Five myths about J. Edgar Hoover

Nov 14, 2011

Dead almost 40 years, J. Edgar Hoover returns to the spotlight as the Clint Eastwood biopic "J. Edgar" opens in theaters this week. Kenneth Ackerman separated fact from fiction in Hoover's legacy.

Read: Five myths about J. Edgar Hoover

Good morning, everyone.  I'm Ken Ackerman, and I'm glad to be here to answer any of your questions about J. Edgar Hoover, either from my "5 Myths" article in yesterday's Post ir any others you may have.  So please fire away.   All the best. --KA

I couldn't care less about transvestism but it seemed to me Leo totally missed his short man complex, what we call in the South a "banty rooster." Hair slicked back, coiled for a fight, it seems all the energy went to Armie Hammer, not him.

Thanks for the first quuestion.  You're right, Hoover was too short to qualify for his high school football team, and yes it bothered him.   But he starred in other sports, the high school cadet corp and the debate team.  All the energy was real, though.  A colleague at DoJ in the 1920s described him as like "an electric wire."

What is the myth you most commonly come across or hear about in regards to Hoover?

That's easy. The fiirst thing that comes up in almost every conversation is the cross-dressing.  It's an image  people can't seem to get out of their minds, despite the lack of evidence.

I hope you don't mind but, regardless of the evidence, I will continue to picture Mr. Hoover as a gay, cross-dresser. It is just too delicious a picture given his bulldog visage and general temperament.

Seriously, I think the image has stuck -- again, despite the lack of evidence -- because it came out at a time when people still remembered Hoover as a very scary character, and this brought him down a few notches.

Do you think the new movie with Leo will do a good job sticking with the facts?

Mostly, I thought the movie stuck with facts, but tried to cover too many things, and as a result was sometimes confusing and lacked context and background.    For instance, why did Hoover have such an obsession with Martin Luther King?  Or why the tensions with Robert Kennedy?  Hoover's life easily could have filled a 10-episode mini-series, as with John Adams.

Have you see the film 'J. Edgar' yet, and if so how do you feel about the artistic liberties taken re: his sexuality, his cowardice/fame-mongering, his relationship with his mother? Would you say that these aspects were reasonable/truthful extrapolations, or fabrication for dramas sake?

Mostly,  I thought each of these had a basis.  Yes, Hoover had a domineering mother and a father who suffered from mental illness ("melancholia" is what they called it back then).  His fame-mongering was notorious, complete with a large PR operation at the FBI, and he had a very close life-long personal/private relationship with Clyde Tolson.   Hoover and Tolson were highly discreet, so it is no surprise that we know so little about it.    But the liberties the movie took, I thought,  where all defensible not out of bounds.

I see many of the commenters on the story are addressing this. Why did Hoover for so long fail to even admit the Mafia existed, let alone take action against it? Was he so fixated on the issue of communism in the U.S., which was effectively a spent force following the election of Roosevelt, that he refused to pursue the Mob? Or was there something more to it?

Hoover's failure to  focus on the Mafia earlier was clearly a failing.  As for the reasons, there are plenty of conspiracy theories -- he actually did socialize with a number of mafia-related characters during the 1930s and later -- but his focus on communism and protectiveness of the agency are clearly high on the list.  During the prohibition era (1920s/early 1930s), for instance, Hoover's FBI let the Treasury Department handle bootleggers while he focused on bankrobbers and interstate crime -- trying to stay carefully within his jurisdiciton and aviod arguments with Congress.    

Did Hoover break laws, subvert the Constitution, or just skirt laws?

I think he did all of the above -- break laws, subvert the constitution, so on -- both during his early period (the 1919-1920 Palmer Raids)  and his later period during the 1960s and 1970s.   Beyond the black bag jobs and warrantless surveillance of civil rights leaders and Vietnam-era antiwar groups, use abuse of government files and information clearly crossed the line -- in my opinion.  No federal official should be allowed to hold so much power for 48 years -- it inevitably results in a failure of accountability.

