11.07.11

J. Edgar Hoover Unmasked

Four decades after his death, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover gets the Hollywood treatment in a new Clint Eastwood movie. But the last of his G-Men remember a different man from the one portrayed on screen, a mercurial bully with an obsession for discipline and a penchant for practical jokes.

Tucked away in Congressional Cemetery in the heart of downtown Washington lies the grave of one of the most fearsome figures in American history, J. Edgar Hoover.

The white marble monument to the former FBI director is carefully guarded by a simple iron picket fence designed and built by one of his former special agents. It is stark and simple, and serves as a warning to onlookers and passers-by: keep out. Do not disturb the secrets buried here.

But director Clint Eastwood has decided to pierce this protective perimeter to pry into the private life of the famous Top Cop, or G Man, in his latest movie, J. Edgar. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role; Naomi Watts as his devoted longtime secretary, Helen Gandy; Judi Dench as his possessive and domineering mother; and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, his dour deputy, closest confidant, and, some say, intimate companion, who inherited Hoover’s half million-dollar estate and is buried a few steps way from his former boss.

The movie highlights one of Hoover’s most celebrated cases—the notorious Lindbergh kidnapping, called “the crime of the century”—and shifts back and forth between decades to follow the autocratic director’s rise to power and his conspiratorial and dictatorial 48-year reign through eight presidents and three wars. (To make the transition from the 1920s to the 1970s, DiCaprio dons a rubbery facial mask, a variety of prosthetics, and a graying and balding toupee.)

What made Hoover so formidable was that he supposedly had the goods on everyone, yet no one knew exactly what he knew, or what type of information might be stashed in his files. (Wiretaps on several of JFK’s adventuresome girlfriends led Hoover to visit Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to warn him about some of his brother’s more dangerous liaisons.)

J. Edgar Hoover's grave

According to Eastwood, who originally viewed Hoover as an enigma, the film is not a down-and-dirty-tell-all, nor a standard biopic. “This is a story about relationships,” Eastwood says, “intimate interactions between Hoover and everyone around him, from those closest to him—all the way to Robert Kennedy and other well known political figures, even presidents.”

From all employees he demanded efficiency, trustworthiness, loyalty, and strict adherence to a dress code. Hoover was immaculately and impeccably garbed and insisted his subordinates wear a dark suit, crisp white shirt, understated necktie, well-shined black shoes, and a fedora hat. (There were no female agents, but for secretaries and clerical staff a skirt and jacket were de rigueur. No pants allowed, and never anything flashy.)

The ambience at the FBI was formal, no nonsense, and strictly business. There were no coffee breaks, water cooler gatherings, or too-ing and fro-ing in the hallways. Letters and memos were to be typed in a certain fashion. “Watch the borders and margins,” Hoover instructed. They were to be delivered promptly to Gandy, Hoover’s secretary of 54 years.

According to a number of former agents and former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, Gandy was a major force behind the scenes. Not only did she screen calls and serve as the gatekeeper to Hoover’s inner sanctum, she oversaw almost all communications and frequently signed his correspondence and directives. “Over the years her handwriting remained the same while his diminished,” recalls Katzenbach. “It was easy to tell when she was signing his name.”

On Hoover’s death, Gandy immediately destroyed all his confidential papers and files.

Hoover ruled with an iron fist. Any infraction of the rules could bring demotion or reassignment to another city, which proved tough on families and very costly. The FBI did not pick up moving expenses.

Part of agency lore involves a noted New York crime buster, William “Pappy” Walsh. He quarreled with his boss and received a transfer to Pittsburgh. Walsh wrote Hoover a letter explaining this would be an extreme hardship.

Because milk was so expensive, he had purchased a jersey cow for his 10 children, and transporting the animal would present a major problem. Hoover mulled it over and wrote back canceling his reassignment. Walsh stayed on in New York until he retired. There never was any cow.

“Mr. Hoover [everyone called him Mr. Hoover] was a workaholic, a very thorough, disciplined individual that ran a tight ship,” says Cartha “Deke” Deloach, 91, who worked for the legendary enforcer for 29 years, ultimately as Hoover’s main assistant after Tolson. He is the sole survivor of this exclusive inner circle.

“I saw him several times each day, more than I wanted to most of the time,” he notes wryly. “He was very anxious for the FBI to have an unblemished reputation so the public would give us information. He was tough and came to attention when gangsterism, [John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Flood], and organized crime was at its height. He was very popular—some even thought of him as a Robin Hood. He was a heck of a good director and administrator and established the FBI, but he stayed on too long.

“There were many sides to J. Edgar Hoover,” Deloach continues, describing a super patriot who turned the FBI into a semi-militaristic organization, determined to ferret out mobsters, communists, radicals, and anyone else Hoover thought might threaten the peace. (He was slow to move on civil rights and held a personal vendetta against Martin Luther King Jr., whom he taped, bugged, and called “a liar.”)

He was obsessed with stolen car statistics, liked baseball, played on the team, and spent every Saturday afternoon at the racetrack. He was deeply religious, kept a Bible on his desk, and served on the board of deacons of the Presbyterian Church. He was savvy about public relations, knew how to leak and plant stories, how to manipulate and manage the press, and even held court with gossip guru Walter Winchell at New York’s swanky Stork Club.

“He didn’t have all the goods on people and didn’t want them,” Deloach insists.

A confirmed bachelor, Hoover spent all of his time with his sidekick Tolson but enjoyed the company of attractive women. Dorothy Lamour, a glamorous movie star of the 1940s, was a favorite and frequent visitor.

And he was a prankster, who devised outlandish even fiendish tricks to play on friends and unsuspecting associates.

“He loved practical jokes and got a good laugh,” Deloach says.

That was only the beginning, remembers former agent William Branon, now chairman of the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation. “Do you know about his no left-hand turn rule?” he asks. “No matter where he went, his chauffeur was forbidden to turn left.”

Apparently, Hooover had once been in a car accident while making a left turn and was badly shaken up. From then on, whether in his bulletproof Cadillac or any other vehicle, his driver turned only right. “That made for a lot of complicated and lengthy trips,” recalls Branon.

On field excursions he was no less demanding. Hotel accommodations had to meet strict requirements: a suite for Hoover and Tolson with two bedrooms and two baths, mattresses not too hard or too soft, clean ashtrays, clearly typed instructions for radios and televisions, plus a bottle of Jack Daniels. The slightest deviation led to discipline that was severe and swift.

Rumors of homosexuality were inevitable. When I arrived at the bureau I looked into that,” says William Webster, a former FBI director. “I think they were two longtime bachelors. They shared their lives, but didn’t live together. They found companionship and comfort. I never saw anything beyond that.”

But the mystique lingers. Katzenbach admits people in the public eye, including Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys were scared of Hoover. “No one wanted to fire him,” says Katzenbach. “They did not know what he might reveal.”

In a colorful and widely repeated quote, Johnson explained why he reappointed Hoover. “We can’t have him outside the tent pissing in. We‘ve got to have him inside, pissing out.”

The unyielding crime fighter retained power for five decades, always deeply concerned about his image, yet Deloach denies Hoover’s omniscience.

“He didn’t have all the goods on people and didn’t want them,” he insists. “The information we had that we considered damaging to congressman or senators filled two cabinet drawers in his office. It wasn’t all that many. It’s a laughing matter to think he had everything on everybody. We didn’t have the time. That was a myth.”