'Puppetmaster' -- Hoover in deft detail

May 09, 2004|By David Marston | David Marston,Special to the Sun

Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, by Richard Hack. New Millennium. 455 pages. $27.50.

Truman Capote exposes J. Edgar Hoover!

Who would not buy that book?

In 1980, Capote -- who called Hoover and Hoover's constant companion Clyde Tolson "Johnny and Clyde" -- started interviews for his expose, apparently unconcerned about the 200-page secret chronicle of his own sybaritic lifestyle at FBI headquarters. Unfortunately, Capote got diverted and eventually passed his notes along to investigative reporter / biographer Richard Hack. A voracious researcher, Hack has now, more than two decades later, produced a thoughtful and balanced (sorry, Truman) biography of J. Edgar Hoover.

Despite its subtitle, Puppetmaster does not make major new disclosures about Hoover or the FBI -- not surprising, since a computer search of "J. Edgar Hoover biography" yields 3,779 previous titles. Rather, Hack adds abundant nuance and shading, using deft detail to draw a fuller portrait of J. Edgar Hoover and his era:

* The military honor guard lugging Hoover's 1,400-pound casket up the Capitol steps as a law and order centerpiece in Nixon's re-election campaign, in cold disregard of the director's specific instructions for a Masonic service.

* Hoover's empty dance card from his 1913 high school cadet ball, saved nearly six decades until his death in 1972.

* The platinum sapphire ring with six diamonds that his mother gave her Edgar to celebrate a promotion.

* Hoover alone in his bedroom, in failing health, pouring forth "jags of tears" (despite Hack's extensive footnoting, this and several other intimate details are regrettably unattributed).

Addressing the inevitable Was He or Wasn't He question, Hack rebuts much of the evidence suggesting Hoover homosexuality. Instead, Puppetmaster depicts a Hoover fiercely determined in all things to please his mother, who "would sooner die" than endure the disgrace of having a homosexual child. Roy Cohn -- who just might know -- described Hoover as so "frightened" about protecting his "all-important image" that "he wouldn't do anything, certainly not in public, not in private either."

Especially when viewed through the post-9 / 11 prism, Puppetmaster succeeds as a period piece, graced by vintage photographs, evoking a bygone America. When Hoover became director in 1924, Washington was a genteel Southern town. African-Americans were still Negroes, and for years, the only two of them in Hoover's FBI were his chauffeur and receptionist.

In the early years, even FBI abuses often recall fraternity pranks. When Hoover was smitten with singer Dorothy Lamour (a lifelong relationship, Hack claims), he used New York FBI agents to thwart Rudy Vallee's competing courtship, destroying phone messages, directing taxis to the wrong restaurant. Criminal masterminds were generally anything but, and rather than plotting the apocalypse of Western civilization, they mostly robbed banks, for the most American of reasons: As "Slick Willie" Sutton explained, "That's where the money is."

Puppetmaster takes its title from Hoover's adroit maneuvering in the McCarthy era, as he first passes secret information about Communists to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and then, when the political winds abruptly shift -- and McCarthy blunders into competing with Hoover in the investigations business -- McCarthy's own excesses became the director's new currency. Such intuitive genius kept Hoover in power through nine presidents and 16 attorneys general. Puppetmaster provides the general reader with extensive fresh insights to judge Hoover's tenure.

David W. Marston is author of Malice Aforethought, an analysis of abuses in law practice, and co-author of Inside Hoover's FBI, with Neil J. Welch. He was U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1978, and is now a lawyer in civil practice.

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