Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Goods on J. Edgar Hoover #3


Yes, again, a round with the J. Edgar movie.  I suppose I'm gnawing away on this bone because of a longstanding conviction that even a filmed interpretation of an event or an individual, even an out-and-out biopic, demands fidelity to the established body of history behind it.  In the November 14 New Yorker, David Denby notes that this film came out of a collaboration between Clint Eastwood and "the activist gay screenwriter of 'Milk.'"  That may elucidate a lot of the movie's focus on the slippery and ultimately undefined relationship between Hoover and his longtime associate director, Clyde Tolson.  But it does not explain away the pattern of gross historical misreadings, the repeated and apparently wilful ignorance of facts on which much of the plot is hung.

Last week I cited -- one example among a number -- the scene in which Hoover purportedly appeared before Attorney General Robert Kennedy and threatened to expose his brother the president as an adulterer who did not scruple to conduct an affair with a seasoned prostitute -- Ellen Rometsch in real life -- most likely an East German spy.  The affair was verifiable, I dealt with it in detail in Bobby and J. Edgar.  But it was Bobby who kowtowed before Hoover to get him to intervene with a Senate committee on the point of conducting an investigation because articles hinting at the involvement by the respected Clark Mollenhoff were starting to appear in the Des Moines Register.  Robert Kennedy in effect kidnapped Ellen Rometsch and shipped her back to Germany with an aide.  When I was writing Bobby and J. Edgar I spent a day with Bobby Baker, Lyndon Johnson's trusted sidekick, who pimped for dignitaries on both sides of the aisle, and he showed me letters from the heartbroken Ellen, back in Germany, that testified to John Kennedy's versatility as a lover.

Hoover got JFK off the hook that summer of 1963, but after that there was no more White House talk of replacing the Director.  The previous summer Hoover had answered Robert Kennedy's pleas and stepped in to confiscate the telephone records that proved that Bob had been in touch with Marilyn Monroe -- in fact, had quarreled with her in her house in Brentwood -- hours before her mysterious death.  FBI records document this. If Eastwood's screenwriter wanted genuine drama, how was he going to top that?

A late scene features J. Edgar dictating that famous letter -- "King, there is only one thing left for you to do--"
which urged King to end it all rather than accept the Nobel Peace Prize and then find himself revealed as an habitual consorter with loose -- white -- whores.  Hoover had the proof, and indeed his flunkies in the Bureau had repeatedly attempted to plant this evidence in the newspapers.  The problem was, the Kennedy brothers disliked King and his rabble-rousing as much as Hoover did, and Bob Kennedy had granted Hoover explicit permission to bug and tap the offices and motel rooms of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  All this would haunt Bobby once he ran for president.

As is suggested in Bobby and J. Edgar, Hoover himself was far too adroit to dictate a letter like the one he is shown composing in this movie, urging suicide on King.  The chief of counterintelligence at the Bureau at the time, Ray Wannall, told me that Hoover's Assistant Director for Domestic Intelligence, William Sullivan, had caught that duty.  At that stage Sullivan could be depended on whenever the skies were darkening, most notably during the exposed hours after JFK's assassination, when Hoover was determined to cover the Bureau's tracks.

What I am attempting to suggest here is that the truth about Hoover is a lot more intriguing than anything that made it into this mottled movie version.  Read and find out.

Burton Hersh

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