The 2011 biopic from Clint Eastwood offers a look into the life of J. Edgar Hoover. Today we’ll be talking to author and former FBI agent Paul Letersky, who was Hoover’s assistant in the FBI.
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Dan LeFebvre 01:46
Before we get into the details, as someone who worked closely with J. Edgar Hoover, how do you feel the movie did capturing the overall essence of him as a person?
Paul Letersky 01:57
Very poorly. That’s kind of a harsh and quick answer. But I’ll tell you, there was so much distortion in that movie, so much speculation that nobody knows. And I had a problem following the segways between different areas. They’d be driving a car at 1930. The next thing I know who was talking to Bobby Kennedy, as attorney general we are that was the 1960s. So there’s a 30 year gap. And I know a lot of movies, and even in my book, I start off with Hoover’s funeral. But like go back to everything. So I understand how you have to get this historic perspective. But I had a hard time following. You know, where was Other than that, Hoover is a person to me, and you have to understand that my book is not another Hoover biography. It’s my memoir, showing how he was known to me, is a very complex man. And very few people really knew nobody knew what he was really like. Maybe Helen Gandy and Clyde Tolson, but other than that, all I know, is what I know from when I was working in the FBI. And so I took that segment for my first book, it was my FBI experience, which was an eight year experience. And two of those years, I was an assistant to Hoover, and I found him to be strict and disciplined. Everything was formal with him Dan, and all the rules or his rules. And he never called me anything more, or other than Mr. Letersky. Unless he was feeling good about me and writing me that I did something nice. He would just say, Look, turski but if it’s business this, I was I was a 23 year old snot nosed kid going to law school at night when I was working for you. So you can imagine he was 70 years old. But still he called me Mr. letovsky every day. That leads my segue into one of your main questions was the relationship between Hoover and Gandy. The fact that he called me Mr. turski on a daily basis. I went to miss Gandy. Oh, I was probably working for for him for only about two months. Then I said, Miss Gandy. I said, it really bothers me that Mr. Hoover calls me Mr. turski. I wish he would call me by my first name for on a Monday morning. Maybe when I come in, he’d say, hey, Paul, how’s your weekend go? And she said, Hey, don’t feel badly about that. I’ve been working with him for more than 50 years and he’s never called me, Helen. us that question. And that happens to be the truth and there was no reason for her to tell me anything different. She just said don’t worry about it, he’s never called me Helen.
Dan LeFebvre 04:59
Just the way he was, very formal.
Paul Letersky 05:01
Dan LeFebvre 05:03
The way that movie starts, it shows some events leading up to the forming of the Bureau of Investigation. And there’s a series of bombings that go off. Attorney General a Mitchell Palmer was Hoover’s boss at the Justice Department in 1919. And then there’s, I think it says eight different bombs that go off across Washington, DC, and one of those that the movie really shows is at Palmer’s house. Fortunately, nobody seems to be physically hurt. But the police work at the time is sloppy, to say the least. And then on top of that, Palmer has certified who I assume from the context of the movie are the bombing suspects to be deported, and then the Department of Labor refuses to do so without more evidence, which is tough because the police work is so sloppy the standards at that time. So as the movie explains it, that’s kind of the reason behind why Palmer puts Hoover in charge of this new division of the Justice Department to get better evidence against these known communist radicals as the movie describes them. And then in the end, the movie says that Hoover’s agents managed to arrest nearly 4000 communist radicals around the country and deport over 500 of them, and they solved the bombings in that case. How accurate was the movies depiction of this first major investigation that we see?
Paul Letersky 06:22
in parts very accurately, in other parts took liberal Hollywood license? You mentioned eight bands around the DC area, those bombs went off in actually seven different cities. And probably the one that gained more publicity was the explosion on Wall Street, because these anarchists that was the sign of capital is Wall Street. I was surprised, I thought, Hey, listen, I love Clint Eastwood. I think he’s a great actor and a great director and everything. And I guess that’s why I was a bit disappointed in this. And if I were writing that script, I would concentrate more on the wall street explosions than the one in Washington. Yeah, you
Dan LeFebvre 07:04
make a great point that that’s a symbol of capitalism. So that would be a natural target.
Paul Letersky 07:08
Right. And, you know, some people just hated Palmer, and I guess, for a lot of good reasons. But he was a Quaker. I don’t know if he knew that or not. And so he, he objected to a lot of violence. And Woodrow Wilson wanted him to be Assistant Secretary of War because of his Quaker religion, he declined to take that position. And that’s why the Palmer Raids is kind of surprising that he would go along with that.
Dan LeFebvre 07:34
Okay, so then, what was the was the, the way the movie showed? Palmer putting Hoover in charge of that investigation was that I got the impression with Hoover’s first chance to lead in a big investigation like that.
Paul Letersky 07:47
Yeah, it was because this is 1919. And I think he was like 24 years old at the time. So he had two big investigations going on at that time. One was with the Osage, American Indian, indigenous tribes, which was a big corruption by the Department of Interior taking money from the Osage Indians. And it occurred at the same time as this. So he had, he had two things going on. That’s why I did deviating from the movie, I keep telling myself stay with a movie.
Dan LeFebvre 08:20
No, no, that’s fine. I mean, that’s, that’s another aspect of you know, it’s nice to hear some of this context that they don’t put in the movie. Because all of that plays into the real history.
Paul Letersky 08:31
And I know they only have two hours to cram all these things in. But there was so much distortion in untruths throughout the movie, that they could have found other acts, but but it depends on what they wanted to show. You know how they wanted to portray him. The question about the bombings in the police work. I’m not too sure that the police didn’t do a better job than the movie showed. And the reason I’m saying that is that the director of the Bureau of Investigation at the time, was a guy by the name of William Flynn, fly n. n. d, had a program of training for bomb threats and bomb explosions. And what do you suppose to do? So to have the police deviates so much from William Flynn’s policies in training manuals, I’m just not sure. I don’t I’m not sure if the police were is incompetent, as the movie shows,
Dan LeFebvre 09:30
where the training have gone from the federal level to that like that to the police, because in the movie, I the impression that I got was the local police almost had their own set of standards. And then the Justice Department on the federal side had its set of standards. They weren’t necessarily the same.
