In one of the climactic moments of the new film J. Edgar, a thirtysomething J. Edgar Hoover reveals his plans to take a wife. The scene unfolds in a New York hotel suite, where Hoover has reserved adjoining rooms with Clyde Tolson, his second-in-command at the FBI. Tolson responds with rage to his boss’s news, throwing a temper tantrum at odds with his typically polished demeanor. The argument soon escalates into a fistfight, then into the film’s single most sexual moment: a bloody kiss between the director and associate director of the FBI.
There is no evidence that this fight—much less the kiss—ever took place. What we know about the relationship between Hoover and Tolson comes mostly from the public record: meals together twice a day, joint vacations, a final burial place just a few yards apart. Their interior and sexual lives remain mostly a matter of speculation. Despite daunting research efforts by journalists and historians, we can say little more today than we could four or five decades ago: Hoover and Tolson had a marriage of sorts. But what sort of marriage was it?
J. Edgar’s scriptwriter, Dustin Lance Black, had the luxury of imagining the answer to this question, depicting Hoover and Tolson’s relationship as a tragic precursor to today’s sanctioned gay marriages. The film focuses on their interpersonal drama, conjuring up intimate dinner-table powwows and anguished personal struggles. (For the record: Yes, Hoover loved his mama. No, there is no evidence that he put on her necklace and dress in the hours after her death.)
And yet it is Hoover and Tolson’s public life—the stuff we do know about—that is ultimately the most fascinating part of their story. They never openly acknowledged a sexual or romantic relationship. At the same time, they demanded—and received—a level of respect for their partnership that seems almost unthinkable in pre-Stonewall society. For some four decades, the crème de la crème of political America treated them as a recognized couple; when Edgar was invited to dinner, so was Clyde. We don’t have to make up their most intimate scenes to find a relationship worth exploring.
Hoover and Tolson met sometime in the late 1920s—perhaps, though not definitively, at the Mayflower Hotel bar as suggested in one of J. Edgar’s early scenes. In early 1928, Tolson signed on as a Bureau agent, one of many handsome young George Washington fraternity men recruited in Hoover’s early days as director. His career took off immediately. By 1931, Tolson was assistant director of the Bureau, charged with enforcing Hoover’s famously nitpicking internal policies.
Swift promotion was not particularly unique at the early Bureau; when Hoover found men he liked, he brought them up fast. What made Tolson stand out was the highly public friendship he soon developed with his boss. By the mid-1930s, Tolson was at Hoover’s side for every major Washington outing, from Bureau baseball games to White House affairs. As the FBI gained fame for running down kidnappers and bank robbers (a story rendered almost wholly out of chronological sequence in J. Edgar), Tolson usually accompanied Hoover to New York as well. There, they became fixtures of gossip columnist Walter Winchell’s rarefied Stork Club circle, hobnobbing with the likes of boxer Jack Dempsey and Broadway author Damon Runyon. On one fairly typical night in 1935, they joined Winchell in the press section at a Dempsey fight only to end the evening watching a brawl involving Ernest Hemingway.
Their own brawl in J. Edgar takes places sometime during this period, evoking the erotically charged world of café society as a backdrop for Hoover and Tolson’s grand confrontation. Many of the scene’s other elements are similarly based in fact. Hoover did have a headline-grabbing and certainly false romance with film star Dorothy Lamour, his candidate for wifehood in J. Edgar. He also had a rumored—and equally unlikely—affair with Ginger Rogers’ mother Lela, depicted as the confident older woman trying to muscle Hoover onto the dance floor in one of the film’s nightclub scenes.
For the most part, though, Hoover simply opted out of the marriage-and-children game. He loved to give advice on the subject, publishing preachy newspaper columns and speeches on “The Parent Problem” and “The Man I Want My Son To Be.” But he never seriously entertained the idea of starting a family, and his few dates with women seem to be nothing more than a nod to social convention. In retrospect, it seems astonishing how little he actually did to maintain a heterosexual facade. From his first moments at the Bureau, he surrounded himself with young men, and his loyalties never wavered.
This produced the predictable Washington gossip. As early as the 1930s, local columnists had begun to titter about Hoover’s “mincing step” and fondness for natty suits. By the late 1960s, at least one congressman was allegedly threatening to out Hoover and Tolson on the House floor, retaliation for unrelated backroom shenanigans. Hoover could be merciless in such situations. Throughout his career, he regularly sent FBI agents to track down citizens unwise enough to suggest that he was “queer.” He also cooperated in the postwar Lavender Scare, when hundreds of gay men and women lost their federal jobs as security risks. (Oddly, J. Edgar entirely skips this period of Hoover’s life, despite its jaw-droppingly rich sexual complexity.)
Hoover’s attempts to strong-arm his critics fit our image of him as a ruthless power-monger, and of the pre-Stonewall era as a time of brutal anti-gay repression. Far more difficult to reconcile with this image is the acceptance that Hoover and Tolson seemed to find—at exactly the same time—in the highest reaches of New York and Washington society. Despite the rumors of their homosexuality, they conducted a vibrant and open social partnership throughout their years together, accepting joint dinner invitations, attending family functions, even signing the occasional thank-you note together.
Friends and political associates knew to treat them as a bona fide couple. In the 1930s, for instance, Hoover and Tolson hit the town with Broadway star Ethel Merman and Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley, busy conducting their own illicit affair. By the 1950s, the two men were double-dating with Dick and Pat Nixon, whom Hoover had met while pursuing the case against Alger Hiss. “I did want to drop you this personal note to let you know how sorry Clyde and I are that we were unable to join Pat and you for lunch today,” Hoover wrote to Vice President Nixon after one failed invitation in 1958. On another occasion, Nixon suggested that Clyde—“our favorite bartender”—ought to learn to make the mean if unspecified pink cocktail that they all had often enjoyed together.
Such exchanges evoke nothing so much as the formal world of 1950s married life, one set of spouses trading entertaining tips and social niceties with the other. But did these friends actually view Hoover and Tolson as a romantic and sexual couple? In recent decades, many acquaintances—including Ethel Merman—have claimed that they “knew” about Hoover and Tolson. But it’s hard to say if this is posthumous speculation or accurate insider knowledge. Nixon famously referred to Hoover as a “cocksucker”—a suggestive word, but one that may or may not be referring to Hoover’s sex life. In the press, Hoover and Tolson were most often described as “bachelors,” a term that served simultaneously as a euphemism and as a straightforward description of an unmarried heterosexual man. At the FBI, acquaintances consistently denied anything other than a close friendship.
It is easy to write off the more open aspects of Hoover and Tolson’s relationship as proof of old-fashioned naiveté—to assume that folks in the 1950s were unaware. But this gives the people of the past far too little credit and flattens out an intriguing social history. If Hoover’s story tells us anything, it’s that today’s binaries—gay vs. straight, closeted vs. out—map uneasily onto the sexual past. Hoover and Tolson were many things at once: professional associates, golf buddies, Masonic brothers, and possibly lovers as well.
At the very least, they were caring social partners, relying on each other for emotional sustenance and daily support that went beyond the realm of ordinary friendship. J. Edgar closes with Tolson clutching a love letter to Eleanor Roosevelt from journalist Lorena Hickok, now widely seen as one of Roosevelt’s several romantic interests. But Tolson might as well have been reading a letter from his own FBI personnel file, which contains one of the few personal missives that have survived decades of purging and obfuscation.
“Words are mere man-given symbols for thoughts and feelings, and they are grossly insufficient to express the thoughts in my mind and the feelings in my heart that I have for you,” Hoover wrote to Tolson in 1943. “I hope I will always have you beside me.”