Hoover's Dirty File: Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover's Personal Files
Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files

Larry Holzwarth - August 23, 2019

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
LBJ was one of several consecutive US Presidents who were reportedly afraid to fire J. Edgar Hoover because they feared the information in his secret files. White House

12. Did Hoover keep secret files to control the activities of American Presidents?

One of the oft-repeated rumors – some call them myths – about J. Edgar Hoover is that he kept secret personal files in order to prevent his bosses, the Presidents of the United States and the Attorney Generals who worked for them, from firing him as director. Those who subscribe to such beliefs find it possible that Hoover kept Kennedy on a short leash through files documenting his own extramarital affairs, as well as his father’s links to organized crime (despite Hoover’s repeated denial that organized crime existed in America). FDR was kept under control through Hoover’s awareness of his wife’s infidelities and indiscretions; Truman because of his connections with the Missouri political machine run by Tom Pendergast. According to the theorists, Hoover had dirty secrets on everyone, salted away in his personal files, hidden even from the FBI which collected the dirt for him. After all, Hoover had dirt on the FBI too.

Whether such secret files existed, and whether they were the documents destroyed by Gandy and her helpers in 1972 is a matter of speculation, never proved nor disproved. Given the nature of the official files kept in many areas, now a matter of public record, any personal files retained by Hoover would have likely been redundant. Several presidents are in fact considered firing Hoover, but it was the political kickback from conservatives that made them hesitate, given Hoover’s widely believed but largely false reputation, self-created as it was. Only Nixon stated that he was afraid of personal reprisals, perhaps not surprising given the nature of his administration’s contempt for the law. Undoubtedly the FBI’s retention of records which would have been personally embarrassing to many congressmen and other Washington personages strengthened Hoover’s political position, but his ability to directly blackmail American presidents has never been established, though it remains widely believed.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
President Truman despised Hoover personally, but like other Presidents took no action to fire him during his presidency. Library of Congress

13. Harry Truman directly attacked Hoover, though he made no move to fire him

During World War II Hoover and the FBI conducted investigations and surveillances against American citizens suspected of supporting the Nazis, as well as those suspected of being communists supportive of the Soviet government. Harry Truman was a Senator from Missouri through most of the war, and chaired a committee tasked with unmasking and correcting waste within the military contracting systems. When Truman became President, he brought his growing distaste for Hoover to the White House with him, delegating an aid to meet with Hoover when the FBI director requested an audience with the White House, keeping Hoover at arm’s length. At one time Truman, upset when he learned FBI wiretap surveillance included listening to the phone of the hairdresser of a former FDR advisor, Tom Corcoran, ordered FBI surveillance discontinued. He used a scatological reference to describe Hoover’s work in his note directing it stopped.

It wasn’t long though before Truman, as had FDR before him and Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and others, learned the political value of wiretaps, as long as their existence remained secret. FBI wiretaps are too often assigned to Hoover, disregarding the many which were ordered by Hoover’s boss, the President of the United States. That Hoover retained the information which he acquired through the wiretaps, many of which were illegal, is not surprising, given his long-established penchant for acquiring all the information he could on anyone. As the extent of Hoover’s surveillance became obvious to presidents, the question naturally arose in their minds regarding the nature and extent of information which may have been in FBI files regarding themselves and their closest aides.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
John Lennon was one of scores of celebrities and artists which the FBI, under Hoover’s personal direction, kept extensive files on. Wikimedia

14. The FBI’s known files contain enough information to last scandalmongers for decades

The list of people on whom the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, maintained surveillance and kept extensive files of the information obtained is staggering. Its existence first became known to the public at roughly the same time as the Watergate scandal, and its associated scandals rattled Washington DC in the 1970s. As the names were revealed, public reaction over the surveillance was favorable or outraged, or in some cases indifferent, depending on the political leanings of the individual. Conservatives and pro-American involvement in Vietnam Americans applauded the FBI surveillance of Jane Fonda, John Lennon, Martin Luther King, and scores of others, willing to look away from the violation of civil rights since they were targeted at perceived enemies of America. Others were outraged at the idea of the private telephone communications of American citizens being intercepted and recorded by the FBI without the knowledge of a court, and without a warrant.

In the mind of J. Edgar Hoover, homosexuality was a precursor to communism, and in the lists of individuals his bureau kept on the former were suspected supporters of communist infiltration of the United States government, and the end of the American way of life. Eleanor Roosevelt was among the most famous suspected by Hoover of being pro-communist due to her sexual orientation. Hoover kept in his files the names of Congressmen and their aides, Senators, judges and lawyers, career civil servants, military careerists, members of the diplomatic corps, members of the press. FBI files were filled with the names of artists, film stars, filmmakers, college professors, and members of the clergy, as well as many others; extensive files called for, in Hoover’s mind, because anyone exploring same-sex activity was likely to explore communist beliefs and values, and was, therefore, a threat to the security of the United States.

