During his time on this planet, Howard Hunt was everywhere — in both the Pacific and Atlantic theatres in World War II, and in the CIA during its earliest experiments with regime toppling. But he achieved fame for his spectacular failures — including a role in planning the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and an infamous break-in to the Watergate hotel. And he also wrote some really rockin' spy novels.
He died on Tuesday.
Here now, a whole slew of stuff you may not have known about this bold political operative...
1. Hunt's CIA work was preceded by a successful career as a writer
Though he attained infamy for the Watergate break-ins, Howard Hunt wrote his first novel, East of Farewell, when he was 24, in 1942. After being medically discharged from the Navy after an injury in the North Atlantic theatre, he became a war correspondent in the South Pacific for Life magazine.
Later book jacket biographies note that Hunt worked as a press aide to Averell Harriman during his work on the Marshall Plan in Paris, where he met his future wife Dorothy.
In the mid-1940s Hunt won the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship for creative writing, a distinction he shares with authors like Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, and Eudora Welty. Other recipients of Guggenheim fellowships include Ansel Adams, e. e. cummings, and John Cage, as well as Linus Pauling and Laurie Anderson.
Howard Hunt received $35,000 from Warner Brothers for the movie rights to his novel Bimini Run, when he was just 31.
That same year he joined the CIA — just two years after it was established.
2. Howard Hunt was the direct-report for William F. Buckley
Future conservative pundit William F. Buckley served as a deep cover CIA agent in 1951 in Mexico — and reported directly to Howard Hunt.
Buckley remembered a conversation he had 30 years later when he found himself sitting next to the President of Mexico at a ski resort restaurant. "What," he asked amiably, "had I done when I lived in Mexico?
"'I tried to undermine your regime, Mr. President.'"
Hunt dedicated his 1986 book Cozumel to Buckley: "como recuerdo de nuestra temporada en Mexico."
3. Hunt played a role in the rise of Che Guevera as well as his death
Within four years of joining the CIA, Hunt helped the U.S. overthrow the left-leaning president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz. ("We got Arbenz defenestrated," Hunt bragged to Slate. "Out the window.") Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara cited this event as hardening his belief in armed violent struggle to protect socialism from imperialism.
Shortly before his death, Hunt also recounted the CIA's role in Guevera's death. In Hunt's re-telling, Castro dispatched Guevera to Bolivia as a way to get rid of him. Easily tracking Guevera's radio transmissions, the CIA tipped off the Bolivians on Guevera's position. "We wanted deniability," Hunt remembered. "We made it possible for him to be killed."
4. Hunt saved the life of the Guatemalan President
As Hunt tells it, Arbenz was surrounded by hate-filled Guatemalans and CIA agents. Fearing an assassination for which "we'd be blamed," Hunt gave word to set him free. Arbenz then began a twenty-year exile which included Mexico, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Uruguay, and post-revolution Cuba.
Wikipedia notes that in 1971 Arbenz died in his bathroom, "either by drowning or scalding due to hot water. The circumstances under which Arbenz died are still suspect."
5. Hunt regretted cutting and running from Guatemala
"We should have done something we never do — we should have maintained a constant presence in Guatemala after getting rid of Arbenz."
Ironically, Hunt later became Arbenz's neighbor.
When Hunt became the CIA station chief in Uruguay, he ended up living on the same street as Arbenz. "We went to the country club for dinner one evening and lo and behold, the Arbenzes were seated a few tables away," he told Slate. He sent the CIA a telegram asking them to be more careful in the future about advising him of new arrivals.
6. Hunt performed reconnaissance in Cuba prior to the Bay of Pigs
Prior to the Bay of Pigs operation, Hunt visited Cuba and surreptitiously asked Cubans how they'd feel about a U.S. invasion, according to Slate. (He also made a point of cautioning them "don't count on it because it's not going to happen." )
During preparations for the invasion, an FBI agent once tipped him off that the police received a complaint from one of his neighbors about strange men coming and going to his Florida house late in the night. He'd thought Hunt was running a gay brothel.
