Elephants and G-men (or when FBI Agents were Heroes)


Rea Irvin’s Dec 31, 1938, New Yorker cover

The November 21, 2022, New Yorker cover, “Low Tide” by Barry Blitt, features a huge grey elephant on a red surfboard looking less than confident about the future. How different his mood from a fellow pachyderm that appeared on the December 31, 1938, cover of the magazine, a gleeful pink elephant by Rea Irvin (1881-1972). Inside the 1938 magazine is a story worth considering as we approach 2023.

 A favorite hero in American popular culture in those days was the G-man (Government-man) also known as the FBI agent. J. Edgar Hoover, chief of the FBI, had 675 of these dedicated agents who risked their lives each day. As one agent recalled: “going where I’m not wanted, where I’m hated and feared, is my business, and coming back alive is my problem, for I’m one of those G-men you hear so much but seldom see, although you [the American public] are my employer, and danger is my job, and death is my paymaster.”

This agent, writing under a pseudonym in Cosmo’s  ”Autobiography of America Series,” feared that he would not live to bounce grandchildren on his knee: ”Fellows in my trade simply don’t live to be old men. If the mad dogs don’t get us, overwork will.” The 33-year-old agent from Georgia, (“most agents are Southerners”), had worked on the Lindbergh case and believed it made the FBI’s reputation in the eyes of the public. But being an agent was a rough life then and it still is. Cosmo’s unidentified agent rarely saw his young wife and two sons.  Pursuing gangsters and other hard core criminals, especially kidnappers/murderers and “dope peddlers,” as well as those guilty of white-collar crimes, was more than a full-time job.

Agents were not allowed to call themselves G-men in public: “It’s not dignified, and the bureau insists on dignity.” Well, most of the time. Click here for a very popular image of J. Edgar Hoover hiding behind a Mickey Mouse mask on New Year’s Eve 1938. But between the wars, little boys asking for Christmas presents preferred to play G-men rather than soldiers. Children idolized FBI agents; replicas of their equipment made toymakers rich across the United States.  Aspiring to be an FBI agent was a craze among boys and even some girls who joined a Junior G-man girls’ division. Favorite toys included windup cars with a man shooting sparks out the window; toy hand guns, machine guns, and ray guns, badges, and rings.

 Ninja warriors, Star Wars characters, Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Black Panther, Ms Marvel, Shrek, Moana, and Wonder Woman now have more appeal than cowboys, detectives like Dick Tracy, or G-men.  Yet we still depend on thousands of men and women who serve as special agents for the FBI, an agency that now has over 36,000 people on its staff. Though most kids no longer revere them, and some in positions of authority malign their leaders, special agents are still heroes who work across the USA to make sure we all remain safe.

And, for those so inclined, you, or a child you know, can pretend to be an FBI agent with a costume from Amazon.com.