J. Edgar Hoover, 1st Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation

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John Edgar Hoover

Birthdate: (77)
Death: May 2, 1972 (77)
Immediate Family:

Son of Dickerson Naylor Hoover, Sr. and Anna Marie Hoover
Brother of Dickerson Naylor Hoover, Jr.; Lillian Hoover and Sadie Marguerite Hoover

Managed by: Private User
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About J. Edgar Hoover, 1st Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation


John Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895 – May 2, 1972) was the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States. Appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation—predecessor to the FBI—in 1924, he was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935, where he remained director until his death in 1972. Hoover is credited with building the FBI into a large and efficient crime-fighting agency, and with instituting a number of modern innovations to police technology, such as a centralized fingerprint file and forensic laboratories.

Late in life, and after his death, Hoover became an increasingly controversial figure. His critics have accused him of exceeding the jurisdiction of the FBI. He used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders, and to collect evidence using illegal methods. It is because of Hoover's long and controversial tenure that FBI directors are now limited to 10-year terms.

Early life and education

J. Edgar Hoover was born on New Year's Day 1895 in Washington, D.C., to Anna Marie (née Scheitlin; 1860–1938), who was descended from a line of Swiss mercenaries, and Dickerson Naylor Hoover, Sr. (1856–1921), of English and German ancestry. Annie's uncle had been the Swiss honorary consul general to the United States. Hoover grew up near the Eastern Market in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood. He worked at the Library of Congress during college and obtained a law degree from George Washington University in 1917. While a law student, Hoover became interested in the career of Anthony Comstock, the New York City US Postal Inspector, who waged prolonged campaigns against fraud and vice, including pornography and information on birth control, a generation earlier.

FBI career

During World War I, Hoover found work with the Justice Department. He was soon promoted to head of the Enemy Aliens Registration Section. In August 1919, he became head of the new General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation within the Justice Department (see the Palmer Raids). From there, in 1921, he rose in the Bureau of Investigation to deputy head, and in 1924, the Attorney General made him the acting director. On May 10, 1924, Hoover was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to be the sixth director of the Bureau of Investigation, following President Warren Harding's death and in response to allegations that the prior director, William J. Burns, was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. When Hoover took over the Bureau of Investigation, it had approximately 650 employees, including 441 Special Agents.

Hoover was noted as sometimes being capricious in his leadership; he frequently fired FBI agents, singling out those who he thought "looked stupid like truck drivers" or he considered to be "pinheads". He also relocated agents who had displeased him to career-ending assignments and locations. Melvin Purvis was a prime example; he was one of the most effective agents in capturing and breaking up 1930s gangs and received substantial public recognition, but a jealous Hoover maneuvered him out of the FBI.

Hoover often hailed local law-enforcement officers around the country and built up a national network of supporters and admirers in the process. One that he often commended was the conservative sheriff of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, J. Howell Flournoy, for particular effectiveness.

Gangster wars

In the early 1930s, criminal gangs carried out large numbers of bank robberies in the Midwest, They used their superior firepower and fast getaway cars to elude local law enforcement agencies and avoid arrest. Many of these criminals, particularly John Dillinger, who became famous for leaping over bank cages and repeatedly escaping from jails and police traps, frequently made newspaper headlines across the U.S. That these robbers operated across state lines made their crimes a federal offense and gave Hoover and his men the authority to pursue them. Initially, the FBI suffered some embarrassing foul-ups, in particular with Dillinger and his side-kicks / conspirators. A raid on a summer lodge named "Little Bohemia" in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, left an FBI agent and a civilian bystander dead, and others wounded. All the gangsters escaped. Hoover realized that his job was now on the line, and he pulled out all stops to capture the culprits. In late July 1934, Special Agent Melvin Purvis, the Director of Operations in the Chicago office, received a tip on Dillinger's whereabouts which paid off when Dillinger was located, ambushed and killed by FBI agents outside the Biograph Theater.

In the same period, there were numerous Mafia shootings as a result of Prohibition, while Hoover continued to deny the very existence of organized crime. Frank Costello helped encourage this view by feeding Hoover, "an inveterate horseplayer" known to send Special Agents to place $100 bets for him, tips on sure winners through their mutual friend, gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Hoover said the Bureau had "much more important functions" than arresting bookmakers and gamblers.

Due to several highly publicized captures or shootings of outlaws and bank robbers including Dillinger, Alvin Karpis, and Machine Gun Kelly, the Bureau's powers were broadened and it was given its new name in 1939: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 1939, the FBI became pre-eminent in the field of domestic intelligence. Hoover made changes, such as expanding and combining fingerprint files in the Identification Division to compile the largest collection of fingerprints to date. Hoover also helped to expand the FBI's recruitment and create the FBI Laboratory, a division established in 1932 to examine evidence found by the FBI.

