The mere mention of his name was enough to cause fear and apprehension. Politicans, film stars and celebrities of all sorts had learned that he knew all of their secrets. Exactly how many secrets he knew is still a mystery as his most sensitive files were destroyed when he died. But what is certain is that John Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) stands out as one of the most feared figures from his time as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”). During his time in office, he witnessed six presidential administrations and three wars, the latter of which would continue after his death. His reign was supreme and no one deared to challenge it out of fear that they would wall fall victim to the wrath of one of America’s most powerful investigators. The public facade carefully crafted by Hoover, served him well in masking the many dark secrets he kept closely guarded. Curt Gentry peels back the layers in this look at the life of the legendary FBI director.
The book is exhaustively researched and is quite extensive, topping out at 760 pages including the epilogue. But contained within, is an incredible account of Hoover’s life that will leave readers spellbound. Some may be familiar with the FBI’s actions in the past, many of which came to light after Hoover’s death. In fact, today we are still learning of the seemingly endless number of informants and secret investigations carried out under Hoover’s directions. The Freedom of Information Act has proven to be invaluable in the research that has been conducted in order to fully understand the nefarious actions of an agency under the control of a power hungry tyrant.
The book starts off on the morning of Hoover’s death, as driver James Crawford notices that something is not quite right at the director’s home. Although he was seventy-seven, Hoover had refused to retire but age and time had caught up with him. The news of his death spreads quickly, sending shockwaves throughout Washington, D.C., and across the nation. Gentry provides the dramatic opening scene to the suspensful drama that developes as the book progresses. We are provided background information on Hoover’s early life in the nation’s capital. But the story picks up pace as he joins the Bureau of Information which is later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although he could not have known it at the time, he had found the organization that he would call home the rest of his life.
What I found to stand out is that the book is not just a story about Hoover, but a good look at American history. Figures of the past come into the story such as former presidents, attorney generals and intelligence figures. Some would be allies and others would become bitter enemies such as the legendary William J. Donovan (1893-1959), the former director of the Office of Strategic Services. The bitter feud between Donovan and Hoover is one of the most bitter fights I have ever read of. Hoover was never short on enemies, and Donovan is only one of many who appear in the story. The battles are fierce and filled with backstabbing and petty jealousy. Gentry revisits many of them showing the lengths to which Hoover went to make his authority absolute. Also discussed is Hoover’s obsession with communists and the morality of those who did not live up to his rigid standards.
Clyde Anderson Tolson (1900-1975) is well-known as not just the former associate director of the FBI, but as Hoover’s closest friend. Some have even proffered that Tolson and Hoover were even “closer” than many suspected. And although homosexual rumors have persisted about the two, to date there has not been any semblance of irrefutable evidence that the two were lovers. Gentry addresses the topic but does not stray off track nor does he give into simply gossiping about the matter. It is discussed and quickly put to rest. The author leaves it up to the readers to decided what may or may not be the full story regarding the pair’s relationship. It is a shot in the dark, but their wills, discussed in the epilogue, may give some clues about their relationship.
As the story develops, Hoover’s importance in some of the key events in American history become apparent, some in disturbing ways. In particular, his actions during World War II might send some readers over the edge. I found myself staring the author’s words in disbelief and the shock that had settled in which also took some time to wear off. And if that were not enough, Hoover’s actions towards those who dared to challenge him, leave no doubt about his abuse of power. Further, his actions towards his own agents in particular famed outlaw pursuer Melvin Purvis (1903-1960), is just simply absurd. The stories are shocking and will undoubtedly leave readers shaking their heads.
Hoover ruled the FBI for over forty years and during that time six presidents came and went. All had their opinions of the director and their true feelings about Hoover are also discussed revealing some very interesting facts about what really did happen behind the scenes between the FBI director and the commanders in chief. Hoover proved to be even more devious than any of them could have ever suspected. However, his thirst for power and tendency to savor gossip about the sexual lives of those he surveilled, reveal a much darker and perverse side of Hoover that the public never saw. But as those who worked for him would later admit, Hoover was bigoted, homophobic and a bully among many other things. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Gentry pulled out all of the stops here and no stone is left unturned. The battles between Hoover and those he despised take center stage. Some of the people on his “hit list” such as Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1925-1968) fully recognized the man they were dealing with. When Roosevelt made it clear that she did not approve of the director’s methods, she became a constant target of Hoover’s rage as detailed by the author. These two iconic figures are a small sample of a long list of figures featured in the book who became enemies of Hoover and in the process had their lives placed under constant surveillance by the FBI in direct violation of United States law. These methods used by the FBI is perhaps one of the darkest stains on the records of J. Edgar Hoover.
There is one part of the story that I found to be highly interesting even though it is more a sub-story than anything else. For all of the information that the author does provide on Hoover and the FBI, what emerges is that the director does not have very much of a personal life. What I realized and what the author makes clear, is that the FBI was his life and when looking at things in that context, his dictator like methods are eaiser to understand. Without the FBI, there was no J. Edgar Hoover and he himself realized that and did whatever he felt necessary to retain that power. However, like all dictators he would fall from grace and had he not died, he eventually would have been removed from his post. And it might have happened during the administration of the last president he served, Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994). This part of the book is when we finally see that Hoover is on borrowed time. But the seasoned directly pulls a few tricks from up his sleeve first. The drama that unfolds is captured with the right amount of suspense by Gentry and readers will be on edge waiting for the climax to arrive. And in a suprising revelation, Hoover’s relation to the Watergate scandal is explained putting Nixon’s actions into a whole new light.
The fallout from decades of Hoover’s rule over the FBI is stunning and for all involved, the gloves were off. William Sullivan (1912-1977) emerges as the new arch-enemy and pulls no punches whene he goes after the FBI after resigning. His statements and the later investigations by the Justice Department after Hoover’s death, will leave some readers speechless. Corruption might just be an understatement. The story is almost surreal and if you had any doubts about Hoover’s character before reading the book, then they will surely be confirmed. The conclusion of this epic story highlights the biggest irony of Hoover’s life and readers will not fail to notice.
So far I have discussed many of the dark aspects of the book which are abundant. If I had to choose a bright spot in the book, it would be that Hoover did in fact make the FBI the respected organization that it came to be and no one can take that away from him. However, the backstabbing, vindictiveness and illegal actions at his command, make it difficult to show him in a highly positive light. Quite frankly, after finishing the book, I found myself repulsed at what I had learned. If you are looking for a story of power in the wrong hands, look no further, this is it. Highly recommended.