I shall mention a small tidbit of family lore because there have been several recent diaries about J. Edgar Hoover, but I’d also like to make public record of it for posterity. I’m constructing a diary around shreds of information but it ties together some current events and evokes a memory of how society operated in past eras, some of it discreetly under the radar. What was once family lore has now turned into something of a mystery. As is common with family stories, some of the details are fuzzy, but now there is no one left to ask for clarification.
I have to preface my little story with how my family was affected by the influenza pandemic of 1918. My family always called it ‘the flu epidemic’ but since it was worldwide, it is now more correctly called a pandemic. When the flu pandemic struck in 1918, my grandmother was by then married to my grandfather living somewhere in New York City with their first child, my father, who was only a year old at the time. My grandfather worked for an advertising agency in Manhattan. Obviously my father didn’t die in the pandemic, or there would be no me, but my grandfather did die leaving my grandmother a young widow with child. She was offered a job as a secretary by the advertising agency which she accepted. I guess she returned to her parent’s home near Jamaica Bay, Queens and commuted as my father always said he lived there through high school.
My father moved to Baltimore after college for work, married my mother, and I had my idyllic ‘Leave It to Beaver’ childhood in the ‘50s in the Baltimore suburbs. My grandmother continued to work for the ad agency in New York City until she retired. During my childhood she had an apartment in the Jackson Heights, Queens where I sometimes visited. My grandmother never remarried although she had a long-time friend that I called Uncle Jack, who lived nearby. As a child, one simply accepts things without much questioning. I didn’t think it was at all strange. All I knew was that my grandmother and Uncle Jack were close friends and spent a lot of time together. My grandmother’s position at the ad agency grew over the years, I don’t know exactly in what capacity, but she often entertained clients the firm represented out on the town. I always remember my grandmother as a very sophisticated big-city gal, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. She wasn’t the type of grandmother who baked cookies. Although in retrospect she burned the candle at both ends, she did live to the ripe old age of 80.
Uncle Jack was also in advertising as a graphic artist/designer. That little tidbit becomes perhaps more curious later on. He and my grandmother always remained close friends throughout their lives. Later on when I was older and wondered about kinship and bloodlines, I was told by my mother that Uncle Jack was not exactly my uncle. He had been briefly married and separated before he knew my grandmother. His wife was Catholic and refused to give him a divorce. The official family spin was these facts prevented my grandmother and Uncle Jack from marrying, although my mother had been known to cleanse family history on other occasions. For many years I then viewed the relationship between my grandmother and Uncle Jack as a clandestine love affair that had to maintain a certain secrecy and propriety.
There’s one more pertinent tidbit of information that I knew even as a child. Uncle Jack was a good friend of J. Edgar Hoover. I had no idea how they were friends or why they were friends especially since Uncle Jack lived in New York and J. Edgar lived in Washington, D.C. but apparently they often saw each other and shared a social circle. The stories I heard as a child carried the impression that J. Edgar was Uncle Jack’s friend but not my grandmother’s. My family back in the ‘50s seemed to boast of Uncle Jack’s friendship rather proudly as J. Edgar was something of a noted, and still untarnished, figure. I didn’t know anything about him at all and remember thinking incorrectly back then that the friendship would have been infinitely more exciting if Uncle Jack had known President Hoover instead.
You probably realize by now I have had to reevaluate the relationship between my grandmother and Uncle Jack. By sheer coincidence, I turned out gay. Yes, Pat Robertson, despite my perfect suburban childhood in a loving Christian family, without molestation or recruitment, I’m gay. Well, they didn’t even call it gay back then and homosexuality was never a topic of conversation in my family. When I became aware I had only same-sex attractions as a young teenager, I was so naïve I was sure I was the only one in the entire world because I had never even heard of such a thing.
By the time I reached my early twenties, I had a keen interest in all things gay. I began to hear the rumors about J. Edgar--the cross-dressing and homosexuality. Research proves J. Edgar did quite a bit of out-of-town socializing in New York City, evidence of parties at the Plaza Hotel and Stork Club. I don’t what to think now. Am I biased to suppose Uncle Jack was what we now call gay? Does that mean my grandmother was his beard? It was a different time, the ‘50s and earlier, homosexuality was very discreet, never mentioned. A person couldn’t be openly homosexual, it simply was not publicly allowed. One in that circumstance often maintained a cover. Because everything was so carefully honed to avoid suspicion, much of the history of it has been lost.
So that’s the story of my grandmother, Uncle Jack and J. Edgar Hoover, just some vague unconnected dots and unanswered questions. I guess I’ll never know for sure.