There’s a new biography of J. Edgar Hoover out, and apparently it’s quite good

New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot — for my money, one of the best writers that magazine currently has in its stable of talented people — has a review of historian Beverly Gage’s “crisply written, prodigiously researched, and frequently astonishing new biography,” “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century” (Viking).

Talbot notes that there is some new information in the Gage’s book, but this part of the New Yorker review caught my eye:

Was Hoover gay? I would have thought that it was a settled matter by now, but I would have been wrong. In a recent book, “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington,” the journalist James Kirchick writes, “While it’s certainly plausible that Hoover was gay and that Tolson was his lover, the only evidence thus far adduced has been circumstantial.” In 2011, when Clint Eastwood made a bio-pic about Hoover that suggested he and Tolson were romantically involved, the Washington Post ran an article about ex-F.B.I. agents who angrily denied the notion. It’s true that, in the absence of more direct evidence, we can’t know. But Gage, who handles the question deftly and thoughtfully, will leave most readers with little doubt that Hoover was essentially married to Tolson, a tall, handsome Midwesterner with a G.W. law degree who went to work at the Bureau in March of 1928, and whom the press habitually referred to as Hoover’s “right-hand man.” Neither of them ever married, or, it appears, had a serious romantic relationship with a woman. After Hoover’s mother died, in 1938—he had lived with her in the family home until then—it was bruited about that now, in his mid-forties, he was marriageable at last. Hoover half-heartedly fanned the embers of a convenient rumor that he just might be engaged to Lela Rogers, the age-appropriate, fervently anti-Communist mother of Ginger. In 1939, he gave an interview in which he claimed to have been searching in vain “for an old-fashioned girl,” adding that “the girls men take out to make whoopee with are not the girls they want as the mother of their children.” Meanwhile, the only person with whom he seems to have enjoyed a documented flirtation, though it was chiefly epistolary, was an F.B.I. agent he had assigned to hunt down Dillinger, a young man named Melvin Purvis. In a correspondence from the thirties that Purvis, not Hoover, saved, the director dwelled admiringly on his agent’s swoon-worthy Clark Gable looks; as Purvis’s boss, he alternately promoted him and punished him for showboating and other infractions. (After forcing Purvis out of the Bureau, Hoover never spoke to him again; he did not even acknowledge his death, by suicide, in 1960.)

Beginning in the mid-nineteen-thirties, Hoover and Tolson, confirmed bachelors, as my grandparents would say, were almost inseparable. Though they did not live together in Washington, they took a car to work together every morning and lunched every day at a restaurant called Harvey’s. They went to New York night clubs, Broadway shows, and the horse races à deux, and vacationed together—Miami in the winter and La Jolla for the entire month of August every year. (Gage offers a close reading of photographs Hoover took in Miami one year, which included tender shots of a shirtless Tolson at play on the beach, and asleep in a deck chair.) Social invitations and holiday greetings from anyone who knew Hoover at all well and wanted to stay on his good side were addressed to them both. When Hoover died, he left the bulk of his estate to Tolson. F.D.R.’s son Elliott later said that his father had heard the rumors about Hoover’s homosexuality but didn’t care “so long as his abilities were not impaired.” It was possible for people to know the deal and to acknowledge it only tacitly, if at all, and for Tolson and Hoover to hide in plain sight.

What Hoover felt about all this remains elusive—a frustration, surely, for the biographer, and occasionally for the reader. We do know what Hoover did when, for example, he heard gossip about his sexuality or was asked to gather information about the sexuality of people less supremely insulated than he was. If an F.B.I. agent overheard you suggesting that Hoover was gay, you could anticipate an uninvited visit from clean-shaven men in hats, and a conversation in which you were told to shut up or else. Gage describes one such incident, from 1952, in which an employee at a D.C. bakery frequented by G-men told them that a guy he’d met at a party had asked if he’d “heard the director is a queer.” The report reached Hoover, who, Gage says, sent agents to the man’s house “to threaten and intimidate him into silence.”

Moreover, Hoover dutifully played his part in the “lavender scare” of the nineteen-fifties, which targeted homosexuals working in government for exposure and expulsion. (The excuse was that they posed a security risk, since it was thought that they were somehow uniquely vulnerable to blackmail, and that, like Communists, they made up a kind of secret society lodged in the heart of our institutions.) Hoover did not speak publicly about the issue the way he did about the Communist threat. But he obtained from the D.C. police the names of people arrested for “sexual irregularities” and passed them along to the White House. Those who worked for the government in any capacity, from filing clerk to Cabinet secretary, were supposed to be fired—and barred from all future government work. Perhaps he thought that his willing participation in a gay witch hunt would deflect attention from his own private life; perhaps he considered himself and Tolson different from the sexual irregulars the cops were rounding up. In the early nineteen-sixties, when a chapter of the Mattachine Society, a gay-rights organization, started up in Washington, Hoover immediately had its meetings monitored by informants. Some of the merrier men of the Mattachine, for their part, seemed to have got a kick out of sending Hoover invitations to their events. Gage reports on a memo in the files that reads, “This material is disgusting and offensive and it is believed a vigorous objection to the addition of the Director to its mailing list should be made.”

I, too, thought the question of Hoover’s sexuality was settled and, based on these passages, I think we can still say it’s settled.

There is much more to the review that is quite good, but if I share any more I’d be way out of fair use. In any case, I’ll buy Gage’s book based on this review alone.

J. Edgar Hoover and his lover (and co-worker) Clyde Tolson, left.

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