A New York Times –bestselling author’s revealing, “important” biography of the longtime FBI director ( The Philadelphia Inquirer ).
No one exemplified paranoia and secrecy at the heart of American power better than J. Edgar Hoover, the original director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For this consummate biography, renowned investigative journalist Anthony Summers interviewed more than eight hundred witnesses and pored through thousands of documents to get at the truth about the man who headed the FBI for fifty years, persecuted political enemies, blackmailed politicians, and lived his own surprising secret life. Ultimately, Summers paints a portrait of a fatally flawed individual who should never have held such power, and for so long.
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About the Author
Anthony Summers is the bestselling author of eight works of nonfiction. His investigative books include Not in Your Lifetime , the critically acclaimed account of the assassination of John F. Kennedy; Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover ; Goddess , a biography of Marilyn Monroe; and most recently The Eleventh Day , on the 9/11 attacks—a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History.
Read an Excerpt
Official and Confidential
The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover
By Anthony Summers
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Anthony Summers
All rights reserved.
October 1971, the Oval Office of the White House
The President of the United States, his Attorney General and key advisers are wrestling with an intractable problem. The problem is an old man, a man of whom the Chief of State is afraid.
RICHARD NIXON: For a lot of reasons he oughta resign ... He should get the hell out of there ... Now it may be, which I kind of doubt ... maybe I could just call him and talk him into resigning ... There are some problems ... If he does go he's got to go of his own volition ... that's why we're in a hell of a problem ... I think he'll stay until he's a hundred years old.
JOHN MITCHELL: He'll stay until he's buried there. Immortality ...
RICHARD NIXON: I think we've got to avoid the situation where he can leave with a blast ... We may have on our hands here a man who will pull down the temple with him, including me ... It's going to be a problem.1
Seven months later, on May 2, 1972, the President's 'problem' proved to be mortal after all. J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, died in office at the age of seventy- seven. The body was reportedly found by his housekeeper, lying beside the four-poster in the bedroom of his Washington home. It looked like just another nighttime heart attack, and there would be no autopsy.
Yet someone in Washington – someone powerful – felt threatened by Hoover even in death. The undertakers, arriving at the house to remove the corpse, were met with an extraordinary sight. At the foot of the stairs, in a straightbacked chair, an elderly man sat staring blankly into space. Coming and going around him, moving in and out of the rooms, were a number of younger men – intent on a mysterious task.
Just four hours after the discovery of the body, the men were searching the house from top to bottom. They were rifling through drawers, taking books off the shelves one by one, leafing through the pages, then moving on. The old man in the chair, the dead man's closest male friend – his lover, according to some – seemed oblivious to what they were doing.
The next day, J. Edgar Hoover's body was carried with great ceremony to the U.S. Capitol, where it lay in state on the black bier that once had borne Abraham Lincoln and eight other presidents. Inside, citizens filed past to pay their last respects, at a rate of a thousand an hour. Outside, a few hundred protesters were listening to a 'war liturgy' – a reading of the names of the 48,000 Americans who had been killed in Vietnam.
Mingling with the protesters were ten men from the Nixon White House, on a mission to provoke fights and disrupt the rally. They included several Cuban exiles who had been involved in previous illegal break-ins, and who were soon to be caught red-handed at the Watergate. As they stood waiting that night, just yards from the Capitol where the dead man lay, two of the men talked about Hoover.
What one of them said astonished his comrade. Hoover's home, he confided, had been the target of a recent burglary inspired by the White House. Then he clammed up. To reveal more, he said, would be 'dangerous.'
The previous day, in the Oval Office, President Nixon is said to have greeted the news of Hoover's death with prolonged silence, then: 'Jesus Christ! That old cocksucker!' Other than that, an aide recalled, he showed no emotion at all.
For public consumption, Nixon treated the death of J. Edgar Hoover as the passing of an American hero. It was he who ordered that Hoover should lie in state at the Capitol – the first civil servant ever to be so honored. He eulogized Hoover as 'one of the giants ... a national symbol of courage, patriotism, and granite-like honesty and integrity.'
To millions of Americans, Hoover was a hero. Long ago, in the twenties, he had virtually created the FBI. He had rebuilt and expanded it, in a brilliant reorganization that left him poised for fame as the 'Number One G-Man,' nemesis of the bandits of the Midwest – Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin 'Creepy' Karpis and Baby Face Nelson.
Later, Hoover became much more than the nation's top lawman. Charged by President Roosevelt with protecting the internal security of the United States, he emerged as the nation's champion against its most insidious foes: first the Nazis, then his enemies of choice, the Communists, and all who dared voice political dissent.
Endless publicity had made Hoover a living icon, showered with honors in his own time. President Truman awarded him the Medal for Merit for 'outstanding service to the United States.' President Eisenhower chose him as the firstever recipient of the Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, the highest honor a civil servant could receive.
