Mary, Mary

Christopher Hitchens

  • 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.

Dear Ike. This distinction may be a helpful one. Though Eisenhower might have been a moral coward on matters such as McCarthyism and segregation, he often expressed himself in private as a prisoner of public opinion and regarded colleagues like Nixon, for example, as distasteful political necessities. His mind was broader than his circle, and he had an instinctive aversion to crooks. With Hoover, the case is rather different, not to say opposite: public austerity and private squalor – a neat Galbraithian inversion. He wanted a Neronian life for himself; a subsidised world of jowly luxury and excess. And he demanded a Prussian and Spartan existence for everyone else. In the year before his first recorded beano at the Plaza, he brayed a stentorian national call for the repression of pornography and for a ‘new generation of young people with clean minds and healthy bodies living in a better, cleaner America’. His exacting standards for FBI recruits – mandatory blond hair, blue eyes and slender waists – were of the Frederick the Great variety. And if you suspect what that may have meant for black agents, Jewish agents, female agents, Hispanic agents, let alone for avowedly homosexual agents, you suspect right. Hoover believed in niggers, kikes, wops, spies and fags to the end of his days. He never left the United States except for day-trips to Canada and Mexico. The only ‘foreigners’ to whom he showed any warmth at all were Mafiosi.

At one level, this is an old story about ‘denial’ and ‘doubling’. I keep an idle watch on new Congressmen in Washington, and also on the electronic moralists of the airwaves. No sooner do they start bawling about sodomy and degeneracy than I contentedly set my timepiece. Soon enough, Congressman Snort will be found on all fours in the Capitol men’s room, his every negotiable crevice and orifice crammed with delinquent members; what time the Reverend Jim-Bob Vermin is entrapped with an expired Visa card in some drear motel, where he has paid well over the odds to be peed on by an Apache transvestite.

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost though lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind
For which thou whip’st her.

Bend a few genders in that stave, and you have Hoover to the life. But how much greater a lie his life was than the career of the run-of-the-mill closet hypocrite. Fooling yourself is one thing. Fooling and bullying half-a-dozen Presidents, both Houses of Congress and the entire print and television racket, and getting away with it, is quite another. Such a feat is not to be explained merely by reference to sub-Freudian categories. One must touch the more ramified ganglia of American Cold War morality, and also of American nervousness about ‘the multicultural’.

Hoover’s record and personality can be read as a sort of mirror obverse of what is tiresomely called the politically correct. He was not, for instance, just afraid and ashamed of being queer (seeking ‘therapy’ and ‘counselling’ from the Washington expert Dr Marshall Ruffin as early as the Forties, before he became ashamed of that too). He was also terrified of being black. Gore Vidal has a distinct recollection of a tarbrush rumour about Hoover’s family that extended back at least to the Depression. ‘People said he came from a family that had “passed”. It was the word they used for people of black origin who, after generations of interbreeding, have enough white blood to pass themselves off as white.’ As well as exploding when the occasional gossip made a crack about his mincing gait, Hoover must have winced at the sly references to his crinkly hair and darker-than-usual skin. This in turn might go some way to explaining his psychopathic, prurient hatred for Martin Luther King. Hoover was compulsive in his taping and bugging of King’s highly virile private life, and in his campaign to use the tapes for blackmail. He officiated in the twisted plan to send King these recordings, with threatening notes, in an effort to induce suicide. This, too, is a twice-told tale, though I did not know until I read Summers that the FBI had an ‘alternative’ black leader they wished to emplace by these means. It was Samuel Pierce, later to be Ronald Reagan’s ultra-corrupt Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, greeted by the sinister cretin Reagan on one occasion with the salute (to the only black member of his own Cabinet): ‘And how are things in your city, Mr Mayor?’