In a strange coincidence, it was during the Bay of Pigs that Hunt first met the four men he would later use in the bungled Watergate break-in. Hunt secured their cooperation by telling them that Fidel Castro was surreptitiously contributing money to the Democrats to buy softer treatement.
7. Hunt refused to deny a Kennedy role
Hunt maintained a lifelong bitterness over Kennedy's role in the Bay of Pigs failure. Some conspiracy theorists even believe Hunt was one of "the three tramps" on the grassy knoll in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated. Two years before his death, Slate confronted the 86-year-old former spy and asked him about the charges.
Slate: There were even conspiracy theories about you being in Dallas the day JFK was killed.
Hunt: No comment.
8. Hunt was fingered as Deep Throat in the 1990 novel Gordon Liddy Is My Muse
The gonzo collection of short stories culminates with a meditation on the identity of Woodward and Bernstein's source, Deep Throat — and comes to this conclusion:
It's the lost love story of the Watergate Caper. Howard Hunt so loved his country that he gave himself up to rid it of a gang of scoundrels. But he didn't do it like a hero, he did it like a hooker, a prostitute, a ratfucker for hire, to take everybody down with him... [H]e couldn't be a simple witness, because he knew he wouldn't be believed. He'd just be another guy trying to lie his way out of a crime. So instead he fed Woodward the story and watched his cronies squirm.
Although in the far-fetched guessing game about the Washington Post's source, some conspiracy theorists even suggested that Deep Throat could have been Nixon himself.
9. Howard Hunt was armed and dangerous
In All the President's Men Woodward and Bernstein note news reports that the FBI had found a gun in Howard Hunt's White House office.
Deep Throat also told the reporters that after news broke of the Watergate break-in, John Mitchell conducted his own investigation and "At some point Howard Hunt, of all the ironies, was assigned to help Mitchell get some information."
Nixon lawyer John Ehrlichman eventually realized his mistake, and "Like lightning, [Hunt] was pulled off and fired and told to pack up his desk and leave town forever."
Two of the Watergate burglars had Hunt's phone number, under the name "W. House" or "W.H." According to the police report, the Watergate burglars also had "two pieces of yellow-lined paper, one addressed to 'Dear Friend Mr. Howard,' and another to 'Dear Mr. H.H.,' and an unmailed envelope containing Hunt's personal check for $6.36 made out to the Lakewood Country Club in Rockville, along with a bill for the same amount."
Hunt was one of the first people Woodward called for his first reports about the break-in, and in All the President's Men, he remembers the conversation in which he asked Hunt why his phone number was in the address books of two Watergate burglars.
"Howard Hunt here... Yes, what is it? Good God! In view that the matter is under adjudication, I have no comment."
Hunt then disappeared, and while 150 FBI agents searched for him, the book reports that he did not re-appear until after his lawyer received $25,000 in cash in a brown envelope.
10. Howard Hunt's White House safe included forged anti-Kennedy documents
Documents destroyed by acting FBI director Patrick Gray included fake telegrams implicating President Kennedy in the 1963 assassination of the president of South Vietnam, plus a dossier on Senator Ted Kennedy. (Hunt worried Kennedy would run against Nixon in 1972).
11. Hunt orchestrated the first Watergate coverup
According to Time magazine, Hunt urged the four Watergate burglars to plead guilty to avoid an embarrassing trial — and offered them $1,000 for every month they'd spend in prison (to be paid upon Hunt's own release).
All the President's Men reported that Hunt personally visited the burglars in Miami, also promising the burglars executive clemency and support for their families.
Eventually their lawyer instructed the burglars to "stay away from that son-of-a-bitch Hunt." But he was still unable to dissuade them from entering guilty pleas. Time quoted Watergate burglar Bernard Barker as telling the judge that to work with Hunt had been "the greatest honor."
Although according to All the President's Men, Barker's exact words were, "I have the greatest honor and distinguish him." [sic]
12. Watergate was the tip of the iceberg
Investigators focused on the Watergate break-in and attempted bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. But Hunt and "the Plumbers" were also involved in a series of "ratfucking" dirty tricks to aid Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972, according to All the President's Men. Political operative Donald Segretti remembers Hunt asking if he'd create a fake anti-Nixon demonstration to embarrass Nixon's Democratic opponent. Segretti told the reporters, "It sounded illegal to me, and I didn't want anything to do with being violent or breaking the law."