Paul Letersky 09:47
And you’re absolutely right there. But at the time, the Bureau of Investigation, their agents had no power of arrest. And so if they’re investigating somebody and an arrest was imminent, they’d have To get the local police or the US Marshals to make the arrest, they couldn’t make the arrest. And so they did work closely with the police departments, if it for anything, but that fact.
Dan LeFebvre 10:11
Okay, yeah, I wasn’t aware that they wouldn’t have that power.
Paul Letersky 10:15
They only had a few things that they had jurisdiction for investigating Indian reservations, other government reservations, some frauds, but very, very little jurisdiction, and only to investigate.
Dan LeFebvre 10:30
Well, according to the movie after the bombings, and that that gets solved, we see that Palmer loses his job due to some political adversaries. And then Harlan stone becomes the new Attorney General. And even though Hoover had led the raids, he was just following orders. So he gets to keep his job, he doesn’t get caught up in the political aftermath of that. But then this leads to stone appointing Hoover as the acting director of the Bureau of Investigation, and Hoover accepts the job on a few conditions. One of them being the separation of the bureau from politics, which had just essentially cost Palmer his job. And Hoover wants to only report to the attorney general, is that pretty much how things played out?
Paul Letersky 11:15
And no, there’s a big gap in their day. The thing you said at the end, when Hoover said that he had these demands to take the job. That’s true. But Palmer didn’t lose this job because of political things. Palmer wanted to be nominated for the Democratic presidential election for the 1920 presidential election. So he was out campaigning to see what kind of support he could get. He came back and found out he probably was going to get that nomination. So he back the other democrat guy by the name of James Cox, who ran against Harding. And so Palmer was still there until Hardy was elected. And of course, as you know, every President appoints their own attorney general. So it wasn’t like political what was political but it wasn’t there was an election you had a new president. And Hardy was elected. So Harding appointed a guy by the name of Harry Doherty, endorse it was the Attorney General then, and he still kept Hoover in the bureau. The Harding administration was probably the most corrupt administration until Watergate, the Teapot Dome scandal, at least five of Hardings appointees were sentenced to prison. Doherty was involved in all kinds of corruption. His detectives were corrupt. They used all kinds of methods to get money. They were selling parole, and it was just amazing. And so now you had Harding, Harding dies, Coolidge becomes president. And Coolidge knew about all the corruption with the Department of Justice and hurtings people. The Teapot Dome was a mess. I think the Secretary of Navy went to prison as a result of that. What he waits. So Coolidge becomes president Harland fish stone. And Calvin Coolidge were classmates at Amherst University. They were good friends. And so, Coolidge appoints a stone as attorney general. There, that’s when what you said at the end starts in Hoover didn’t lead those rates. That’s a distortion as well. Hoover was a young, bright guy with a legal mind, he already had his law degree. And his position for those rates was he was the one who was supposed to end did not excusing him because he was responsible for a lot of that. But what his position was this he was to develop the strategy behind the raids. And when we’re talking about FBI, arresting these people during the raids, they didn’t have any power to arise. So he had police and other agencies making the arrest.
Dan LeFebvre 14:13
So then we’re the Hoover’s part of Hoover after all, then be coordinating with the local law enforcement on the your actual arrests.
Paul Letersky 14:21
He was actually isn’t wasn’t involved in any of the those arrests. His was one of behind the desk strategy and making sure it was implemented. And that’s one just prior to that, is they formed the division within the Department of Justice called the radical division. And he became head of the radical division, but he basically was a strategy thinking implementation guy.
Dan LeFebvre 14:50
Okay. That was something that went that we see in the movie. It leads back to something you’re talking about earlier is when we do see Hoover taking the job. He starts to implement his own form of standards. So he even z, I think there was an example of him firing an agent who had been with the Bureau for seven years because he had a mustache. I got the sense he’s just started basically cleaning house of people that didn’t fit his standards. I think the movie puts it as you know, he had the standards of education, physical fitness and loyalty.
Paul Letersky 15:19
That’s exactly right. I agree with them on that. But my theory, I’m the guy that he fired with the mustache, was it because he had a mustache? The Hoover I knew would have given the guy a chance to shave his mustache off. And if he did shave, he wouldn’t make it on the Hoover. I’m looking at you. So, anyway, what you say and what the movie said is right? He was looking for people with law degrees, or accountants with experience clean cut, no facial hairs. Loyalty was very important to him. But I think if I had to interpret that firing in the movie, I think it was probably because the guy said, Edgar, I’ve been in this organization seven years, just as much as you. And I think that’s why, but by the way, only his personal friends and his mother called him Edgar.
Dan LeFebvre 16:15
Did he prefer Mr. Hoover?
Paul Letersky 16:17
He preferred well, us in his office calling a Mr. Hoover. They said he called me Mr. Latour, ski but when we’re talking about him, or making reference to him, I shouldn’t say talking about him. We would refer to him as the director. That’s the title of my book, the director. But that’s how we all refer to him as the director, except for Helen Gandy, Miss Gandy would always when she talked to me about something with him, she would always say, Mr. Hoover.
Dan LeFebvre 16:51
We’re talking about some of the investigations. And there’s a big one that kind of goes throughout a lot of the movie, it cuts back and forth between and that’s the one with the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. I think Leonardo DiCaprio, his version of Hoover has a line of dialogue that says at the very beginning that you know that this is the start of an investigation that will forever change the bureau. There are some ways that the movie shows that this changes the Bureau and one of those big ones is starting a centralised fingerprint system, and also establishing the Bureau of Investigations technical laboratory to analyze the letters that were written by the kidnappers. And then throughout the movie, we see flashes of investigation that leads up to the conviction a death sentence for Bruno Richard Hartman for that kidnapping. How well did the movie do showing the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping?
