Friday 25 May 2018



The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover Biography by Anthony Summers Ebury Press, London 1993, 2011

My interest in J Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the FBI, was excited by reading Bryan Burroughs' Public Enemies, and Anthony Summers does a good job of satiating it in his recently reissued biography, The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover.

This biography is detailed and damning. Five years of extensive research -- including many corroborated accounts from former agents, politicians and eye-witnesses, combined with letters, memos and transcripts of wire-taps and FBI files -- depict Hoover as manipulative, hypocritical and egomaniacal.

Relying on old memories and linking them with events or reports is never foolproof, admits Summers, but he insists that he has got Hoover "about right"; a scary thought considering his depiction of Hoover and the power he held for almost 50 years.

The enduring saying that 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely' is as prophetic as ever when Hoover grasps the helm of the FBI, then bullies opponents with threats of investigation or discredits them with the release of both genuine and manufactured damaging information.

If knowledge is power, Hoover had plenty of it, making him very difficult to remove or control. Summers concedes that Hoover 'cleaned up' the bureau, oversaw the development of a centralised fingerprint system and established a massive crime laboratory that "quickly became the most advanced in the world".

The filing system co-ordinated information from throughout the US, affording Hoover more and more power. The manipulated release of this information to the public helped create an aura of FBI invincibility, with the indomitable Hoover at its head.

Hoover's arrogance is blamed for the bungling of intelligence in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor. He was furious when his post-war attempt to control foreign intelligence was thwarted by President Truman and the creation of the CIA.

Among the litany of political power plays instigated by Hoover, the FBI investigated and leaked information on Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Hoover despised. The Kennedy brothers' links with Marilyn Monroe were covered up while the FBI failed to fully investigate the assassination of JFK.

Hoover's sexual orientation has been afforded many of the headlines following the release of this biography. The evidence presented certainly suggests that he was involved in a long-term gay relationship with assistant FBI director Clyde Tolsen. This would not be significant but for Hoover's constant mistrust and harassment of homosexuals.

Ironically, in the same way that Hoover exerted his influence over so many prominent people, there is evidence that some key Mafia figures had evidence of his sexuality, causing Hoover to deny the existence of organised crime altogether.

There's a lot to take in and plenty to reflect on as the glossy veneer of American politics is probed to expose the human failings that still fester in all political systems.

Despite the breadth of information, the life of J Edgar Hoover and the far-reaching influence of the FBI empire he built are convincingly detailed. It's an engaging read.

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