J. EDGAR HOOVER: THE MAN AND THE SECRETS By Curt Gentry (Penguin, 846 pages, $34.99)
Few if any figures in the history of the United States accumulated as much power, and wielded it for as long, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Director J. Edgar Hoover. For nearly half a century, from 1924 to 1972, he ran the FBI as
his own private fiefdom, ordering illegal wiretaps, break-ins and beatings. His word was policy as he ruthlessly used the massive facilities and manpower of the bureau to pursue his personal prejudices and whims. The bulldogfaced Hoover, who never missed a chance at self-promotion, blackmailed both President John F. Kennedy and his attorney general brother, Robert, waged a campaign of character assassination against Martin Luther King Jr. and manipulated every president from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Richard Nixon. Along the way, he built up a file of secrets that bought the silence of his enemies. “There’s something addicting about a secret,” Hoover once said. In 1958, Roy Moore, the special agent in charge of the Atlanta FBI office, told an underling: “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.” That world has never been as thoroughly explored and explained as it is in Curt Gentry’s J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets.
Researched over 15 years, Gentry’s hefty biography reads like a thriller, while making a significant contribution to the history and understanding of the era. Gentry, co-author with Vincent Bugliosi of the much-praised Heiter
Skelter: The True Story oftheManson Murders (1974), scrupulously documents Hoover’s movements as he joined the FBI in 1924 and began creating his own myth. Even when he died in 1972, most of the nation still viewed him as the hero who personally took a hand in apprehending such notorious figures as bank robber John Dillinger and accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Since then, investigations by Congress and the media have revealed a different Hoover—the bigot, bully and master file clerk who cross-referenced every whiff of scandal until he had something on just about everybody he wanted to influence.
Hoover was a genius at using his secret files to stay in power. He knew that John and Robert Kennedy wanted to get rid of him. A month after the President’s inauguration, Robert re-
ceived a file on the front of which Hcover had noted that the contents “may be of interest.” The file contained allegations that the President and Frank Sinatra had conducted assignations with call girls.
Gentry details the ways in which Hoover released his information drop by drop. Almost every month, he let the Kennedys know of some other family scandal that he had detailed in his files. The FBI chief, who never married and lived with his mother until she died in 1938, when he was 43, had evidence that Marilyn Monroe had an affair with John Kennedy. Monroe told a friend that she had once asked Robert Kennedy when he was going to fire Hoover, a man she hated because he had tried to have her third husband, left-leaning playwright Arthur Miller, blacklisted. And according to Monroe, Kennedy replied that he and the President did not feel strong enough to fire Hoover.
The FBI head used the files again to essentially blackmail the Kennedys into giving him permission to put wiretaps not just on Martin Luther King Jr.’s home, but also on any hotel room where the civil-rights leader stayed. Hoover was looking for proof that the civil-rights movement was a Communist plot. The taps yielded no evidence that King had ties to the party, but they did reveal his sexual liaisons with women all over the country. Hoover decided to, in his words, “neutralize” King, and the FBI sent an anonymous letter to his home—in the hope, according to Gentry, that it would encourage him to commit suicide. The civil-rights leader’s wife, Coretta, opened the package, which contained a letter detailing King’s many affairs and tape recordings of his hotel-room trysts.
When Hoover died at home after suffering a heart attack, the most secret and sensitive of the scandal files disappeared. His most favored and closest colleagues began destroying material within hours of the discovery of his body. No one, Gentry writes, is sure just how much paper went through the shredder, but there are indications that the contents of 15 to 20 file cabinets were destroyed. Gentry reports the rumors of Hoover’s alleged homosexuality, but draws no conclusions. He does suggest that Hoover’s death might not have been natural, giving credence to the belief that the man FBI agents referred to as “the Boss” might have been murdered, and that the heart attack might have been chemically induced. Nixon, who was also too frightened of Hoover to fire him, delivered the eulogy. “J. Edgar Hoover,” he said, “became a living legend while still a young man, and he lived up to his legend as the decades passed. His death only heightens the respect and admiration felt for him across this land and in every land where men cherish freedom.” On the evidence of Gentry’s book, however, freedom was the last thing on J. Edgar Hoover’s mind.
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