Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover by Richard Hack


Rating: (Recommended)




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Richard Hack’s biography of J. Edgar Hoover titled Puppetmaster presents memorable images of the life of one of the strangest public characters in American history. One early image: Hoover handing out mimeographed business cards in high school. An early work image: the conscious decision to arrive early and leave late every day, and working every Saturday, all to be noticed by superiors. An image of home life: the tacky girly pinups in his home rec room. Readers looking for scandals revealed, and expecting to find sex stories will come away disappointed. The scandals exposed have everything to do with money and power. Hoover never took a vacation: all his resort trips were working events: and the hotels and restaurants usually comped him. Image counted for so much for this 19th century man: he lived in fear that his FBI and himself would ever be exposed for any weaknesses.


Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 13, “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” pp. 357-365:


When J. Edgar Hoover first met Dorothy Lamour in 1935, she was not yet known as the sultry actress who exchanged wisecracks with the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on the road to somewhere or other. She had not yet become famous for her long brown hair and wide-set eyes, or for wearing her trademark sarong that showed off a body thin and fit with a delicate femininity. Truth be told, she had just turned 20, and, as such, had yet to develop much in the way of style or poise. But to J. Edgar Hoover, she was wonderful.

Walking into the Stork Club on the arm of singer-bandleader Rudy Vallée, Lamour pretended not to notice as the movie stars and famous writers in the room stole glances in her direction, their whispers buzzing like swarming mosquitoes. She wore a pale blue satin gown that draped across her hips, catching the lights from the ceiling and bathing her in a glow of mystery. Her mother was there that night as well, but no one noticed Carmen Louise Lambour.* This was to be her daughter’s night.

Lamour had arrived the previous week from Chicago, where she had worked as a singer with the Herbie Kaye Band, then a sensation on WGN radio, broadcasting from the ballroom of the Blackhawk Hotel. It was Vallée who had convinced Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley to give Lamour an audition, and pay her $125 a week for her considerable talent. Though just one of many attractive singers who seemed to propagate themselves in night­clubs along the Great White Way and various side streets, Lamour had an innocence that captivated Hoover.

“I brought her up to Walter Winchell’s table and intro­duced her before the show,” Vallée recalled in 1980. “The place was full of famous people. But Dottie made a par­ticular fuss over J. Edgar Hoover. He stood up like a gen­tleman and shook her hand, and said he hoped she would join the table after the show. I don’t think Winchell was too excited about it, but I know Hoover was.”

For the next several months, Hoover romanced the young singer with weekend dinners at the Stork Club, nervously chattering away about crime statistics and shootings of “Pretty Boy” Floyd and John Dillinger, and inviting her to Washington for a tour of the Bureau’s forensic labs. If it wasn’t exactly romantic, it was at least sincere, for the singer, who never got to know her real father, saw in Hoover a successful, driven, and respectful substitute.

On weekdays, with Hoover back in Washington, Lam-our was wooed by Vallée, then the reigning king of croon­ers with a radio show on NBC and a popular New York nightclub, Villa Vallée, on Fiftieth Street. Special agents from the Bureau’s New York office, dispatched to watch Lamour, discovered the relationship and, on Hoover’s instructions, interfered with the budding romance. “Phone messages would mysteriously disappear, taxis would drop her off at the wrong restaurant, and her mother, Carmen, was everywhere we went,” Vallée said. “Mr. Hoover saw to it.”

It was to be bandleader Herbie Kaye who eventually captured the singer’s heart, however. “When Herbie came into town to do some special industrial engagements at the New York Hotel, he called me right away,” Lamour later wrote. “I knew how I felt about him, but it came as a total surprise when he said he loved me and wanted to marry me.”  The pair eloped to Waukegan, Illinois, on May 10, 1935, though pledged to keep their wedding a secret to boost their growing careers. They had not counted on J. Edgar Hoover, of course, or the Chicago office of the FBI, which alerted columnist Ed Sullivan, who broke the news of the nuptials on May 15.

Privately, Hoover was devastated by the loss of Lam-our to another man. Publicly, he moved directly into the arms of Ginger Rogers’s mother, Lela, who had been patiently waiting to reacquaint herself with the well-known, respected bachelor. It was convenient to be seen with Lela, and Hoover admitted he enjoyed the spotlight that followed the pair for the next four years on Manhat­tan’s tuxedoed nightclub circuit. Yet, his heart remained with Dorothy Lamour, whose star was rising quickly in Hollywood. When her marriage disintegrated under the pressures of show business, Hoover was the first to offer his shoulder in support. However, it took a president and a birthday party to reunite the unlikely pair.

