J Edgar Hoover is the classic example of a man who was a legend in his own lifetime, his public service career, lasted over fifty years from 1917-1972
He was simultaneously admired and detested by equal numbers of Americans,and during his long tenure as Director of the FBI,there was probably no President who did not at some stage consider the possibility and consequences of dismissing him. President Nixon,this book alleges,had informed Hoover of this possibility the very night of his death. Anthony Summer 's book , a reissue of an earlier version published in the 1990s, focuses on the later years of Hoover's career, putting his personal life and behaviour under close scrutiny.
Despite Hoover's image of heroic crime fighter,deliberately cultivated in the Press in the FBI's glory days of gang busting in the 1930s,this is not really what he was at all. Hoover's real achievement was that he was a brilliant administrator, transforming a corrupt,broken-down Bureau of Investigation as it was so named in the 1920s into the dynamic FBI of the 1930s under the impetus of Roosevelt's New Deal. His establishment of such a crime fighting task force, with its world renowned crime laboratory and criminal archive has been his long lasting achievement and legacy.
Hoover's death brought about almost immediate challenge to his mythic status,with a dark side of his character becoming common knowledge for the first time. He was accused of autocratic behaviour and abuse of his Directorial power. This involved the misappropriation of public money for personal use,his casual use of illegal wiretaps and his creation of massive files of personal information on prominent people,including Presidents. His obsessive interest in spying often illegally into people's private lines could have been there all along,merely an extension of the skills he gained in his very early career in 1917 working in the Library of Congress,and as a case worker in The Enemy Alien Bureau ,reviewing files and making recommendations them for deportation. In addition Hoover demanded high standards of behaviour from his subordinates, but often fell short himself of these same standards.
Summer's major focus is on Hoover's dark side,examining Hoover's connection to organised crime, particularly his conflicts with his superiors and other celebrities,such as the Kennedys,Martin Luther King and Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Summers' research backs up others' findings , that Hoover was prepared to threaten to use the information in the files he had on these individuals for his own political advantage. As an investigative reporter Summers relies heavily on personal interviews and anecdotes for evidence, and was attempting to break new ground producing solid evidence that Hoover's concealed homosexuality undermined the FBI in its fight against organised crime as he was open to blackmail from the Mafia who held compromising evidence on him. In this regard, Summers establishes a strong probability of Hoover's homosexuality, but his evidence,often hearsay or anecdotal, seems not substantial enough to totally support his full thesis.
A substantial portion of the book is devoted to examining Hoover's lifelong relationship with his colleague and companion,Clyde Tolson, and whether this was homosexual There is plenty of photographic evidence on the web and in other places displaying intimacy between Hoover and Tolson,but none of it clearly sexual. However, Summers does establish clearly that it was untrue to suggest that bachelor Hoover was uninterested in women,citing an early rejection of a marriage proposal, and well documented relationships later with actresses Dorothy Lamour and Lela Rogers,not to forget his devoted Secretary Helen Gandy. If any authentic sexually compromising photos of Hoover existed,it is hard to believe they would not have already surfaced, as they would be worth a fortune to any tabloid, not to mention their worth to a genuine investigative journalist like Summers himself. There is also evidence that Hoover consulted a psychiatrist but why is not established.
His most important evidence comes from an account by Susan Rosenthiel,wife of a rich business associate of Hoover. Rosenthiel gives a vivid account of Hoover dressed in women's clothing taking part in an orgy with her husband and known homosexual attorney Roy Cohn, and Summers backs this up with an unconnected similar anecdote of Hoover cross dressing. Given that Rosenthiel had a serious grudge against the FBI, there is a strong reason to doubt her story, and in his new preface to his book, Summers even casts doubt on it himself by stating,"any of them may have embroidered the facts or made then up altogether. This is a risk.."
Summers is critical of Hoover of using such evidence to blacken the reputation of others, but here seems to do the same thing himself. Similarly he reproduces an FBI photo of Robert Kennedy in long shot allegedly leaving the house of Marilyn Monroe but the street could be any street and the man's face is totally masked by being covered by his hand. Despite his extensive notes and bibliography it is Summers' use of such dubious evidence and lack of a clear context for many of his anecdotes, that reduces the historical value of his work.
Hoover died just a few weeks before the first of the Watergate break-ins instigated by Nixon or his cronies. Hoover's successor Patrick Grey was one of the victims of the ensuing scandal. Would the fate of Nixon have been less ignominious if Hoover had been still in charge of the FBI?