Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.
On May 10, 1966, J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, wrote Alex Rosen, head of the Bureau’s General Investigation Division, thanking him for a gift certificate to a Washington, D.C. nursery. The gift was in honor of Hoover’s anniversary as director. “I shall derive much enjoyment in selecting what I want for my yard and home,” Hoover wrote.
For almost fifty years Hoover received such gifts from Bureau personnel as well as friends and admirers. Copies of various congratulatory communications to Hoover, many enclosing gifts, and his responses are contained in over thirty boxes found in Record Group 65, Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Congratulatory Letters to J. Edgar Hoover, 1924-1971, (National Archives ID 31491361), Director’s Office Records and Memorabilia).
The communications and gifts began arriving on May 10, 1924, when Hoover, who had been acting director since 1921 was appointed the permanent Director of the then Bureau of Investigation. As the years passed the number of communications and gifts increased.
They came from relatives and friends, private citizens, state and local government employees, Governors and political leaders, police departments and graduates of the FBI’s National Academy, judges and lawyers, religious leaders, fraternal groups, military personnel, federal employees, foreign police and governments, members of Congress, Bureau and Department of Justice personnel, former Bureau employees, bankers, educators, publishers, and corporation leaders.
Hoover’s friend and deputy Clyde A. Tolson frequently sent gifts, usually flowers. Hoover was most appreciative of Tolson’s thoughtfulness. On May 10, 1963, he wrote “Dear Clyde: “You shouldn’t have done it—but it does mean a great deal to me that you remembered my anniversary. The years have slipped by rapidly, and throughout you have always been most thoughtful. Thank you, very, very much, and you know that I am enjoying the beautiful hydrangea plant which arrived for the occasion. With warmest personal regards. JEH”
Initially the gift giving was random and the gifts usually consisted of flowers. But by the 1950s the number and value of the gifts increased and the gift-giving became more formalized and systematic.
On Hoover’s 40th anniversary of service with the Justice Department, in July 1957, the Bureau’s Administrative Division gave him a cigarette and match container as well as gardenia and camellia plants; the Domestic Intelligence Division gave him silver mint julep mugs inscribed with his personal signature; the Identification Division gave him cuff links with his fingerprints as well as a pitcher and glasses; the General Investigation Division him an English silver service piece; the Laboratory Division gave him a medallion inscribed with Hoover’s name and seven President; and the other divisions also supplied gifts. The Division Directors, who constituted the Bureau’s Executive Conference, gave him star sapphire cuff links. Tolson’s office gave him an electric hand mixer and the Director’s staff gave him a bread basket. The various field offices sent less expensive gifts.
For his May 10, 1966, anniversary Hoover received about 400 messages of congratulation. The Director’s Office staff gave him cologne and numerous vases of red roses, and other flowers. The Boston Field Office sent him two bottles of Jack Daniels. The Chicago Field Office sent him a vase of red roses. The Washington Field Office sent him an arrangement of orchids. The Minneapolis Field Office gave him cheese. The Tampa Field Office gave him an azalea plant. The Administrative Division, other Divisions, and Headquarters agents sent him luggage.
And so it went year after year during the 1950s and 1960s, often twice a year, the letters and gifts would appear right on schedule. But increasingly in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, as Hoover and the Bureau came under attack for a variety of reasons, the letters and gifts from political leaders began to decline.
The Director realized, no doubt, that some of the criticism directed his way related to the way in which he profited from his position. Thus, in 1971, he issued instructions that no big deal was to be made of his anniversaries; and certainly no gifts. But the gifts continued. On May 11, 1971, he wrote Bureau official John P. Mohr, “Although I am displeased that my instructions in regard to any remembrance at all of my anniversary were disregarded, I did want to thank you and through my friends in the Bureau for the Whirlpool trash compressor. This will prove to be most useful, both ecologically and as far as space is concerned.”
Hoover did not have long to enjoy the trash compressor. During the first week of May 1972 he passed away. With his death Miss Helen Gandy, Hoover’s longtime secretary, finished destroying almost all of his personal correspondence, a process that had begun the previous fall under Hoover’s direction.
Fortunately the continued existence of the files discussed in this blog gives us a glimpse of the private Hoover. From them one can see who his friends were, what his admirers thought about him, and what Hoover’s relationship was with various individuals, agencies, and organizations. One cannot always tell, of course, to what degree the letters and gifts were heartfelt or which ones were sent simply out of good politics. But they do make for interesting reading, not only to determine who was writing but who was not.
Postscript: One of the more interesting exchanges of communications took place on May 10, 1971, when William C. Sullivan, head of the Domestic Intelligence Division and the Bureau’s third-ranking official, wrote Hoover to congratulate him on his 47th anniversary as FBI Director. Hoover responded the same day thanking Sullivan for his letter “extending your congratulations to me on my anniversary.” “Your gracious comments meant a great deal to me…You were most kind to remember me on this special occasion, and your thoughtfulness helped make it an enjoyable day.” This was at a time when Hoover and Sullivan were seriously feuding over Bureau’s priorities. The friction between the two worsened and on October 1, 1971, Hoover abruptly fired Sullivan for insubordination and suspected disloyalty. After Hoover’s death the Attorney General appointed Sullivan director of the newly created Office of National Narcotics Intelligence under the Department of Justice in June 1972. Sullivan had hoped to replace Hoover as the bureau’s director, but was passed over by President Nixon in favor L. Patrick Gray.