Paul Letersky 17:40
I thought they did a pretty good job didn’t because what they did show was that Charles Lindbergh didn’t want the FBI involved. He never heard of Hoover. He had his own police, the New Jersey State Police and other investigators over there. And he had no background about the Bureau of Investigation or J. Edgar Hoover himself. Can he actually told Jake Hoover that he didn’t want them around? So at the start of the investigation, that’s not what made the bureau famous or got him it was the end of the investigation when they are able to work together with the IRS to mark the bills for the ransomware. So Hoover didn’t pay attention to Lindbergh not paying attention to him. He just he still went on because he felt that he could do a better job than the state police in New Jersey. And it turned out he did. So from that standpoint, the movies pretty accurate.
Dan LeFebvre 18:39
And the movie seems to imply that this after that is as a result of that. It really changed the public’s perception of the FBI. There’s kind of this shift. They use movies as an example, like there’s movies of gangsters glorifying them, and then it starts to shift to putting up law enforcement. Instead, they’re the heroes instead of the gangsters being the heroes. Is that accurate?
Paul Letersky 19:01
Yeah, that’s pretty true. Because in the 1930s, we referred to it as the gangster era, and bank robbery. So see in the FBI, the bureau didn’t have much jurisdiction over all of that. And it wasn’t until the Lindbergh kidnapping, that people started paying attention to the FBI. But if my memory serves me correct, then they find the baby in 1932 or 1933.
Dan LeFebvre 19:28
I know it was in the early 30s. I’d have to look up the exact here.
Paul Letersky 19:32
That’s okay. My point is that it took two or three years of Hoover testifying before Congress to get more jurisdiction. It wasn’t until 1935, which was two or three years after the kidnapping that Hoover talked the Congress into passing legislation to give the bureau more powers of arrest, more power to give them powers of arrest. And it wasn’t Until 1935, that they were allowed to carry guns and use their guns. There was a bit of a gap between the kidnapping and how the FBI really changed to become, that’s when they became the FBI instead of Bureau of Investigation was 1935. And it was because of those congressional hearings in Hoover, making a case.
Dan LeFebvre 20:20
You’re talking about the hearings, and I wanted to ask you about that. I mean, I couldn’t help but notice this, as you know, with the concept of my podcast being based on a true story, there’s a moment where Hoover is testifying in front of Congress and Senator McKellar asks about the Bureau’s advertising in radio shows and comic books and and i think he actually quotes that’s something one of the advertisements says it’s, quote, true reflections as contained in the official records based on actual case files from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And, of course, with the concept of my show, I had had to ask, was that something that the FBI was involved in, like early on helping to create radio shows that were based on a true story? To quickly
Paul Letersky 21:02
answer your question? Yes. But it wasn’t like, they made paid advertisements from the time that I was in the FBI and working for Hoover, like the FBI program in the 1960s. And early 70s, was called the FBI. Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. I don’t know if you ever saw that from simplest Jr. was Lieutenant inspector Lou Erskine. And that show ran for nine years on TV to the show on TV would say, taken from the files of the FBI, right? That was a bit deceptive. But it was true. What our crime records division, which is basically the public relations arm of the Bureau, they would take maybe six kidnapping cases, and provide that information to the script writers. The script writers will then cherry pick different parts of the six kidnappings, and then form a story for TV. So take it from the files of the FBI. Yes, but it was a bit deceptive. It was the same with bank robberies, Here are six bank robberies, armed robberies, and they will do that. And my opinion is that they this all started back when they did the radio stuff, because even back in the 1950s, when top 10 fugitives program was founded, and that was because of Hoover talking to the head writer of the International Association Press Association or something. And he talked him into publishing this top 10 stuff. And so there was a lot of publicity for that as well. So my point is, yes, this stuff went on. But Hoover didn’t pay anybody to do it. It was kind of a bartering type of thing. You help us we’ll help you. And that’s that they would make announcements of fugitives that were looking for that kind of stuff. They did have a junior g man badge that was well before my time, because people at Simon and Schuster asked me if I had a junior Jeep. And I told him, I thought that’s what my real badge looked like.
Dan LeFebvre 23:16
You have the real one.
Paul Letersky 23:18
I sold this. I am even that was before my time.
Dan LeFebvre 23:21
Going back to something that we were talking a little bit earlier with the with the mustache guy and how he treated that but after the hearing in Congress in the movie, we see Hoover, he’s super angry. McKellar had pushed Hoover to admit that he had never made an arrest. Yeah, he embarrassed him essentially. But outside of the courthouse, or I’m sorry, outside outside of Congress there. Hoover makes a decision to essentially fire or demote agent Purvis, who was the one that had taken down john Dillinger. And I was watching this I was like, Well, I mean, I get that Hoover was embarrassed. But it seems like agent Purvis did his job well, and the reward for that is going to be demoted or being fired. It almost gave the idea that Hoover was just vindictive with his agents is that is there any accuracy to that?
Paul Letersky 24:12
At times, but I don’t think that was the time. Hoover in purpose had a personal friendly relationship for years. They used to exchange letters about Helen Gandy because Helen Gandy whenever purpose would come in, she got a little Google eyed about purpose. So Hoover used to tease purpose about maybe he’s infatuated with Halloween candy, and they went back and forth with several letters and everything. And they got a big kick out of they’d laugh about it. Again, he didn’t know about those letters. Even though they had personal and confidential files, he didn’t even let candy see them. Because in one of the letters Hoover said to purpose Picture her in a cellophane gown when you’re going to the dance.
Dan LeFebvre 25:05
I can see why he didn’t want her to see this letter.
Paul Letersky 25:09
So anyway, what had happened was over time, Purvis started getting more and more publicity. And he was sort of making it look like purpose was running the FBI in Hoover. So he was taking a lot of glory or glamour away from Hoover. And he was told by Hoover to cut it out. He didn’t. That’s why he fired him.
