- Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover by Anthony Summers
Gollancz, 576 pp, £18.99, March 1993, ISBN 0 575 04236 2
Who can forget the moment in Chapter Six of Greenmantle when Richard Hannay penetrates the inner apartments of Colonel Ulric von Stumm and, with a thrill of horror, realises that there is something distinctly rum about the chief of Prussian Intelligence:
Everywhere on little tables and in cabinets was a profusion of knick-knacks, and there was some beautiful embroidery framed on screens. At first sight you would have said that it was a woman’s room.
But it wasn’t. I soon saw the difference. There had never been a woman’s hand in that place. It was the room of a man who had a passion for frippery, who had a perverted taste for soft delicate things. It was the complement to his bluff brutality. I began to see the queer other side to my host, that evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army. [Emphasis mine.]
On page 222 of Anthony Summers’s vastly enjoyable and revealing book, we find J. Edgar Hoover’s lovely home in Rock Creek Park being done up at taxpayers’ expense, complete with ‘hand-crafted fruit bowl’ and ‘a heated toilet seat, invented in the FBI laboratory. When he decided it was either a quarter of an inch too high or too low, it had to be redone.’ One girlish employee recalled: ‘he really liked pretty flowers. That was a good thing to give him. I personally or my group made sure that we gave him azaleas. That was his favourite.’
Most of the above comes from an official audit into directorial corruption – conducted many years too late, as such audits always are. And then we have the freelance testimony of Susan Rosenstiel, wife of the mobbed-up ‘businessman’ and swinger Lewis Rosenstiel, one of Hoover’s many and sweaty connections to the high life of organised crime. At a session with Roy Cohn in the Plaza Hotel in 1958, the Director of the FBI was allegedly
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,’ like the first time I’d met him.
Mrs Rosenstiel, who has what I’d call an unusually good memory for apparel, possessed that keen sense of self-preservation that the more emotional ‘Dick’ Hannay lacked. ‘I certainly didn’t address him the way I had at other times, as Mr Hoover.’ I should just about think not.
A year later, Mrs Rosenstiel, still a martyr to her hubby’s specialised tastes, was commanded to another Plaza soirée (I understand that the Plaza has brushed up its act since being taken over by Donald Trump), and this time Roy Cohn again produced ‘Mary’, but in a more daring outfit. ‘He had a red dress on, and a black feather boa around his neck. He was dressed like an old flapper.’ This was too much for Mrs Rosenstiel, who fell out with her husband over the business and only saw Hoover once more, when he visited her country estate in the company of Cardinal Spellman. On this occasion the old flapper was attired as for the office, clearly knowing when he was licked. You couldn’t hope to out-dress old Frankie-Frank Spellman, one of the great bitch drag queens of this or any other age.
Nobody should grudge the frumpish Hoover a fling or two, or indeed a flounce, though probably with his figure and complexion the stockings were a mistake. (Didn’t he have one kind friend who could have whispered something tactful?) As John Updike has put it in a very thoughtful fashion commentary on the whole unfortunate business:
Ike, for instance, dear Ike with his infallible instincts, would never have let himself be caught in lace stockings, even though he did have the legs for them. I remember, within a month of St Laurent’s 1958 collection for Dior, Ike coming out in a stunning cobalt-blue wool trapeze, with white open-backed heels and a false chignon. That very day, if memory serves, he had sent five thousand marines to Lebanon, and not a hair out of place.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.