The very name Hoover became synonymous with the safety of the nation, with the core values of American society, and – though few dared say so publicly – with fear. Like many of the eight presidents Hoover served, Richard Nixon had known that fear. His relationship with the Director had been long and filled with irony. As a gangly young man, he himself had applied to be a Special Agent in Hoover's FBI. As a fledgling congressman, he had ridden to success on the crusade against the Left that Hoover had largely inspired. He had found favor, been given a helping hand, had supped with Hoover at hisfavorite watering holes. He and the old man shared enemies, secrets and hunger for power. When, finally, the younger man came to the presidency, the pinnacle Hoover himself had once yearned to reach, the two had seemed natural allies.
Yet President Nixon, in his turn, had collided with Hoover. Early on, the elderly Director had become impossible to live with. He cut off liaison with all other intelligence agencies. For reasons of self-preservation rather than principle, he sabotaged the President's battle plan for an intelligence offensive against radical activists. Then he enraged Nixon by soft-pedaling the investigation of Daniel Ellsberg, the government analyst who leaked Vietnam War documents to the press. His erratic public performance made him an embarrassment to the administration. Despite all this, Richard Nixon did not dare fire him.
The President tried to do so, on several occasions. In the fall of 1971, aware that Nixon had summoned Hoover for a showdown meeting, officials sat watching the clock, waiting for news that the Director had finally been forced out of office. The news never came. Though Nixon has never admitted it, the old man fought off disaster with his most trusty weapon: knowledge.
Recently released White House transcripts reveal that the President and his aides were squirming with worry over the damage Hoover could do. On Nixon's orders, aides scurried to retrieve incriminating documents – proving the President had ordered the bugging of newsmen – 'before Hoover blows the safe.' There were a string of other reasons to be afraid. Hoover, it seems, was aware of some of the White House crimes that preceded Watergate. He even had personal information on Nixon – potential scandal involving a woman.
The Director knew Richard Nixon's sins and secrets, as he knew those of so many others. When he died, there was panic over what information might lie in his office. Nixon's Chief of Staff scrawled a terse note: '... find out what's there, who controls it – where skeletons are.'
In Congress, many senators and congressmen lived in fear of the files Hoover held on them – or that they feared he held. The Freedom of Information Act has made it clear that their fears were justified. The record proves conclusively that FBI agents routinely reported in detail on the sexual activity of politicians – both hetero- and homosexual. Eyewitness testimony reveals how one prominent senator was terrorized into inaction by a reading from his own FBI file.
One of Hoover's closest colleagues, William Sullivan, was to describe him – after he was dead – as 'a master blackmailer.' Yet that is only part of the story. New evidence indicates that this immensely powerful man had a fatal flaw of his own. He was the product of a painful childhood, the son of a mentally ill father and a domineering mother, and his adult life was marred by emotional turmoil and sexual confusion. The Hoover who preached stern moral sermons to America secretly practiced homosexuality – allegedly even transvestism.
As Hoover himself repeatedly warned, homosexuals have always been prime targets for compromise by hostile intelligence agencies – not least that of Edgar's bête noîre, the Soviet Union. So tormented was Hoover by his secret vulnerability that he once sought help from a Washington psychiatrist.
The suggestion that the blackmailer was blackmailed, though, comes from a different and startling direction. Why, many have asked, did Hoover long neglect pursuit of the most insidious criminal force of all – the Mafia? Several mob figures now assert that, as they understood it, Hoover posed no threat. He and top organized crime figures had 'an understanding.'
Early in Hoover's career, according to mob interviews, he was trapped by his own homosexuality. Mafia boss Meyer Lansky, who specialized in the use of damaging information to manipulate men in public life, had reportedly obtained compromising evidence – probably photographs. Thereafter, until the Kennedy brothers attacked organized crime, Lansky bragged privately that Hoover had been 'fixed.'
Behind his mask of public rectitude, it is now evident that this American hero was corrupt. He lived 'like an oriental potentate,' as a former Deputy Attorney General put it, milking FBI funds and facilities for his private profit and pleasure. Wealthy friends favored him with lavish hospitality and investment tips, and he apparently protected them from criminal investigation.
In the FBI's oppression of civil rights activists and liberals, Hoover's personal venom comes into focus. His rage over the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Martin Luther King, Jr., was the greater because – for years previously – he had indulged the conceit that he himself deserved the Prize. His fury over criticism by comedian Dick Gregory led him to issue orders designed to trigger a mob attack on the entertainer.
Perhaps an alert public should have realized at the time that Hoover's image was too good to be true. Yet in large measure because the nation's press was so timid, it did not.
'If we didn't have Mr Hoover and the FBI,' a television viewer wrote NBC shortly before the Director's death, 'I would like to know how you and I would exist.' Many ordinary citizens expressed such sentiments.