Dan LeFebvre 25:34
Okay, so but he did give him a chance, then it wasn’t like, I mean, the movie, it’s like, go find him in and, you know, fire him.
Paul Letersky 25:41
Right. And I can’t I don’t know what happened when that movie said they had four agents following the senator, the Congressman, I don’t know anything about that. I can’t you really can’t coffee, anything there. I don’t know if it’s true or not.
Dan LeFebvre 25:57
We were talking about her earlier, another aspect of the movie and really of Hoover’s personality that we see in the movie, is his relationship with his mother. He’s super close with her. There’s even a scene I was after the hearing in Congress where he tells his mother that not sure if you can trust anyone but her most of the movie he’s living at home with her, gave me the impression that you know if he’s the director, but he’s still living at home then has to be clearly by choice. I’m assuming he’s not doing that, because he can’t afford his own place or anything like that. So they had to have had a super close relationship. How is the movies representation of this relationship between Hoover and his mother?
Paul Letersky 26:38
It’s so speculative then, because who would know? Just Hoover in his mother, there was nobody else in the house to to verify any of those things are relationship between his mother, he was in a house with her for 43 years. He died, then he went got another house. And you’re right. He certainly could afford to have his own house. When he started off as the director. his salary was equivalent to today’s $100,000. In his latter years, his salary was equivalent to $250,000 as of today, so he had plenty of money to do what he wanted to do. But he didn’t have that much money to live the lifestyle that he lived, because he was given so much stuff by so many people, free rooms, etc, etc. So I think that background should help you understand them more. When I met Hoover was like 30 years after he moved out of his house, and he never talked to me about any aspect of the family. The only things I learned about his family were from Miss Gandy and she would talk to Hoover’s sister periodically. Lillian, her name was Lillian Robinette. She was married to Fred Robinette. But very, very seldom can he say anything to me about Hoover’s family and Hoover never said anything. Now, I think, and this is my opinion, that Hoover’s father who was had a brother, who was 15 years older than him, so he never did anything with his brother. And his sister was even older than that. But his father became senile. I don’t know if it was dementia or Alzheimer’s or what have you. And so he ended up being institutionalized. And his mother was very ashamed of this Father, you know, this is back in the day, what people say that guy’s crazy, you know, nope, nobody really understood mental illnesses or anything. But she was very embarrassed and ashamed about her husband. And that’s why she pushed Hoover to bring big light over that family to offset the embarrassment she had from her husband. And of course, his brother was doing something else, you know, insignificant. So I think his father was the main reason for the mother, treating him the way the relationships is, is portrayed.
Dan LeFebvre 29:15
And I could see even just from a security standpoint, if you’re the director, then you want to keep your personal life pretty private, just from a security point of view to like I would imagine,
Paul Letersky 29:28
I don’t think he ever thought of it from a security standpoint. He just wants his privacy. And, I mean, he won his privacy more than Tiger Woods wants his privacy. It kept pretty private. He was an interesting guy, and we made sure but he didn’t carry a gun for security. He had the bureau lab guys in Brook lab, he installed security system in his home, but he would take walks in the neighborhood. I think he felt that he was bulletproof. himself. The only thing that showed any aspect of security was the fact that he had an armored car that was driven for him. And I don’t even think that was for security. Dan, I think it was just the symbolism of being a king. I don’t think they showed much in the movie about that. This mother thing, though, was be honest with you. I danced with my mother. I never thought it was a problem dancing with my mother. You know, we go to weddings, I dance with my sisters, but the way they portrayed that scene.
Dan LeFebvre 30:39
Yeah, well, speaking of the relationships, there’s only one you mentioned him earlier, but that would be Clyde Tolson. And the way that the movie portrays that it seems, in a lot of those private moments, which, granted, like you’re saying that we’re not going to really know what goes on there at home, but we I get very heavy implication from the movie that Hoover was struggling with his sexual orientation throughout the entire thing. And you’re talking about dancing there. I remember the exact phrasing of what he said. But basically, he said something along the lines of, you know, I don’t like to dance, especially not with women. And then she flat out tells him that she’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.
Paul Letersky 31:16
That was said or happened. There were rumors his whole career ever since Clyde Tolson entered his life, about homosexuality. But he couldn’t take the chance and in public, being quite in some homosexual act, so I can’t say he was I can’t say he wasn’t, but I never The only clues I had. The end was what everybody else they saw he he wasn’t married. He didn’t he wasn’t dating anybody. He spent all his free time in his working time with Clyde Tolson who has a bachelor. So that could be indicative, I guess, or you can be indicted for being a homosexual. But if that’s the case, Helen ganja did get married, so she a lesbian?
Dan LeFebvre 32:06
I did want to ask you about that though. Because the movie at the very beginning like the very first date, Hoover proposes to Helen Gandy and she refuses like I’m gonna be married to my job and that that kind of leads to her being his assistant, I guess throughout the rest of the movie, then you’ll Clyde Tolson enters and we see very clearly in the movie. There’s this you know, relationship between between Clyde and Hoover. And then there’s Helen Gandy. How is their interactions together from your perspective, like they you were saying that they clearly knew a lot of things that perhaps other people may not have about Hoover?
Paul Letersky 32:44
Oh, well, because they were with him every day. And I honestly believe that both of them loved Hoover, but not get he didn’t love them in a romantic way. She just she defended him till after his dying day, which he had to testify in Congress about the secret files. And she said she did destroy the files but under Hoover’s instruction, but there was nothing secret about him. She says I knew about them called Clyde Tolson knew about him. And one of the freshmen congressmen said, Miss Gandy, I find a hard time believing you. She says, Well, you have that choice. And she was in her late 70s testifying in Congress that way.
That’s such a great response.