One way of looking at the whole record of American empire, and of American Cold War fanaticism, is to see it at least in part as a device for entrenching WASPery and nativism, with the attendant pseudo-Protestant ethical baggage. Hoover’s resistible rise is certainly a parable for such a theory. In his teens at school he proposed and won the debating-society motion that ‘Cuba should be annexed to the United States.’ He also spoke sternly in favour of capital punishment and against the enfranchisement of women, citing Biblical authority in both cases. The First World War, with its chauvinistic orgy of attacks on ‘un-American’ and ‘hyphenated’ immigrants, found him as the model of the sunshine soldier – going to Cadet Corps parades and cotillions while carefully avoiding service at the front and stressing ‘preparedness’ at home. By 1917, with the country’s first Red Scare getting into its stride, young J. Edgar was an enthusiastic snooper, chasing down aliens and subversives as if they were the same thing. (He recommended internment, on one occasion that now seems significant, for a German-American who publicly called President Woodrow Wilson ‘a cock-sucker and a thief’.) Soon fully-enrolled in the FBI’s predecessor Bureau of Information, Hoover was well-placed when Attorney General Palmer launched his crusade of postwar repression and deportation. He took personal credit for the expulsion of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, adding (in what was then perhaps only a tic rather than a full-fledged disorder) that Emma Goldman’s private love-letters made ‘spicy reading’. Always there was the connection – sometimes latent and sometimes blatant – between the defence of America’s ethnic purity, its political orthodoxy and its sexual continence.

Who shall tell the habits of the heart? We don’t know why it is that such a triptych has so great an attraction for sadists, molesters and the libidinally challenged, but we do know that it is so. It is not unlike – indeed, it may be a version of – the symbiotic fascination of the cop and the criminal. At any rate, there were lousy foreigners and crooks and terrorists and people of low moral character of whom it can be fairly said that Hoover couldn’t get enough. As the historian Albert Fried once phrased it, ‘intelligent gangsters from Al Capone to Moe Dalitz and Meyer Lansky have always been fierce, voluble defenders of the capitalist faith, and to that extent they were and are J. Edgar Hoover’s ideological kinsmen.’ Thus, though women couldn’t develop the moral fibre to be cops (couldn’t fire a gun, apart from anything else) and blacks were shiftless and thick, and Mexicans needed only be feared ‘if they came at you with a knife’, wide-shouldered mobsters were great, whether they came from Calabria or the shtetl. Between Prohibition and McCarthyism (the two last stands of modern American Protestant and nativist bigotry, even though ‘Tailgunner Joe’ was a populist Catholic as well as a raging queen) Hoover stuck to this conviction, if one can call it that. There is perhaps an aspect of the Manichean here. It had been announced officially that in the battle against the Red Antichrist and his (her?) mongrel allies, anything was permitted. Did you say ‘anything’? Well, then ...

This also elucidates the appalling record of Congress and the press. Summers rightly stresses the element of straight-out blackmail in Hoover’s approach. Even Senator Karl Mundt, a dinosaur Republican and tireless witch-hunter, could no longer live with his public endorsement of Hoover and privily told his aide Henry Eakins that ‘Hoover is the most dangerous man in the United States. He has misused his office. There are things I know that Hoover has done to Congressmen and Senators, things that should never have happened. He has things on them.’ But this only appears to be a paradox. Of course it would be people like Mundt, and people like the demented James Jesus Angleton, who guessed the truth about Hoover and fought filthy, frightened, secret turf-wars with him. Angleton, indeed, was the surreptitious circulator of the photograph that purportedly showed Hoover administering a languorous blow-job. This back-stabbing (if that’s the word I’m fumbling for) is the hallmark of secret-police rivalries in banana republics and people’s democracies; the sort of thing that eventually caught up with Yagoda and Yezhov and even Beria. What! Moral equivalence! How dare one compare Stalinism with the American way, however imperfect? My point is that the United States, though never threatened by any Internal or external foe, managed to have itself a prolonged racial and political inquisition, and that the man chiefly responsible died full of rank and honour, and still has a large Washington police bureau named after him. It’s a poor compensation that a few journalists and academics, many of them not even Americans, have got at the truth twenty years too late.

