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Top 10 Celebrities on Government Watch Lists

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Q.V. Hough These celebrities were on their governemnts watch lists for many reasons, not just for being famous. Whether they made bold moves, bold statements, lead social movements or spread ideas that caused unrest within their country, the FBI and other organizations kept a close eye on these celebrities. From Frank Sinatra, to Martin Luther King Jr., to more surprising people like Muhammad Ali, Lucille Ball, Ted Kennedy and John Lennon.

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When big names make bold moves, the government often takes note. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Famous People on Government Watch Lists.

For this list, we’re focusing on historical and pop culture figures that have been flagged for their behavior, or on grounds of suspicion alone.

#10: Marilyn Monroe

This American icon was known for her talent, her looks and her relationships with powerful figures. But what caught the attention of the FBI were Marilyn Monroe’s “concisely leftist” views, which were made more suspicious by her friendship with Frederick Vanderbilt Field. As a member of a famous railroad family, Field was disowned for his support of the socialist party as well as communist organizations. So, when the Hollywood A-lister visited him in Mexico, the get-together raised some eyebrows. The FBI began investigating Monroe in 1955. However, as revealed by the un-redacted report released in 2012, they never confirmed her as a member or ally of the Communist party.

#9: Ted Kennedy

In 2004, John F. Kennedy’s younger brother relayed some odd experiences to a Senate Judiciary Committee. After being delayed at various American airports, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy discovered that “T. Kennedy” is a known terrorist alias. And so, the delays seemed to be justified. But his actual first name is Edward, so he should never have been flagged to begin with, as the flagging is supposedly based on legal names only. This revelation sparked questions about Homeland Security, as one of the most famous names in modern American politics found himself being watched and slowed down by his own government due to an alleged “clerical error.”

#8: Albert Einstein

This theoretical physicist settled for a new life in America in 1933 after Adolf Hitler took over his native Germany. Two years later, Einstein met Margarita Konenkova, the wife of Russian sculptor Sergei Konenkov, and the two eventually developed a romantic connection. As noted in Walter Isaacson’s book “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” the unlikely pairing troubled the FBI, as Konenkova was reportedly a Soviet agent. Surveillance commenced on Einstein, but it turned out the brilliant man was simply smitten, perhaps trying to fill a void after the 1936 death of second wife Elsa. Regardless, this affiliation, coupled with his support of disarmament, landed him in FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s crosshairs for five years of intensive observation.

#7: John Lennon

In the ‘60s, this former Beatle dominated pop culture headlines. In 1971, John Lennon moved to New York City and immersed himself in the American political scene, speaking out for peace and performing at rallies. Given his influence over the youth, he was a natural target for Richard Nixon and government officials. The FBI ultimately produced an estimated 281 pages of documents on Lennon, but as he turned his attention towards other endeavors (and Nixon became focused on Watergate), the investigation concluded and the British pop icon received his green card. Author Jon Wiener later gained access to the FBI documents and published some of them in the book “Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.”

#6: Lucille Ball

This American comic met the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. To be fair, the government had reason to investigate Lucille Ball, given that she’d registered as a communist in both 1936 and 1938. When the committee released their findings, Ball and her then-husband and costar Desi Arnaz held a press conference to respond to the accusations against her. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the actress explained her story, dismissing the whole thing as an ignorant attempt to appease her grandfather. Her husband, for his part, expressed thanks for his American privileges, stating that “In other countries they shoot first and ask the questions later.”

#5: Malcolm X

The ‘60s were a turbulent time in America, and like so many other influential voices, this man wouldn’t survive the decade. Before Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination by Nation of Islam gunmen, he was the subject of intense surveillance by the American government. Even after leaving the Nation of Islam in March 1964, Malcolm X continued to be a major person of interest, with J. Edgar Hoover allegedly advising that agents “do something” about him. There’s been endless speculation about the specifics behind Malcolm X’s 1965 murder, but it’s no secret that American officials watched him closely during his final years.

#4: Frank Sinatra

In 1943, an emerging superstar was reported to the FBI. After watching Frank Sinatra on television, an unidentified concerned citizen compared the “shrill whistling sound” heard during the event to similar noises produced by the crowd when Hitler addressed his people. Thankfully, Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t turn out to be a “future Hitler.” Over the next several decades however, the government watched as Sinatra’s power increased in American society, leading him to the Kennedy family and even the Chicago Mob. All in all, there’s a full 1,275 pages on Sinatra. Even so, Frank mostly avoided trouble during his lifetime, ultimately outliving many of his famous friends.

#3: Martin Luther King Jr.

Back in the ‘60s, this American icon fought for civil rights. Given Martin Luther King Jr.’s following back then, the government tracked his daily activity and personal life, believing him to be under communist control – among other things. In 1964, someone attempted to blackmail King, even suggesting that he kill himself. The anonymous letter was later connected to the FBI and a covert operation known as “COINTELPRO.” The goal was to “neutralize” MLK, and the relentless surveillance began after the famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” continuing on until King’s 1968 death.

#2: Eleanor Roosevelt

As the niece of one American president and the wife to another, this liberal woman held her own as The First Lady. In her lifetime, Eleanor Roosevelt promoted relatively radical philosophies and political reform, ultimately writing 8,000 columns and 27 books. She’s also notable for hosting regular press conferences, a practice unseen from first ladies before her. Given Roosevelt’s influence and power, J. Edgar Hoover kept a close eye on her, worried that socialist ideals were dangerous. From 1940-1961, the FBI monitored Eleanor Roosevelt, but it turns out she was simply a self-motivated woman that supported civil rights and progressive thinking.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
- Barry Goldwater
- David Nelson
- Yusuf Islam [aka Cat Stevens]

#1: Muhammad Ali

Throughout his career, this boxing icon was known for talking the talk and walking the walk. In fact, Muhammad Ali spent numerous years away from the sport after refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Between his conversion to Islam and ever-entertaining media interviews, Ali’s name wound up in the files of “Operation Minaret”; a program later deemed “disreputable if not outright illegal” by some NSA officials. After Ali’s 2016 death, it was reported that the FBI paid special attention to Ali in 1966, fearing him as a potential leader and source of income for the Nation of Islam. Ultimately, Ali’s draft evasion conviction was overturned in 1971, and The Champ continued on with his prolific career.

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