Paul Letersky 33:32
She was a great lady. And I have in my book referring to her as the most powerful woman in the US government, in the 20th century, 50 years, where she was really she ran the bureau as much as Hoover did, maybe in some cases more so. So she was really a powerful lady. You know, nobody knows anything about her. But I spent every day doing something with her. And she used to come into work on Saturdays to check them if there was any mail that had to be sent to Hoover’s house. Get the bureau messenger to take it there. And Hoover went to the racetrack with Clyde Tolson every Saturday when he loved the races. A short period of time after I was there, she felt such loyalty with me. She asked Hoover if I could sit at her desk on Saturday so that she could have a little time for a few excesses. I don’t know why he approved, but he did because he really guarded the stuff that I want to cross Miss Candy’s desk. So I sat her at her desk and did the same thing on Saturday. She would come in about two o’clock in the afternoon she’d go to a salon at hair salon, and she’d come in about two o’clock I brown bag that made a sandwich for her as well as for me, and I complimented her hair every Saturday and it never changed her style. Whoever changed, but she loved me complimenting it. But that’s the relationship I had with her. So she shared a lot of things with me, both personal and bureau wise. And that’s where a lot of my knowledge comes from as to what app is coming from her.
Dan LeFebvre 35:15
So you said she had not a lot of people knew about her, was that by her choice, some people just prefer to be more in the shadows. I got the sense from least one movie that Hoover wanted some of that glory and did miss candy prefer to work in the shadows more behind the scenes?
Paul Letersky 35:32
Yeah, she did. And she did a good job and Hoover wouldn’t. Hoover would not have been Hoover, but for Helen Gandy. She was really behind the scenes, someone should make a movie about her, but they probably couldn’t come up with enough information
be more speculative. What
Paul Letersky 35:49
she was the highest paid female employee in the entire department of justice. They had 40,000 women in the Department of Justice, that she was the highest paid. When I met her when I first came there, she was 69 years old. And it was mandatory retirement at the age of 70. Back then, Hoover got an exemption from President Johnson. Because Hoover turns 70 the same year I enter the Bureau and I entered when I was 22. And he turned 70. And Johnson sent an executive order exempting him from the retirement act. And with a very, very famous quote that Johnson had, he said they’d rather have them inside the tent pissing out then outside the tent pissing in. And so he gave them an exemption. And then Hoover was able to give Gandy and Tolson exemptions when they turn 70. Because the law said, if the person is essential to the government, so whoever declared them essential, that’s kind of a side thing. But I think it’s important to note,
Dan LeFebvre 36:57
how was Hoover’s relationship with some of the Presidents because we see throughout the movie that I think there’s there’s a scene where the phone rings, and he’s like, oh, that child Kennedy is calling again, or something like that, you know, and kind of get the sense that he has no problem butting heads with the president, even though it’s the president.
Paul Letersky 37:17
The only president that I’m aware of that he had a problem with was Harry Truman, Truman was afraid to fire him because of the reputation Hoover had already developed. He had a tremendous relationship with Nixon, until the very end, because Nixon was the big fighter against communism in this in the senate at the time, and that was Hoover’s passion was fighting communism. And that was Walter windchills passion to be going back to the comic books and advertising. Hoover in Walter Winchell exchanged information. Walter Winchell would give them information about certain people that would go in the files in the secret files in Hoover would drop a few nuggets of but certainly investigation so that another that was another of the bargaining chips that went on at the time.
Dan LeFebvre 38:11
There are some ways that the movie depicts Hoover using the law that I would see as being kind of controversial, you’re talking about how the they weren’t allowed to use guns. But in the very beginning, Hoover gives some of his agent guns and says, oh, they’re they’re gifts for me to you. And there’s nothing there’s no law saying preventing you from using your own weapons. And now I’m giving you these gifts. There were the advertisements we kind of talked about. There’s later on, it does talk about Hoover trying to essentially blackmail MLK for to not accept the Nobel Peace Prize. So I got the sense throughout in these different examples that the movie shows that the Hoover was very good at adhering to the letter of the law, but maybe kind of bent around the spirit of the law in order to get some of the results that he wanted. Would that be a fair assessment of what he was like?
Paul Letersky 39:04
Yeah, I think so. But the examples given are good. But he would skirt the law. A lot of things weren’t illegal, but they weren’t legal, either, you know, just with skirt thinking. But in most cases, then it was that because the president told him to do something. And the President would always use national security, quote, unquote, national security, even if it wasn’t, but he’s the Pres. If the president tells him You have to do this because of national security. He doesn’t have much choice. It’s so he would, he really would skirt the law. But in the movie, I’m not sure those are good examples. Probably the best example is when he formed the what we call the cointelpro counter intelligence program and I was part of that. But it started way before me It started like in 1953 or 1956. And basically, it was an infiltration of the Communist Party, the USA party with the communists. It was used against the Ku Klux Klan. And it was an infiltration. And we would get informants inside those organizations, and then tell other people in the organization that this guy is an FBI spy, but we tell them, we’d have somebody else come. And so in the Ku Klux Klan, probably one of five members was a spy for the FBI, because we paid them as well. And then they became afraid to talk to each other because everybody thought everybody else was spying on them. And we did this and we did the same thing. During my career, only directed to the new left, radical organizations like the weathermen, you know, violent organizations that were opposing the Vietnam War. I mean, there was before your time, but it was a heart that are the 60s and 70s are probably the worst time in US history of the Civil War. Fires bombings, hijacking so just about every, but the bombings and the burnings and the riots and the looting, just horrible. We would use the counter intelligence program to skirt the law, black bag jobs, we’d be breaking into apartments and houses without a warrant to get information up, even though that we couldn’t use that information as evidence in court. It’d be thrown up. But we use it to get leads. One of the things I did when I was based in Cincinnati, they had me going to the colleges and universities as a junior political science major. I was young, and looked younger than I was. So I could blend in with the college students. And one of the things I did was organize a bus trip for the Cincinnati local colleges to go to Columbus, Ohio, Ohio State is for a rally of the students for democratic society. And I had a bus and everything. And there was no rally. But these kids were put on the bus, they paid money they went to and when they got to Columbus, they were greeted by FBI agents, who are What’s your name, your dress? Does your parents know you’re doing this? So it’s just whoever said to us, we want these kids to think there’s an FBI agent behind every mailbox. At the time, Dan, I drank the Kool Aid, I have to admit, because I thought I was doing the right thing. But who was I to say what the law is that I can violate the law, but you can. But at the time, those were that I wouldn’t do it today. But we did violate the law, then some of the guys later got indicted, that were involved in doing those black bag jobs against the weatherman, the underground weather group.