I said no external or internal enemies, but I suppose I meant no Communist ones. ‘If it were not for me,’ Hoover told the Assistant Secretary of Security at the State Department in 1963, ‘there would not even be a Communist Party of the United States. Because I’ve financed the Communist Party, in order to know what they are doing.’ Everybody knew this who wanted to know, but Congress could be blackmailed in general as well as one by one, and the atmosphere of siege and Kulturkampf was one which few dared to try and dispel. That Hoover knew the threat was bogus, yet employed it as the ticket to his own rich and dark entitlements, was another thing that everyone ‘knew’ but nobody dared say. Neoconservative fellow-travellers to the contrary, that’s how democracies perish.

Under the deceptive rubric of the Cold War, in which not even its sternest proponents really believed, a war was nonetheless being fought. Here is how it was declared by McCarthy’s chief lieutenant, Congressman John Rankin, at a time when Hoover was slipping secret files in McCarthy’s direction. My citation comes from Dalton Trumbo’s ‘Honour Bright and All That Jazz’, and concerns the so-called Hollywood Ten:

They sent this petition to Congress, and I want to read you some of these names. One of the names is June Havoc. We found out that her real name is June Hovick. Another one was Danny Kaye, and we found out his real name was David Daniel Kamirsky ... There is one who calls himself Edward G. Robinson. His real name is Emanuel Goldenberg. There is another one here who calls himself Melvyn Douglas whose name is Melvyn Desselberg. There are others too numerous to mention. They are attacking the Committee for doing its duty to protect this country and save the American people from the horrible fate the Communists have meted out to the unfortunate Christian people of Europe. [Emphasis in original.]

That was in the Forties. In the Fifties and early Sixties, the FBI didn’t care as much about the Communists as it did about uppity niggers. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, it was campus dissent and the androgynous cut of young people’s hair. In the Eighties, Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants and their defenders, and of course all people with Arab-sounding names, were the targets of choice. At all times, it was ‘the arts’ and the cultural radicals (Richard Nixon warned his daughter to keep away from ‘the arts, you know, Jewish and left-wing’) that inflamed the police mentality. By the late Eighties the worst Attorney-General in history, Edwin Meese, was bringing things full circle with a campaign against pornography. Hoover’s fan, Pat Buchanan, deprived of a Leninist foe he’d always known to be spurious, opted for a cultural war instead at the 1992 Republican Convention. The wider society has meanwhile been bullied and frightened into endorsing a ‘war on drugs’ that will make Prohibition seem tame in its implications for liberty and its vast opportunities for authoritarian corruption.

In his rather wonderful new essay ‘The Culture of Complaint’, Robert Hughes addresses the radical counterpart of this ‘culture war’ and marvels that after the 1989 revolution: ‘The world changes more deeply, widely, thrillingly than at any moment since 1917, perhaps since 1848, and the American academic left keeps fretting about how phallocentricity is inscribed in Dickens’s portrait of Little Nell.’ A shrewd thrust all right, and a good counterpoint. However, it is true that the rise of ‘in your face’ sexual and racial movements does have something to do with the end of the Cold War, and a student of the Hoover period need not be unduly startled by the fact. It isn’t very long since ‘family values’ meant accoutring a docile society to combat socialism and miscegenation. (In a hilarious moment of misapprehension, the American Mothers’ Committee once named J. Edgar Hoover in its ‘Best Fathers of the Year’ roll of honour.) One of the few women to keep a dinner date with Hoover was Lela Rogers, the mother of Ginger and the founder of MPAPAI – the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. I’m not saying that one ought to prefer Lesbian Puerto Rican Sisters for Sodomising the Unborn, but I think that one needs to know more about the one before satirising the other. As Summers’s book shows, the word ‘repression’ was intended to mean exactly what it said. It involved depths of self-hatred and sexual misery that are only now being properly charted, and by shaming and intimidating the political class it choked off many means of ‘normal’ redress. The carnival of narcissistic enthusiasms that now furrows so many brows is a tribute, however oblique and perverse, to a chaotic pluralism which, absent the influence of men like Hoover, Nixon, McCarthy, Joseph Kennedy and Roy Cohn, would have reached and passed maturity long ago. The current ridiculous fuss over the rights of homosexuals in the Armed Forces demonstrates, as conclusively as does Hoover’s joyless cross-dressing, the truth that blatant is better than latent and always was.