A friend of Hunt's told the reporters that Hunt lined up an elaborate scheme to discredit John Lindsay in Florida's Democratic primary. "Howard had some fliers printed saying that Mayor Lindsay of New York was having a meeting and there would be free beer. Howard handed these fliers out in the black areas, and of course there was no meeting or beer, so the blacks would come for their beer and leave hating Lindsay.
"Howard thought this was the greatest thing since Chinese checkers."
Calling himself "Ed Warren," Hunt also visited the man who, 12 years earlier, had been the PR director for a hotel used as John Kennedy's staff headquarters in 1960, seeking sex scandals that could be used against possible candidate Ted Kennedy. "I tried to persuade Hunt that it was a waste of his time," the man told the Post's reporters, "but he said he represented some group that he couldn't tell me about. He seemed dedicated to something. The country, the group, or himself."
But Hunt's most notorious political service was getting lobbyist Dita Beard to disavow a damaging memo she'd written linking a Nixon political contribution to favorable anti-trust treatment. Using the alias "Ed Hamilton," Howard Hunt visited her in a hospital wearing "a cheap, dimestore reddish-colored wig." Her son told the reporters Hunt's wig was on "cockeyed, as if he'd put it on in a dark car," and added that Hunt was also wearing makeup and was "very eerie."
A few days after the Watergate arrests, the same wig was found in the Watergate hotel.
All the President's Men contains two entries in its index for "Hunt, Howard - wigs of"
Hunt even testified that he'd been asked by Nixon lawyer Charles Colson to connect Arthur Bremer, the man who shot and paralyzed 1972 third-party candidate George Wallace, with left-wing political groups. Colson's attorney countered that an already-imprisoned Hunt was under pressure and clearly unstable.
13. Hunt knew of the journalist murder plot
In a 2005 commentary on the revealed identity of Deep Throat, William F. Buckley remembered a day in 1973 when Hunt's daughter (and Buckley's goddaughter) came to visit him. During the visit Hunt told Buckley that one of Nixon's "plumbers was ready and disposed" to kill columnist Jack Anderson if the order was given.
14. Hunt supervised the infamous break-in to a psychiatrist's office
After leaking top secret Pentagon papers about the Vietnam war, Daniel Ellsberg was facing a lifetime in prison. Howard Hunt supervised the infamous break-in of Ellseberg's psychiatrist's office. The judge in Ellsberg's trial was notified by the Watergate prosecutors, who eventually dismissed all charges against Ellsberg, saying government misconduct had "incurably infected the prosecution."
15. Howard Hunt appears in Nixon poetry
Nixon referred to Hunt as one of " the jackasses in jail." Even stranger, Nixon's ruminations on Howard Hunt appeared in The Poetry of Richard Milhous Nixon, a novelty book in which the transcripts of Nixon's Watergate tapes were re-published and typeset as surreal freeform poetry.
It is going to require
approximately a million dollars
to take care
of the jackasses
That can be arranged.
That could be arranged.
But you realize that after
we are gone
and assuming we can
expend the money
then they are going to crack
and that would be
an unseemly story.
Frankly, all the people aren't going to care that much.
16. Hunt's blackmail was big-time
The index of All the President's Men also includes two pages listed under the heading "Hunt, Howard - blackmail by." In the book's climax, as Woodward played a Rachmaninoff record to thwart possible bugging, he typed for Bernstein that "Hunt was key to much of the crazy stuff and he used the Watergate arrests to get money...first $100,000 and then kept going back for more... The President himself has been blackmailed. When Hunt became involved, he decided that the conspirators could get some money for this. Hunt started an 'extortion' racket of the rankest kind."
"Coverup cost to be about $1 million. Everyone is involved."
"President has had fits of 'dangerous' depression."