Dan LeFebvre 43:06
And the flip side of that something that another sense that I got from throughout the movie was that Hoover was simply put a brilliant innovator. He knew that the standards at the time least the way the movie portrays it weren’t up to the task. So he started to turn to science. We talked about, you know, a little bit earlier with the Lindbergh kidnapping, you know, fingerprints and handwriting, things like that. But those are just a few examples that we see in the movie. And as I was when I was done watching the movie, I just came out with it with the sense that Hoover basically led criminal justice into a new science driven era that it wasn’t necessarily in before. Is that true?
Paul Letersky 43:43
It’s true. He had a hard time convincing people. But he did it. He was pretty stubborn guy when it came when he felt that he was right. And it all started when he went to work for the Library of Congress when he got out of college.
Dan LeFebvre 43:58
Oh, that system. They showed that in the movie like he like he organized all of that. I think he was showing that to miss candy.
Paul Letersky 44:05
yeah, this candy wasn’t there. But he he worked on the card catalog system. And he brought that system to the FBI. And that’s how our all our criminal files and domestic intelligence files are based on that same card system that he helped put together to the Library of Congress. So when you’re talking about being innovative, that was one thing as well as the fingerprints. fingerprints are scattered all over the place. But when I when I arrived in 1965, I think they had over 200 million fingerprints on file. It was all said they had an entire building, I think was c Street and Washington, you know, several blocks away from bureau headquarters. Bureau headquarters at the time was sitting in the Justice building. They didn’t build a j group building till 1973 70 to 70 Through bodyweight, the innovation. He testified in front of the House Committee on Appropriations every year to get money. Talking about the budget, then you always had stuff for innovation in the budget for science and helping to build the laboratory and all this kind of stuff. And the person that put the budget together mostly was Clyde Tolson, that was toxins role was sitting next to him saying, you know, in Congress, if they asked him a question about the budget, Tolson knew all about it, in all his years and every year, testifying to the Appropriations Committee, they never refused. And they gave more money, you’re after year after year. And the way he got that money was statistics. He would say, you gave us this much money. This is much how we we return to the government in fines, savings and recoveries. And we were statistically, as an agent, you are responsible for statistics. And you can make so many statistics by stolen cars, because local police didn’t want to deal with stolen cars. But when I was in Cincinnati, Kentucky was over the Ohio River, and we’d have stolen vehicles back and forth. And we would claim those stolen vehicles and give the blue not the blue book price. But a significant increase in price. So he used those statistics, statistics to him, were like a drunk leaning up a clam lamppost. Not for support, not illumination. So seriously that those statistics, so he was never denied his budget request his entire tenure as head of the Bureau.
Dan LeFebvre 46:54
I don’t remember the exact words. But I think I remember there’s a scene in the movie where he he talks about how much money that they’ve brought in from fines and stuff like that is that and he makes the joke that Oh, we’re the only department and the government is actually pulling a profit or something like that.
Paul Letersky 47:10
No, that’s true. Did he put those statistics together, and we we got hammered out in the field to make sure put that value on that. One case I was involved in with a hijacking of a tractor trailer, 18 Wheeler that was filled with aspirin. And Crux would sell the aspirin, black market to different pharmaceutical, you know, CVS, or whatever, and they make a fortune. But we estimated that truckload and this was 1969, we estimated a truckload of aspirin to be worth $100,000 to the thieves.
Dan LeFebvre 47:47
That’s a lot of aspirin.
Paul Letersky 47:48
We know everything you can imagine that was stolen from interstate transportation, stolen property, stealing trucks, entire tractor trailers, and I evolved in a lot of those cases. But going back to the whole point, it was a comical thing saying, we’re the only agency that makes a profit for the government. That’s kind of true in a way, just like some of the illegal things were illegal in some way. Politics, Stan, the things that I knew about him, if I could just put one handle on him was he was a professional political poker player. He knew how to play political poker. Now, a lot of that in my book, a lot of the things that he did that were so precise, I know I’m off guard again. But this is kind of a interesting story. I would have to prepare, make his appointments by phone and prepare a note forum, put it on his desk on top of the background material I would get from the crime records division, put it on the right side of his desk, and then put a paperweight on top of it. Now this paperweight was a plastic paperweight. And it was embedded with a coin that had a donkey on one side, you flip over the paperweight and an elephant on the other side. And so if the first visitor came in, it was a Democrat. That donkey should have been showing, or I’d have my ass in a sling. And if the next one’s a Republican, I have to go in and pull the paperweight over. But that’s how precise he was. Just to give you some idea what it was like in office.
Dan LeFebvre 49:33
Wow. Yeah, that’s that’s a level of detail that is just fascinating. You mentioned earlier the confidential files and at the very end of the movie we do see Miss Gandy shredding those after Hoover dies, but you also mentioned Nixon having a good relationship with Hoover and we don’t really see a lot of Nixon in the movie, but we see at the at the end, it seems like I don’t remember the exact phrasing but basically that Hoover believes that Nixon is going to come from For him, and because Nixon knows about the files, and so that is why in the movie, Hoover has Gandy get rid of the files if anything happens to him and then of course, we see that you know, he he passes away, and immediately, two things happen. One Miss Gandy start shredding the documents as soon as he finds out about Hoover’s death. And also, as soon as Nixon finds out about it, he sends people to go try to get those files. How well did the movie do showing the end of Hoover’s life and what happened in the wake of his death?