The fifty-eighth birthday celebration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought both Dorothy Lamour and J. Edgar Hoover to the White House—she escorted by Tyrone Power, her most recent co-star, and he with Lela Rogers, who was excited about an anticipated marriage proposal. Yet neither Power nor the hopeful Rogers held on to their dates, who were discovered together the next morning in Lamour’s suite at the Willard Hotel by Walter Winchell. While Winchell was blackmailed into secrecy by Hoover, he revealed the story to film producer Allan Can, who had pur­chased Winchell’s Manhattan apartment on Central Park. The romance was later verified by author Charles Higham in 1971, interviewing the actress for an audio history of her life. When asked about her sexual relationship with Hoover, she commented simply, “I cannot deny it.”

As Higham says, “A lady never tells.”

Though Lamour married William Ross Howard III in 1943, she maintained a close friendship with Hoover for the remainder of her life. The Bureau’s director visited the Howard home in Beverly Hills once a year for an extended stay, and a portrait of the actress remained in Hoover’s bedroom until the day he died. It was hardly surprising therefore that Hoover turned to Lamour for support after Tolson suffered two massive and debilitating strokes in the mid-sixties.

Lamour had long suspected Tolson’s health was declining, though she was shocked at his appearance when Tolson joined Hoover at the debut of the singer’s nightclub act in 1965—so shocked that she referred him to her own physician for a complete physical. Both Tolson and Hoover dismissed the associate directors weight loss to overwork. It was a legitimate excuse. Tolson was work­ing harder than ever, thanks to Hoover’s sale of his 1958 book, Masters of Deceit, to ABC for $75,000 as the basis for a new television series, The EB.I.

The Quinn Martin production starred Efrem Zimbal­ist Jr. as fictional FBI inspector Lewis Erskine, whose office was said to be next to the director’s own. To some, it was the ideal telling of the Bureau’s story. To Hoover, it was the ultimate vindication. His Bureau, his life, was placed on the pedestal of fictional television and passed off as fact, to the extent that in the initial years of the show, authentic case file numbers were listed in the open­ing credits of the hour-long drama.

Hoover had handpicked Zimbalist for the actor’s clean-cut, immaculate image, and saw to it that every script, every movement, was approved by someone within his department—at first Tolson, then DeLoach, who grudgingly assumed the task. They were, in a very real sense, crafting the Bureau’s image for a new generation of American consumers, and the audience bought the illu­sion wholesale.

Zimbalist as well became convinced of the FBI’s integrity and strength, based on his initial meeting with Hoover soon after he was cast. “I don’t recall his ever pausing in his conversation once,” Zimbalist remem­bered. “He just talked at breakneck speed on every sub­ject imaginable and with such a command of thought and language that there wasn’t room to get in the amenities of conversation. When it was over, I looked at my watch, and I’d been there two hours and four minutes. He was a great conversationalist, had a great sense of humor, and wide knowledge of every area of life, and he just chatted most charmingly and interestingly about every subject— he crossed decades and continents and everything else.”

The actor was subjected to a full FBI investigation into his past in Hoover and Tolson’s attempt to prevent even the slightest hint of scandal from being injected into the program. Despite their caution, however, both men approached the series’ debut with apprehension, particu­larly Hoover, whose voice opened the premiere episode on Sunday, September 19, 1965. Seated in Hoover’s down­stairs den, surrounded by mementos of a career nearing its end, the director and his assistant sat transfixed as the show unfolded. The sets, the cast, even the Ford automo­biles used in the production were perfectly polished. Yet into this wholesomeness of good vs. evil slipped an incip­ient villain with a problem: the bad guy was no ordinary crook, no mere bank robber or kidnapper. To Hoover’s horror, the villain had a fetish—the touch of human hair made him kill. Hoover demanded that in the future, the criminal element on the drama would be “dishonest, rather than psychologically imbalanced.”

The pressure was on Tolson to keep the program exciting yet pure, dramatic if uncontroversial. It was, of; course, not his only assignment, and had grown in man­hours to encompass a full quarter of his workweek. Adding to the pressure, Tolson was being pushed by :~ Hoover to protect the Bureau against an ever-suspicious Senate—particularly Senator Edward V. Long, who, in 1966, had launched an investigation into the Bureau’s use of electronic surveillance, including the use of microphone listening devices installed through black bag jobs.

