BOOK REVIEW / Dragged up on charges: Official and confidential: The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover by Anthony Summers, Gollancz pounds 18.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
J EDGAR HOOVER - squat, piggy-eyed and pug-ugly - symbolised, during the Cold War years, the American way of bigotry. For almost half a century, he ruled the FBI in Washington - terrorising politicians as much as criminals; treating actors, journalists and professors of liberal tendency as if they were headlice (which was, indeed, how he regarded them); and backing rich, racist and reactionary leaders with ghoulish enthusiasm. When Hoover died in 1972, vice-

president Spiro Agnew spoke of his 'dedication to principle' and 'complete incorruptibility'. But draft-dodgers, intellectuals and people who simply believed in freedom rejoiced to see him go.

A biography which merely reminds us what a fearful brute Hoover was is, therefore, less than shocking. True, there are probably still some subscribers to Reader's Digest living in the remoter parts of small-town America who remember

Hoover as a patriotic hero. But their number is surely small. For a more sophisticated public, there is a need for a carefully analytic study of Hoover and his place in the American system and psyche. That need is not met by this book.

In the preface, Anthony Summers claims to have spoken to 850 people - an average of nearly two per page. This Kitty Kelley-type thoroughness fails to inspire confidence, however, partly because many of the witnesses to such a murky career are themselves murky; partly because the un-numbered references make it difficult to work out the source of any particular bit of information; but mainly because all the evidence points in one direction - towards the sordid, the sensational and the conspiratorial. When so much mud is thrown, and no point ever made in mitigation or even reasoned explanation, credibility is lost.

Indeed, the author achieves the singular feat, long before the end, of arousing in the reader a furtive sympathy for Hoover. Notably missing from the account is any proper description of what made him a charismatic figure to so many people, and what made him (skulduggery apart) such a formidable bureaucratic operator. The book is perhaps best treated as a kind of Damon Runyon picaresque adventure: its story is at least readable and entertaining.

Born in 1895, the son of a minor government employee who went mad and died in an asylum, Edgar Hoover was a Mama's boy who had to act tough to compensate. A student with notably right-wing views, he drifted into the then infant Federal Bureau as a young man, and before the age of 30 was heading it. Having gained his spurs as a scourge of Bolshevists and anarchists during the Red Scare of the Twenties, he dug himself in - and acquired a public reputation chasing such gangsters as John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly in the Thirties. Meanwhile, he built the Bureau into a legendary force, with a dangerously elitist and even fascistic esprit de corps: raw recruits were indoctrinated with a quotation from Emerson - 'An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man'.

The FBI was much expanded during the Second World War, despite the poor relations that existed between Hoover and Roosevelt, whom the director regarded as suspiciously left-wing. It was in the late Forties and early Fifties, however, that the Bureau really came into its own. Much more than Senator McCarthy himself, whom Hoover dourly and loyally supported through thick and thin, the FBI director was the sinister force behind the wire-tapping, dossier-collecting and blackmailing we call McCarthyism.

According to the author, Hoover would stop at nothing to get his way, and criticism in the press was silenced by the simple expedient of smearing journalists who dared to voice it. Within the Bureau itself, it was an axiom that the Director was never wrong: when Hoover announced his grief at the killing of an agent who had in reality only been wounded, fellow agents jokingly drew lots for who would finish him off. Hoover had a way with words: opponents were suffering from 'mental halitosis' or were 'cocksuckers'.

The latter insult was one levelled at Hoover himself, and if this book has a central theme it is that the FBI director - who affected a public Grundyism, and ruthlessly exploited his privileged knowledge of the sexual peccadilloes of Washington personalities - was himself secretly a practising homosexual, at a time when such activity was illegal. It is also the author's case that the otherwise inexplicably easy time given to the Mafia by the Bureau was because the Mob knew about this proclivity and threatened to expose it. Summers quotes a certain Carmine ('the Doctor') Lombardozze: 'J Edgar was in our pocket. He was no one we needed to fear.'

Hoover's homosexuality is perfectly plausible, as is the allegation of Mafia pressure on the basis of it. Neither claim, however, is demonstrated by this book. True, there is scarcely a chapter that does not quote a series of informants who maintain that Hoover's tendency was common knowledge. Hoover was unmarried, and had a lifelong friendship with a colleague, Clyde Tolson, which was affectionate and close. But the nearest to evidence is an account of a photograph, allegedly in the possession of a leading CIA officer, James Angleton, showing Hoover and Tolson supposedly in a compromising position. Angleton of all people] Summers fails to mention that Angleton was himself a dangerous paranoiac, whose allegations of sex'n'spying against people as varied as Harold Wilson, Olaf Palme and Henry Kissinger caused a mixture of bewilderment and hilarity throughout the Western intelligence community. Otherwise, Summers has to resort to the unreliable comments of such people as Hoover's psychiatrist's widow and an obviously parti pris West Coast mafioso, Frank 'Bomp' Bompensiero, who once remarked at the races in Hoover's hearing that the Director was 'a punk, a fuckin' degenerate queen'. Hoover apparently took it meekly. But that is scarcely proof.

The evidence for cross-dressing is flimsier still. An elderly divorcee called Susan Rosenstiel is reported as saying that she encountered the director at a transvestite orgy in a Plaza Hotel suite in New York in 1958: he was in full drag, wearing 'a fluffy black dress, very fluffy, with flounces, and lace stockings and high heels, and a black curly wig. He had makeup on, and false eyelashes . . . It was obvious he wasn't a woman, you could see where he shaved. It was Hoover.' But was it? Mrs Rosenstiel attended the party with her then husband, a notorious ex-bootlegger, and by her own account she met Hoover only once afterwards, three years later. Her uncorroborated testimony is scarcely worth printing.

The story is typical of the book, and of its flaw. What might have been scandalising isn't, because you don't know when a tale or a recollection is accurate. More than most, the twilight, semi-

lunatic secret zone of undercover operations is walled with distorting mirrors. Summers quotes one of Hoover's own colleagues, instructing a junior agent about the boss: 'You must understand that you're working for a crazy maniac, and that our duty is to find out what he wants and to create the world that he believes in, and to show him that's the way things are . . .'

It is this which Anthony Summers's book insufficiently explores. For the world that Hoover believed in was not unique to him. It was also believed in by millions of decent, freedom-loving, apple-pie-eating Americans. And, in the end, what is so scary about the notorious FBI chief is not his villainy in itself but the national neurosis about enemies within which allowed it to flourish.

Comments