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The secrets of J. Edgar Hoover

For nearly 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI. As the gatekeeper of its secrets, its power and its image, Hoover kept the keys to a kingdom called Washington. But what about his own secrets? John Hockenberry reports.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

One man made the G-men legendary, turned a bumbling FBI into what was perceived to be an army of truth and justice known the world over, and made himself a towering American legend: J. Edgar Hoover. For nearly 50 years, he ran the FBI. As the gatekeeper of its secrets, its power and its image, Hoover kept the keys to a kingdom called Washington.

Of course today, the Hoover legend is not just about crime fighting. It has as much to do with playing fast and loose with civil liberties, with collecting vast secret files on innocent people — a powerful man with secrets of his own, including rumors of bizarre sexual behavior. Finding the real J. Edgar Hoover has been the passion of author Richard Hack for nearly two decades, leading him to write the book, “Puppet Master: The Secret life of J. Edgar Hoover."

Richard Hack: “He certainly knew how to keep a secret, which was really the key to his success. Not only did he know the secrets, but nobody knew which secrets he knew.”

John Hockenberry: “So his towering profile in Washington was based in part on nobody calling his bluff?”

Hack: “Oh definitely.”

Hoover played his signature high stakes poker with an astounding eight presidents from 1924 until his death in 1972. No FBI head will ever again have the power Hoover had. For his book, Hack interviewed dozens of Hoover's acquaintances and poured over thousands of Hoover's documents. The portrait that emerges is of Hoover the good, Hoover the bad, and Hoover a man with a taste for the ugly side of power. It was the good Hoover whose experience as a clerk at the Department of Justice helped him turn a disorganized federal agency into a true crime fighting organization.

Hack: “When he came to the FBI — or Bureau of Investigation then — his mandate was to clean it up and make it legitimate. And if there's one thing that he did was to start to catalogue everything, keep everything organized.”

That organization included the introduction of fingerprint files, crime labs, and of course there were the agents themselves. Hoover insisted they be educated, dedicated to their job, and dedicated to him.

Hack: “All of this team of men were loyal only to him. They answered only to him. They didn't answer to the Attorney General. They didn't answer to the President of the United States, who had Secret Service. They answered to Hoover, period.”

Hockenberry: “It sounds like what you discovered is that Hoover had the insight back in the 20s that you didn't need to be elected to anything to have big, big power in Washington.”

Hack: “The insight that he had was that if you weren't elected it was far better. He created a mystique about himself that the people would not allow him to leave.”

Hoover's mystique came from a mastery of modern public relations long before official Washington even knew what that was. Hoover brought Madison Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue. Hoover ran the FBI, but he managed its image everywhere, according to Hack. He dictated to Hollywood. And the studios followed Hoover's orders of how crime and punishment should be portrayed.

Hack: “He looked at everything. He looked at every movie, every reference, every scene, every actor. He approved it all.”

Hockenberry: “He could veto an actor in a movie that starred G-Men?”

Hack: “And he did. In the ‘FBI Story’ that starred Jimmy Stewart, he cleared Jimmy Stewart for instance. He interviewed him, gave his okay.”

And then there was James Cagney. Hack says Hoover was not thrilled that Cagney portrayed criminals in movies like “Public Enemy.”

Hack: “His only advice to Cagney was always, ‘Get killed by the end, make sure you're dead because I don’t want to see any crooks living.’"

Hoover more than got his way as Cagney went clean, switching from playing gangsters to playing G-Men. Hoover even cast himself in films. Hoover was perhaps most controlling of his own image. A life-long bachelor, his immunity to personal scandal while in office, came, says Hack, from sacrificing his own personal life.

Hack: “For J. Edgar Hoover to be as powerful as he was, to maintain that image, he gave up his personal life. It became his personal life. There was no other life.”

But still, there was gossip. Hoover's only companion seemed to be his second in command at the Bureau, Clyde Tolson.

Hockenberry: “His lover?”

Hack: “No.”

Hockenberry: “You don't think so?”

Hack: “Oh, I know it wasn't. I know he wasn't.”

Hack's view, contrary to what some others believe, is that the mere fact that Tolson and Hoover allowed themselves to constantly be seen in public, meant they could not have been more than close colleagues.

Hack: “It became clear to me as I went deeper into the man's psyche that if they were indeed lovers, they never would have been seen together.”