Investigation of subversion and radicalsHoover was concerned about subversion, and under his leadership, the FBI spied upon tens of thousands of suspected subversives and radicals. According to critics, Hoover tended to exaggerate the dangers of these alleged subversives and many times overstepped his bounds in his pursuit of eliminating that perceived threat.

The FBI investigated rings of German saboteurs and spies starting in the late 1930s, and had primary responsibility for counterespionage. The first arrests of German agents were made in 1938, and continued throughout World War II. In the Quirin affair during World War II, when German U-boats set two small groups of Nazi agents ashore in Florida and Long Island to cause acts of sabotage within the country, the members of these teams were apprehended after one of the would-be saboteurs contacted the FBI, confessed everything, and then betrayed the other seven men. President Harry Truman wrote in his memoirs: "The country had reason to be proud of and have confidence in our security agencies. They had kept us almost totally free of sabotage and espionage during World War II".

The FBI participated in the Venona Project, a pre–World War II joint project with the British to eavesdrop on Soviet spies in the UK and the United States. It was not initially realized that espionage was being committed, but due to multiple wartime Soviet use of one-time pad ciphers, which are normally unbreakable, redundancies were created, enabling some intercepts to be decoded, which established the espionage. Hoover kept the intercepts—America's greatest counterintelligence secret—in a locked safe in his office, choosing not to inform President Truman, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath, or two Secretaries of State—Dean Acheson and General George Marshall—while they held office. He informed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the Venona Project in 1952.

In 1946, US Attorney General Tom C. Clark authorized Hoover to compile a list of potentially disloyal Americans who might be detained during a wartime national emergency. In 1950, at the outbreak of the Korean War, Hoover submitted to President Truman a plan to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and detain 12,000 Americans suspected of disloyalty. Truman did not act on the plan.


In 1956, Hoover was becoming increasingly frustrated by Supreme Court decisions that limited the Justice Department's ability to prosecute people for their political opinions, most notably, Communists. At this time he formalized a covert "dirty tricks" program under the name COINTELPRO.

This program remained in place until it was revealed to the public in 1971, and was the cause of some of the harshest criticism of Hoover and the FBI. COINTELPRO was first used to disrupt the Communist Party, and later organizations such as the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s SCLC and others. Its methods included infiltration, burglaries, illegal wiretaps, planting forged documents and spreading false rumors about key members of target organizations and flooding L.A. with drugs. Some authors have charged that COINTELPRO methods also included inciting violence and arranging murders. In 1975, the activities of COINTELPRO were investigated by the "United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities" called the Church Committee after its chairman, Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) and these activities were declared illegal and contrary to the Constitution. Hoover amassed significant power by collecting files containing large amounts of compromising and potentially embarrassing information on many powerful people, especially politicians. According to Laurence Silberman, appointed Deputy Attorney General in early 1974, FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley thought such files either did not exist or had been destroyed. After The Washington Post broke a story in January 1975, Kelley searched and found them in his outer office. The House Judiciary Committee then demanded that Silberman testify about them.

In 1956, several years before he targeted King, Hoover had a public showdown with T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader from Mound Bayou, Mississippi. During a national speaking tour, Howard had criticized the FBI's failure to thoroughly investigate the racially motivated murders of George W. Lee, Lamar Smith, and Emmett Till. Hoover wrote an open letter to the press singling out these statements as "irresponsible."

Response to Mafia and civil rights groupsIn the 1950s, evidence of Hoover's unwillingness to focus FBI resources on the Mafia became grist for the media and his many detractors. His moves against people who maintained contacts with subversive elements, some of whom were members of the civil rights movement, also led to accusations of trying to undermine their reputations. The treatment of Martin Luther King, Jr. and actress Jean Seberg are two cited examples.

Hoover personally directed the FBI investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In 1964, just days before Hoover testified in the earliest stages of the Warren Commission hearings, President Lyndon B. Johnson waived for Hoover the then-mandatory U.S. government service retirement age of seventy, allowing Hoover to remain the FBI Director "for life." The House Select Committee on Assassinations issued a report in 1979 critical of the performance by the FBI, the Warren Commission as well as other agencies. The report also criticized what it characterized as the FBI's reluctance to thoroughly investigate the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the president.

Late career and death

Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson each considered dismissing Hoover as FBI Director, but all of them ultimately concluded that the political cost of doing so would be too great.

Hoover's FBI investigated Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti, a special assistant and confidant to President Lyndon Johnson, in 1964. Despite Valenti's two-year marriage to Johnson's personal secretary, the investigation focused on rumors that he was having a gay relationship with a commercial photographer friend.

