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Did J. Edgar Hoover Really Wear Dresses?

In 1993, Anthony Summers, in his book Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, claimed that Hoover did not pursue organized crime because the Mafia had blackmail material on him. In support of that, Summers quoted Susan L. Rosenstiel, a former wife of Lewis S. Rosenstiel, chairman of Schenley Industries Inc., as saying that in 1958, she was at a party at the Plaza Hotel where Hoover engaged in cross-dressing in front of her then-husband and Roy Cohn, former counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy.

"He [Hoover] was wearing a fluffy black dress, very fluffy, with flounces and lace stockings and high heels, and a black curly wig," Summers quoted Susan as saying."He had makeup on and false eyelashes."[1]

Susan claimed Cohn introduced Hoover to her as"Mary." Hoover allegedly responded,"Good evening." She said she saw Hoover go into a bedroom and take off his skirt. There,"young blond boys" worked on him in bed. Later, as Hoover and Cohn watched, Lewis Rosenstiel had sex with the young boys.

A year later, Susan claimed, she again saw Hoover at the Plaza. This time, the director was wearing a red dress. Around his neck was a black feather boa. He was holding a Bible, and he asked one of the blond boys to read a passage as another boy played with him.

It was episodes such as these, Summers declared, that the Mafia held over Hoover's head."Mafia bosses obtained information about Hoover's sex life and used it for decades to keep the FBI at bay," the jacket of the book says."Without this, the Mafia as we know it might never have gained its hold on America."

Rosenstiel, a former bootlegger during Prohibition, was well-acquainted with Mafia figures such as Frank Costello, originally Francesco Castiglia. He was also friends with Hoover, having endowed the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation in 1965 with $1 million. But Susan was Summers's primary source for the cross-dressing story, and she was not exactly a credible witness. In fact, she served time at Riker's Island for perjuring herself in a 1971 case.

Convinced that Hoover had somehow stacked the cards against her during the divorce proceedings, Susan had long tried to interest anyone who would listen that Hoover was a cross-dresser. Susan had taken her allegations to Robert M. Morgenthau, the U.S. Attorney in New York, who himself had no use for Hoover.

"She used to call me after 5:30 p.m. when my secretary had left, so I wound up having to listen to her," Morgenthau said. He said he found her claims baseless. But Morgenthau shared her allegations with William Hundley, who had a Justice Department attorney look into them.[2]

"Susie Rosenstiel had a total ax to grind," Hundley said."Somebody who worked for me talked to her. It was made up out of whole cloth. She hated Hoover for some alleged wrong he had done. Plus the story was beyond belief. I told Summers this. Then he goes ahead and uses it."[3]

Now seventy-seven and living in a single room in a Manhattan hotel where rooms rent for $98.85 a night, Rosenstiel said Summers paid her for the interviews she gave him, and she wanted to be paid for an interview for this book. Like most journalists and news organizations, I believe paying for information calls into question its credibility. When I told Rosenstiel this and suggested she could generate publicity for herself by telling the truth and admitting she made up the cross-dressing story, she said,"It did happen."[4]

Summers said that after Rosenstiel told her the cross-dressing story, she told him that she intended to give the story to another journalist. Summers said he paid her a fee to hold the story until his book came out. The producer of a documentary made for Frontline and the BBC also paid Rosenstiel for her appearance with Summers, he said.

In an Esquire piece, Peter Maas, a world class journalist who died in 2001, pointed out that Summers's rendition of events has a fatal flaw: After the alleged incident at the Plaza, Hoover assigned agents to investigate Lansky, who supposedly had the goods on him. When the Miami Field Office complained that the investigation of Lansky was not producing enough information to justify the manpower, Hoover wrote back,"Lansky has been designated for 'crash' investigation. The importance of this case cannot be overemphasized . . . The bureau expects this investigation to be vigorous and detailed."

Still presumably cowering because Lansky had incriminating photos of him, Hoover followed up with an order to install bugs in Lansky's apartment. Having been ordered by Robert Kennedy to attack the Mafia as the FBI had attacked Communism, Hoover wrote in the January 1962 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin,"The battle is joined. We have taken up the gauntlet flung down by organized crime. Let us unite in a devastating assault to annihilate this mortal enemy." Yet even before Kennedy took over, Hoover, stung by the disclosure of the 1957 Appalachin meeting, had been pursuing the mob aggressively. Doesn't that torpedo Summers= theory? No, Summers told me, by that time it didn't matter to Hoover. But, of course, if there were such photos, they would have been just as embarrassing in the 1950s and 1960s as in earlier years. Summers pointed out that he wrote a lengthy rebuttal to Esquire, and he called the Maas article"inaccurate and abhorrent."

Despite the clear implication in the book that her story was true and the declaration on the book's jacket that the Mafia knew that Hoover was a" closet homosexual and transvestite" and held that over his head, Summers told me that he merely reported what Rosenstiel said, along with what others claimed. He said he holds"no firm view one way or the other" as to whether she told the truth.[5]

While there was always speculation about Hoover and Tolson, there were never any rumors about Hoover cross-dressing. Oliver"Buck" Revell, a former associate director of the FBI, noted that if the Mafia had had anything on Hoover, it would have been picked up in wiretaps mounted against organized crime after Appalachin. There was never a hint of such a claim, Revell said.

Hoover was more familiar to Americans than most presidents. The director of the FBI simply could not have engaged in such activity at the Plaza, with a number of witnesses present, without having it leak out. The cross-dressing allegations were as credible as McCarthy's claim that there were 205 known Communists in the State Department, yet the press widely circulated the claim without further investigation. That Hoover was a cross-dresser is now largely presumed to be fact even by sophisticated people.

(Click here to see a cartoon by Pat Oliphant depicting Hoover in a dress.)

  1. Summers, Anthony, Official and Confidential, page 254. [back]
  2. Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 27, 1993, page A14. [back]
  3. Hundley, William G., July 24, 2001, Robert Morgenthau, January 2, 2002. [back]
  4. Rosenstiel, Susan, December 23, 2001. [back]
  5. Summers, Anthony, December 24, 2001 and January 2, 2002 and email of January 4, 2002. [back]