And what about the charge of “naming names”?
In one session in April 1947, Reagan and his then-wife, actress Jane Wyman, did describe two groups in the SAG leadership that consistently pushed the Communist Party line, regardless of the issue. But this wasn’t clandestine information delivered by a secret snitch; Reagan was telling this to anyone who would listen.
His colleagues in the guild and in the wider Hollywood labor movement told me that Reagan often argued that communists had a legal right to champion the communist philosophy, but, as his hero, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, put it, they had “no American right, by act or deed of any kind, to subvert the government and Constitution of this nation.”
Reagan moved to the Strip in 1938 and lived there through his marriage to Wyman, which ended in divorce in 1949, until he and second wife, Nancy Davis, moved to Pacific Palisades after they married in early 1952. He lived alone or with Wyman in four places:
- A house he rented at 1128 Cory Ave. [map] around the time he met Wyman on the set of the film “Brother Rat”
- An apartment at 1326 Londonderry View [map] that he shared with Wyman — they were living there when their daughter Maureen was born
- The Cordell house, which they built in 1942
- The Garden of Allah Hotel, at 8152 Sunset Blvd., where Reagan rented a villa after Wyman ended their marriage — the hotel had once been the estate of Broadway and silent-film star Alla Nazimova, the godmother of Nancy Davis, Reagan’s future wife
- The Londonderry apartment again, where he dated a series of buxom blonde women, including actress Doris Day, before meeting Nancy and marrying her after she became pregnant in 1952
Except for the Garden of Allah, all of these buildings are still standing.