Biography of a Beast: J. Edgar Hoover vs. the Constitution


J. Edgar Hoover, 1st Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Later in life and after his death, Hoover became a controversial figure as evidence of his secretive abuses of power began to surface.


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Introduction

John Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895 – May 2, 1972) was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States and an American law enforcement administrator. He was appointed as the director of the Bureau of Investigation – the FBI’s predecessor – in 1924 and was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935, where he remained director for another 37 years until his death in 1972 at the age of 77. Hoover has been credited with building the FBI into a larger crime-fighting agency than it was at its inception and with instituting a number of modernizations to police technology, such as a centralized fingerprint file and forensic laboratories. Hoover is also credited with establishing and expanding a national blacklist, referred to as the FBI Index or Index List, renamed in 2001 as the Terrorist Screening Database which the FBI still compiles and manages.

Later in life and after his death, Hoover became a controversial figure as evidence of his secretive abuses of power began to surface. He was found to have exceeded the jurisdiction of the FBI,[2] and to have used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders,[3] and to collect evidence using illegal methods.[4] Hoover consequently amassed a great deal of power and was in a position to intimidate and threaten others, including sitting presidents of the United States.[5]

Early Life and Education

Dickerson Naylor Hoover, Director Hoover’s father, who worked for the Coast Guard and Geodetic Survey / Wikimedia Commons

John Edgar Hoover was born on New Year’s Day 1895 in Washington, D.C., to Anna Marie (née Scheitlin; 1860–1938), who was of Swiss-German descent, and Dickerson Naylor Hoover Sr. (1856–1921), chief of the printing division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, formerly a plate maker for the same organization.[6] Dickerson Hoover was of English and German ancestry. Hoover’s maternal great-uncle, John Hitz, was a Swiss honorary consul general to the United States.[7] Among his family, he was the closest to his mother, who was their moral guide and disciplinarian.[8]

Hoover was born in a house on the present site of Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, located on Seward Square near Eastern Market in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.[9] A stained glass window in the church is dedicated to him. Hoover did not have a birth certificate filed upon his birth, although it was required in 1895 in Washington. Two of his siblings did have certificates, but Hoover’s was not filed until 1938 when he was 43.[7]

Hoover lived in Washington, D.C. his entire life. He attended Central High School, where he sang in the school choir, participated in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, and competed on the debate team.[4] During debates, he argued against women getting the right to vote and against the abolition of the death penalty.[10] The school newspaper applauded his “cool, relentless logic.”[11] Hoover stuttered as a boy, which he overcame by teaching himself to talk quickly—a style that he carried through his adult career. He eventually spoke with such ferocious speed that stenographers had a hard time following him.[12]

Hoover was 18 years old when he accepted his first job, an entry-level position as messenger in the orders department, at the Library of Congress. The library was a half mile from his house. The experience shaped both Hoover and the creation of the FBI profiles; as Hoover noted in a 1951 letter: “This job … trained me in the value of collating material. It gave me an excellent foundation for my work in the FBI where it has been necessary to collate information and evidence.”[13]

Hoover obtained a Bachelor of Laws[14] from The George Washington University Law School in 1916, where he was a member of the Alpha Nu Chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order, and an LL.M. in 1917 from the same university.[15][16] While a law student, Hoover became interested in the career of Anthony Comstock, the New York City U.S. Postal Inspector, who waged prolonged campaigns against fraud, vice, pornography, and birth control.[11]

Department of Justice

Hoover in 1932 / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

War Emergency Division

Immediately after getting his LL.M. degree, Hoover was hired by the Justice Department to work in the War Emergency Division.[17] He accepted the clerkship on July 27, 1917, when he was just 22 years old. The job paid $990 a year ($19,800 in 2020) and was exempt from the draft.[17]

He soon became the head of the Division’s Alien Enemy Bureau, authorized by President Woodrow Wilson at the beginning of World War I to arrest and jail allegedly disloyal foreigners without trial.[11] He received additional authority from the 1917 Espionage Act. Out of a list of 1,400 suspicious Germans living in the U.S., the Bureau arrested 98 and designated 1,172 as arrestable.[18]

Bureau of Investigation

Head of the Radical Division

In August 1919, the 24-year-old Hoover became head of the Bureau of Investigation’s new General Intelligence Division, also known as the Radical Division because its goal was to monitor and disrupt the work of domestic radicals.[18] America’s First Red Scare was beginning, and one of Hoover’s first assignments was to carry out the Palmer Raids.[19]

