‘I won’t have anything to do with amoral dudes’

Sam Greenlee, X’57, distinguished himself as a Foreign Service Officer, then found his true mission as a writer ready to challenge readers

Sam Greenlee described the title of his first and best-known novel, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, as more than just a double meaning. The 1969 thriller, about the first Black agent recruited to the Central Intelligence Agency, gives the hero Dan Freeman a moniker familiar as both a racial epithet (“because we’re supposed to be scared of ghosts,” said Greenlee, who died in 2014) and a slang term for intelligence agents (“because they’re supposed to be invisible”).

But his sardonic wordplay, Greenlee insisted, had a third layer of meaning: “that an armed revolution by Black people haunts White America, and has for centuries.”

Greenlee, X’57, wrote the best-selling novel, which later became a cult-classic film, after spending eight years in the U.S. Foreign Service. In his tale of subversive infiltration, the protagonist enters the CIA through a racial integration program launched at the behest of a U.S. senator with an ulterior political motive: to shore up re-election support from Black voters. When the agency institutes a special training program for prospective Black officers and Freeman becomes the lone recruit to make it through the course, he is named chief of the top-secret reproduction section, a glorified clerical position.

Playing the part expected of him, he rises to the rank of special assistant to the director, with the responsibility “to be black and conspicuous”—that is, to sit by the door—“as the integrated Negro of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.” Secretly, Freeman is becoming “the best undercover man the CIA had.” He gathers intelligence and acquires experience that he ultimately takes back to Chicago, where he resumes his career in social work as a cover for his plan: to organize the city’s street gang members into a force he hopes will stoke a countrywide militant uprising.

“If the idea makes you pale,” wrote a Chicago Sun-Times reviewer in 1969, “you are probably pale to begin with.”

Though his novel no doubt shocked some audiences, Greenlee seems to have been neither subversive when he belonged to the Foreign Service nor secretive about his attitudes when he left. He served with distinction in the U.S. Information Agency from 1957 to 1965, one of the first Black officials in the USIA.

Over time he grew disenchanted with Foreign Service work and wanted to pursue writing full time. When the U.S. State Department canceled a tour by Duke Ellington, deeming “hot jazz” inappropriate for the planned concerts honoring slain president John F. Kennedy, the catalyst was set. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’” Greenlee remembered. “‘These people have shown me exactly what they think about Black people.’”

Still, the self-described former propagandist took from his government service what he called “intensive training” for his work to come as a novelist and filmmaker.

After leaving the USIA, Greenlee and his Dutch-born first wife, Nienke “Nina” de Jonge Greenlee, moved to the Greek island of Mykonos, where he wrote The Spook Who Sat by the Door in one summer. He sustained his writing life in Greece for a period in the 1960s partly by going to mainland clubs and singing the blues for tips.

That was one skill Greenlee had picked up at home rather than abroad. Born on Chicago’s South Side in 1930, Greenlee grew up in the Washington Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods. His mother was a dancer, singer, and actress; his father worked on the Santa Fe Railroad and was later maître d’ at the Cliff Dwellers Club. Greenlee’s neighborhood around 63rd Street and St. Lawrence Avenue was a “striver’s community,” he told the HistoryMakers oral history project in 2001. “It was understood that I would get an education,” Greenlee said. And, because his family couldn’t afford college, “it was taken for granted that I would figure out some way to do it on my own.”

Studying international relations

Greenlee attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison on a partial track and cross-country scholarship, graduating with a degree in political science in 1952. At a Stagg Field track meet, UChicago track coach Edward “Ted” Haydon, LAB’29, PhB’33, AM’54, suggested that he apply for graduate school and run track at the University. Greenlee studied international relations in the Social Sciences Division from 1954 to 1957. While in Washington, D.C., and looking for a government job to support him while he finished up his graduate thesis on Vladimir Lenin, he was recruited to a junior officer training program that led him to the U.S. Information Agency.

“A year later I was caught up in the Baghdad revolution,” Greenlee said, “and writing a thesis was the last thing on my mind.”

At the University of Chicago, Greenlee had reveled in the intellectual pluralism of the campus culture. The University in the mid-1950s, as Greenlee remembered it, “had an almost equal group of right-wingers and leftists. And we were constantly clashing. It was marvelous for that reason,” he said. “You know, to be exposed to the total spectrum of political thought.”

Tenacity in the midst of clashing viewpoints prepared Greenlee well for the battles ahead over The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Between 1966 and 1969, the novel was turned down more than 40 times by publishers. Unable to find an American publisher willing to go near the incendiary subject matter, Greenlee had better luck in London. Allison & Busby, an upstart independent press cofounded by the Ghanaian-born British editor Margaret Busby, released the novel in a 1969 UK edition that made the best-seller lists and earned book-of-the-year mentions in two of London’s major newspapers.

