Secret Files -- Expose Of J. Edgar Hoover Is Author Anthony Summers' Latest Foray Into Intrigue
Some people see intrigue everywhere.
Some people even write books about it.
Of such writers, Anthony Summers must be among the most accomplished.
He wrote "Conspiracy," about how the CIA may have had a role in killing President Kennedy. He wrote "Goddess," about how Marilyn Monroe perhaps didn't commit suicide.
Now he's written "Official and Confidential, the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover" (Putnam, $25.95), about how the boss of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was a tool of the Mafia and a homosexual who liked to wear dresses.
That's a big jump from the image of Hoover that persisted for decades, of a tight-lipped crime fighter who was the nemesis of gangsters and spies.
Summers, who lives in Ireland, got to write about Hoover partly because he didn't know much about that image.
"It's precisely because you're not American," Summers recalls his publisher telling him in explaining why he was asked to write the book.
Reading it, some unsettling larger questions emerge:
-- Is this the way the world really is?
-- If it is, why do we always learn about it after the people are dead?
-- Are there immediate lessons in such long-ago tales?
Summers says the things in the book are real, and the lessons are immense.
He talked about them in Seattle yesterday on a book tour.
Summers, 50, started his career with the Swiss broadcasting network, then moved to the British Broadcasting Corp., where he recalls becoming "typecast" as a war reporter.
"Which is why I got out of it," he says. "It was always the same story with different geography."
Summers has thick gray hair, blue eyes, a friendly manner, a long attention span and a knack for combining roles, calling himself a biographer, but first a reporter.
The reason it takes so long to learn the truth, he says, is that it's such hard work. It does not just leap out.
Recalling how he would find himself going back to people who may have been interviewed by someone else years ago, he would sometimes be kicked down the stairs. But he also found something else.
"They'd open their doors and say, `Where have you been all these years?' " he recalls.
Summers also says he is not a conspiracy buff, and frowns over what he calls the "unfortunate" title on his Kennedy book.
In Hoover's case, there was timidity on the part of the national press, and also the fear Hoover inspired everywhere.
Beyond that was a certain laziness, a reluctance to look beyond the obvious, he explains.
"I have to say American journalism is . . . singularly unaggressive in going out and looking for stories," he says. That's been brought on partly by what he calls the "streamlining" of the American press, through the drive for more speed, for more production, and the tendency toward "knee-jerk" approaches to stories, to get them done fast and to move on to something else.
"Less and less real journalism is done," he says.
It's also expensive.
Summers got an advance of more than $600,000 for the Hoover book, and figured he had hit big money; Monroe cost about $100,000 to research.
Instead, nearly all the money went for expenses. He had five people working for him. There were big travel costs. It took five years. He interviewed more than 800 people.
"It's the most grueling research work I've ever done," he says. It's also paying off - yesterday he learned he's No. 6 on The New York Times' bestseller list.
Summers tells how Hoover had some significant accomplishments, including introducing modern fingerprinting techniques. He mostly tells how Hoover abused those accomplishments almost beyond belief.
"The bottom line of the story for readers is of deception through propaganda," says Summers. "He fell into the trap of believing his own propaganda."
Whether to call the book a "good read" is a matter of taste; it's not as titillating as sex-and-violence fiction, yet it represents the sobering challenge of discovering the real values of someone who's been dead 20 years.
Summers laughs and says that's true of all biographies. Just the same, it's hard to do.
It's unquestionably a monumental story. Hoover was born Jan. 1, 1895, and died May 2, 1972. He ran the FBI for 48 years, an almost incomprehensible length of time, like trying to imagine Seattle having the same mayor for nearly 50 years.
A reader begins learning about bank robbers and the Lindbergh kidnapping in the '20s and '30s, moves on to how a spy named Dusko Popov brought Hoover warnings about the coming attack on Pearl Harbor, which were ignored . . . and there's still 30 years left to tell.
That's where Hoover's homosexual experiences are detailed, how he liked to put on frilly dresses and hold hands with Clyde Tolson, assistant FBI director. Summers tells how power came to Hoover as the keeper of the nation's crime files, how Hoover seemed to know everything about everybody.
That included the sexual adventures of presidents like Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and how he routinely used that knowledge for blackmail, even to the point of getting Johnson named vice president and, thus, ultimately, president.
At the same time, Hoover himself was subject to reverse blackmail and power struggles, mostly by organized crime, with the Mafia controlling him by threatening to expose his homosexuality and gambling.
"Perhaps an alert public should have realized at the time that Hoover's image was too good to be true. Yet in large measure because the nation's press was so timid, it did not," he writes.
Summers chose to end the book with a warning from former Vice President Walter Mondale, who said: "The lesson we learn from history is that we cannot keep our liberty secure by relying alone on the good faith of men with great power."
Yesterday, Summers repeated that warning, of how it's important to look beyond the obvious.
"I've reported the facts as I could learn them," he says.
But you have to go looking.
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