Hoover and his chosen assistants, George Ruch,[20] monitored a variety of U.S. radicals with the intent to punish, arrest, or deport those whose politics they decided were dangerous. Targets during this period included Marcus Garvey;[21] Rose Pastor Stokes and Cyril Briggs;[22] Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman;[23] and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, who, Hoover maintained, was “the most dangerous man in the United States.”[24]

In 1920, Edgar Hoover was initiated[25] at D.C.’s Federal Lodge No. 1 in Washington D.C., becoming a Free Mason[26][27] at the age of 25, becoming a 33rd Degree Inspector General Honorary in 1955.[28]

Head of the Bureau of Investigation

In 1921, Hoover rose in the Bureau of Investigation to deputy head and, in 1924, the Attorney General made him the acting director. On May 10, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Hoover as the fifth Director of the Bureau of Investigation, partly in response to allegations that the prior director, William J. Burns, was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal.[29][30] When Hoover took over the Bureau of Investigation, it had approximately 650 employees, including 441 Special Agents.[31] Hoover fired all female agents and banned the future hiring of them.[32]

Early Leadership

Hoover in 1940 / FBI, Wikimedia Commons

In 1921, Hoover rose in the Bureau of Investigation to deputy head and, in 1924, the Attorney General made him the acting director. On May 10, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Hoover as the fifth Director of the Bureau of Investigation, partly in response to allegations that the prior director, William J. Burns, was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal.[29][30] When Hoover took over the Bureau of Investigation, it had approximately 650 employees, including 441 Special Agents.[31] Hoover fired all female agents and banned the future hiring of them.[32]

Depression-Era Gangsters

In the early 1930s, criminal gangs carried out large numbers of bank robberies in the Midwest. They used their superior firepower and fast getaway cars to elude local law enforcement agencies and avoid arrest. Many of these criminals frequently made newspaper headlines across the United States, particularly John Dillinger, who became famous for leaping over bank cages, and repeatedly escaping from jails and police traps. The gangsters enjoyed a level of sympathy in the Midwest, as banks and bankers were widely seen as oppressors of common people during the Great Depression.

The robbers operated across state lines, and Hoover pressed to have their crimes recognized as federal offenses so that he and his men would have the authority to pursue them and get the credit for capturing them. Initially, the Bureau suffered some embarrassing foul-ups, in particular with Dillinger and his conspirators. A raid on a summer lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, called “Little Bohemia,” left a Bureau agent and a civilian bystander dead and others wounded; all the gangsters escaped.

Video clips of famous Depression Era gangsters, including Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly.

Hoover realized that his job was then on the line, and he pulled out all stops to capture the culprits. In late July 1934, Special Agent Melvin Purvis, the Director of Operations in the Chicago office, received a tip on Dillinger’s whereabouts that paid off when Dillinger was located, ambushed, and killed by Bureau agents outside the Biograph Theater.[36]

Hoover was credited for overseeing several highly publicized captures or shootings of outlaws and bank robbers. These included those of Machine Gun Kelly in 1933, of Dillinger in 1934, and of Alvin Karpis in 1936, which led to the Bureau’s powers being broadened.

In 1935, the Bureau of Investigation was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In 1939, the FBI became pre-eminent in the field of domestic intelligence, thanks in large part to changes made by Hoover, such as expanding and combining fingerprint files in the Identification Division, to compile the largest collection of fingerprints to date,[37][38] and Hoover’s help to expand the FBI’s recruitment and create the FBI Laboratory, a division established in 1932 to examine and analyze evidence found by the FBI.