Hoover maintained strong support in Congress until his death at his Washington, D.C., home on May 2, 1972, from a heart attack attributed to cardio-vascular disease. His body lay in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where Chief Justice Warren Burger eulogized him. President Nixon delivered another eulogy at the funeral service in the National Presbyterian Church. Hoover was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., next to the graves of his parents and a sister who died in infancy.

Operational command of the Bureau passed to Associate Director Clyde Tolson. On May 3, President Richard Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray, a Justice Department official with no FBI experience, as Acting Director, with W. Mark Felt remaining as Associate Director.


Hoover was a consultant to Warner Brothers on a 1959 theatrical film about the FBI, The FBI Story, and in 1965 on Warner Brothers' long-running spin-off television series, The F.B.I. Hoover personally made sure that Warner Brothers would portray the FBI more favorably than other crime dramas of the times.

In 1979 there was a large increase in conflict in the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) under Senator Richard Schweiker, which had re-opened the investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy, reported that Hoover's FBI "failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President". The HSCA further reported that Hoover's FBI "was deficient in its sharing of information with other agencies and departments".

The FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC is named after Hoover. Because of the controversial nature of Hoover's legacy, there have been periodic proposals to rename it. In 2001, Senator Harry Reid sponsored an amendment to strip Hoover's name from the building. "J. Edgar Hoover's name on the FBI building is a stain on the building", Reid said. However, the Senate never adopted the amendment.

Personal life

Since the 1940s, rumors have circulated that Hoover was gay. It has been suggested that Clyde Tolson, an associate director of the FBI who was Hoover's heir, may have been his lover.

Hoover hunted down and threatened anyone who made insinuations about his sexuality. He also spread unsubstantiated rumors that Adlai Stevenson was gay to damage the liberal governor's 1952 presidential campaign. His extensive secret files contained surveillance material on Eleanor Roosevelt's alleged lesbian lovers, speculated to be acquired for the purpose of blackmail.

Hoover's biographer Richard Hack reported that Hoover was romantically linked to actress Dorothy Lamour in the late 1930s and early 1940s and that after Hoover's death, Lamour did not deny rumors that she had had an affair with Hoover in the years between her two marriages. Hack additionally reports that during the 1940s and 1950s, Hoover so often attended social events with Lela Rogers, the divorced mother of dancer and actress Ginger Rogers, that many of their mutual friends assumed the pair would eventually marry.

Some authors have dismissed the rumors about Hoover's sexuality and his relationship with Tolson in particular as unlikely, while others have described them as probable or even "confirmed", and still others have reported the rumors without stating an opinion. Hoover described Tolson as his alter ego: The men not only worked closely together during the day but also took meals, went to night clubs and vacationed together. This closeness between the two men is often cited as evidence that they were lovers, though some FBI employees who knew them, such as Mark Felt, say that the relationship was merely "brotherly".

Tolson inherited Hoover's estate and moved into his home, having accepted the American flag that draped Hoover's casket. Tolson is buried a few yards away from Hoover in the Congressional Cemetery. Attorney Roy Cohn, an associate of Hoover during the 1950s investigations of Communists and himself a closeted homosexual, opined that Hoover was too frightened of his own sexuality to have anything approaching a normal sexual or romantic relationship.

In his 1993 biography Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover, journalist Anthony Summers quoted "society divorcee" Susan Rosenstiel (who later served time at Rikers Island for perjuring herself in a 1971 case) as claiming to have seen Hoover engaging in cross-dressing in the 1950s. She stated that on two occasions she witnessed Hoover wearing a fluffy black dress with flounces and lace, stockings, high heels and a black curly wig, at homosexual orgies.

In 1958 the bisexual millionaire distiller and philanthropist Lewis Solon Rosenstiel asked Susan Rosenstiel, his fourth wife, if — having been previously married to another bisexual man for nine years — she had ever seen "a homosexual orgy". Although she had once surprised her sixty-eight-year-old husband in bed with his attorney, Roy Cohn, Susan told Summers that she had never before been invited to view sex between men. With her consent, the couple went one day, soon after this odd question, to Manhattan's Plaza Hotel. Cohn, a former aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy and a Republican power broker, met them at the door. As she and her husband entered the suite, "Susan said, she recognized a third man: J. Edgar Hoover", director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), whom she had met previously at her New York City Upper East Side townhouse. Hoover, Lewis had explained, gave him access to influential politicians; he returned these favors, in part, by paying the director's gambling debts.

