Tip-Toe Thru the Bureau

Paranoid FBI chief ordered Tiny Tim probe

Under the auspices of national security, J. Edgar Hoover's inexhaustible paranoia and treachery led the FBI to spy on the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Ernest Hemingway. UC Irvine professor Jon Wiener fought the agency for years to declassify its John Lennon files in the 1980s. The late FBI director's quirky suspicions even extended to Dr. Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine, and E.B. White, author of the children's classic Charlotte's Web. But 30-year-old secret FBI records recently unclassified at the request of the Weekly show that perhaps Hoover's most laughable imagined national threat was Tiny Tim-the androgynous ukulele-strumming crooner famous for his 1960s hit song "Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips With Me."

According to heavily censored agency documents from August and September 1968, the FBI director was apparently frustrated that he had "no descriptive data concerning the subject." He ordered his agents to conduct as "expeditiously as possible" what would be an intensive three-week, nationwide covert investigation of Tiny Tim.

Hoover's reason for the probe remains an official secret. FBI bureaucrats claim the release of that information would jeopardize confidential government sources in a "lawful national-security intelligence investigation." But this much is clear from uncensored sections of Tiny Tim's file: Hoover specifically ordered FBI field offices to "search indices and contact logical sources in an effort to determine the subject's association with Frank Sinatra, [redacted] and hoodlum elements."

It's uncertain if FBI agents saw humor or bewilderment in Hoover's directive on the effeminate, stringy-haired, colossal-nosed Hollywood entertainer who wore clashing outfits and white makeup during his regular TV appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in. But in a terse two-paragraph report, Chicago agents, for example, interviewed four "hoodlum" contacts and then reported that their probe had proved fruitless. FBI agents in New York gave Hoover the singer's credit report; home address; telephone numbers; and a list of his agents, managers and past stage names (Larry Love and Darry Dove). They also secretly tracked Tiny Tim's then whereabouts: a room at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in what is now West Hollywood. They did not uncover criminal activity. State and local police in New York City-where Tiny Tim, whose real name was Herbert Khaury, grew up and lived most of his early life-said the entertainer had a clean arrest record.

FBI agents in Los Angeles fared no better. They contacted confidential sources with "extensive contacts with the hoodlum elements in Las Vegas, Chicago and Los Angeles," as well as those "familiar with the entertainment field on a nationwide basis." One unnamed informant speculated that it was "unusual for a relatively new star to appear for one week at the Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, for a salary of $50,000 per week with a return engagement promised, but he stated he had no positive information of association of Tiny Tim with any hoodlum interests." Another Los Angeles source "who is extremely cognizant concerning hoodlums and hoodlum activities and interests" had nothing incriminating to report, either.

If what the FBI provided the Weekly represents its entire file on the subject, no agent anywhere in the country uncovered a single shred of evidence to justify Hoover's puzzlingly urgent criminal probe of Tiny Tim. Even more bizarre is that the agency's files indicate that an unnamed foreign government may have prompted Hoover's interest in the singer. In one memo, agents wrote that the results of the probe were to be forwarded from FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the agency's London office. Using thick lines of black ink, FBI censors redacted a key portion of a sentence from the document that likely explained the reason for such a route. But another partially redacted agency document contained an inexplicable reference to "foreign police cooperation." After Sept. 19, 1968, no additional records-not a final report or updates or a notice that the information was shared with a foreign government-were placed in the agency's official file, according to the FBI's Washington, D.C., Freedom of Information Act office.

It may be difficult if not impossible to imagine how anyone except Hoover could have seriously considered Tiny Tim worthy of FBI scrutiny. He grew up in Manhattan's Washington Heights with a Lebanese father and Jewish mother who were textile workers. In the 1950s and early '60s, New York nightclubs billed Tiny Tim (at 6-foot-1, he wasn't so tiny) as a novelty act, singing his unmistakable falsetto versions of 1920s Tin Pan Alley songs. His debut album in 1968, God Bless Tiny Tim, earned the singer international fame and constant TV appearances. According to one estimate, his 1969 televised wedding on The Tonight Show garnered 40 million viewers. He soon commanded as much as $60,000 for 10 performances at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Through 1970, Tiny Tim was reportedly earning more than $1 million per year. But by 1971, the singer-who was an outspoken Nixon fan, Women's Lib critic and Vietnam War proponent-was near penniless and performing at county fairs and Florida bikini contests.

In 1995, a Washington Post reporter found the 63-year-old singer in dire straits. He was then living in a $750-per-month Des Moines hotel room, wearing Depends diapers instead of underwear and buying lottery tickets "by the handful." Tiny Tim had also mushroomed to just less than 300 pounds, probably due to a daily diet of Old Milwaukee beer and barbecue-sauce-drenched potatoes. To get attention, he began to rap during performances. His asking rate had dwindled to $100 per day.

Tiny Tim died of a heart attack in 1996 while performing his signature song, "Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips With Me," for the Women's Club of Minneapolis. He was buried with his ukelele but without the knowledge that Hoover's FBI had once targeted him a national-security threat.

 
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