What does the history of sex look like without evidence of sexual identities or proof that sex acts occurred? And how might an analysis of gossip, rumors, and perhaps even lies about sex help us to write political history? Answers to these questions might begin with a story about J. Edgar Hoover told by society divorcee Susan Rosenstiel, a story that was bought and paid for by tabloid journalist Anthony Summers three decades after it allegedly occurred.
In 1958 the bisexual millionaire distiller and philanthropist Lewis Solon Rosenstiel asked Susan, his fourth wife, if—having been previously married to another bisexual man for nine years—she had ever seen "a homosexual orgy." Although she had once surprised her sixty-eight-year-old husband in bed with his attorney, Roy Cohn, Susan told Summers that she had never before been invited to view sex between men. With her consent the couple went one day not long after this odd question to Manhattan's Plaza Hotel. Cohn, a former aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy and a Republican power broker, met them at the door. As she and her husband entered the suite, Susan said, she recognized a third man: J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), whom she had met previously at her New York City Upper East Side townhouse. Hoover, Lewis had explained, gave him access to inﬂuential politicians; he returned these favors, in part, by paying the director's gambling debts.1 [End Page 355]
Susan described what happened at this meeting. Cohn warned her that she should pretend not to recognize Hoover, who was in "full drag." As she recalled, the legendary crime ﬁghter, anti-Communist, and crusader against sexual perversion
was wearing a ﬂuffy black dress, very ﬂuffy, with ﬂounces, and lace stockings, and high heels, and a black curly wig. He had make-up on, and false eyelashes. It was a very short skirt, and he was sitting there in the living room of the suite with his legs crossed. Roy introduced him to me as "Mary" and he replied, "Good evening," brusque, like the ﬁrst time I'd met him. It was obvious he wasn't a woman, you could see where he'd shaved. It was Hoover. You've never seen anything like it. I couldn't believe it, that I should see the head of the FBI dressed as a woman.
Two blonde boys then entered the "tremendous bedroom, with a bed like in Caesar's time," and the orgy began. Hoover removed his dress and underpants, revealing a garter belt, and the boys "work[ed] on him with their hands," one wearing rubber gloves. Her husband, Lewis, then "got into the act" while Hoover and Cohn watched; ﬁnally, Cohn had "full sex" with each boy. Operating as a ﬁgure of power, not desire, Hoover demanded sexual pleasure but did not give it to others. Susan recalled that he "only had [the boys], you know, playing with him." A year later the Rosenstiels returned to the Plaza. This time the boys were "dressed in leather," and Hoover wore a red dress and a black feather boa. He had one boy read from the Bible while the other fondled him, again wearing gloves. Hoover soon "grabbed the Bible, threw it down, and told the second boy to join in the sex."2
Despite her husband's urging Susan Rosenstiel did not join either scene; her claim to truth rests on her status as a detached, female heterosexual among gay men. But this claim, after the fantastic quality of the story, is where the problems begin. For one thing, historians and respectable journalists usually rely on corroborated evidence. Furthermore, despite the fact that rumors of Hoover's homosexuality had circulated in print from the moment he became director in 1926, there is reason to doubt Susan's credibility and Summers...