An American edition 

The book’s success in London brought it to the attention of New York City publisher Richard W. Baron, who issued an American edition under his own imprint later in 1969. For critics, the book was dynamite—in more senses than one. “The reader should be cautioned to remember this is a work of fiction and not a statement of fact,” read a favorable review in the LA Sentinel.

Hollywood seemed like the next logical step. “I knew it was going to be a flick up front,” Greenlee said in 1976. He teamed up with actor and director Ivan Dixon to adapt The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Unsuccessful in convincing anyone in the Hollywood establishment to help finance the film, Greenlee and Dixon went grassroots and found backers in the Black community, raising as much as $850,000, mainly from independent investors. The remainder of their $1 million budget came from United Artists, who agreed to distribute the film.

Greenlee served as co-producer and co-wrote the screenplay. Dixon, known for his roles in 1964’s Nothing but a Man and the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, directed. The filmmakers commissioned a funky synthesizer-heavy soundtrack from Herbie Hancock, who knew Greenlee personally from their South Side days. The film’s casting director was Pemon Rami, a collaborator of Greenlee’s in Chicago’s independent Black theater scene who later worked in the casting departments of other locally set films like Mahogany and The Blues Brothers.

The film was met with local fanfare when it was released in 1973. Its official premiere took place in Chicago at the Woods Theatre in the Loop, posting a successful $62,000 opening weekend there. A week and a half earlier, an audience in Greenlee’s Woodlawn neighborhood had a chance to see the film at a benefit opening at the Maryland Theatre on 63rd Street. “It was a full house,” casting director Rami recalls. “People were elated. We got standing ovations. It was the talk of the town.”

But the film also quickly stirred unease. The Defender ran an article praising the film as “Greenlee’s masterpiece” with a portentous headline: “Will ‘Spook’ Touch off Race Warfare?” Elsewhere the paper advised the viewer that “one must ‘keep his cool’” and take the film as entertainment only. Before long Greenlee and his collaborators began to notice theater exhibitors truncating their runs. The manager of the McVickers Theater in the Loop told Greenlee that FBI agents had visited him and encouraged him to pull the film.

“They would sit the exhibitor down and gently tell him that this film was dangerous and could cause all kinds of difficulties,” Greenlee said. He also heard rumors that agents had pressured United Artists to stifle the film’s distribution. The Spook Who Sat by the Door had lived up to its name, in Greenlee’s view, spooking those in power in the government and the film industry. Soon the film all but vanished from public view.

Keeping the film alive 

For the next 30 years, it circulated underground. In addition to periodic screenings at art houses and campuses, The Spook Who Sat by the Door gained a larger following through unauthorized home videos that emerged in the 1980s. These bootlegs helped keep the film alive in the public consciousness—and on the radar of interested exhibitors who might show it publicly. Doc Films first screened The Spook Who Sat by the Door in the Winter Quarter of 1990 as part of its Black American Cinema series. Four years later, Doc presented the film again with Greenlee as a special guest.

While the film was percolating underground, Greenlee was too. After the original theatrical run ended in 1974, he made his career primarily on the college lecture circuit. The Spook Who Sat by the Door was a sensation among students and activists of the Black Power era, and campuses in the 1970s welcomed Greenlee. He published a second thriller, Baghdad Blues, with Bantam Books in 1976, drawing from his experiences with the USIA in Iraq during the 1958 revolution.

But around 1980, Greenlee remembered, a generational shift started to mean less student interest in the book and film’s militant themes. So he settled in a remote rural area of southern Spain for much of the ’80s and ’90s—“the perfect place to work,” he called it—returning to the United States for several years at a time.

A restoration and authorized home video release of the movie appeared in 2004. Less than a decade later, the movie joined the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as one of the country’s “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” films.

Other work by Greenlee

There is plenty of other work by Greenlee left to be rediscovered, marked both by his local roots and his years abroad. The plays he wrote in Spain include Lisa Trotter, an adaptation of Lysistrata set in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. Meanwhile, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is bound to attract a new generation of fans through a planned TV adaptation involving Lee Daniels.

Greenlee was a man who gave up studying international relations at UChicago for a life of international travels, but familiar places mattered to him, says Natiki Montano-Pressley, Greenlee’s daughter from a long relationship with actress and dancer Maxine McCrey.

Chicago remained his home port. Greenlee lived his final years back in Woodlawn, near 62nd Street and Kenwood Avenue. Greenlee sold copies of his books out of his shoulder bag, along with autographed DVDs of his film. He had decided years ago how best to preserve his independence as an artist.

As early as 1975, Greenlee saw a culture industry awash with people plying work “totally lacking in moral concept,” and he was not afraid to go it alone on principle: “I won’t have anything to do with amoral dudes.”

Adapted from a story originally published in the University of Chicago Magazine.