By James S. Kunen and Maria Speidel
Updated November 20, 1989 12:00 PM

It wasn’t much of a contest, the FBI versus a single American citizen. When J. Edgar Hoover’s men decided in 1964 to ruin Bill Albertson’s life—despite the fact that he had committed no crime—they succeeded brilliantly. Though Albertson had been a loyal Communist for 35 years, he suddenly found himself branded an informer and expelled from the party. He died seven years later, lonely and reviled, a broken man. And the FBI got away with it—until now. Last month Albertson’s widow, Lillie, won a 13-year legal battle against the bureau, gaining a $170,000 settlement and something much more important. “Now I can say, ‘Look, he’s been vindicated,’ ” she says.

Lillie, 63, now living alone and working as an accountant at a Boston-area university, vividly recalls the day 25 years ago when her family’s life changed forever. It was around the Fourth of July when three grim-faced party members came to the Albertsons’ Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment with a letter that had been planted in a car in which Bill had ridden. Apparently in Albertson’s handwriting, the letter to “Joe” identified various Communist Party leaders in New York State. It concluded, “Maybe you could arrange for a raise in expenses,” and was signed “Bill.”

“I was flabbergasted,” says Lillie. She was positive the letter was forged because every word was legible; her husband wrote in an unreadable scrawl. Albertson, who had once served 60 days in jail for contempt of court for refusing to name fellow party members, protested his innocence. Arguing that a real informer would never have signed his own name, he insisted he must have been framed by the FBI. But the party expelled him, along with his mother and Lillie.

“My husband was literally destroyed, says Lillie. Leftist politics had been Albertson’s life, following his Russian immigrant mother’s example, he became active in the Communist Party at age 19 in 1929. He had worked tirelessly as a labor organizer and had risen to the party’s national committee. But now the Worker labeled him “a stool pigeon” and denounced his “duplicity and treachery.”

“He really wanted to end his life,” Lillie says. “I would not leave him alone for the first three or four days after this happened.” His best friends, all fellow Communists, shunned them. The couple had to take their 7-year-old son, Michael, out of a socialist summer camp after an anonymous caller vowed to “cut him up in little pieces.” Other callers threatened to burn their apartment; it did burn, and arson was suspected. Bill, whose party work had paid a meager $65 a week, was never able to find steady employment again. Whispers followed him everywhere, and he was fired from a series of menial jobs, sometimes for being a Communist, sometimes for being an informer. After plunging him into desperate economic straits, says Lillie, the FBI offered Bill money to actually become an informer. He refused. Clearing his name became “his only reason for living,” Lillie has said. “The most painful thing I ever had to experience in my whole life was watching a destroyed man try to save himself.”

He never succeeded. Albertson accidentally fell from a porch in 1972, broke his neck and died at age 61. Three more years passed before an apparent clerical error by an FBI employee let the truth slip out. While investigating the bureau’s secret counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), NBC News law correspondent Carl Stern had sued the FBI to obtain 50,000 pages of documents. The files revealed that many people had been framed as informers. Names had been carefully blacked out, but one was overlooked: Albertson. Stern passed the information on to the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government on Lillie’s behalf. In other FBI files was proof that the bureau had tapped the Albertsons’ personal phone calls and read their mail, all without a warrant. And Hoover had wired his agents that he was “extremely pleased” with the “sophisticated and imaginative action” against Albertson.

For the FBI it was one small engagement in a campaign whose full scope has yet to be revealed. (One former FBI agent said in 1962 that of 8,500 members of the Communist Party, nearly 1,500 were FBI informants.) The bureau, which has conceded that the COINTELPRO program smeared civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., nevertheless fought to have Lillie Albertson’s lawsuit dismissed in order to protect “national security” secrets. Rebuffed by the courts, the FBI finally settled.

“Most people wouldn’t expect the government to destroy somebody’s life because of their politics,” says Lillie’s lawyer, Kate Martin. “The lesson of the Albertson case is that this did happen in the United States and that we have to be very careful that it doesn’t happen again.”

“My God, it’s just so unfair that the truth didn’t come out when he was alive,” says Lillie. After looking through 35,000 pages of his FBI files, she now has an idea which party members may have been the real informers. But she refuses to name names. Says Lillie: “I wouldn’t put anybody through what was done to us.”

—James S. Kunen, Maria Speidel in Boston