Clint Eastwood's biopic J. EDGAR, which is released in the UK on DVD this week, emphasises the psychosexual torment in the life of legendary F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover. This year's Pulitzer finalist Anthony Summers, whose biography Official and Confidential demolished the image of Hoover as national hero, writes here on the hard facts behind the movie's story.
J. Edgar Hoover was a phenomenon. He remained in office for 48 years, from his appointment after World War I to his death in 1972, achieving fame and extraordinary power. For public consumption when he died, President Richard Nixon eulogised him as "one of the giants...a national symbol of courage, patriotism, and granite-like honesty and integrity." He ordered that flags fly at half-mast, that Hoover's body lie in state at the Capitol.In private, on hearing that the Director had died, Nixon had responded merely, "Jesus Christ! That old cocksucker!" Months earlier, closeted with key advisers, he had held forth on the need to persuade the elderly Hoover to resign. "We have on our hands here a man who will pull down the temple with him, including me."
Nixon himself, soon to be disgraced and forced to resign, was of course himself no paragon. Most presidents before him, though, had had cause to fear Hoover or been troubled by what his FBI had become. Harry S. Truman wrote during his presidency: "We want no Gestapo or Secret Police. FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex life scandals and plain blackmail...Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all Congressmen and Senators are afraid of him..."
Hoover himself, meanwhile, had a personal secret that - in his era - could have destroyed him if revealed. Director Eastwood referred to it before the launch of his movie, when he assured the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation that J. EDGAR would not "portray an open homosexual relationship" between Hoover and his senior colleague and constant male companion Clyde Tolson.
In fact, and although there is just one passionate kiss between the actors portraying the pair in the movie, the relationship with Tolson is a central theme. In real life, all Washington knew that the pair dined daily together, vacationed together, did everything but move in together, and the whispers flew. When a magazine article in the 1930s referred to Hoover's "mincing" gait, and a diplomat commented on his "conspicuous perfume," the Director struck back. He gathered derogatory information on the offending journalist, and asserted - falsely - that he did not use perfume. Substantive information on the Hoover-Tolson relationship surfaced only long after both men were dead, during research for my book.
A surprising find was the account by Luisa Stuart, once a celebrated model, tracked down because she featured in a droll photograph taken with Hoover and Tolson at a celebration one New Year's Eve in the late 1930s at the Stork Club - the place to be seen in New York at the time. In the dark of a limousine late that night in New York, she remembered, "I noticed they were holding hands...they were different times. But I'd never seen two men holding hands..."
Joseph Shimon, a former Washington police inspector, recalled a taxi driver reporting that the pair had been "kissing and ass-grabbing" during a cab journey. Harry Hay, founder of America's first gay rights group, recalled that on vacation in California, in "a circle in which they didn't have people who weren't gay...They were nodded together as lovers."
The most persuasive information on Hoover's sexuality came from the widow of
Marshall de G. Ruffin, an eminent Washington psychiatrist. Hoover had consulted her husband and - she recalled - had been "definitely troubled by homosexuality" and "paranoid about anyone finding out."
The Eastwood movie includes a scene that depicts Hoover, after his mother's death, donning one of her dresses. It is a nod towards allegations I first reported, that the FBI Director on occasion cross-dressed. I had information from three sources, two men who said an "easily recognisable" photograph of Hoover in an evening gown circulated in the gay community in 1948, and an account by a millionaire's former wife of secret sex parties she claimed she witnessed in the late fifties. Hoover, the woman said, had been "dressed like an old flapper, like you see on old tintypes."
Bill Clinton, who as president in 1993 was mulling who to appoint as FBI director, thought the cross-dressing reports hilarious. "It's going to be hard," he grinned during a speech at a press function, "to fill J. Edgar Hoover's... pumps." That I published such allegations at all, however, to this day draws roars of fury from old Hoover loyalists.
It is now historical fact, though, that America's law enforcement hero had feet of clay - and in areas far more dangerous to a democratic society than his sexual preferences.
Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, by Anthony Summers, is published by Ebury Press
J. EDGAR, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, is out now on Blu-ray Triple Play, DVD and to download.