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

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

Socialism, Baking Soda, and Armie Hammer

131595375
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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 22 2014 8:07 AM Why Haven’t the Philadelphia Eagles Ever Won a Super Bowl?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.