Long, a Democrat from Missouri, claimed that federal agents had embarked on a “nationwide campaign of wire­tapping, snooping and harassment of American citizens.”8 His opinion was based on several hundred reports of uncovered wiretaps and electronic surveillance, including multiple installations authorized by the FBI. To Long, America was “a naked society, where every citizen is a denizen in a goldfish bowl.”9 No one felt the invasion more than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who remained at the top of Hoover’s list of “low-life filth.”

Hoover had found a willing underling in William Sul­livan, whose ascent into the executive ranks in the Seat of Government was all but assured by his success in invad­ing the sanctity of the civil rights leader. At least, that is, until Senator Long began to investigate Sullivan’s late-night break-ins and illegal bugging. At that point, Hoover immediately distanced himself from any culpability.

In March 1965, Attorney General Nicholas Katzen­bach had informed Hoover that authorized wiretaps would be reviewed every six months, and that micro­phone surveillance would be subject to the same strict authorization procedures. For Hoover, the notice was tan­tamount to a challenge; the taint of disapproval hanging in the wind.

The revelation of King’s sexual habits had failed to impeach the integrity of the civil rights leader. With many SCLC wiretaps and bugs already in place, and information on King flowing into Bureau headquarters in sporadic fashion, Hoover needed immediate proof that the Com­munists were actively involved in the operation of the SCLC. As usual, Hoover looked to Tolson to achieve the results. Hoover’s second-in-command, whose mandate had always been to perform as well as protect, felt himself faltering, consumed by the very work that was draining him physically. His was a piquant world where past sins could no longer be ignored or handled with a wink, yet whose excitement urged him to continue to play among the political minefields.

For Tolson, it was William Sullivan, not J. Edgar Hoover, who was the source of most concern. Sullivan, out to trump his predecessors in the Domestic Intelli­gence Division, pushed to plant more bugs, further invad­ing the privacy of King in an effort to locate the single piece of damning evidence to prove his collusion with the Communist Party.

On January 22, 1966, Tolson received a memo from Sullivan through “Deke” DeLoach, routinely advising him of the latest microphone surveillance of the civil rights leader: a bug installed at the Americana Hotel in New York. In his enthusiasm for information, Sullivan had failed to secure Hoover’s authorization. Now, he felt Tol­son’s anger. “Remove this surveillance at once,” Tolson wrote in pencil across the memo. “No one here approved this. I have told Sullivan again not to institute a mike sur­veillance without the director’s approval.’0 Reluctantly, Sullivan obeyed, even as the pressure within the Bureau mounted. Seven weeks later, Tolson was stricken by a massive ischemic stroke. Just as with the ministrokes that had preceded it, Tolson became dizzy and disoriented at work. The most recent stroke had come when he joined Hoover to open the new Bureau office in Jackson, Missis­sippi, on July 10, 1964. And as he did with the mini-strokes, Tolson ignored the warning signs, thinking they would pass. They always passed; yet, not this time.

Hoover received the news with typical efficiency, removing Tolson from his office and rushing him to the hospital—not in an ambulance, but rather his in own lim­ousine. All the better to minimize confusion—and pub­licity As always, the FBI had to remain impenetrable, its leaders impervious to calamity. Yet, as the weeks and months that followed would show, Hoover and Tolson were both vulnerable and increasingly pushed to protect a fast-dissolving illusion.

On the surface, Hoover continued to play hardball politics and go through the motions of control via intim­idation. One casualty was Attorney General Katzenbach. Determined to openly admit the extent of the govern­ment’s wiretapping and electronic surveillance, Katzen­bach fought against Hoover and lost. He could not compete with what he labeled “the historical accident of J. Edgar Hoover.” It was Katzenbach’s naiveté as much as his revelations about Bureau surveillance that sealed his fate. To think that an attorney general actually controlled the behavior of the Bureau’s director was serious folly. Katzenbach’s resignation had nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with secrets. His replacement, Ram­sey Clark, was not about to make the same mistake.


* An accidental misspelling of Lambour to Lamour changed Dorothy’s stage name.


I came away from reading Puppetmaster with sadness. Hoover was a haunted man, living in fear of many demons. Hack lays out the events of Hoover’s life in ways that conclude that none of the excesses were worth the cost.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2005



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