American Mafia

During the 1930s, Hoover persistently denied the existence of organized crime, even while there were numerous shootings as a result of Mafia control of, and competition over, the Prohibition-created black market.[39] Gangster Frank Costello helped to encourage this view by feeding Hoover tips on sure winners through their mutual friend, gossip columnist Walter Winchell.[40] Hoover had a reputation as “an inveterate horseplayer” known to send Special Agents to place $100 bets for him.[40] Hoover said the Bureau had “much more important functions” than arresting bookmakers and gamblers.[40] Some believe that Hoover’s reticence to use the full force of the FBI to investigate “the Mafia” was due to the existence of compromising photographs of Hoover and his colleague, FBI Deputy Director and protégé Clyde Tolson, photographs allegedly in the possession of the gangsters Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello.[41]

While Hoover had fought bank-robbing gangsters in the 1930s, anti-communism was a bigger focus for him after World War II as the Cold War developed. During the 1940s through mid-1950s, he seemed to ignore organized crime of the type that ran vice rackets such as drugs, prostitution, and extortion. He denied that any Mafia operated in the United States. In the 1950s, evidence of his unwillingness to focus FBI resources on the Mafia became grist for the media and Hoover’s many detractors.

After the Apalachin meeting in 1957, Hoover could no longer deny the syndicate’s existence and its influence on the North American underworld, as well as Cosa Nostra’s overall control and influence of the Syndicate’s many branches throughout North America and abroad.[42] Hoover created the “Top Hoodlum Program” and went after the syndicate’s top bosses throughout the country.[43][44]

Investigation of Subversion and Radicals

Overview

Hoover investigated ex-Beatle John Lennon by putting the singer under surveillance, and Hoover wrote this letter to Richard Kleindienst, the US Attorney General in 1972. A 25-year battle by historian Jon Wiener under the Freedom of Information Act eventually resulted in the release of documents like this one. / FBI, Wikimedia Commons

Hoover was concerned about what he claimed was subversion, and under his leadership, the FBI investigated tens of thousands of suspected subversives and radicals. According to critics, Hoover tended to exaggerate the dangers of these alleged subversives and many times overstepped his bounds in his pursuit of eliminating that perceived threat.[4]

William G. Hundley, a Justice Department prosecutor, said Hoover may have inadvertently kept alive the concern over communist infiltration into the government, quipping that Hoover’s “informants were nearly the only ones that paid the party dues.”[45]

Florida and Long Island U-Boat Landings

The FBI investigated rings of German saboteurs and spies starting in the late 1930s, and had primary responsibility for counter-espionage. The first arrests of German agents were made in 1938 and continued throughout World War II.[46] In the Quirin affair, during World War II, German U-boats set two small groups of Nazi agents ashore in Florida and Long Island to cause acts of sabotage within the country. The two teams were apprehended after one of the agents contacted the FBI and told them everything – he was also charged, and convicted.[47]

Illegal Wire-Tapping

During this time period President Franklin D. Roosevelt, out of concern over Nazi agents in the United States, gave “qualified permission” to wiretap persons “suspected … [of] subversive activities”. He went on to add, in 1941, that the United States Attorney General had to be informed of its use in each case.[48]

The Attorney General Robert H. Jackson left it to Hoover to decide how and when to use wiretaps, as he found the “whole business” distasteful. Jackson’s successor at the post of Attorney General, Francis Biddle, did turn down Hoover’s requests on occasion.[49]

Concealed Espionage Discoveries

The FBI participated in the Venona Project, a pre-World War II joint project with the British to eavesdrop on Soviet spies in the UK and the United States. They did not initially realize that espionage was being committed, but the Soviet’s multiple use of one-time pad ciphers (which with single use are unbreakable) created redundancies that allowed some intercepts to be decoded. These established that espionage was being carried out.

Hoover kept the intercepts – America’s greatest counterintelligence secret – in a locked safe in his office. He chose not to inform President Truman, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath, or Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and General George Marshall while they held office. He informed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the Venona Project in 1952.[50][51]

Plans for Suspending Habeas Corpus

In 1946, Attorney General Tom C. Clark authorized Hoover to compile a list of potentially disloyal Americans who might be detained during a wartime national emergency. In 1950, at the outbreak of the Korean War, Hoover submitted a plan to President Truman to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and detain 12,000 Americans suspected of disloyalty. Truman did not act on the plan.[52]

COINTELPRO and the 1950s

Hoover photographed in 1959 / FBI, Wikimedia Commons

In 1956, Hoover was becoming increasingly frustrated by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that limited the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute people for their political opinions, most notably communists. Some of his aides reported that he purposely exaggerated the threat of communism to “ensure financial and public support for the FBI.”[53] At this time he formalized a covert “dirty tricks” program under the name COINTELPRO.[54] COINTELPRO was first used to disrupt the Communist Party USA, where Hoover ordered observation and pursuit of targets that ranged from suspected citizen spies to larger celebrity figures, such as Charlie Chaplin, whom he saw as spreading Communist Party propaganda.[55]

