J. Edgar Hoover Investigated Armie Hammer's Great-Grandfather

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 8 2011 10:10 AM

Socialism, Baking Soda, and Armie Hammer

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Armie Hammer in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In the biopic J. Edgar, which opens this week, Armie Hammer—in his first role since his highly touted portrayal of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network—portrays Associate FBI Director Clyde Tolson. Hammer not only possesses striking schoolboy good looks, he also has a striking name. Just why does Armie (short for Armand) Hammer share a name with the leading baking soda brand?

It’s a coincidence. Hammer has confessed that his childhood nickname was “Baking Soda Boy,” but there is no direct connection between the actor’s moniker and sodium bicarbonate. The actual story of the name is much more interesting.

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Armie shares his name with his great-grandfather, Armand Hammer, a wealthy businessman who ran Occidental Petroleum for decades. That earlier Armand Hammer died in 1990 with an estimated net worth of $200 million.

And though Armie’s great-grandfather played a major role in American business, his name had nothing to do with baking soda, either. He was named for the logo of the Socialist Labor Party, with which his father Julius was closely involved. According to Hammer biographer Edward Jay Epstein, Armand’s father bragged to his friends about naming his child after the arm-and-hammer insignia; years later, Armand used the insignia as the flag on his yacht.

Coincidentally, the Church & Dwight Company developed the Arm & Hammer brand of baking soda in 1867, thirty years before Armand Hammer was born. Since James Church’s original Vulcan Spice Mills was named after the Roman god of fire and craftsmanship, it made sense to adopt a hammer-wielding Vulcan arm as Arm & Hammer’s logo. 

In a strange twist of fate, Armand Hammer did become a minority shareholder of Church & Dwight in the 1980s. Though Armie was born shortly after this time, he probably wasn’t named after the baking soda. After all, four generations of Hammers have now had Armand as either a first or middle name.

Armie’s latest Hollywood movie provides yet another twist in the fascinating saga of the Hammer family: As Epstein describes at length in his book—and as William Poundstone noted over the weekend—J. Edgar Hoover kept close tabs on Armand Hammer throughout his life, beginning in 1921, when Hoover was 26 years old and working as an assistant in the Justice Department.

Hammer’s strong ties to the Soviet Union made him a suspicious figure in the eyes of the FBI at least until 1951, when he wrote, for Hoover, “a lengthy autobiographical memorandum on his activities in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.” According to Epstein, Hoover was satisfied: He “closed the security case against him, and the autobiographical sketch became the basis of the FBI summary report that would be furnished to five future presidents.”

Epstein’s own research, however, suggested that Hammer helped finance Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1920s. And in the early 1990s, Hammer’s connections to Al Gore, Sr., were closely scrutinized before Bill Clinton selected Al Gore, Jr., as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee.

Armand Hammer died of bone marrow cancer in 1990, but not before foreshadowing his great-grandson’s future career: In 1988, he played a small part on The Cosby Show. As the grandfather of a friend of Theo’s who is in the hospital with cancer, Hammer appeared briefly in one scene and made a plea for more government funding for cancer research.

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