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.