COINTELPRO’s methods included infiltration, burglaries, setting up illegal wiretaps, planting forged documents, and spreading false rumors about key members of target organizations.[56] Some authors have charged that COINTELPRO methods also included inciting violence and arranging murders.[57][58]

This program remained in place until it was exposed to the public in 1971, after the burglary by a group of eight activists of many internal documents from an office in Media, Pennsylvania, whereupon COINTELPRO became the cause of some of the harshest criticism of Hoover and the FBI. COINTELPRO’s activities were investigated in 1975 by the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, called the “Church Committee” after its chairman, Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho); the committee declared COINTELPRO’s activities were illegal and contrary to the Constitution.[59]

Hoover amassed significant power by collecting files containing large amounts of compromising and potentially embarrassing information on many powerful people, especially politicians. According to Laurence Silberman, appointed Deputy Attorney General in early 1974, FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley thought such files either did not exist or had been destroyed. After The Washington Post broke a story in January 1975, Kelley searched and found them in his outer office! The House Judiciary Committee then demanded that Silberman testify about them.

Reaction to Civil Rights Groups

July 24, 1967. President Lyndon B. Johnson (seated, foreground) confers with (background L-R): Marvin Watson, J. Edgar Hoover, Sec. Robert McNamara, Gen. Harold Keith Johnson, Joe Califano, Sec. of the Army Stanley Rogers Resor, on responding to the Detroit riots. / Wikimedia Commons

In 1956, several years before he targeted King, Hoover had a public showdown with T. R. M. Howard, a civil rights leader from Mound Bayou, Mississippi. During a national speaking tour, Howard had criticized the FBI’s failure to investigate thoroughly the racially motivated murders of George W. Lee, Lamar Smith, and Emmett Till. Hoover wrote an open letter to the press singling out these statements as “irresponsible.”[60]

In 1960s, Hoover’s FBI monitored John Lennon, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali.[61] The COINTELPRO tactics were later extended to organizations such as the Nation of Islam, Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others. Hoover’s moves against people who maintained contacts with subversive elements, some of whom were members of the civil rights movement, also led to accusations of trying to undermine their reputations.[62]

The treatment of Martin Luther King Jr. and actress Jean Seberg are two examples: Jacqueline Kennedy recalled that Hoover told President John F. Kennedy that King had tried to arrange a sex party while in the capital for the March on Washington and that Hoover told Robert Kennedy that King had made derogatory comments during the President’s funeral.[63] Under Hoover’s leadership, the FBI sent an anonymous blackmail letter to King in 1964, urging him to commit suicide.[64]

President Lyndon B. Johnson at the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. White House East Room. People watching include Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen, Senator Hubert Humphrey, First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, Speaker of the House John McCormack. Television cameras are broadcasting the ceremony. / LBJ Library, Wikimedia Commons

King’s aide Andrew Young later claimed in a 2013 interview with the Academy of Achievement, that the main source of tension between the SCLC and FBI was the government agency’s lack of black agents, and that both parties were willing to co-operate with each other by the time the Selma to Montgomery marches had taken place.[65]

In one particularly controversial 1965 incident, white civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen, who had given chase and fired shots into her car after noticing that her passenger was a young black man; one of the klansmen was Gary Thomas Rowe, an acknowledged FBI informant.[66][67] The FBI spread rumors that Liuzzo was a member of the Communist Party and had abandoned her children to have sexual relationships with African Americans involved in the civil rights movement.[68][69] FBI records show that J. Edgar Hoover personally communicated these insinuations to President Johnson.[70][71]

Hoover also personally intervened to prevent federal prosecutions against the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the terrorist bombing attack against the 16th Street Baptist Church.[72] By May 1965, local investigators and the FBI had identified the perpetrators of the bombing,[73] and this information was relayed to Hoover[74]. No prosecutions of the four suspects ensued, however, even though the evidence was reportedly “so strong that even a white Alabama jury would convict”.[72] There had been a history of mistrust between local and federal investigators.[75] Later the same year, J. Edgar Hoover formally blocked any impending federal prosecutions against the suspects and refused to share, with state or federal prosecutors, any of the evidence which his agents had obtained.[76] In 1968, the FBI formally closed their investigation into the bombing without filing charges against any of their named suspects. The files were sealed by order of Hoover.[77]