17. Hunt spent nearly three miserable years in prison
As one of the first Watergate conspirators to plead guilty, Hunt served 33 months on charges of wiretapping, conspiracy, and burglary. His term included time in 13 different federal prisons, during which he was ferried from jail to Capitol Hill to testify against other Watergate conspirators — and then back to jail.
During his prison term his wife died in a mysterious plane crash. With their mother dead and father in prison, his children "went into drugs," according to his second wife.
18. During his prison term, Hunt released a book about the Bay of Pigs
In the midst of his Watergate notoriety, Hunt published a biography about his role in the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba. Ironically, It was the Washington Post who in a review called Hunt "the Great Gatsby of the cloak and walkie-talkie set."
Give Us This Day promised "The inside story of the CIA and the Bay of Pigs invasion" offering "a rare account of human courage — and political bungling."
In the book Hunt bitterly blames the Kennedy administration for scapegoating the CIA over the invasion's failure — while admitting serious mistakes by the CIA.
The 1973 book ends by quoting professor Hans J. Morgenthau in a remarkably prescient article from Foreign Affairs magazine. "In order to minimize the loss of prestige, the United States jeopardized the success of the intervention... and we lost much prestige as a great nation able to use its power successfully on behalf of its interests... It sought the best of both worlds and got the worst."
Hunt added that "For the sake of our country one can only hope that this analysis of needless failure will be remembered by our national leadership during some crisis yet to come."
The back cover calls him "America's most famous spy," but then quotes a CIA colleague who called him "The dumbest son-of-a-bitch I ever worked with."
19. Hunt wrote autobiographical spy novels under a pseudonym
Wikipedia lists Howard Hunt as "an American author and spy." (Though in All the President's Men Woodward noted that, "The characters in Hunt's novels were always ordering dishes Woodward had never heard of and telling the chef how to prepare them.") Throughout his life Hunt continued writing spy novels, often under a pseudonym, prompting a guessing game as to how much of the books were autobiographical.
On the dust jacket of his 1980 book The Hargrave Deception, the author's biography describes Hunt as a man who "has twice spent time in prison for obeying the orders of seniors who went scot-free." And the plot description? "Morgan was an ex-employee of the agency who, as a younger man, did high-level dirty work for God and country and then went to prison for refusing to talk out of deference to an out-of-date idea: national security. Now he spends his time in florida fishing and keeping house with [the] granddaughter of a Cuban diplomat."
20. Hunt had only one regret
Two years before his death, Slate visited the 86-year-old former spook on his ranch in Miami.
"Hunt answered the door in a wheelchair. One of his legs has been amputated due to atherosclerosis, and for the past few months, he's battled lymphoma localized in his jaw (it is now in remission)... While no longer the dapper spymaster, he remains salty and unremorseful."
"Posted around his door are warnings against trespassing."
Finally they asked Hunt if he had any regrets about his life.
"No, none," Hunt replied. Then there was a long pause. And then Hunt added one last thought.
"Well, it would have been nice to do the Bay of Pigs differently."
Don't Call It a Conspiracy — The Kennedy Brothers
The Chicks Who Tried to Shoot Gerald Ford
Did Bush Spin Like Nixon?
The Five Faces of Bush
7 thoughts to “20 Secrets of an Infamous Dead Spy”
Headsup: Trevor Blake’s latest issue of Ovo Magazine, The Dreadlock Recollections, is the autobiography of Discordian co-founder Kerry Wendell Thornley, where he goes into detail on his encounters with the man he believed subsequently to be Howard Hunt.
I read this a few years ago, and I can highly recommend it.
Info on Hunt’s involvement in assassination of JFK here:
I have just purchased the book “American Spy” and found the foreword by William F. Buckley Jr. interesting when he said he had worked for the CIA. Curious if he really broke contact with the company. The press has lost site of this I guess. Was deep throat really Mark Felt? Or is this what we are to be left to believe forever?
Excellent stuff from you, man. Ive read your things before and youre just too awesome. I love exactly what you have got right here, love what you are saying and the way you say it. You make it entertaining and you still manage to keep it smart. I cant wait to study more from you. This is really a great blog.