Hidden life of obsessive Hoover who kept files on presidents for security

Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover
Anthony Summers
Ebury Press; €10.99
Interview: Richard Fitzpatrick

J Edgar Hoover became head of the FBI, or the Bureau of Investigation as it was then called, in 1924. He remained in his post until his death in 1971. He towered over 20th century America, although he spent most of his time with his nose in the country’s sewers. He was a strange man; a “sociopath” concludes a psychiatrist interviewed for Anthony Summers’ exhaustive biography, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover.

The book, originally published in 1993, has been reissued — and “revamped”, says Summers — to coincide with the release of Clint Eastwood’s film, J Edgar. The original project, which took six years, was a feat of orchestration worthy of Hoover’s famed organisational powers. It incorporated 850 interviews, a $500,000 (€380,000) budget, and the marshalling of a research team, which included, among detectives and historians, Robbyn Swan, a Washington journalist who became Summers’ wife. The couple live in a renovated ferryman’s cottage in west Waterford.

Hoover was born in Washington in 1895. He kept a dossier on himself from an early age, including details like his clothes sizes. He became known as “Speed” in school, owing to his staccato speech. He used to rattle on, someone remarked later on, “like a Teamster’s whip when aroused”. He wasn’t a listener. He used to talk so fast, he talked at people. He was obsessed with cleanliness. When working at the FBI, the first thing he did after his car ride to work was to polish his shoes.

He was the youngest of his siblings by 12 years. He was conceived as his parents were mourning the death of an infant sister. His father was a weak man, who succumbed to melancholia when Hoover was 18 years of age, and died in an institution eight years later. His illness disgusted Hoover. “He was ashamed of him,” reckoned a niece.

Hoover’s mother, Annie, a domineering woman, “monopolised” him, says Summers. They lived together until her death in 1938. Hoover remained a bachelor all his life and, based on the conclusive evidence in Official and Confidential, seemed to have been homosexual.

He used to pat agents on the backside as they left his office. He holidayed and ate five nights a week for 40 years at the same restaurant with Clyde Tolson, who went from rookie to assistant director at the FBI in three years, and moved into Hoover’s house on his death. The pair was seen holding hands together.

“The influence of his mother, the job he did and his whole personality was in such a straightjacket that it led him away from women and in the circumstances into a world of men,” says Summers.

“Until quite recently, the FBI was a world of men. Then when he started to go flailing out and doing some lunatic sexual things, not just the relationship with Clyde Tolson, but the dafter allegations — the stuff about cross dressing — this emerges at the end of the ’30s just when his mother has died.

“We know from the logs of his office that that’s when he started going to New York from Washington at the weekends. I even talked to the agent who used to meet him off the train. Suddenly he was escaping from his safe little capsule, of being the FBI director in Washington, and going to wicked New York where there were nightclubs, notably The Stork Club. It was the place for all the socialites to be. Because of his campaigns against the John Dillingers of this world, he had a cachet — he was J Edgar Hoover, the G-man. He was fêted at those places, which were owned and penetrated by the Mob.

“All the evidence is that the mafia did know about his sexual proclivities and it is very bizarre to notice that there is a complete sea change in Hoover so far as the Mob’s concerned. There he was in the ’30s, pursuing the bandits, making the FBI’s name, becoming celebrated and famous. At the end of it he personally goes on raids of brothels and so on. And those brothels are Mob rackets. He seems to start to do the same thing with the Mob, which at that point was at its American infancy, and then he stops absolutely dead. Sooner or later he’s actually denying the Mafia exists. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to think it stopped dead because they, as they say, had the goods on him.”

Hoover also had the goods on the eight presidents he served, most famously the thick file he kept on John F Kennedy’s sexual exploits, which included an affair with Marilyn Monroe during his ill-fated presidency. He also, interestingly, kept tabs on one of Ireland’s former presidents. In an early FBI report, Éamon de Valera was erroneously referred to as “a Portuguese Jew”.

One of the most riveting passages of Summers’ book deals with the Kennedy years. Jack and Bobby Kennedy despised Hoover and mocked him behind his back. “He was out of it today, wasn’t he?” Bobby Kennedy said to an aide after one of Hoover’s rambling lectures on Reds — or “Commonism” as he pronounced it — and pederasts.

The loathing was mutual, although they played a curious dance for public show, which was a feature of Hoover’s relationships with the presidents he worked under. When, for example, JFK wrote a fawning letter in December 1961 to congratulate him on receiving The Mutual of Omaha Criss Award, Hoover replied that he was “touched”, even though he had just discovered the president was planning to fire him.

Hoover’s prurience is, perhaps, well known to most. One of the most startling things from Summers’ book, though, is the evidence he coughs up about how crooked Hoover was. Hoover and Tolson, for example, invested more than $1m in today’s money in one Texan oil company. The Mafia used to feed him horse racing tips to keep him sweet. “Hoover will never know how many races I had to fix for those lousy ten-dollar bets,” moaned Frank Costello, the mobster who owned The Stork Club.

“One of the departments he started was Crime Records, which was a division of the FBI, which existed, most importantly of all, to issue propaganda about the FBI and that meant issuing propaganda about the great J Edgar Hoover,” says Summers.

“He made himself — metaphorically — into a sort of living Mount Rushmore figure who stood for all that was good and right about America. The problem is that he achieved that by being there for 47, 48 years, as director, but, of course, no one should ever be able to run either a government or a federal agency for 48 years because of the old adage: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


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