Related: The FBI Believed That ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Was Communist Propaganda.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, and Gene Kelly, all of whom were of sufficient interest to Hoover for the FBI to maintain files on their personal activities. Wikimedia

15. Some of Hoover’s files spanned decades, and covered personal and political activities

The FBI file on Charles Chaplin, a beloved American film producer and actor from the silent era until the 1950s, included investigations under the White Slave Traffic Act. The FBI, under Hoover’s direction, sought to have Chaplin charged with transporting underage women across state lines for sexual purposes. Chaplin escaped prosecution under the Slave Trade Act, but found himself under investigation for several decades due to his belonging to what Hoover believed to be communist-leaning organizations, some little more than fronts for the support of Josef Stalin to Hoover’s way of thinking. Chaplin’s files remained active from 1922 to 1978, years after Hoover died.

Errol Flynn was likewise investigated under the White Slave Trade Act, with a file on the actor opened in the 1940s, and expanded when Flynn was the victim of an extortion attempt. Former radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, who always shared with his listeners “the rest of the story”, once inadvertently entered a secure area in 1951, leading to an investigation (and file) that chronicled his personal life. American actor and 1950s icon Rock Hudson was the subject of intensive investigations, likely due to his hidden sexual orientation. Actor/dancer Gene Kelly was the subject of extensive investigations by the FBI as well, including his sex life, due to the belief that he was an associate of left-wing groups with ties to the Soviets. All of the above individuals and hundreds more had their civil rights as Americans violated by Hoover’s zealous determination to ensure moral rectitude in American society.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
In 1964, Hoover’s FBI protected the United States from the amorality of The Kingsmen, and their society destroying lyrics. Wikimedia

16. Hoover’s FBI attempted to decipher the lyrics to the song “Louie, Louie”

The song Louie, Louie, first recorded in 1955 and released to become a hit by The Kingsmen in 1963, has long been the subject of discussion regarding its lyrics, incomprehensible in the 1963 version for the most part. Still, it is just a song, seemingly a harmless one, and it has been interpreted by countless thousands of garage and basement bands since. In 1964, reasoning that lyrics which cannot be clearly understood must be obscured for a reason, and that reason must be because they are obscene, the FBI opened an investigation into the song. From February to May of 1964 the full might of the Federal Bureau of Investigation analyzed the song and questioned the writers and musicians associated with its release, diligently protecting the American people from immorality, as its long-standing director had ensured the taxpayers it would.

The FBI file, heavily redacted of course, presumably for reasons of national security, can be read online. Its cover page acknowledges that the words as recorded are largely indecipherable, but when listened to with a copy of the obscene lyrics kept handy for reference, it “sounds like the lyrics are identical with the enclosed obscene lyrics”. Louie, Louie became one of the earliest records said to contain hidden messages when played at altered speeds – in its case obscene lyrics – but after a diligent and thorough investigation Hoover’s FBI ensured the American people, “they were unable to determine what the lyrics of the song were, even after listening to the records at speeds ranging from 16 to 78 rpm”. The investigation had been triggered by a letter to the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, in which the letter writer pointed out, “This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation”, to which the record of Louie, Louie clearly contributed, and was thus a matter for the FBI.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
Hoover kept a self-written memo on file stating that he warned JFK about one of his adulterous affairs, though no other record of such a meeting exists. FBI

17. Despite numerous rumors, nobody ever accused Hoover of using the secret files for blackmail

One of the legends surrounding J. Edgar Hoover’s secret personal files was that they were used, or were to be used, to blackmail members of the Washington community to do his bidding as necessary. It is widely assumed by those who assign to Hoover an evil hold on the reins of government throughout his reign as Director of the FBI that he used his ill-gotten information as the source of his almost unlimited power, controlling the government through fear, and when necessary, through the time-honored criminal art of blackmail. Hoover did not use blackmail overtly, he did not demand tit for tat in his dealings with either members of congress or the occupants of the Oval Office. He was far more subtle in his use of the information which the FBI held in its files, including implying that he (Hoover) was not the only FBI official privy to the information.

