Five myths about J. Edgar Hoover
By Kenneth D. Ackerman,
by Kenneth D. Ackerman Dead almost 40 years, J. Edgar Hoover returns to the spotlight as the Clint Eastwood biopic “J. Edgar” opens in theaters this week. Hoover served as director of the FBI for 48 years, holding the job under eight presidents from Calvin Coolidge to Richard M. Nixon. But ask most people about J. Edgar Hoover, and the subject turns to sex. Let’s separate fact from fiction in Hoover’s legacy.
1. Hoover was a gay cross-dresser.
Despite rampant speculation — that Hoover was gay, a cross-dresser or had no sex life — the truth about his sex life is nearly impossible to pin down. Hoover was married to his job and zealously protective of his public image. He lived in an era when being outed as gay would cost anyone his career and reputation, and he was not one to risk such consequences.
The story that Hoover, a lifelong bachelor, participated in cross-dressing, all-male sex parties in New York hotel rooms, as reported by British writer Anthony Summers in a 1993 biography, has been widely debunked by historians. The story’s source, the wife of a businessman and Hoover confidante, had a grudge from a contested divorce, and other investigations of the story came up empty.
If Hoover did have a gay relationship, most likely it was with his longtime FBI associate director, Clyde Tolson, another lifelong bachelor — but even this is disputed. Hoover and Tolson worked together more than 40 years. They traveled on vacation and official business, rode to work together, shared lunch nearly every day at Washington’s Mayflower hotel and sometimes even wore matching suits. Hoover, at his death, left Tolson most of his estate. Their relationship, by all appearances, was stable, discreet and long-lasting. But what they did physically behind closed doors, if anything, they kept between them.
Hoover did have some high-profile female friendships, including with actress Dorothy Lamour. In his 2004 biography of Hoover, Richard Hack cites sources claiming that he was discovered spending the night with Lamour in a Washington hotel — an isolated incident — and that when she was asked later about a sexual relationship between them, she said, “I cannot deny it.”
2. Hoover’s secret files kept presidents from firing him.
Hoover had particularly good relationships with at least two presidents he served under: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Of the others, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon all considered sacking him, but, files aside, they had good political reasons for keeping Hoover. Even in the 1960s, he had a strong public image as an honest, competent law enforcement technocrat. While his relationship with John and Robert Kennedy was often tense — yes, it was Hoover who, through wiretaps of Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, discovered President Kennedy’s affair with mob-connected socialite Judith Campbell Exner — Hoover also could have been covering up embarrassing secrets for Camelot.
Still, Hoover built his FBI files into an intimidating weapon, not just for fighting crime but also for bullying government officials and critics and destroying careers. The files covered a dizzying kaleidoscope — Supreme Court justices such as Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, movie stars Mary Pickford and Marilyn Monroe, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, physicist Albert Einstein, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III, among others — often replete with unconfirmed gossip about private sex lives and radical ties.
By 1960, the FBI had open, “subversive” files on some 432,000 Americans. Hoover deemed the most sensitive files as “personal and confidential” and kept them in his office, where his secretary, Helen Gandy, could watch them. Today, with few exceptions, Hoover’s FBI files are open for any American to see at the National Archives. They make fascinating reading and paint a stark portrait of power run amok.
3. Hoover was a coward.
Critics often accused Hoover of cowardice, pointing, for instance, to the fact that he didn’t join the military in June 1917, when he finished law school and the country was entering World War I. Instead, he took a draft-exempt job at the Justice Department.
Hoover, by most signs, would have preferred to join his contemporaries going “over there” to fight the Germans. At Central High School in Northwest Washington, he joined the cadet corps and was its captain during his senior year. He relished the pomp and ceremony, marching in uniform and palling around with his fellow cadets.Later, at the Justice Department’s Radical Division, Hoover’s craving for action led him to participate in a raid in February 1920 against one of the most dangerous leftist groups of that period, the L’Era Nuova gang in Paterson, N.J. The agents carried guns and confiscated plenty of weapons and explosives. Hoover interrogated the group’s leader and extracted the only direct evidence about the 1919 anarchist bombings that prompted that year’s Red Scare.
Rather than fleeing the draft, the more likely reason that Hoover took the Justice Department job in 1917 was that his 61-year-old father, Dickerson Naylor Hoover, who suffered from mental illness, had been forced to leave his job as a government clerk without a pension, making young J. Edgar financially responsible for the family. If anything, Hoover’s guilt over staying behind probably added to his later zeal against subversives at home.
4. Hoover was African American.
There are two theories that Hoover had African American heritage. One has it that he was born to an African American mother and secretly adopted by the Hoover family, a theory based on discrepancies in certain birth and census records. However, genealogist George Ott investigated the claim, failed to substantiate it and said he believes it to be false.
More plausible are stories like that told by writer Millie McGhee in her 2000 book “Secrets Uncovered: J. Edgar Hoover — Passing for White?” McGhee, an African American, claims that, based on family stories and genealogical records, she and Hoover had a common ancestor, a great-grandfather, making him a distant cousin. Hoover’s father’s family had roots in Virginia and Mississippi in the antebellum South, where interracial liaisons were not uncommon. Some mixing in his family tree is a possibility but remains unproven.
Hoover’s attitudes on race reflected those in the old Washington, where he grew up, a largely segregated Southern city. As FBI director, he repeatedly refused to involve the bureau in investigating anti-black race riots or protecting black civil rights workers in the South, insisting that these were matters for local police, even after the Supreme Court’s 1954Brown v. Board of Education decision.
5. Hoover’s legacy is a stain on the FBI’s reputation.
Hoover leaves a bipolar legacy. 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.
But he also stands as a reminder that 48 years of power concentrated in one person is a recipe for abuse. It was mostly after his death that Hoover’s dark side became common knowledge — the covert black-bag jobs, the warrantless surveillance of civil rights leaders and Vietnam-era peace activists, the use of secret files to bully government officials, the snooping on movie stars and senators, and the rest. Hoover’s name, carved in stone at the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, should serve as a caution to the public and the dedicated professionals who work inside. The FBI’s license to intrude into people’s lives gives it a special public trust. If the daily reminder of Hoover’s excesses can help impart that message, it will be the best safeguard for the positive side of his legacy: a modern, professional, science-based and accountable detective force serving the public interest.
Kenneth D. Ackerman, a D.C.-based lawyer at OFW Law, is the author of “Young J. Edgar: Hoover and the Red Scare, 1919-1920.”