Washington DC Gossip, Urban Legend, and Historical Evidence

Imagine if you had helped build the largest and most sophisticated information-gathering agency in the history of the United States. You had turned it into the premier law-enforcement agency in the country. And you had spied on, wiretapped, and compiled files on radicals and civil rights leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. You’d be pretty powerful, and maybe even feared, because of the information you’d gathered.

But what if one of the most scandalous, salacious, and sexually-charged bits of information stared back at you in the mirror every evening? What if you risked personal scandal and professional ruin every time you indulged in one of your secret passions? If so, you’d be the alleged cross-dressing Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, admiring your false eyelashes, lace stockings, and flouncy dresses on your way to a furtive DC party.

At least that’s how one of the most-frequently repeated and believed myths of modern American history — that J. Edgar Hoover, of all people, was a cross-dresser. And not only that, but he had squirrelled away enough dirt on DC politicians and other law enforcement officials that he could threaten the most severe retaliation if anyone outed him.

It’s almost too good not to believe. It’s certainly too much fun not to believe. We all love to think of big-time, pompous politicians having giggle-producing private lives. Gossip doesn’t get much better than this.

The problem is that it’s nothing more than gossip. It’s as unlikely and untrue as almost any historical statement could be. Its origin seems to be in a statement by DC socialite and “society divorcee,” Susan Rosenstiel. She told Anthony Summers (author of Official and Confidential: the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, 1993) said that she saw Hoover cross-dressed at various parties in the 1950s.

She particularly mentioned a 1958 party at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Hoover 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 make-up on, and false eyelashes. It was a very short skirt, and he was sitting there in the living room of the suite with his legs crossed. Roy introduced him to me as ‘Mary’ and he replied, ‘Good evening,’ brusque, like the first time I’d met him. It was obvious he wasn’t a woman, you could see where he’d shaved. It was Hoover. You’ve never seen anything like it. I couldn’t believe it, that I should see the head of the FBI dressed as a woman.” [Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993), pp. 253–55.]

The problem is that Rosenstiel is the only source for these allegedly well-attended parties. And she’s a very unreliable one at that. She felt that the FBI was spying on her husband, Lewis Rosenstiel, who had previous bootlegging connections.

This episode brings up one of the most important things about examining historical statements and evidence. When it comes to studying most historical people’s behavior, the most common type of evidence we have is material written at the time: letters, diaries, official correspondence, and perhaps even court transcripts if they were involved in a trial. For some 20th century historical figures we may have radio and television broadcasts, oral interviews and even secretly recorded tapes from meetings or phone conversations.

All of these types of evidence have their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, written documents could be forgeries. And just because someone wrote something down, doesn’t mean they were writing down something truthful. On the other hand, if a document is authentic (and determining that is a whole different sphere of investigation), then at least we know that the person who wrote this down did so at that particular time. And, generally speaking, the information in that document doesn’t get changed later without the alteration being noticed.

When historians want to determine if something is true, or something actually happened in the past, they try to gather as much original material about the event, statement, or episode that they can. A good historian will examine as many different pieces of material as possible, even when they might contradict each other. Deciding on the truth of something in history is often difficult. But if historians have enough good and reliable evidence from a variety of sources that states that a specific thing happened, or that someone said something, then they can reasonably state that it happened, or that it’s true.

Rather than saying something “happened” or “didn’t happen” or “is true” or “is not true,” most historians prefer to say, “there is good evidence for that” or that “there is no [or insufficient or weak] evidence for that.”

The Hoover cross-dressing idea, then, is clearly a myth. It was said by only one person, who may have had an axe to grind, and who was later convicted for perjury (on a different matter). And, most importantly, there is no other evidence for Hoover being a cross-dresser.

Someone as prominent as Hoover had plenty of enemies and rivals (even within the FBI itself) who would have loved to bring him down over what would then have been considered perverted acts. If there had been any reliable evidence for Hoover cross-dressing, it would have spread across the FBI wires almost instantly and it would have been impossible for the Director to contain the scandal.

What this myth can bring up, however, is lots of issues about Hoover’s and the FBI’s investigations of all kinds of non-traditional lifestyles, including the investigation and harassment of homosexuals in government service. Professor Buzzkill Disclaimer: I am not equating homosexuality with cross-dressing or passing judgment on any form of sexuality or self-expression. During the Hoover era, many things, including homosexuality and cross-dressing were considered deviant, so the Hoover myth gives us a good opportunity to examine those issues.

The most famous and effective FBI involvement in investigating homosexuals was The Lavender Scare of from 1947 until the late 1950s. This was a systematic attempt by the Executive Branch and the FBI to purge the civil service of homosexuals from the end of World War II to the late 1950s. This ran in parallel to McCarthyism but technically was a different movement. Many people, including Hoover and McCarthy, thought that homosexuals in the government (particularly in sensitive intelligence and military offices) were liable to being blackmailed by communist operatives into giving up state and military secrets or their homosexuality would be exposed.

Hoover established a “Sexual Deviate” program by 1951 as part of this general effort. The FBI investigated government employees, and provided the main branches of government with information about civil servants they thought were gay. The Lavender Scare and Hoover’s Sexual Deviate program were very effective, and lots of historians think that more homosexuals were driven out of government service unjustly than any other group.

Indeed, the FBI ban on homosexuality and alternative lifestyles for agents remained until 1993 when it was removed as part of a legal settlement.

So, Buzzkillers, the Hoover cross-dressing myth turns out to be useful even though you might think we’ve taken all the fun out of it. First of all, it gives a peek into Washington DC society at the time. It provides a good excuse to talk about the nature of historical evidence. And, finally and most importantly, it helps us bring up a very important and overlooked topic – the Lavender Scare and government attitudes towards people they thought were “deviant.”

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Summers, Anthony. Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993).

Potter, Claire Bond.. “Queer Hoover: Sex, Lies, and Political History”. Journal of the History of Sexuality vol. 15 (3) July 2006: 355–81

Ronald Kessler, “Did J. Edgar Hoover Really Wear Dresses?” History News Network, 23 July 2002. http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/814

Ackerman, Kenneth D. “Five myths about J. Edgar Hoover.” The Washington Post. Nov 14, 2011.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Catgalogue of Accusations against J. Edgar Hoover.” The New York Times. Feb 15, 1993.

Johnson, David K. The Lavender Scare: the Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.