Others differed. The poet Theodore Roethke called Hoover 'the head of our thought police – a martinet, a preposterous figure, but not funny.' Hoover's FBI, wrote novelist Norman Mailer, was 'a high church for the mediocre.' 'It was a relief,' said pediatrician Benjamin Spock on hearing of Hoover's death, 'to have this man silenced who had no understanding of the underlying philosophy of our government or of our Bill of Rights, a man who had such enormous power, and used it to harass individuals with whom he disagreed politically and who had done as much as anyone to intimidate millions of Americans out of their right to hear and judge for themselves all political opinions.'
A former Assistant Attorney General under President Johnson, Mitchell Rogovin, thought Hoover's life had been 'a passion play of good and evil. And when there was good, it was hollow.'
What manner of man stirred such different responses? He came to be regarded, the New York Post once said, 'with the same awe and reverence accorded the other monuments of Washington. Only he's closed to the public.' That a man with a crippled psyche, capable of great evil, became the trusted symbol of all that was safe and good is a paradox of our time. So too is the fact that, in a tribute after Hoover's death, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said he had 'epitomized the American dream,' while renowned psychiatrists consider he would have been well suited for high office in Nazi Germany.
In spite of all the damaging information that has emerged about Hoover in recent years, and in spite of congressional motions to remove the words 'J. Edgar Hoover' from the wall of the FBI headquarters, the building still bears that name, in gold lettering, as though nothing had changed.
To explore such contradictions is to make a vital journey through the twentieth century, a time of deception and selfdeception about our values, our freedoms and our heroes. Perhaps, because this man's life spanned a period in which the American dream went so badly wrong, understanding him may help us to understand ourselves.
To bring him into mortal perspective, J. Edgar Hoover – the child and the man – will remain 'Edgar' throughout this book. His story began on a freezing New Year's morning, more than a hundred years ago.CHAPTER 2
'The Child is father of the Man.'
'On Sunday January 1, 1895, at 7.30 A.M. J.Edgar Hoover was born to my father and mother, the day was cold and snowy but clear. The Doctor was Malian. I was born at 413 Seward Square, S.E. Wash. D.C ...'
The boy who was to become the world's most famous police official kept a dossier on himself as a child. Edgar's formal report on his own birth fills a page in a small leatherbound notebook, inscribed on the front, in schoolboy handwriting: 'Mr Edgar Hoover, private.' It was one day to lie in a muddle of memorabilia, yellowed papers and faded photographs, stored at the House of the Temple, headquarters of the Masons' Supreme Council, Thirty-third Degree, in Washington, D.C. They transport us into a nineteenth-century world.
Edgar was born when the Civil War was still a vivid memory, when the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was little more distant in the past than is that of President Kennedy today. The Union Lincoln had forged still had only forty-five member states. The year 1895 saw talk of war with England over territories in Latin America, and soon there would be conflict with Spain, resulting in U.S. conquest of the Philippines. Just four years before Edgar was born, the white man's war against the Indians ended at Wounded Knee.
Edgar, who would die in the era of the jumbo jet, was born when Edison's two inventions, his Light System and his Moving Picture Machine, were still marvels. The telephone was reserved for government officials and the wealthy. There were less than 150 miles of paved road in the nation, and only a few thousand cars. The bicycle, in exotic variety, was the fashionable thing on city streets.
American cities were already overcrowded, although the great wave of immigration was yet to come. Those earliest immigrants, the blacks, faced renewed persecution as southern states applied racist segregation laws. The morning Edgar was born, a black man was lynched by a southern mob – a common enough occurrence then.
The whitewashed frame house that was Edgar's birthplace – a mile or so from the White House – was insulated from all these miseries. His father, Dickerson Hoover, was thirty- eight when Edgar was born, the descendant of settlers who had moved to Washington in the early nineteenth century.
Later, Edgar's propaganda department would describe Dickerson as 'a career man in the government service.' This was technically true, but the post he held was not grand at all. Like his father before him, he worked as a printmaker for the government mapmaking department.
Edgar's thirty-four-year-old mother, Anna, 'Annie' to intimates, had a classier background. Her forebears had served as senior local officials in the Swiss village of Klosters, now the celebrated ski resort. They had their own coat of arms and a fine ancestral home next to the church. One scion of the family had become a bishop.
Annie's immigrant grandfather had been the first Swiss Consul General to the United States. Her grandmother, besides bearing thirteen children, had found prominence in her own right. A trained nurse known as 'Mother Hitz,' she had been a Florence Nightingale to wounded Union soldiers camped on Capitol Hill during the Civil War.
Excerpted from Official and Confidential by Anthony Summers. Copyright © 1993 Anthony Summers. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Looked forward to reading a constructive discussion of a corrupt J.Edgar Hoover. Found it to devolve into ridiculious conjecture. I was extremely disappointed and hurried to finish the mess.
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