Did you know William Faulkner had a brother named Murry C. Falkner who enjoyed a long career as an FBI agent? I had no idea until I read about it a few years back in Joseph Blotner’s classic biography of the great writer, which is called (straightforwardly) Faulkner: A Biography.
I tackled this hulking masterwork—originally published in two massive volumes in 1974, reissued later in a slimmer version of (cough) 700+ pages—because William Faulkner plays a brief but starring role in the Willie McGee story, and I realized I knew a lot less about him than I often pretended.
I think most bookworms originally from the South know what I’m talking about here. You’re asked, “You’re from the South—I’ll bet you’ve read a lot of Faulkner.”
You answer: “Yes.” The shameful truth: No. I’d read a certain amount in college and after—“The Bear,” “Old Man,” The Sound and The Fury, The Unvanquished, The Reivers, Intruder in the Dust, that other one, and that other other one—but I’d never gone through an intense “phase” in which you really dive in and take it all on, complete with concordances, elaborate family trees, and (always) a nearby glass of bourbon that’s filled so high you can scientifically observe the wobble of surface tension above the rim.
For my project, I needed biographical information more than art, which is why I benefited so much from the meticulously researched Blotner book. When I came to the part about William’s brother, Murry, being a G Man, I developed a theory that prompted me to file a Freedom of Information Act request about Murry’s career. I had a feeling there might be some connection between his FBI job and Faulkner’s public role in the McGee case.
Faulkner himself comes up fairly late in the McGee story, in the spring of 1951, when four women from Oakland, California—including Jessica Mitford, a British aristocrat-turned-Communist who became a famous memoirist and muckraking journalist in the 1960s—showed up unannounced at Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi. They’d been in the state to protest on McGee’s behalf, and they hit Oxford on their way back to California. Somehow they convinced Faulkner to sign a press release in which he said that McGee was probably innocent and should be freed.
That knocked over the beehive, because many Mississippians were outraged that Faulkner opened his mouth about the case, which by then was a white-hot controversy. He backed off some in the aftermath, and that was that. But one thing about the episode always puzzled me: Why did Faulkner have such a firm opinion to begin with? He lived in Oxford, which is roughly 240 miles north of Laurel, where the McGee case was set. He had no local gossip-knowledge of facts or rumors. How did he arrive at such a firm opinion?
One possible answer was obvious: Like many people, he read about McGee in newspaper stories and simply decided what he thought about it all. But Murry Falkner was based in New Orleans during that time period, and the New Orleans field office of the FBI kept very close tabs on McGee matters, because the Communist Party was paying for the defense. So I wondered: Was it possible that Murry had worked on the case himself, and had reason to feel sure McGee was innocent?
I spent a fair amount of time trying to answer that, augmenting my FOIA request with a phone search for old FBI agents who might have worked in the New Orleans bureau back then. Alas, this proved to be a dry well—I found no evidence on the phone or in Murry’s file that he’d worked on McGee-related surveillance.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he didn’t, because the file I got is really just a massive personnel-records dump, with much emphasis on Murry’s declining health in his later years as an agent. (Not at all what I had asked for.) As he approached retirement, he had heart problems, and dozens of dozens of pages in the file are devoted to reprinting the results of an EKG. If I’m reading his dental chart correctly, he was also missing quite a few teeth.
Going through the file, you get the sense that Murry was a solid but drab fixture in the FBI, a man who didn’t work on many cases that involved blazing guns.
“Dear Mr. Falkner,” J. Edgar Hoover wrote him in July 1958. “The highly efficient manner in which you conducted the investigation of the Federal Train Wreck Statute case . . . has come to my attention and I want to commend you.” Annual performance reports extolled his typing abilities, and more than once he was described as being . . . average. “Mr. Falkner, during this period,” said the 1946 edition, “spent an average amount of time in the office during business hours and his volume of production has been very slightly lower than the office average. . . . He has not succeeded in developing any potential or actual criminal informants, and I feel that he should also strive to improve in this category. He is rated in the lower bracket of satisfactory agents in Grade GS-12.”
All in all: not bombshell material. But it’s interesting stuff for extreme Faulkner buffs. If anybody out there wants these pages, they are yours in exchange for a check covering book-rate shipping. Here are a few samples to whet your appetite. In order, you’ll see:
An official transfer request, based on Falkner’s French wife being unhappy in L.A.
A Dilbert-like efficiency report.
Murry’s gunslinging skills.
Murry brown-nosing J. Edgar Hoover in 1958, following publication of Hoover’s bad book, Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How To Fight It.
Murry’s Teeth. Ouch.