Late Career and Death

One of his biographers, Kenneth Ackerman, wrote that the allegation that Hoover’s secret files kept presidents from firing him “is a myth.”[78] However, Richard Nixon was recorded in 1971 as stating that one of the reasons he would not fire Hoover was that he was afraid of Hoover’s reprisals against him.[79] Similarly, Presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy considered dismissing Hoover as FBI Director, but ultimately concluded that the political cost of doing so would be too great.[80]

In 1964, Hoover’s FBI investigated Jack Valenti, a special assistant and confidant of President Lyndon Johnson. Despite Valenti’s two-year marriage to Johnson’s personal secretary, the investigation focused on rumors that he was having a gay relationship with a commercial photographer friend.[81]

Hoover personally directed the FBI investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In 1964, just days before Hoover testified in the earliest stages of the Warren Commission hearings, President Lyndon B. Johnson waived the then-mandatory U.S. Government Service Retirement Age of 70, allowing Hoover to remain the FBI Director “for an indefinite period of time”.[82] The House Select Committee on Assassinations issued a report in 1979 critical of the performance by the FBI, the Warren Commission, and other agencies. The report criticized the FBI’s (Hoover’s) reluctance to investigate thoroughly the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President.[83]

When Richard Nixon took office in January 1969, Hoover had just turned 74. There was a growing sentiment in Washington, D.C., that the aging FBI chief needed to go, but Hoover’s power and friends in Congress remained too strong for him to be forced into retirement.[84]

Hoover remained director of the FBI until he died of a heart attack in his Washington home, on May 2, 1972,[85] whereupon Operational Command of the Bureau was passed onto Associate Director Clyde Tolson. On May 3, 1972, Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray – a Justice Department official with no FBI experience – as Acting Director of the FBI, with W. Mark Felt becoming Associate Director.[86]

Hoover’s body lay in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol,[87] where Chief Justice Warren Burger eulogized him.[88] Hoover is the only civil servant to have lain in state.[89] President Nixon delivered another eulogy at the funeral service in the National Presbyterian Church, and called Hoover “one of the Giants, [whose] long life brimmed over with magnificent achievement and dedicated service to this country which he loved so well”.[90] Hoover was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., next to the graves of his parents and a sister who had died in infancy.[91]

Legacy

FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC / Photo by Aude, Wikimedia Commons

Biographer Kenneth D. Ackerman summarizes Hoover’s legacy thus:

For better or worse, he built the FBI into a modern, national organization stressing professionalism and scientific crime-fighting. For most of his life, Americans considered him a hero. He made the G-Man brand so popular that, at its height, it was harder to become an FBI agent than to be accepted into an Ivy League college.[78]

In 1979 there was a large increase in conflict in the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) under Senator Richard Schweiker, which had re-opened the investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy and reported that Hoover’s FBI failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President. The HSCA further reported that Hoover’s FBI was deficient in its sharing of information with other agencies and departments.[92]

U.S. President Harry S Truman said that Hoover transformed the FBI into his private secret police force:

… we want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him.[93]

Because Hoover’s actions came to be seen as abuses of power, FBI directors are now limited to one 10-year term,[94] subject to extension by the United States Senate.[95]

The FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. is named the J. Edgar Hoover Building, after Hoover. Because of the controversial nature of Hoover’s legacy, there have been periodic proposals to rename it by legislation proposed by both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate. The first such proposal came just two months after the building’s inauguration. On December 12, 1979, Gilbert Gude – a Republican congressman from Maryland – introduced H.R. 11137, which would have changed the name of the edifice from the “J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building” to simply the “F.B.I. Building.”[96][97] However, that bill never made it out of committee, nor did two subsequent attempts by Gude.[96] Another notable attempt came in 1993, when Senator Howard Metzenbaum pushed for a name change following a new report about Hoover’s ordered “loyalty investigation” of future Senator Quentin Burdick.[98] In 1998, Senator Harry Reid sponsored an amendment to strip Hoover’s name from the building, stating that “J. Edgar Hoover’s name on the FBI building is a stain on the building.”[99] The Senate did not adopt the amendment.[99]

