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
Hoover believed Eleanor Roosevelt to be a communist sympathizer. She likened his FBI to the Gestapo. Library of Congress

7. Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover were long-time enemies at arm’s length

One of the thickest files compiled by the FBI – both officially and if the investigative journalists are to be believed in Hoover’s personal files – was dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt. Eleanor was a vocal opponent of Hoover, decrying what she called his “American Gestapo” tactics of collecting information, including through the use of visual surveillance and wiretaps, even as her husband requested FBI taps of political opponents and his own aides. Her position as First Lady and her deference to her husband’s agenda kept her silent, for the most part, while FDR was alive, but in the years after his death, she became increasingly strident in her complaints about Hoover and the FBI. President Truman, no fan of Hoover’s, complained about Eleanor’s comments but was powerless to silence them.

In his personal files, Hoover collected data regarding Eleanor’s lesbian relationships, as well as male lovers during her marriage to FDR and her subsequent widowhood. Files referred to lovers, “both male and female, white and black” according to at least one scholar of Hoover’s files. In Hoover’s files, and in some official FBI files available to the public, Eleanor was supportive of some communist organizations and was an overly enthusiastic supporter of desegregation, both positions which Hoover found threatening to the country. Eventually, Eleanor’s official FBI file grew to include over 3,000 pages, which included FBI detected threats to her life by right-wing organizations – including the Ku Klux Klan – as well as her suspected affiliations with communist groups.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
Some historians argue that Hoover’s “personal” files were largely a myth, and that all of the data he collected were in the official FBI files. FBI

8. The existence of Hoover’s personal files are disputed by some historians and researchers

The very existence of J. Edgar Hoover’s personal files, that is the files which were destroyed under the supervision of Helen Gandy in 1972, is disputed by some historians, who combine them with other files deemed extra sensitive by Hoover. The result has been conflicting assessments of the files and the information they contained. To some historians all of Hoover’s surreptitiously collected data was included in the files which were released by the FBI into the custody of the National Archives in the 1970s. These Official/Confidential files were kept under FBI control, within various offices, before being combined into the Confidential files which were purged by Gandy, with the surviving files being eventually released by the FBI. To these historians, the “personal” files which were marked for destruction by Helen Gandy were simply redundant copies of existing documents or matters of a purely personal nature.

Others argue that Gandy destroyed documents which were deemed to be too sensitive for the inquisitive eyes and delicate political sensitivities of congress, and thus were destroyed, with her conscience as her guide, so to speak. Still others, such as Curt Gentry and Ronald Kessler, present more sinister views as to the existence of the personal files and the information which they contained (their books, and other sources, are listed at the end of this article). The tangle over what Hoover kept in his files, where he kept it, and what he intended to do with it remains as difficult to unravel nearly fifty years after his death as it was in the summer months of 1972, the first time the opportunity to recover the long-rumored files, which had terrorized Washington for decades, was offered.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
Gandy denied that Hoover kept personal files of documents discussing meetings such as this one, with the President and Attorney General, in 1961. Library of Congress

9. According to Helen Gandy, Hoover’s personal files were completely innocuous

Helen Gandy was called to testify before congress regarding the personal files held by J. Edgar Hoover at the time of his death, which should certainly serve as no surprise to anyone. The House Committee on Government Oversight called Gandy to testify in 1975 when both Hoover and Clyde Tolson were of course dead. With no doubt several honorable representatives sitting on pins and needles regarding the whereabouts of Hoover’s personal files asking questions, Gandy was calm and appeared to be forthright. Several congressmen, and newsmen covering the testimony, were skeptical of her statements. One member, a freshman congressman who had not held a Washington office in Hoover’s lifetime, informed Gandy that he found her testimony to be “very difficult to believe”. Gandy responded with a statement which was little more than a verbal shrug of her shoulders, her indifference obvious.

