Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Recently, Emily Bazelon spoke with author Beverly Gage about Gage’s new book G-Man, an intensive biography about founding FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. They unpack why we need to look into Hoover’s past in order to fully understand his career.
This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Emily Bazelon: You say that looking at [J. Edgar Hoover] closely over these decades, means also looking at what America was and who Americans were and what we were willing to both tolerate and refused to see. And then, the marrying of the support for and building up of the federal administrative state and conservative power. Now we think of conservatives as very suspicious of administrative authority, of the deep state, and Hoover kind of was the deep state and created the deep state, and got it to work for him. So, tell us a little bit about who he was growing up and who he came to be. What secrets of his own or of his family’s was he hiding?
Beverly Gage: In some ways, he was really fated from birth, for better or worse, to become who he became. So, he’s born in Washington in 1895, just a few steps away from the Capitol. And he lived his whole entire life in Washington. So, this is a book that’s about Hoover, but it’s also about Washington. It’s about the government. It’s about the enormous transformation of Washington itself that happens over these years as it goes from being this little backwater to being a global colossus, the center of America, and in many ways, global power.
But [Hoover’s] born into this government civil service family, which was pretty unusual in the 19th century, because there weren’t that many people working for the federal government. And he comes of age through the DC public schools. He tended to narrate his own childhood as being this kind of idyllic experience. And so, one of the things that was interesting in my own research, is that I was able to uncover some really pretty shocking and painful events in his family, that we hadn’t known about before.
A few years, really well before his birth, one of his grandfathers committed suicide, drowned himself in the Anacostia River, apparently because he had lost all of his money. When Hoover was 10, his mother’s brother’s wife, so his aunt, was actually murdered in a scandalous murder that made the front page. So, he tended to describe this idyllic childhood. I found lots of ways in which his childhood was much more difficult. Probably the most important was the mental illness of his father who really suffered from depression, and spent time in a sanitarium.
But he came of age in this government tradition, right in the thick of Washington. And I would say the other piece that was really fascinating to me, and I think not really known before this book, was the importance of his college fraternity in shaping his outlook.
So, he went to George Washington University, local school, lived at home. That’s what a lot of GW students did then. But he joined this fraternity that was an explicitly Southern fraternity, had been created to honor the legacy of Robert E. Lee. And by the time he was in it, was an explicitly segregationist, quite racist, quite romantic about the Southern Lost Cause fraternity, at a moment when segregation is really taking firm hold in the United States.
And so, that was a very powerful moment for me, to see those ideological forces shaping him. And then it turned out he took a lot of the first generation of FBI officials, both out of George Washington University and specifically out of this fraternity, Kappa Alpha.
Right. I mean, it helps make sense of his deep and abiding suspicion of racial minorities, in particular Black people, that he kind of came up in that stew. He also is someone whose sexual life involved secret keeping. Right? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
When you say you’re writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the first thing that people ask about is his sexuality, and in particular, “Did he really wear a dress?” So, there was a biography that came out in the early 1990s that had a description of Hoover at a kind of group sex event at the Plaza, with Roy Cohn, who was another great villain of American history, in which one of the witnesses alleges that Hoover was dressed as a woman, calling himself Mary, and having sexual encounters with several young men.
So, the woman who told that story, unfortunately, is a highly impeachable witness, which is to say that she actually served time in prison for perjury, not related to this, but related to other things. So, it’s really very hard to know what to do with that story. But I think we can say by most standards, there’s not much evidence for that.
What we do have a lot of evidence about is about Hoover’s relationship with the person who was clearly the most important figure in his romantic and personal life, which was Clyde Tolson, who was his second command at the FBI for most of the time that he was there. And his relationship with Tolson is interesting and tricky, because on the one hand, both men certainly said that they were not gay. And by the ‘40s and ‘50s you could be fired from your government job if you were in fact found to be gay. And the FBI itself was in charge of a lot of that investigating and policing.
Nonetheless, he and Tolson operated very openly as a kind of social couple. They went to clubs together, they traveled together, they went to each other’s family funerals and weddings. Right? So, they never technically lived together, but they spent almost all of the rest of their lives together. And all of that is just incredibly well documented and is a way into thinking about this combination of secrecy and openness that really characterized his sexuality.
I think if he had been in another era, he might have been an openly gay man, but it’s not how he behaved in most ways and it’s not how he described himself. And in fact, when he heard rumors that this person at a party said, “Oh, I hear this thing about J. Edgar Hoover, he might be a queer, he might be a homosexual,” he would actually send FBI agents to figure out who that was, hunt them down, talk to them. Say, “This is the most scurrilous thing I’ve ever heard.” And really intimidate them into silence.