There is no shortage of suggestions that the FBI director for 48 years, until his death in 1972 at age 77, was gay. But some at any rate are suspect. Author Truman Capote openly admitted he was more interesting in spreading salacious gossip about Hoover than in verifying the truth. Socialite Susan Rosenstiel claimed she had once seen Hoover dressed in full drag and high heels at a sex orgy, calling himself Mary. But had she really?
As founder and director of the FBI for so long, Hoover had many enemies. He was overbearing and arrogant and ordered his agents to snoop on Americans for no particular reason. Although several presidents thought of sacking him, none dared to make the move. His biographer Richard Hack denies the rumour that Hoover was gay, saying he had an affair with Dorothy Lamour and was absolutely straight. Hack thinks that all the gay gossip about Hoover doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
In 2011 the gay rumours surfaced again with a new biopic starring Leonardo diCaprio. Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film “J.Edgar” makes out that the fanatical persecutor of gays and lesbians was himself a closet homosexual. This is the guy who banned gays from joining the FBI and spread gossip about Adlai Stevenson, Eleanor Roosevelt and even Madame Chiang Kai Shek to damage their political reputations.
What is clear is that Hoover had a strong male bonding with his deputy at the FBI, Clyde Tolson. The two life-long bachelors worked together, ate together at the same Washington restaurant, played together, vacationed together and more or less lived together. When Hoover died, Tolson inherited the estate and is even buried only yards from his lifelong companion. Inseparable even in death, it seems.
Most FBI historians, then and now, dismiss the gay rumours as sour grapes and portray the relationship with Tolson as platonic or buddy-buddy. After all, Laurel and Hardy shared the same bed in several movies but nobody has ever suggested gross indecency. But the new movie suspects the FBI director of homoeroticism. It was scripted by Dustin Lance Black, a gay writer who won an Oscar for his 2008 film about the San Francisco mayor and civil rights activist Harvey Milk.
Scriptwriter Black never quite puts Hoover’s sexuality beyond all possible doubt. After stumbling encounters with women in the movie, including Ginger Rogers’ mother, Hoover settles down to live with his mum, played in the movie by Judi Dench. So everyone can agree Hoover was a “mama’s boy” but that’s hardly proof of hard sexuality. Attila the Hun was decidedly heterosexual, with a penchant for virgins, but he lived with his mum in the same bumpy wagon until she dropped dead of exhaustion somewhere on the Asian steppes.
In the movie, Tolson fusses over Hoover, straightening his tie and even occasionally holding his hand when nobody’s around. Photographs of the period show them at their ease side-by-side in natty suits. In one scene, Hoover goes to his mum’s bedroom after her death and tries on one of her dresses before ripping it off and bursting into tears. Of course, whether this happened in real life is a moot point.
The case that Hoover was gay – and it matters only because of his anti-gay policies at the FBI – is in the Scottish sense of the term “not proven”. Certainly there were rumours during the second world war. Diplomats back then claimed Hoover wore perfume and fussed over afternoon tea “like an old woman”. Truman Capote dubbed Hoover and Tolson “Johnny and Clyde” and Dorothy Parker joked that Hoover chased men for pleasure as well as business.
Yet there is circumstantial evidence that Hoover would never dare risk a gay affair. He was continually shadowed by FBI men throughout his career. One might think that at least one agent might have talked later of the relationship with Tolson. But none ever did, in public anyway. It also seems unlikely that Hoover, with so many enemies, would dare risk picking up young men at parties or on the street. It’s even more doubtful that Hoover might have cross-dressed at gay orgies. All we can say is that, if he did, he miraculously escaped detection. Not a single authentic photo. No one signed affidavit by any male who had a casual affair. Not one definitive attempt at blackmail. Not a word in the News of the World.
But the rumours persist. It has been argued that Hoover was indeed being blackmailed by the mafia which explains why the FBI director never ordered a serious investigation into Casa Nostra. Interesting but just speculation. A former model, Luisa Stewart, claims she vividly remembered the two FBI men holding hands in Hoover’s limousine. What a pity cell phones weren’t around in the 1950s.
As Tom Leonard has argued in his review of the new film, whether Hoover was gay or not, he was certainly weird. He had a fascination with the child star Shirley Temple and, for her 21st birthday, gave her a tear gas gun disguised as a fountain pen. Hoover also had a morbid interest in violent death and even kept a copy of bank robber John Dillinger’s death mask outside his office.
All that is for sure is that both Hoover and Tolson took their gay secrets, if there were any, to the grave. For my money, I rather think Hoover may have been asexual, that is not able to experience sexual attraction or feelings as most people do. Maybe that’s why he allowed Tolson to paint his toe nails when they were on holiday in Florida. But, then again, you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.