Coming out of a preview screening of J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's new biopic about the founder of the modern FBI, I overheard a young woman ask her date, "So, was J. Edgar Hoover really gay?" I didn't hear his answer, but I guess I should have been heartened that she would even ask. Despite the lack of any credible evidence, Hoover has long since been reduced to a cartoon in the popular imagination: squeaky clean G-man by day, flaming drag queen by night. No one could possibly make a movie about Hoover now without addressing his sexuality—especially the screenwriter of this one, Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar two years ago for Milk. People are sure to pat him and Eastwood on the back for having handled the subject so tastefully, which in practice means that they steer clear of the most absurd stories and treat Hoover's love life with some measure of ambiguity, even as they invent all manner of private scenes to portray him as a severely repressed homosexual.
For most of his professional life, Hoover was dogged by rumors about his sexuality. He lived with his mother until her death in 1938, by which time he was 43 years old, and despite social relationships with actress Dorothy Lamour and with Lela Rogers, the mother of Ginger Rogers, he would never marry. For more than 40 years he maintained an intimate friendship with Clyde Tolson, a tall and athletic agent who quickly rose through the ranks to become Hoover's right-hand man. Tolson was slavishly devoted to the director, and the two men were inseparable, taking meals and even vacationing together. When Tolson suffered a series of strokes in the 1960s, Hoover took him into his home, and after Hoover died in 1972, Tolson inherited most of his estate. Their close relationship became the primary basis for all the innuendo, though Hoover did his best to squash these rumors, dispatching agents to grill people who'd impugned his reputation and demand that they come across with evidence. No one ever did.
Once Hoover and Tolson were both dead, however, the dam finally burst. In 1993 the British author Anthony Summers, who'd written best sellers on Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy assassination, published the scandalous Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. Summers presented numerous anecdotes suggesting that Hoover and Tolson were lovers: for instance, a fashion model named Luisa Stuart claimed to have seen them holding hands in the back of a limousine. He also alleged that the mobster Meyer Lansky had acquired a photograph of Hoover fellating Tolson, which was the reason the FBI never seriously pursued organized crime figures in the 1950s. But the most devastating story came from Susan Rosenstiel, the ex-wife of a business tycoon who was friends with Hoover; she claimed that on two separate occasions, in 1958 and '59, she attended sex orgies hosted by right-wing attorney Roy Cohn where she saw Hoover dressed as a woman. At the second party, she claimed, he wore a red dress and a black feather boa and ordered one leather-clad rent boy to masturbate him as another read aloud from the Bible.
This outrageous tale immediately became fodder for late-night comedians and gained such traction that even President Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole made public cracks about Hoover's alleged cross-dressing. But consider the source: according to a subsequent Esquire story by Peter Maas, Rosenstiel had been trying to peddle the cross-dressing story for years, convinced that Hoover had collected dirt on her to help her husband's divorce case, and according to Ronald Kessler's book The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, she'd served time at Riker's Island for perjury in a 1971 case. Even Cohn, himself a closeted homosexual, appears to have debunked Rosenstiel's story. "[Hoover] would never do anything that would compromise his position as head of the FBI—ever," Cohn told the publicist Peter Simone, who's quoted in Richard Hack's book Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. "There was supposed to be some scandalous pictures of Hoover and Tolson—there were no pictures. Believe me, I looked. There were no pictures because there was no sexual relationship."
The stories have taken on a life of their own not necessarily because they're true but because no one deserved them more than J. Edgar Hoover. For nearly 50 years he treated the FBI as his personal fiefdom, spying on American citizens to amass a secret file of sensitive information and using it to blackmail his political opponents. As Black and Eastwood dramatize in their movie, Hoover eagerly exploited damaging material he'd collected about the extramarital dalliances of Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. The swirling rumors that Hoover was homosexual hardly dissuaded him from taking advantage of similar rumors about other people: in 1951 he created a "Sex Deviates" file that was used to purge gay people from all levels of the federal government, as well as police forces and universities; during the 1956 presidential campaign his tip to Walter Winchell prompted the gossip columnist to insinuate on his radio show that Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson was gay; and as late as 1970, Hoover was supplying the Nixon White House with information about closeted homosexuals in the Washington press corps.