Paul Letersky 50:33
Horrible to include those files in Nixon and Hoover’s death itself? It was just so absolutely wrong. Hoover told Gandy to destroy his personal files in those files. The files were never kept in Hoover’s office, in his in her office, they were kept in a basement. They were kept in candy. So off this the most secret of when Hoover died, Nixon, who was an election year he was running against cold water. And what had happened was during the campaign, the United States were bombing Cambodia. We weren’t supposed to do that. But john Dean and Kissinger, they convinced Nixon that a lot of weaponry and bombs and everything were hidden in Cambodia. And so blah, blah, blah, hey, the planes today, I think it was like 3600, bombing grains of Cambodia. It leaked out because it leaked out. Nixon was sort of paranoid, you know. And john Dean told them we have to do is incorporate all the intelligence agencies under one intelligence agency, and have only one guy Lee and all intelligence agencies. And so Nixon hired a guy, he took them out of the military worked in a Pentagon is a 28 year old, right wing lawyer, guy by the name of Houston. It was called the Houston plan. He wrote this plan up. And Nixon wanted Hoover, to chair, this plan to put this together to incorporate all these intelligence agencies. Hoover refused. Hoover new, Hoover knew that if he was chairman, as soon as that plan was made, everybody else would leave. And he’d be stuck with that on his shoulders. And he knew for sure that all of that stuff that they’re doing, which was similar to the counter intelligence program, only wars with what they were advocating. So Hoover said he wouldn’t do it. Then the Attorney General tried to convince them into doing it. And Hoover said, Okay, I’ll do it, but only if President Nixon signs off on it in writing, and you also sign off in writing? Well, Nixon said, Forget about it. So what Nixon did, and this kind of interesting, because Hoover refused this because they usually see this program, you know, talk about black bag Johnson violating constitutional rights. But what he already did and said, put together an investigative unit that became known as the plumbers, the ones that broke into Watergate. And then some of the people were blaming Hoover for Watergate. Hoover was dead for a year before Watergate. And there was still blaming him because they said if he would have agreed to Nixon’s plan, the FBI experienced in breaking into offices, taking things that they would have never gotten caught. Maybe that’s the true story.
Dan LeFebvre 53:48
Unfortunately, a lot of people will probably determine who Hoover was based on this movie, because you know, being a biopic it’s it’s telling a lot of that there. So as someone who got to work with him and and knew him, what’s something that you wish people knew about him that they wouldn’t get walking away from the movie?
Paul Letersky 54:10
Oh, a different perspective of who he was as a person. The fact that he was a human being the fact that he was really dedicated and I noticed, you had one of your questions. You identified him as a workaholic. He was his valet would fill a lot. It would be a large briefcase or a small suitcase full of memos and paperwork that he would take home every night. And the next morning door notations over every one of those memos, little things, okay, ah, do this. I’m not sure we should be doing that. But every morning, he’d come in and he’d have the stack of papers with comments on that he did. He walked in at night. But let me go back to the question you had on the files and Nixon sending people in, he didn’t sit and anybody can Picture guys opening drawers and everything never happened. What happened was l Patrick gray, was appointed Acting Director right after Hoover died. And he told gray to go to sue Hoover’s office and get the files. And gray told JP Moore who was the number three men in the bureau. And he was sort of my mentor. jp was supposed to do the funeral and everything. And when l Patrick gray came, JP boy said, Well, my instructions were to change the locks on Hoover’s door. So he did and Hoover’s office but not the whole suite. And Patrick gray kept asking him, where are the files? More would say what files and the guy would say the secret files who would say, I don’t know of any secret files because I saw I read a lot of files that came to Hoover’s past Hoover’s desk. So I don’t think was a sacred if I knew about it. I mean, they went into this back and forth without paltry grade. So they never went. You know, I think Gandy took a lot of these files home with her and was destroying him at home. It wasn’t like like that a movie. And no, agents or people from the White House came to the office to open up files I’m looking for that never happened. So Matter of fact, I went to the future Hoover’s funeral. Gandy asked me to go to the funeral to kind of escort her to the funeral. And she wanted me to sit between her and Clyde Tolson, which I did, because she hated Clyde Tolson, she didn’t want to sit with him even at that funeral. So, I had a chance to chat about with Gandy about a lot of these things when we’re in the car being driven to the funeral. And I asked her about the files. I said, Do you need help with the files? She looked at me and all she said was JP Morgan. I knew it was time for me to stop. I was an agent at the time she and JP wore, we’re going to take care of those files. But this was in the limo going to the funeral. And it was interesting to be with her and asked her certain questions. And one that I think you’ll find amusing is I said to her now this is whoever just died a day or two before the funeral. And I said to her Miss Gandy, what are you going to do now? She looked at me, and she says, I’m going to get my Christmas cards out on time. She always wrote cards for him, and a lot of them. And I got Christmas cards from her. Every time I got a Christmas card from her. It was dated after December 25. To be going to this solemn occasion, funeral, we’re going to do my now Miss candy. I’m going to get my Christmas card. And this is me, I’m going to get these cards out and tag with so that’s how our relationship was.
Dan LeFebvre 58:03
And you had the movie depicts It is like you almost you cut between the agents coming in and then you see Miss Gandy shredding the files, and you just expect the agents to burst through the door at any time. You know, that type of will they won’t they get to the files before she’s able to shred them all that anything came was l Patrick gray trying to get into the office and argued with JP Morgan.