Hoover’s practice of violating civil liberties for the sake of national security has been questioned in reference to recent national surveillance programs. An example is a lecture titled Civil Liberties and National Security: Did Hoover Get it Right?, given at The Institute of World Politics on April 21, 2015.[100]

Private Life

Pets

Hoover with Bebe Rebozo (left) and Richard Nixon. The three men relax before dinner, Key Biscayne, Florida, December 1971. / White House Photo Office, Wikimedia Commons

Hoover received his first dog from his parents when he was a child, after which he was never without one. He owned many throughout his lifetime and became an aficionado especially knowledgeable in breeding of pedigrees, particularly Cairn Terriers and Beagles. He gave many dogs to notable people, such as Presidents Herbert Hoover (no relation) and Lyndon B. Johnson, and buried seven canine pets, including a Cairn Terrier named Spee De Bozo, at Aspen Hill Memorial Park, in Silver Spring, Maryland.[101]

Sexuality

From the 1940s, rumors circulated that Hoover, who was still living with his mother in his early 40s, was homosexual.[102] The historians John Stuart Cox and Athan G. Theoharis speculated that Clyde Tolson, who became an assistant director to Hoover in his mid 40s, was a homosexual lover to Hoover (and became his primary heir) until his death.[103] Hoover reportedly hunted down and threatened anyone who made insinuations about his sexuality.[104] Truman Capote, who enjoyed repeating salacious rumors about Hoover, once remarked that he was more interested in making Hoover angry than determining whether the rumors were true.[80] On May 2, 1969, Screw published the first reference in print to J. Edgar Hoover’s sexuality, entitled “Is J. Edgar Hoover a Fag?”[105][106][107]

Some associates and scholars dismiss rumors about Hoover’s sexuality, and rumors about his relationship with Tolson in particular, as unlikely,[108][109][110] while others have described them as probable or even “confirmed”.[111][41] Still other scholars have reported the rumors without expressing an opinion.[112][113]

Cox and Theoharis concluded that “the strange likelihood is that Hoover never knew sexual desire at all.”[110]

Hoover and Tolson

Hoover and his assistant Clyde Tolson sitting in beach lounge chairs, c. 1939 / Wikimedia Commons

Hoover described Tolson as his alter ego: the men worked closely together during the day and, both single, frequently took meals, went to night clubs, and vacationed together.[103] This closeness between the two men is often cited as evidence that they were lovers. Some FBI employees who knew them, such as Mark Felt, say the relationship was “brotherly”; however former FBI official Mike Mason suggested that some of Hoover’s colleagues denied that he had a sexual relationship with Tolson in an effort to protect Hoover’s image.[114]

The novelist William Styron told Summers that he once saw Hoover and Tolson in a California beach house, where the director was painting his friend’s toenails.[115] Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations, said Hoover and Tolson sat in boxes owned by and used exclusively by gay men at the Del Mar racetrack in California.[115]

Hoover bequeathed his estate to Tolson, who moved into Hoover’s house after Hoover died. Tolson accepted the American flag that draped Hoover’s casket. Tolson is buried a few yards away from Hoover in the Congressional Cemetery.[116]

Other Romantic Allegations

One of Hoover’s biographers Richard Hack does not believe the director was gay. Hack notes that Hoover was romantically linked to actress Dorothy Lamour in the late 1930s and early 1940s and that after Hoover’s death, Lamour did not deny rumors that she had had an affair with him.[80] However, Anthony Summers, who wrote Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, stated that there was no ambiguity about the FBI director’s sexual proclivities and described him as “bisexual with failed heterosexuality.”[115]

Hack further reported that, during the 1940s and 1950s, Hoover attended social events with Lela Rogers, the divorced mother of dancer and actress Ginger Rogers, so often that many of their mutual friends assumed the pair would eventually marry.[80] However, Summers noted that Hoover’s friend actress and singer Ethel Merman knew of his sexual orientation.[115]

Pornography for Blackmail

Under Hoover, agents were directed to seize all pornographic materials uncovered in their investigations and forward them to Hoover personally.[117] He kept a large collection, possibly the world’s largest,[118] of films, photographs, and written materials, with particular emphasis on nude photos of celebrities. Hoover reportedly used these for his own titillation, as well as holding them for blackmail purposes.[119][120]