In March, 1962, Hoover met with John Kennedy in the Oval Office, according to his own notes. The meeting was ostensibly a working lunch during which, according to author Ronald Kessler, Hoover informed the President that the FBI had information regarding Kennedy having an affair with Judith Campbell, a 25-year-old divorcee who also was having a concurrent affair with Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana. According to Kessler, Hoover simply let JFK know that the FBI had the information, allowing the President to stew over it on his own. According to Kessler, JFK responded by ending the affair. Numerous and conflicting accounts of the affair and Kennedy’s relationship with Campbell (later known as Judith Exner) have been “revealed” ever since, though nothing which could be confirmed as unimpeachable evidence of the affair, or the luncheon in which Hoover revealed his knowledge of it to the President has ever surfaced.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
John Mitchell, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and John Erlichman, in a meeting in which they are discussing – ironically – law enforcement. White House

18. J. Edgar Hoover wanted Richard Nixon as President and worked to elect him to the office

When Richard Nixon, then Vice President of the United States, ran for the Presidency in 1960 his boss, incumbent President Dwight David Eisenhower, was tepid in his endorsement. J. Edgar Hoover wanted Nixon to be elected, and after the disappointment in 1960 he worked to ensure Nixon prevailed when he ran again in 1968, and for re-election in 1972. In 1971 the former Attorney General for the United States and erstwhile Nixon law partner John M. Mitchell served as the head of Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (with the acronym CREEP, surely the most apropos such designation in the history of American politics). Hoover used FBI sources to funnel politically volatile information to Mitchell for use by the Nixon campaign. It was information provided by Hoover which led the Nixon White House to create the White House Investigations Unit, the official name for what became famous as the White House Plumbers.

According to a Hoover memo which eventually found residence in his Confidential files, and which was shared with John Mitchell, information critical of the FBI was being fed to the McGovern campaign by disenchanted agents. McGovern used the information, which included revelations of illegal surveillance on American citizens, to attack Hoover and by extension the Nixon Administration. The names of individuals to which information was linked included journalists and columnists, and Hoover provided their names, as well as the names of their sources. They became the basis of what later was known as the White House Enemies List. Thus Hoover and Nixon, with Mitchell as an intermediary, using illegally obtained information to discredit the Democratic candidate for President, while Nixon ran on a platform which described him as the Law and Order candidate, enjoying a ringing endorsement from the long-term director of the FBI, America’s greatest lawman, J. Edgar Hoover.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
Ernest Hemingway in Venice, Italy, in 1954. JFK Presidential Library

19. The FBI files on Ernest Hemingway contributed to the writer’s suicide, according to close friends

Ernest Hemingway was a living legend as a writer, and as what was in his day considered to be a man’s man. Besides his career as a writer of fiction, he was over the course of his life a war correspondent, big game hunter and fisherman, a noted outdoorsman and adventurer. He was at home with bullfighters and prizefighters as he was with literary critics and agents. By 1959 Hemingway was convinced that he was a constant target of FBI surveillance, and later examination of FBI files indicated that he had been correct. Hemingway, while living in Cuba in 1959, told friends that, “They’ve bugged everything…Can’t use the phone. Mail’s intercepted”. Hemingway insisted on using a friend’s car rather than his own during a pheasant hunting trip, certain that his own vehicle was bugged by the FBI. He often left dinners at public restaurants due to his belief that nearby “diners” were in fact FBI agents.

It was Hoover who directed the surveillance of Hemingway, suspicious that the writer held pro-Castro and communism beliefs. As with other of his surveillance targets, Hoover directed his agents to obtain potentially damaging information on the writer’s friends and sexual liaisons, rather than direct evidence of pro-communist leanings. Hemingway’s friends and family, convinced that the writer’s complaints (coupled with other actions on his part) were part of his increasingly evident mental illness had Hemingway subjected to electro-shock therapy in Minnesota. Just less than two years later he committed suicide with a shotgun. Just over a decade following his death, the revelation of the FBI’s files included a 124-page file on Ernest Hemingway. According to the evidence contained in the file, there was a strong indication that his medical records during his shock treatments – at St. Mary’s in Rochester, Minnesota – were monitored and the writer’s statements recorded by the FBI.


Where do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition”. Athan G. Theoharis & John S. Cox. 1988

“Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover”. Anthony Summers. 1993

“The FBI Pyramid: From the Inside”. Mark W. Felt. 1979

“Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover”. Richard Hack. 2004

“Eleanor Roosevelt”. The Vault, FBI Records. FBI.gov. Online

“U. S. Investigating Missing FBI Data”. John Crewdson, The New York Times. June 7, 1975

“Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-off between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America”. Burton Hersh. 2007

“J. Edgar Hoover’s revenge: Information the FBI once hoped could destroy Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been declassified”. Trevor Griffey. The Conversation. May 31, 2019

“J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets”. Curt Gentry. 2001

“The Secret File on J. Edgar Hoover”. Transcript of Frontline, PBS.org. 1993. Online

“The Truth About J. Edgar Hoover”. TIME Magazine, December 22, 1975

“How the Garage-Rock Anthem “Louie Louie” Became the Subject of a Lengthy FBI Investigation (1964)”. Open Culture. December 15th, 2020

“Charlie Chaplin”. The Vault, FBI Records. FBI.gov. Online

“Louie Louie (The Song)”. The Vault, FBI Records. FBI.gov. Online

“The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI”. Ronald Kessler. 2002

“Nixon and Hoover: Partners in Power”. Nixontapes.org. Online