Book recommendation: “G-Man”

May 31, 2023 • 12:45 pm

Assuming you’re not put off by long books (this one has about 750 pages of text) and that you a well-written biography of a fascinating American character, I can highly recommend G-Man, which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. It also nabbed a bunch of other awards, including the 2023 Bancroft Prize, the 2023 Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize in American History, the 2023 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, and the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.  I found out about the book via a recommendation fr0m my editor at Viking Penguin, the terrific Wendy Wolf, who happened to be the editor of this book—her second editing job to win a Pulitzer for nonfiction.

I presume that you know a little about J. Edgar Hoover: how he was FBI director from 1935-1972—from the days of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd right up through the Watergate burglary.  He refused to step down (and so died in office), served under eight Presidents, and grew the Bureau from a small investigative office into the behemoth institution it is today.

You’ve probably also heard that he illegally bugged Martin Luther King (among many other people), catching the Reverend in acts of infidelity and sending the tapes to Coretta King. After that, he had an anonymous note sent to King urging him to “do the right thing”, i.e.,  kill himself. (Hoover, an arch-conservative, disliked the civil rights movement, all Communists, and, at the end of his life, the left-wing antiwar movement.) You may have also heard that he was gay and dressed in women’s clothes. The latter isn’t true, while the former probably is, though Gage was unable to produce convincing proof that Hoover, who never married, had a homosexual relationship with his deputy Clyde Tolson.  They were surely partners of some sort, and nearly all of Hoover’s money (and the flag on his coffin) went to Tolson after his death. Hoover also bugged John and Bobby Kennedy, catching them in multiple infidelities, though he didn’t use that information against them.

Beverly Gage spent 16 years writing this book, and it shows: it’s loaded with facts that only a dogged researcher could pry out of archives, and yet the prose is superb. This is a long book that’s also a page-turner.

I don’t think that anyone who reads this book and has a moral neuron could think anything other than that Hoover was an odious human being, even though he ran the Bureau efficiently (although autocratically). He regularly violated the law by wiretapping, intimidating people, and engaging in quasi-legal manipulations to get his way, and I could find no sense of humor in the man, or, indeed, anything to like. Acts of empathy on his part were almost nonexistent. People befriended him simply because he was powerful.  But that’s what makes the story fascinating: how he cowed seven Presidents, including several who couldn’t stand him, into getting his way. (He got along best with Nixon and Johnson).

Gage sums up his life in a couple of pages at the end, and, like me, sees him as a pretty awful human being, but one who had the facility to wield power to his own advantage. He played a huge role in American history, though not always a good one, and if you’re a history buff or simply like biographies, this is one to read.  It’s a good book to take on a long trip, but too heavy to schlep to the beach!

I give it two hearty thumbs up.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon page:

Click below to see a 16-minute NPR interview of Beverly Gage by Michel Martin:

4 thoughts on “Book recommendation: “G-Man”

  1. One thing Hoover deserves credit for that doesn’t get much mention — he shut down the American kidnapping industry. By the early 30s, respectable people across the nation were getting snatched on a regular basis and held for huge cash ransoms, the equivalent of a million or more in today’s dollars. Bankers, doctors, designers, inventors, or their spouses or children were grabbed off the streets or sometimes out of their beds, and sometimes released alive and sometimes killed. Charles Lindbergh Jr. comes to mind, but there were many more, and the implications — as reported in the press of the day — were terrifying: succeed, even modesty, and wait to be abducted or lose a loved one to the scourge. But then the “Lindbergh Law” was passed, in summer 1932, and Hoover went to work, doing things no city or state police force could do — printing up thousands of lists of ransom money serial numbers and shipping them to banks and stores nationwide, and confronting and arresting kidnapping accomplices wherever they lived. He had a kidnapping hotline installed and reportedly answered it himself at times. Bottom line, by the second half of the 30s, the kidnapping craze was over, its perpetrators serving long sentences.

  2. The inimitable LBJ on JEH:
    “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”
    –as quoted in The New York Times (31 October 1971).

  3. I’ve have had the book on hold at the library (online) for a few weeks now. It’ll be several weeks more before I get to read it. It’s flying off the (virtual) shelf!

  4. Hoover also bugged John and Bobby Kennedy, catching them in multiple infidelities, though he didn’t use that information against them.

    I think what you mean is that Hoover didn’t use the information against the Kennedy brothers by disclosing it publicly. It’s my understanding — and please correct me if Gage’s book demonstrates otherwise — that Hoover used the information against them in the sense that he let them know he had such info in his ghastly private files so that the Kennedys wouldn’t take a notion to fire the great man from the director’s job.

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