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J. Edgar Hoover Cross-Dressing: Did He Really?

People | November 21, 2020

Hoover photographed in 1959. (Federal Bureau of Investigation/Wikimedia Commons)

Long after his death in 1972, J. Edgar Hoover has held the American public's attention, mostly because of all the speculation over his intensely private life. Was he gay? A cross-dresser? Secretly black, in deep with the Mafia, and/or in a Norman Bates–esque relationship with his mother? For all of the questions and secrets swirling around his personal life, the one thing that we know for sure about Hoover is that he was dedicated to law and order, or at least his own version of it.

He Was Secretly A Republican

Hoover never officially joined a political party and always claimed to be "not political," but in private, he was staunchly Republican, and despite all insistence to the contrary, his views deeply affected his work. He consistently chased after people on the left, blaming them for the "moral deterioration" of the country, and "anarchist elements." He even aspired to run for president, although at the time, that would have meant running against F.D.R. As much as Hoover hated the Squire of Hyde Park, who he felt was far too left-wing, he was elected a record four times, so it would have been a long shot at best.

Hoover watches as Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act in 1964. (O. J. Rapp/Wikimedia Commons)

Was J. Edgar Hoover Black?

It's safe to say that Hoover's thoughts on race were complicated. In private, he harbored great prejudice against people of color, to put it mildly. Ever the "apolitical" director, he insisted that the Civil Rights–era miseries of black Americans were not in his jurisdiction, even as he himself ordered the Bureau to investigate black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the 1960s, Hoover went to extreme lengths to ruin King's reputation. After his surveillance produced evidence that King was having affairs with several women, the F.B.I. took an unusual turn and did their best to make sure the info got out. It didn't work, but even after King's death, Hoover did everything possible to keep his birthday from becoming a national holiday.

All of this animosity toward the black community has some led researchers to believe that Hoover had a bit of self-hate—as well as African blood—running through his veins. They point to early pictures of Hoover as a young man with a dark complexion and coarse hair and theorize that his anxiety over his lineage fueled his angst toward the Civil Rights movement. A black writer named Millie L. McGhee has even suggested that Hoover was a family relation of hers, but this claim—along with others about Hoover's racial background—has never been substantiated.

Hoover in 1932. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Was Hoover A Cross-Dresser?

The most well-known myth about Hoover is that he was a secret cross-dresser who wore pumps as he directed the most powerful investigative organization in the land, but it's a claim that's never been substantiated. According to a particularly salacious biography published in 1993, a photo circulated in the gay community in 1948 showed an "easily recognizable" Hoover dressed like an "old flapper," but the photo has never come to light, so it's impossible to prove that it even exists, let alone features the The Director. Still, the claim that Hoover was a cross-dresser is so well known that it made its way into a speech by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993. At a press function, referring to his appointment of a new F.B.I director, he stated, "It's going to be hard to fill J Edgar Hoovers' ... pumps."

Hoover and his assistant, Clyde Tolson, sitting in beach lounge chairs, c. 1939. (Los Angeles Daily News/Wikimedia Commons)

Was Hoover Gay?

In the mid–20th century, it was strange for a man, especially one as powerful and successful as J. Edgar Hoover, to never marry. That, combined with his unusually close relationship with his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson, has led many to speculate that Hoover was gay. The two did behave very much like a couple, working, dining, and vacationing together for 40 years. Hoover even left most of his estate to his protege in his will.

If anything happened behind closed doors between Hoover and Tolson or any other man, the fact seems to have died with them. In fact, some believe that Hoover allowed the Mafia to flourish during the 1950s in his desperation to hide his sexual orientation. At the time, the F.B.I. had turned their attention toward the Cold War and away from small-scale domestic crime, as Hoover said it was a waste of resources. He outright dismissed the idea of the Mafia existing on a national scale, but some researchers concluded that he was coerced into backing off because the Mafia supposedly had "pictures of Hoover in some kind of gay situation."

In reality, Hoover seemed downright asexual to many who knew him. He spent his early life with a mentally ill father and a controlling mother who played a part in his day-to-day life until her death in 1938, and it's believed that the times he grew up in, as well as his mother's overly moral nature, played a major part in Hoover's lack of a social life and the suppression of his sexual urges through adulthood. As mean and nasty as Hoover could be, he was, at heart, an individual who was ashamed of himself.

Hoover in 1961. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Hoover Had Files On Thousands Of People

Hoover was right to be paranoid about his secrets, whatever they were, getting out to the public. He kept tabs on presidents, business leaders, and anyone else he suspected as a threat to the status quo, and the little surveillance trees he planted yielded plenty of fruit. Thanks to his wiretaps, for example, he knew about President Kennedy's affair with mobbed-up socialite Judith Campbell Exner.

In life, Hoover denied the existence of a secret collection of files, but after his death, Acting Attorney General Laurence Silberman actually had a look at Hoover's catalog of information on members of the American public, and it was rough. After seeing the depths to which Hoover plunged for information, he referred to the former head of the F.B.I. as "a sewer that collected dirt" and insisted that he "now believe[d] he was the worst public servant in our history."

Today, many of Hoover's files are available for perusal in the National Archives. Yes, they show the comings and goings of some of the nation's most powerful leaders, but the real story they tell is of a deeply complicated and flawed man who believed himself to be the one thing standing between America and chaos.

Tags: famous people | FBI | myths

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.