J. Edgar Hoover, ‘Sex Deviates’ and My Godfather
By DUDLEY CLENDINEN
Published: November 25, 2011
JUST before Christmas in 1952, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the F.B.I., let President Dwight D. Eisenhower know that the man Eisenhower had appointed as secretary to the president, his friend and chief of staff, my godfather, Arthur H. Vandenberg Jr., was a homosexual.
It was part of a pattern of persecution that would destroy thousands of lives and careers. Earlier that year, the American Psychiatric Association’s manual had classified homosexuality as a kind of madness, and Republican senators had charged that homosexuality in the Truman administration was a national security threat. Hoover — the subject of Clint Eastwood’s new film — was determined to stave off such threats.
A public Puritan with a compulsively bureaucratic and controlling personality, he built an intricate system of files on people of influence — personal and confidential, official and unofficial, and all full of dirt. The most damning were the voluminous “Sex Deviate” files on famous actors, syndicated columnists, senators, governors, business moguls and princes of the Roman Catholic Church, just to name a few. There was one on Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic nominee for president, because some college basketball players being investigated by the F.B.I. for game-fixing claimed that Stevenson, one of “the two best-known homosexuals in the state,” was nicknamed “Adeline.” There was even a file on Eisenhower himself, recording rumors of an affair with Kay Summersby, his driver in Britain during the war.
One was devoted to my godfather because, while he had years of experience in politics and foreign affairs and working for his father, Arthur H. Vandenberg Sr. — a Republican senator from Michigan with a mistress and a file of his own — he also drank, and he wasn’t discreet. Apparently, the file held reports of some incidents with two enlisted men at Camp Lee, Va., in 1942, before he served with and became friends with my father. Worse, at the time Eisenhower appointed him to the White House, he was sharing an apartment in Washington with another man. This was not uncommon. But the other man had been arrested on some morals charge. That was enough for Ike, whom Hoover later described, to an aide to Richard M. Nixon, as “astounded.”
Arthur wasn’t a fighter. He folded. He checked into a hospital, complaining of stomach problems, and resigned the appointment for “health reasons” three months after Eisenhower’s inauguration. He was a pale, fleshy, thin-haired man — sort of like Hoover, actually. And he was a bachelor. Like Hoover. He had never had a girlfriend, or seriously dated women. Like Hoover, Arthur seemed to spend all his free time with men. Hoover, after all, had lived with his mother until she died in 1938, and by then, he was practically inseparable from the natty, lean, quiet Clyde Tolson, whom he had hired in 1928 and promoted meteorically, making him associate director, the No. 2 position in the F.B.I., in 1947.
J. Edgar and Clyde had separate offices and separate houses, but they had lunch together, dinner together, rode to work in Hoover’s car together, attended private dinners and receptions in Washington together, went to the horse races together, and vacationed in the same hotel suites together. By Hoover’s standards, if they hadn’t been the director and associate director of the F.B.I., they would have been in its Sex Deviate files together, because there sure was a lot of talk about them. Hoover sent agents to squash the talk and threaten the talkers wherever it occurred.
But at least they had each other. Eastwood’s film imagines a violent kiss between them, but my guess, as someone who loves men, is that they were never lovers. They weren’t built for it. They were too prim, too rigid, too Victorian. The only way Hoover could be comfortable in such a public relationship, I think, was because he knew it wasn’t sexual in private, whether he desired it to be or not. Hoover was too aware of the power of a secret. How could he permit anyone — even Clyde — to have something on him?
As far as I know, Arthur Jr. never had a full relationship, either. What he had was an F.B.I. file. He left Washington, moved to Coconut Grove, Fla., bought a house, drove a convertible, made extensive foreign policy visits to the Middle and Far East and Asia, and became a popular lecturer on American foreign policy at the University of Miami.
And Eisenhower had stayed in touch, including Arthur at a White House stag dinner, having him in again to talk about his conversations with foreign leaders and suggesting to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that they ought to find a place for him. Arthur seemed on the verge of resurrection. That ended in late 1956, when Confidential, a smut and scandal tabloid probably fed by the F.B.I., published a lurid exposé about him.
Arthur resigned from the university, and disconnected his phone. The couple of times my parents saw him in that period, he seemed unfocused, drinking too much, and restless to be out of their company. In 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson’s close friend and aide, Walter Jenkins, was arrested for performing oral sex in a men’s room, L.B.J. reminded reporters that the Republican, Eisenhower, had had a problem, too, and his name was Arthur Vandenberg.
It must have seemed as if it would never end. But then, on Jan. 18, 1968, Arthur died at the age of 60. My father was then editor of The Tampa Tribune, and friends at The Miami Herald told him that Arthur had killed himself. But there was no such public report, and when, years later, I asked an investigative reporter friend of mine in Miami to look for the coroner’s report or death certificate, he could find nothing.
I had a feeling growing up — and later, as I realized I was gay, and came to terms with it in my 40s — that something must have happened to my godfather. He had disappeared from my childhood. The only memory I have is of him driving away, in a convertible. I was just 8 when Hoover outed him. I didn’t know what had broken the relationship. It wasn’t until the early ’90s, when I asked if my parents thought he had been gay, that they told me of his death, and of one night, in a Spanish restaurant in Tampa, when they were shocked to see Arthur emerge from behind the curtain of a private dining nook with a tipsy young airman. In all those years, they had never spoken of it, even to each other.
Two weeks after Arthur resigned in 1953, Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, which mandated the firing of any federal employees guilty of “sexual perversion.” But apparently, he felt badly about Arthur. The Kameny Papers Project, an archival project named for Franklin E. Kameny, a major gay rights leader who died in October, has found a series of personal notes and letters from Ike and Mamie to Arthur, regretting that he wasn’t with them. “I feel very distressed about your health,” the president wrote in one. “I feel in some respects guilty.”
When Hoover died in May 1972, his personal secretary shredded a mass of his private files. In December 1973, the board of the American Psychiatric Association voted to rescind its 1952 decision to classify homosexuality as insanity.
They had been wrong, the directors of the association said. It had been a mistake.