The love J. Edgar Hoover does not deserve

Clint Eastwood's kindly biopic of the FBI director skims over the vicious racist

Topics: J. Edgar Hoover, FBI, Leonard DiCaprio, ,

The love J. Edgar Hoover does not deserveLeonardo DiCaprio in "J. Edgar"

Historic verisimilitude has never been Hollywood’s top priority, and its latest blockbuster, “J. Edgar,” is no exception.

Director Clint Eastwood, who often played the part of a lawman on the big screen, is now serving up what amounts to a brief for the defense of the FBI’s legendary director, J. Edgar Hoover (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).  In the process, Eastwood distorts the historical record, omitting  facts about Hoover’s ruthless abuse of power, and even sanitizing the infamous cross-dressing rumors involving America’s top cop.

The film deservedly gives Hoover credit for establishing the first federal police force that used modern forensics to nab bad guys, especially Prohibition-era gangsters whose grisly kidnappings and murders had captivated the public’s appetite for the lurid underworld of criminals and their molls. Eastwood also provides a plausible rationale for Hoover’s lifelong paranoia about Communism:  Soon after World War I ended, the Washington home of Hoover’s boss, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, was bombed by an anarchist.

Fair enough.

But the biopic inaccurately portrays Hoover as a critic of Sen. Joe McCarthy. In fact, the FBI director was a crucial ally of the Red-baiting demagogue.  Indeed, at Hoover’s personal direction, agents spent hundreds of hours perusing FBI files to supply McCarthy with evidence of Communist subversion.   Hoover also coached McCarthy about how to insulate himself from criticism by labeling targets as “loyalty risks” instead of “card-carrying Communists,” which was harder to prove.  A Hoover deputy even instructed McCarthy on manipulating press coverage by releasing his attacks just before news deadlines so that reporters wouldn’t have time to interview the other side.

Nor does the film discuss Hoover’s order to “neutralize” Eastwood’s one-time costar, actress Jean Seberg, by falsely telling journalists that she was pregnant thanks to a leader of the Black Panthers.  Seberg later committed suicide; her family blamed the FBI smear.

The biopic does portray Hoover’s obsession with Martin Luther King Jr., ostensibly because of his ties to Soviet agents, which led to FBI bugs that captured the civil rights leader’s marital infidelity.  But here, too, “J. Edgar” underplays Hoover’s nefariousness.   In fact, the FBI planted listening devices in King’s home, office and hotel rooms, recording more than a dozen large tape reels whose contents Hoover provided to numerous parties: the president and vice president, the attorney general, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the CIA, the military, the United Nations, members of Congress, and the press.

You Might Also Like

What vital intelligence did Hoover disseminate?  That King, according to Hoover, was a “tom cat” with “obsessive degenerate sexual urges.”  The FBI claimed to have recorded King in flagrante during group sex parties in which, according to FBI transcripts, he boasted of his prowess (“I am the best pussy-eater in the world”) and invoked Jesus while in the throes of passion: “I’m fucking for God!”

Ultimately, FBI accounts of King’s sexual antics turned out to be embellished.  Although King committed adultery, a Hoover deputy involved in the smear campaign later admitted that the African-American voices captured on FBI bugs may actually have been those  of King’s associates;  to the white agents who made up Hoover’s force, all black voices evidently sounded the same.  Still, that didn’t stop Hoover’s minions from compiling yet another field report that spread the preposterous story that King, after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, got drunk and chased prostitutes down the hallway of his Oslo hotel — while stark naked.

Hoover stubbornly believed his incendiary leaks would “destroy the burrhead.”  But they didn’t.  Despite Hoover’s best efforts to spread the dirty details, no member of the press reported on them; in the mid-1960s, such gossip-mongering was anathema to the mainstream media.  Still, no journalists had the courage to reveal the FBI’s witch hunt against King, either; news executives feared crossing Hoover no less than the politicians who were routinely blackmailed by him.  (According to author Curt Gentry, Hoover blocked a critical magazine article by circulating photos of the publisher’s wife performing fellatio on her black chauffeur.)

Even King’s assassination didn’t stop the FBI’s vilification.  Indeed, the worldwide grief over his murder made Hoover more determined than ever to resurrect the salacious stories about the martyr’s sex life.  This time, the FBI found a willing outlet: columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson, who quoted from Hoover’s classified files about King’s “illicit love affair with the wife of a prominent Negro dentist.”  (Anderson later decided that Hoover had used him to implicate King in “a posthumous scandal, to turn even his death into a sordid affair.”  Three years later, Anderson paid him back by becoming the first prominent mainstream journalist to turn on Hoover — rifling through his trash, exposing his financial corruption and blackmailing techniques, even hinting that he was gay.)

And what about such gossip, including that Hoover had a secret double-life as a drag queen?  In Eastwood’s movie, the rumor is transformed from the erotic to the morose: Minutes after the death of Hoover’s mother, he grieves near her body, weeping mournfully as he dons her necklace and a favorite dress.  The lawman is not a sexual pervert, you see, just a faithful and bereaved son.

In truth, the outlandish cross-dressing story was circulated more than three decades after it allegedly occurred, when a witness of dubious credibility told writer Anthony Summers that she saw Hoover at a New York orgy, engaging in sex with young boys while reading a Bible. He was supposedly dressed in a red skirt, lace stockings, high heels and curly wig, a black feather boa around his neck and makeup with false eyelashes on his face.

Perhaps the posthumous vilification of Hoover as a depraved sexual hypocrite is only poetic justice; after all, during his lifetime, he was Washington’s consummate master of sexual slander and political blackmail.  But instead of ignoring the baseless transvestite story, “J. Edgar” attempts to sanitize it and rehabilitate Hoover’s image.

Even Eastwood’s depiction of the FBI director’s relationship with his longtime deputy and confidant — and reputed lover — gives Hoover the heterosexual benefit of the doubt.  Although Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is portrayed as Hoover’s loyally swishy sidekick, Hoover returns the adoration with only a manly love, rebuffing Tolson’s overture to turn the relationship physical.  However tormented, Hoover remains in the end closeted even from himself.

To be sure, cinematic license is to be expected in such movies; feature films are not nonfiction biographies.  But given the known facts of Hoover’s life, Eastwood has painted his subject in the best light possible—better than he deserves and infinitely kinder than Hoover ever treated his many enemies, who included some of the most heroic figures of that tumultuous era.

Somewhere, J. Edgar Hoover is smiling: Clint Eastwood has made his day.

Mark Feldstein, Richard Eaton Professor of Journalism at the University of Maryland, is the author of Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture, just released in paperback.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>