Cross-Dressing Story

In his biography Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (1993), journalist Anthony Summers quoted “society divorcee” Susan Rosenstiel as claiming to have seen Hoover engaging in cross-dressing in the 1950s, at all-male parties.[121][122]

Summers alleged the Mafia had blackmail material on Hoover, which made Hoover reluctant to pursue organized crime aggressively. According to Summers, organized crime figures Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello obtained photos of Hoover’s alleged homosexual activity with Tolson and used them to ensure that the FBI did not target their illegal activities.[123] Additionally, Summers claimed that Hoover was friends with Billy Byars, Jr., an alleged child pornographer and producer of the film The Genesis Children.[124]

Another Hoover biographer who heard the rumors of homosexuality and blackmail, however, said he was unable to corroborate them,[123] though it has been acknowledged that Lansky and other organized crime figures had frequently been allowed to visit the Del Charro Hotel in La Jolla, California, which was owned by Hoover’s friend, and staunch Lyndon Johnson supporter, Clint Murchison Sr.[125][126] Hoover and Tolson also frequently visited the Del Charro Hotel.[126] Summers quoted a source named Charles Krebs as saying, “on three occasions that I knew about, maybe four, boys were driven down to La Jolla at Hoover’s request.”[124]

Skeptics of the cross-dressing story point to Susan Rosenstiel’s lack of credibility (she pleaded guilty to attempted perjury in a 1971 case and later served time in a New York City jail).[127][128] Recklessly indiscreet behavior by Hoover would have been totally out of character, whatever his sexuality. Most biographers consider the story of Mafia blackmail unlikely in light of the FBI’s continuing investigations of the Mafia.[129][130]

In his book The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, journalist Ronald Kessler exposed as false the claim by Susan S. Rosenstiel, a former wife of Lewis S. Rosenstiel, chairman of Schenley Industries Inc., that she saw Hoover engaging in cross-dressing at a party in 1958 at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter, wrote that Rosenstiel had served time at Rikers Prison in 1971 for perjuring herself in a 1971 case.[131]

Although never corroborated, the allegation of cross-dressing has been widely repeated. In the words of author Thomas Doherty, “For American popular culture, the image of the zaftig FBI director as a Christine Jorgensen wanna-be was too delicious not to savor.”[132] Biographer Kenneth Ackerman says that Summers’ accusations have been “widely debunked by historians”.[133]

The Lavender Scare

The attorney Roy Cohn served as general counsel on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s tenure as chairman and assisted Hoover during the 1950s investigations of Communists[134] and was generally known to be a closeted homosexual.[135][134] Cohn’s opinion was that Hoover was too frightened of his own sexuality to have anything approaching a normal sexual or romantic relationship.[80]

During the Lavender scare, Cohn and McCarthy further enhanced anti-Communist fervor by suggesting that Communists overseas had convinced several closeted homosexuals within the U.S. government to leak important government information in exchange for the assurance that their sexual identity would remain a secret.[134][136] A federal investigation that followed convinced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to sign an Executive Order on April 29, 1953, that barred homosexuals from obtaining jobs at the federal level.[137]

In his 2004 study of the event, historian David K. Johnson attacked the speculations about Hoover’s homosexuality as relying on “the kind of tactics Hoover and the security program he oversaw perfected: guilt by association, rumor, and unverified gossip.” He views Rosenstiel as a liar who was paid for her story, whose “description of Hoover in drag engaging in sex with young blond boys in leather while desecrating the Bible is clearly a homophobic fantasy.” He believes only those who have forgotten the virulence of the decades-long campaign against homosexuals in government can believe reports that Hoover appeared in compromising situations.[138]

Supportive Friends

Some people associated with Hoover have supported the rumors about his homosexuality.[139] According to Anthony Summers, Hoover often frequented New York City’s Stork Club. Luisa Stuart, a model who was 18 or 19 at the time, told Summers that she had seen Hoover holding hands with Tolson as they all rode in a limo uptown to the Cotton Club in 1936.[115]

Actress and singer Ethel Merman was a friend of Hoover’s from 1938, and familiar with all parties during his alleged romance of Lela Rogers. In a 1978 interview, she said: “Some of my best friends are homosexual: Everybody knew about J. Edgar Hoover, but he was the best chief the FBI ever had.”[115]

Bibliography

See notes here


Originally published by Wikipedia, 10.28.2001, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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