The spectacle of the fleshy FBI chief lurching around the corridors of New York’s Plaza Hotel in drag is now indelibly lodged in American popular folklore. The story is deeply satisfying since it suggests the powerful Hoover — who monitored, harassed and blackmailed thousands of Americans about their sex lives — was a rank and villainous hypocrite. Unfortunately, it is based entirely on the testimony of only one witness: Susan Rosenstiel, the former wife of a wealthy liquor distiller, who was quoted at length in the over-heated Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, a 1993 biography by muckraking Brit Anthony Summers and excerpted in Vanity Fair magazine.
For the record, Ms. Rosenstiel said that she and her husband went to a party with the gay McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn at the Plaza Hotel overlooking New York’s Central Park in 1958. There she met Hoover in a fetching black curly wig, “fluffy” black dress, lace stockings and high heels — and going by the name “Mary.” She says Hoover lifted his dress so that two young blond call boys (one wearing rubber gloves) could “work on him with their hands,” then they all watched while her husband enjoyed the young pair. A year later, Rosenstiel recalls, she attended another party at the Plaza: This time, Hoover was wearing a red dress and sporting a saucy black feather boa, “like an old flapper, like you see on old tintypes.” The same pair of blond call boys, now dressed in leather, supposedly read from the Bible while fondling the ecstatic Hoover.
Memorable as her tale is, Ms. Rosenstiel did not prove to be the most reliable source. Ronald Kessler, author of The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, reports that she was jailed for perjury in 1971 and may have wanted revenge on Hoover for supposedly putting FBI agents on her tail during divorce proceedings with her husband.
The only other evidence cited by Summers is the report of two anonymous sources in Washington, D.C. that they had seen photographs of Hoover in a blond wig and dress. Nobody else has ever seen these images. One former FBI agent recalled seeing blurry photographs that might fit the description, but he could not be sure it was Hoover.
The cross-dressing account builds on the more persistent but unproven rumors that Hoover was gay. After all, he spent nearly 40 years in close company with his young assistant Clyde Tolson. The pair were deeply attached; they took their holidays together and were buried alongside one another. (Richard Nixon, on learning of Hoover’s death in 1972, reportedly declared, “Jesus Christ! That old cocksucker!”) But the FBI agents who trailed Hoover as part of standard FBI security routine insist that the two always went their separate ways at bedtime; as with Joshua Speed and Abe Lincoln, the “passionate friendship” was almost certainly unconsummated. And whatever his private inclinations, few can accept that the master blackmailer of the FBI, whose dossiers extended across the ruling elite of the United States, would have put himself so recklessly at risk by prancing about the Plaza Hotel in a dress — whether black or red. • 22 February 2010
SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Kessler, Ronald, The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, (New York, 2002); Summers, Anthony, Secret and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, (New York, 1993).