Summers also said that the Mafia had blackmail material on Hoover, which made Hoover reluctant to aggressively pursue organized crime. Although never corroborated, the allegation of cross-dressing has been widely repeated. In the words of author Thomas Doherty, "For American popular culture, the image of the zaftig FBI director as a Christine Jorgensen wanna-be was too delicious not to savor." Skeptics of the cross-dressing story point to Susan Rosenstiel's poor credibility and say recklessly indiscreet behavior by Hoover would have been totally out of character, whatever his sexuality. Most biographers consider the story of Mafia blackmail to be unlikely in light of the FBI's investigations of the Mafia. Truman Capote, who helped spread salacious rumors about Hoover, once remarked that he was more interested in making Hoover angry than determining whether the rumors were true.

The opening of Soviet archives revealed evidence that there was a Soviet campaign to discredit the United States which used allegations of homosexuality to discredit Hoover.

In his 2004 study of the Lavender Scare, gay historian David K. John attacked the notion of Hoover's homosexuality for relying on "the kind of tactics Hoover and the security program he oversaw perfected — guilt by association, rumor, and unverified gossip." He views Rosenstiel as a liar who was paid for her story, whose "description of Hoover in drag engaging in sex with young blond boys in leather while desecrating the Bible is clearly a homophobic fantasy." He believes only those who have forgotten the virulence of the decades-long campaign against homosexuals in government can believe reports that Hoover would allow himself to be seen in compromising situations.


Hoover was a devoted Freemason, being raised a Master Mason on November 9, 1920, in Federal Lodge No. 1, Washington, DC, just two months before his 26th birthday. During his 52 years with the Masons, he received many medals, awards and decorations. Eventually in 1955, he was coroneted a Thirty-Third Degree Inspector General Honorary in the Southern Scottish Rite Jurisdiction. He was also awarded the Scottish Rite's highest recognition, the Grand Cross of Honour, in 1965.[44] Today a J. Edgar Hoover room exists within the House of the Temple. The room contains many of Hoover's personal papers and records.


In 1938, Oklahoma Baptist University awarded Hoover an honorary doctorate during commencement exercises at which he spoke.

In 1939, the National Academy of Sciences awarded Hoover its Public Welfare Medal.

In 1950, King George VI of the United Kingdom awarded Hoover an honorary knighthood in the Order of the British Empire.

In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower gave Hoover the National Security Medal.

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson bestowed the State Department's Distinguished Service Award on Hoover for his service as director of the FBI.

The FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., is named the J. Edgar Hoover Building.

Congress voted to honor Hoover's memory by publishing a memorial book. J. Edgar Hoover: Memorial Tributes in the Congress of the United States and Various Articles and Editorials Relating to His Life and Work appeared in 1974.


J. Edgar Hoover has been portrayed many times in film and on stage. Some notable portrayals include:

In the 1971 Woody Allen movie Bananas, J. Edgar Hoover was portrayed by actress Dorothi Fox.

Broderick Crawford and James Wainwright portrayed Hoover in the Larry Cohen film The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977).

Hoover was portrayed by actor Dolph Sweet in the TV miniseries King (1978).

Hoover was portrayed by actor Ernest Borgnine in the TV-movie Blood Feud (1983), as well as in Hoover (2000).

Hoover was portrayed by actor Vincent Gardenia in the TV-movie Kennedy (1983).

Hoover was portrayed by actor Jack Warden in the TV-movie Hoover vs. The Kennedys (1987).

Hoover was portrayed by actor Treat Williams in the TV-movie J. Edgar Hoover (1987).

Hoover was portrayed by actor Kevin Dunn in the movie Chaplin (1992).

Hoover was portrayed by actor Pat Hingle in the TV-movie Citizen Cohn (1992).

Hoover was portrayed by actor Richard Dysart, both in the TV-movie Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair (1993) and in Mario Van Peebles' 1995 film Panther.

Hoover was portrayed by actor Bob Hoskins in the Oliver Stone drama Nixon (1995).

Hoover was portrayed by actor David Fredericks in two episodes of The X-Files, as well as on its sister show Millennium.

Hoover was portrayed by actor Kelsey Grammer with John Goodman as his lover, in the Harry Shearer comic musical "J. Edgar!" on L.A. Theatre Works' "The Play's the Thing" (2001).

Hoover was originally portrayed by Eric Jordan Young in the musical Dillinger, Public Enemy Number One.

Hoover was portrayed by actor Billy Crudup in the Michael Mann film Public Enemies (2009).

Hoover was portrayed by actor Enrico Colantoni in the TV-movie The Kennedys (2011).

Hoover is to be portrayed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar (2011).

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J. Edgar Hoover, 1st Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Timeline

January 1, 1895
May 2, 1972
Age 77