Though he was seen together, says Hack, with someone who was his lover. When Dorothy Lamour wasn't longing for Bob Hope in movies like the “Road to Zanzibar,” Hack says, she was spending time with J. Edgar Hoover.

Hack: “The real love of his life, his entire life, was Dorothy Lamour.”

Hockenberry: “Do you think they had a sexual relationship?”

Hack: “Yes. The reason I know this is because Dorothy Lamour while not talking about it, would never deny that it happened.”

The Hoover mystique made any detail about his life tantalizing, even after his death. Like the famous story that Hoover was a cross dresser. In a private life so unknown, a single rumor defines the man. In this case though, Hack claims, it's just wrong.

Hack: “It's so outrageous to even contemplate that. He certainly never did it.”

Hockenberry: “How do you know?”

Hack: “Not only didn't he do it, it isn't even logical.”

Hockenberry: “Well, I don’t know if logic enters into cross dressing.”

Hack: “This is a man who would do nothing at all — anything — even eat the wrong food if for chance it would affect his power base. He would do nothing, let alone something as outrageous as dress in a dress, invite total strangers to witness it. It is not possible.”

What is not disputed is that Hoover used his power to make life difficult for those people who he believed threatened him, people like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hack: “The problem with Martin Luther King boiled down to respect. Basic bottom line respect.”

Hack says Hoover felt insulted by the civil rights leader. King dared to ignore a Hoover phone call.

Hack: “From that one unanswered phone call, the rest of King's life, Dr. King did not have a free moment from the specter of J. Edgar Hoover, ever. He tapped him, he followed him.”

Hoover collected intimate details on King's private life, details that would haunt and embarrass King's family for years to come

Hockenberry: “Do you think Hoover in some sense was jealous of Martin Luther King?”

Hack: “Totally, He had a wife, he had a family, he had authority, he had respect. He had everything and Hoover was definitely jealous.”

And then there was Hoover's relationship with JFK and the entire Kennedy family.

Hack: “He had supported RIchard Nixon. And when Kennedy got in, he really thought he was going to be fired.”

Hockenberry: “Why didn't JFK fire Hoover?”

Hack: “He didn't fire Hoover because he didn't know what Hoover really knew. The same reason no one else fired Hoover. When it really came down to it.”

Hockenberry: “The bluff.”

Hack: “He was scared to death. It was the giant bluff.”

When it came to the Kennedy clan, Hoover perhaps felt the most contempt for Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

Hack: “He considered him an outrage. He thought he was a loose cannon he could not control and he loved being in control.”

Robert Kennedy made Hoover turn his attention away from fighting communism to organized crime, which Hoover, at that time, believed was much less of a threat.

Hack: “It didn't matter if there were Mafia out there. They weren't going to bring the government down, they were just making money illegally and there were lots of cops to deal with that.”

While much has been made about Hoover's secret files on those around him, Hack says he learned Hoover had some secret files for his own personal use — files that included nude photographs.

Hack: “He had nudes of many people. There was an obscene file that he kept himself.”

Hockenberry: “So you think he was interested in pornography?”

Hack: “Oh, he was definitely interested in pornography. He would say from an intellectual standpoint of course to know what was out there so he could fight it.”

And whose nude pictures does Hack say Hoover had? Well, Marilyn Monroe, perhaps no big surprise, but there was also another.

Hack: “Eleanor Roosevelt, for one.”

Hockenberry: “Naked pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt? My, my. Forgive my interest in this, how does one go about getting and why would one even want naked pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt?”

Hack: “W.C. Fields happened to have a set of pictures, what was purported to be Eleanor Roosevelt. I have not seen these myself because they were subsequently destroyed. But Hoover had heard the story and asked W.C. Fields to see the pictures and W.C. Fields sent him with the pictures. And there in lies the power and play of the man.”

The oddity in Hoover's collection of secrets is perhaps the key to his power. In Washington Hoover himself was an oddity, receiving special treatment wherever he went. He had things no one else could have, knew things no one else could know. For him ordinary rules did not apply. Until the end, Hoover actually believed he was America's ultimate protector, something America believed for awhile.

Hockenberry: “Will there ever be another J. Edgar Hoover?”

Hack: “Boy, I hope not. You never know who's looking over your shoulder with a Hoover in office.”