“The Director: My Years Assisting J. Edgar Hoover” by Paul Letersky with Gordon Dillow (Scribner)
The life of J. Edgar Hoover has been set apart in other books; Paul Letersky and Gordon Dillow deliver insight that could only be obtained from Letersky’s perspective as Hoover’s personal assistant for two years.
“The Director: My Years Assisting J. Edgar Hoover” is actually a pair of books in one; the first half examines Letersky’s experience as Hoover’s assistant; the second covers Letersky’s years as a field agent, first in Cincinnati and then in Alexandria, Virginia.
Letersky offers less of a historic breakthrough than finer brushstrokes on an American icon, whom the author describes as kind, courteous, formal, thoughtful, fearless, at times funny, a perfect gentleman and a fervent patriot. He could also be vindictive, closed-minded, hypocrite, and the holder of eternal grudges who genuinely believed he was serving his country. In his later years, however, Hoover was apparently oblivious to ethical lapses such as the wiretapping of Reverend Martin Luther King’s hotel rooms.
Hoover also comes across as mean, critical and at times bizarre. He didn’t want men with “pear-shaped” heads as agents and woe to the agent who added a few extra pounds.
More than anything, Hoover was that quintessentially American character, the workaholic. His whole life has been devoted to the FBI, which he made the most respected law enforcement agency in the world. The agents feared letters of censure from the boss; Hoover’s FBI left no room for error or forgiveness. Hoover’s singular dedication to the success and image of the FBI has made the office a tense and competitive place to work. Arrests, closed files, accuracy rate of typed pages, everything was measured. “All men, even the best, must be tightly controlled and supervised at all times,” Letersky told him, quoting Hoover.
He stayed too long and later needed an afternoon nap, but other than attending the horse races he had little other life.
As for Hoover, using his famous and dreaded âpersonal filesâ to pressure the eight presidents he worked for to allow him to stay; in Letersky’s account, it was quite the reverse – several presidents tried to lean on Hoover for political influence.
The director generally resisted. Letersky said. Hoover never joined a political party and never voted.
With Hoover’s death in 1972, many believed the mystery of what was in his personal files would be revealed. Their mere existence generated fear – what secrets might these 30 file drawers contain?
Some clues can be obtained about the contents of a file that Letersky saw on The Monkees, the American pop group of the 1960s. The file consisted of a few newspaper clips, cut and stored because an informant said the group conveyed subliminal anti-war messages during their concerts.
It would have been impressive on many levels. The musical abilities of the Monkees were such that the studio musicians recorded many of their songs for them.
What about the rest of the files?
We will never know. After Hoover’s death, they were torn to pieces by his longtime secretary, Helen Gandy. The work lasted two weeks.