One of the rumors you did not address was that the mob had photographic evidence of his cross dressing ways and used this as blackmail to prevent the FBI from conducting any vigorous investigations of the mob. His investigations of the mob were tepid at best. Robert Kennedy may have paid the price for his temerity of defying J. Edgar.  


In fact both Kennedys probably would have benefited had his investigations of mob activities been as vigorous as his investigations of Martin Luther King's sex life.

The charge that some Mafia figures -- particularly Meyer Lansky -- had a compromising photograph of Hoover with Clyde Tolson and used this to blackmail Hoover into ignoring the mafia, has largely been discredited along with the  cross-dressing stories.  No such photograph ever turned up, and after the FBI did start investigating them aggressively.

J. Edgar Hoover is part African American.  Why was this not noted in the movie?

My own view is that the story of Hoover having an African-American ancestor is very plausible, given his father's family's long roots in the pre-Civil War south where inter-racial mixing was not uncommon.  A similar claim was make in 1920 about Warren G. Harding, who was then running for president.  It became a campaign issue and Harding, to his credit, refused to be bullied into denying the possibility.    What Hoover himself knew or believed about it, however, nobody knows.

What exactly is a black bag job? Love your book, so glad it's now out on Kindle.

Thanks for the note about the book.  A "black bag job" is basically a break-in by agents into somebody's house or apartment, either to plant a bugging device or to rifle through papers and evidence.  The Church Committee, which investigated FBI and CIA abuses in the 1970s, found evidence that this had become all-too-common a practice for the FBI in Hoover's later years.

Reading your piece now and a bit confused on Myth 4. Are you saying that J. Edgar Hoover having a Black direct-line ancestor is a myth or just unproven either way?

On having a black ancestor, it is unproven either way.  The "myth" is the story -- based on some discrepancies in census and birth records -- that he actually had black parents, but light-skinned enough to "pass for white,"  and was secretly adopted by the Hoover.  That story was investigated by a trained genealogist and debunked.  

Thanks everyone for all the great questions.   All the best. --Ken Ackerman

Haven't seen "J. Edgar" myself but just wondering what you thought off the film's take on Annie Hoover and any interesting stories or insights you have on her that weren't in the film itself?

Annie Hoover clearly was a strong personality, and Edgar was his mother's favorite.   She was a grand-daughter of a Swiss diplomat and pushed him hard.  The more difficult parent for Edgar, however, I think was his father who actually was committed to an asylum for some time for "melancholia" and forced out of his job from the US government after 40 years without a pension.   A good psychiatrist could  have spent a lot of counch time with him on these things, though reconstructing these complicated parental feelings after the fact is very difficult.

You mentioned Tolson being bequeath most of J. Edgar Hoover's estate after he died. Was J. Edgar Hoover rich and if so, from what source?

Not very rich by private sector standards, though he had a very nice house in northwest Washington and a big colelction of scruptures and knickknacks. 

Hoover has been played by two different actors in two different movies recently. Billy Crudup played him in 'Public Enemies,' and DiCaprio in 'J. Edgar.' Of these two portrayals, which do you think was more adept at capturing the character of J. Edgar Hoover?

Both are good actors, though the Hoover role in "Public Enemies" (Builly Crudup) was limited.    DiCaprio was asked to do much more, portraying him at two very different times of his life, making it a much more difficult acting challenge.

Thanks again for all the great questions.  I appreciate it.  All the best. --KenA

In This Chat
Kenneth Ackerman
Ken Ackerman, a writer and attorney at OFW Lawin Washington, D.C., is a 35-year veteran of senior positions in Congress, the executive branch, financial regulation, and private law.

Ken has authored four published books: Young J. Edgar: Hoover and the Red Scare,1919-1920, Boss Tweed: the Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York, Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James a. Garfield (2003), and The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday 1869 (1988).
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