Paul Letersky 58:25
And he came in one more time and asked Miss candy if he knew she was destroying files because she told them that Hoover, his personal account, and he said oh can I see the files and she showed him some of the personal stuff. And he just kind of nodded his head and left. He told Nixon that he saw files and there’s no problem. But he was such a puppet himself with Nixon that he only lasted a year that the reason he only lasted a year is because john Dean, who was the White House Counsel at the time, had all these Watergate documents that he Howard hunt, he Howard hunt and G gordon liddy were the heads of the plumbers breaking in. And john Dean went into hunts safe and got all these documents. They told gray to destroy them. And those are the documents from Watergate. At the time, I was an agent in the Alexandra field office. And part of my responsibility was Washington National Airport in Dulles International Airport. Those two airports at the time were owned by the federal government. So every crime of those airports fell under the statute of crime on a government reservation. So I had a lot of jurisdictions. And I got a call one time one day from the director’s office when Gray was the director and they asked me if I could arrange for great to be driven on the tarmac at National Airport and driven up to your plane before any other passengers would be allowed to board the airplane. It was a flight to New London, Connecticut, where he lived or his family was. And what happened was, he had those documents in here when he didn’t want to go through any type of screening or anybody looking at anything. And I found it strange that I didn’t get that request that for his return flight. So I had a pretty good feeling at the time. But anyway, he can find it in this Kentucky I can’t think of the senators name, who was a friend of his and he confided in him. And of course, the politicians, the senator leaked all that information out to the press. And Patrick Ray had to resign because of that, so he didn’t have a full year end of politics. These are the things that make Washington Washington.
Dan LeFebvre 1:01:02
Yeah, it helps but a lot more context around what was what was going on and some of the things that were going on there that they had, you know, the waters that they had to navigate there. You had mentioned early on that there were a lot of distortions in the movie. Is there anything we haven’t talked about that would be a major inaccuracy that you wanted to address.
Paul Letersky 1:01:21
One was Hoover’s death. And discovery. Tolson never went over his house. The movie shows Tolson going up the stairs and overlying on the floor, just with his pajama bottoms. That didn’t happen. Jimmy Crawford, who was Hoover’s chauffeur, and he was also like Hoover’s handyman at home, he planted the roses and took care of the property. And Annie fields was his live in maid and I knew them very well because I had to deal with even problem Hoover’s problems at home. not serious problems, you know, like the stereo is not working, send somebody over to fix it. Well anyway. Jimmy Crawford had a brain aneurysm when I was in Quantico and FBI training. So last time I saw him he was still Hoover’s driver, but he couldn’t drive anymore. And so he had his brother in law, Jim Walton drive for Hoover, and Moulton and Jimmy Crawford, were over Hoover’s house that morning. And Hoover was never late for anything. And he would always have breakfast at 730 in the morning and he would have everything ready right on the spot. And he didn’t come down. So and he got worried. So Jimmy, and mountain went up to his room. Found him on the floor like the movie saw him on the floor with a pick them up and put pajama tops on him put him in bed. Paulson was never there. I mean, to me that was one of the biggest inadequacies you know Tolson crying and putting a blanket that was that was all made up. Jimmy Crawford invoke are the ones that found him and and he called Miss candy right away, and then the wheels were in motion.
Paul Letersky 1:03:11
that’s how that happened. And to me that was the biggest inaccuracy in a movie. Although you could argue about all the times Miss gain is calling Hoover Edgar and Hoover calling her Miss Gandy or how he he wouldn’t call her Helen. We had one incident that I witnessed with her. During these terrible times and riots, this was after Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Paul Letersky 1:03:40
the Justice volley or at least the fifth floor, looked on Pennsylvania Avenue towards towards the Capitol and to the right, you could see the National Archives building again he I was with Irma Metcalf in Gandy Sophos. Erma was Danny’s assistant. And she panicked. She says there’s a sniper on the roof of the archives. When she goes into Hoover’s in her office, with her hands up in front of the window guarding him in case he’s gonna she’s gonna take a bullet for Mr. Hoover, sniper in the archives roof. And he was doing some work with some memos. He looked up at me he says there’s no sniper woman go back to work. Never saw her cry until then. And we had to comfort her. She was just so upset. Go back to work woman. There’s no sniper up there. He never hardly picked up his head. But she’s ready to take a bullet for this guy. I talked to her about that. And she said to me when you do the same thing I told her No. I says I’m a loyal to a certain point but not as loyal as you are.
Dan LeFebvre 1:04:57
Well, I really appreciate your time coming on to chat about the movie Jad. You’re I know you have a brand new book that’s coming out today you’re listening to this on the day it’s released, called the director my years assisting J. Edgar Hoover. So for someone listening to this, who wants to learn more about Hoover and pick up a copy of your book, can you give them an overview of it? Yeah,
Paul Letersky 1:05:15
I want to make it perfectly clear that it’s not another Hoover biography. There are so many of those that if someone thinks it’s a nother Hoover biography wipe, I would it’s a book of how Hoover was known to me. And a lot of the inside information that was never told before some of the quirky things that happened in the office, some of the more significant things that happen in the office, I’m the one that called him at home to tell them Martin Luther King was shot. And his response was pretty shocking. And I’m going to wait till the book comes out. So people say, there are other things in there that show the idiosyncrasies habits inside the sanctum of his, and a lot of interesting stories, that I rewrote some history because I was writing the truth about history had to do with Attorney General Ramsey Clark, his father, Thurgood Marshall, defend Hoover, when people call him racist, he was far from a racist. There was just so many things in the office that I saw, that would show that he’s not, can and I think the point is that there’s never been a person that worked for him on his personal staff that ever wrote a book. So there’s going to be there’s a lot of new things in this book that no one’s heard of before. And then there’s a section of the book almost the second half, that are true crimes that I was involved in and gained national attention. They have held national headlines for a long time. That is true crime stories. So it’s a combination of how I knew who he is known to me, little anecdotes and stories from within his office that were never told before. And then a section on true crimes that I was involved in. So, buy the book.
Dan LeFebvre 1:07:14
I’ll make sure to add a link to where people can get a copy in the show notes for this episode. Thank you again, so much for your time, Paul.
Paul Letersky 1:07:21
I really enjoyed it. Thank you for asking us to chat about Fitz. It’s nice to be able to kind of get this off of my chest instead of just in the book. I don’t have a problem. Having questions asked about any aspect of it. I have nothing but the truth and everything to share. But I’d like people know the truth about some of these historic events that have been reported is a little different.