According to Gandy, the files which she identified from the mass of documents which had been in Hoover’s outer offices at the time of his death were personal files, not in the sense that they were files which he decided to hold personally since they were so potentially inflammatory, but because they wer of a personal nature. Gandy told the skeptical and often incredulous congressmen that the files she extracted (and marked for shredding and burning) were of documents such as dog licenses (Hoover was a lifelong dog lover), personal letters, receipts, tax items, and other seemingly harmless detritus of a long life. “I know what there was”, she testified. “Letters to and from friends, personal friends, a lot of letters”, she said, with evident certainty that her testimony was unimpeachable.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
Robert Kennedy (left) barely concealed his contempt for Hoover, and took steps to humble his sometimes recalcitrant FBI Director. Wikimedia

10. Many of Hoover’s feared secret files were little more than a bluff

Although the fact of the FBI keeping confidential files, often compiled through the use of extralegal means, is well established, the existence of an additional set of personal files compiled and controlled by the FBI director for his own use has never been confirmed. It has entered the public realm in the same category as the Roswell files, rabidly believed by some, laughed at by others. The FBI’s official files were bad enough, in terms of the damage their content could have done to personal reputations if revealed. Hoover knew what the FBI had, especially on those he considered his personal enemies. He often referred to them in backhanded fashion, letting an individual know that the FBI was aware of some deep, dark secret, and promising the hapless individual that the secret would be kept.

For decades, beginning before JFK was elected president in 1960, the existence of extensive files held on the Kennedys was rumored in Washington. Hoover also helped slip innuendo linking Joseph P. Kennedy to bootleggers, despite Senate confirmation hearings for Kennedy’s numerous public offices never finding any evidence of such a link (his political enemies, as well as FDR’s, would have made much of them if they had). Yet Hoover’s first meeting with Bobby Kennedy after the latter became Attorney General indicated Bobby had little to fear from Hoover, and even less personal respect for the man who called himself America’s premier law enforcement officer. Kennedy spent the entire interview throwing darts at a board on the wall of his new office, somewhat contemptuous of Hoover. His obvious disregard for what most of official Washington considered an intimidating presence indicated that Hoover’s feared files were of little concern to him, as well as his brother. Hoover was not pleased, but there was little he could do.

Myths and Mysteries from J. Edgar Hoover’s Personal Files
Despite arrests of criminals such as Lepke Buchalter in the 1930s and 1940s, Hoover continued to deny the existence of the Mafia in the United States well into the 1950s. Wikimedia

11. The Kennedy’s pushed Hoover into attacking organized crime in the United States

Until the Kennedy Administration J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI paid little attention to organized crime in the United States. From the 1930s through the late 1950s Hoover largely denied the existence of organized crime along the lines of the Cosa Nostra, preferring to focus the investigative abilities of the FBI on American citizens suspected of communist leanings. In 1957 the Apalachin meeting revealed to the world that Hoover was wrong, and an embarrassed Hoover began to direct efforts by the FBI against the Mafia, but it was half-hearted at best, directed more at public relations than crime control, especially considering mob influence with labor unions. Hoover preferred to shape public opinion along the lines of communist influence within the American labor movement. The public embarrassment and congressional outcry against the FBI led to Hoover redoubling his collection of potentially harmful information on political enemies, retained in the FBI files.

One target was an old target, Eleanor Roosevelt. Long considered (by Hoover) an anti-American, pro-communist, and what was worse, a desegregationist, Hoover collected information on Eleanor’s personal life, including her sexual relationships, which were retained in official files (where they can be viewed in the National Archives) as well as supposedly in his personal files. Whether the information was leaked to the press in order to discredit FDR’s widow is a matter of speculation, Eleanor remained a strident pro-union and pro-integration voice for the rest of her life. When Bobby Kennedy directed Hoover to concentrate the forces of the FBI on organized crime and its undue influence, an angry director overtly complied, but secretly continued to focus on communism as the main threat to American life.

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