Imagine that you had helped build the largest and most sophisticated information-gathering agency in the history of the United States, turned it into the premier law-enforcement agency in the country, and spied on, wiretapped, and compiled files on radicals and civil rights leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. Imagine that you had enough dirt on politicians and assorted officials that you could threaten the most severe retaliation if anyone discovered your own personal secrets.
Then imagine that one of the most scandalous, salacious, and sexually-charged pieces of secret information stared back at you in the mirror every evening, dressed in drag. What if you risked personal scandal and professional ruin every time you indulged in your secret cross-dressing passion? If so, you’d be the subject of one of the most frequently repeated and widely accepted myths in modern American history: that FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover was a cross-dresser.
It’s almost too good – and certainly too much fun – not to believe. 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 gossip could be.
Hoover and cross-dressing was the subject of our very first show, years ago when we had a different format, but I wanted to do a better show on it. And there’s no better time to do this because of the great historical work that’s recently been done on Hoover and the politics/oppression of sexuality by Dr. Douglas Charles and Dr. Eric Cervini in recent years. So we actually know a lot more than we did years ago.
And there’s no better format to do this than in these short Monday Myths to Start the Week. You’ll go to work or school or college or wherever better armed to shoot down your lesser-informed friends and colleagues, when they drag out this old saw during some bull session or whatever.
First off, J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most famous and most significant people in modern American history, especially in the history of law enforcement and the growth of government as a security tool. He more or less founded the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the famous FBI, and ran it for decades. The historical gossip has always been that he was more powerful than the Presidents he served, and that many of them were even afraid of Hoover’s potential power to destroy a politician’s career just by opening his secret files full of scandalous surveillance reports and all that. But the degree to which that gossip about his power was true is a topic for another episode.
Secondly, the “J. Edgar Hoover was a cross-dresser” story is one of those things that nearly everyone (and almost certainly every American) believes to be true. We seem to delight in the “fact” that someone as power-mad, as controlling, and as dedicated to strict American morality as he was, could have had this sort of hypocritical side to him. Also, when I have heard this story, the teller sometimes takes on the tone that “I know something that’s been covered up in American history, and I can share it with you.” It feels good to “know” that Hoover was a cross-dresser, that there was cocaine in Coca Cola, and innumerable other urban legends we hear all the time.
Finding out the validity of these stories is why I get the big money, and puzzling over why they are so easily embedded in our culture is what keeps the Buzzkill Institute dream alive.
But let me take a quick break for a word about one of our new partners.
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OK, welcome back. The allegation of J. Edgar Hoover being a cross-dresser apparently stems from a statement by D.C. socialite and “society divorcee,” Susan Rosenstiel, who told journalist and author Anthony Summers that she saw Hoover cross-dressed at various parties in the 1950s.
She particularly mentioned a 1958 party at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, where Hoover appeared “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.”
The problem is that Rosenstiel is the only source for these allegedly “well-attended” parties. And she’s a very unreliable source, having perjured herself in a subsequent, unrelated case in the 1970s, and having been herself the subject of FBI investigation because of her husband’s bootlegging connections.
When serious historians want to determine if something is true – or more accurately, if something in the past actually happened – they gather as much original material about the event, statement, or episode as possible. Deciding on the veracity of something in history is often difficult. But if enough good and reliable evidence from a variety of sources indicates that a specific thing happened, then (and only then) can it reasonably be assumed to be correct.
In fact, rather than saying something “happened” or “is true,” most historians prefer to say, “there is good evidence for it.” And there is no good evidence to support the idea of Hoover the cross-dresser.
Hoover had plenty of enemies and rivals (even within the FBI itself) who would have loved to bring him down over what was then considered a perverted act. If there had been any reliable evidence for the Director of the FBI cross-dressing, it would have spread like wildfire and created a scandal that even the all-powerful Hoover would have been unable to contain.
So, as titillating as it is, this little gem gets thumbs down from The Buzzkill Institute. The myth must die.
What is valuable about the story, however, is that it leads to issues relating to the FBI’s investigations (on Hoover’s watch) of all kinds of non-traditional lifestyles, including 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.” (It was that generation’s word, not mine.) And I couldn’t disagree with it more.
The most famous and effective FBI investigation of homosexuals was The Lavender Scare, lasting 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. This effort ran in parallel to anti-Communist McCarthyism, but technically was a different movement. Many people,including Hoover, felt that homosexuals in the government – particularly in sensitive intelligence and military offices – were susceptible to blackmail by communist operatives, and might reveal state and military secrets to protect their “deviant” secret.
Hoover, therefore, established a “Sexual Deviate” program by 1951 as part of this general effort, and the FBI ban on homosexuality and alternative lifestyles for agents remained in effect until 1993, making it even more unlikely that Hoover himself would have indulged in any questionable practice that would threaten his position with the bureau.
So, Buzzkillers, even though we’ve taken the fun out of the Hoover cross-dressing story, it turns out to be useful because we can bring up a broader topic such as the Sexual Deviate program. That’s the upside of these historical myths – busting them can show us more reliable ways of looking at the past.
Talk to you next time.
Athan Theoharis, The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief Critical History
For nearly a century, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been famous for tracking and apprehending gangsters, kidnappers, spies, and, much more recently, international terrorists. The agency itself has done much to promote its successes, helping to embellish its legendary aura. Athan Theoharis, however, contends that a closer look at the historical record reveals a much less idealized and much more disturbing vision of the FBI.
Douglas M. Charles, Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” Program
At the FBI, the “Sex Deviates” program covered a lot of ground, literally; at its peak, J. Edgar Hoover’s notorious “Sex Deviates” file encompassed nearly 99 cubic feet or more than 330,000 pages of information. In 1977–1978 these files were destroyed—and it would seem that four decades of the FBI’s dirty secrets went up in smoke. But in a remarkable feat of investigative research, synthesis, and scholarly detective work, Douglas M. Charles manages to fill in the yawning blanks in the bureau’s history of systematic (some would say obsessive) interest in the lives of gay and lesbian Americans in the twentieth century. His book, Hoover’s War on Gays, is the first to fully expose the extraordinary invasion of US citizens’ privacy perpetrated on a historic scale by an institution tasked with protecting American life.
For much of the twentieth century, when exposure might mean nothing short of ruin, gay American men and women had much to fear from law enforcement of every kind—but none so much as the FBI, with its inexhaustible federal resources, connections, and its carefully crafted reputation for ethical, by-the-book operations. What Hoover’s War on Gays reveals, rather, is the FBI’s distinctly unethical, off-the-books long-term targeting of gay men and women and their organizations under cover of “official” rationale—such as suspicion of criminal activity or vulnerability to blackmail and influence. The book offers a wide-scale view of this policy and practice, from a notorious child kidnapping and murder of the 1930s (ostensibly by a sexual predator with homosexual tendencies), educating the public about the threat of “deviates,” through WWII’s security concerns about homosexuals who might be compromised by the enemy, to the Cold War’s “Lavender Scare” when any and all gays working for the US government shared the fate of suspected Communist sympathizers. Charles’s work also details paradoxical ways in which these incursions conjured counterefforts—like the Mattachine Society; ONE, Inc.; and the Daughters of Bilitis—aimed at protecting and serving the interests of postwar gay culture.
With its painstaking recovery of a dark chapter in American history and its new insights into seemingly familiar episodes of that story—involving noted journalists, politicians, and celebrities—this thorough and deeply engaging book reveals the perils of authority run amok and stands as a reminder of damage done in the name of decency.