A Lavender Reading of J. Edgar Hoover

“Hist! Who’s That?” by Ray Tucker, in the Aug. 19, 1993, issue of Collier’s.

Screenshot courtesy of UNZ.org

In the Aug. 19, 1933, issue of Collier’s magazine, Ray Tucker offered a scathing indictment of the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner to the FBI). Such a critical take was unsurprising given Collier’s progressive editorial stance. A weekly magazine of news and culture, Collier’s was one of the most popular periodicals in the United States in 1933, with a circulation of 3.7 million. In the course of lambasting the “boy detectives” of the BOI for their domestic surveillance operations, Collier’s made one of the earliest print references to the oft-debated sexuality of the bureau’s young director, J. Edgar Hoover.

In appearance, Mr. Hoover looks utterly unlike the story-book sleuth. He is short, fat, businesslike, and walks with a mincing step. … He dresses fastidiously, with Eleanor blue as the favorite color for the matched shades of tie, handkerchief and socks.

Hist, Who’s That?” has proved of lasting interest to historians primarily because of its loaded description of Hoover. Claire Bond Potter and Richard Gid Powers have pointed to the depiction of Hoover’s “mincing step” as a particularly caustic nod to his supposedly feminine gait. However, a closer look at the article reveals a bolder allusion to Hoover’s femininity and sexuality than the portrayal of his step, albeit a more hidden one. 

Collier’s noted that Hoover’s wardrobe was dominated by “Eleanor blue,” a term coined by the press to describe the color of the velvet day dress that Eleanor Roosevelt had worn to her husband’s inauguration in early March. As most readers of Collier’s would have known, “Eleanor blue” was actually more of a lavender, a shade which by 1933 had already become a euphemism for male homosexuals.

Given this context, we might deduce that the description of Hoover’s preferred sartorial shade was a coded reference to the director’s rumored sexual preferences. Like much of the gossip surrounding Hoover’s sexuality, it was an accusation hidden in plain sight. Though the average reader of Collier’s might miss the insinuation, those “in the know” would be able to connect the dots and comprehend the deeper critique hidden within the account of Hoover’s “fastidious” dress.

In the mainstream press of 1933, discussions about sexuality were rarely obvious, and readers were invited to look between the lines. As it was for Collier’s readers in the 1930s, so it is for historians of sexuality of today who must also strive to reconstruct the constellation of culture to which past readers had access. For historians of sexuality, this process involves listening for hairpins dropping, or in this case, looking out for local color.

This post originally appeared on Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality, a blog devoted to promoting critical conversations about the history of sex and sexuality across theme, period and region. Learn more about the history of sexuality at Notchesblog.com.

Correction, Sept. 3, 2015: This article originally hyperlinked to the gown Eleanor Roosevelt wore to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1945 inaugural reception instead of the dress she wore to his 1933 swearing in.