The best J. Edgar Hoover books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about J. Edgar Hoover and why they recommend each book.

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American Prometheus

By Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin,

Book cover of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

A Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the scientist who led the effort to create the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was a complicated character, a fine physicist but an even better leader with the perfect temperament to lead a group of scientists with giant egos and even more giant intellects to create the world’s first atomic bombs. Bird and Sherwin tell that story extremely well, and also the subsequent tragic story of his fall from grace during the McCarthy era. 

Who am I?

My dad was a Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist who co-discovered the muon neutrino, a particle whose existence was first explained by Fermi. I am not a physicist myself but grew up around physicists and have always been fascinated by them and was lucky to have met many of the great 20th century physicists myself – through my father. My family background enabled me to know these great scientists not only as scientists but as people.  

I wrote...

The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age

By David N. Schwartz,

Book cover of The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age

What is my book about?

In 1942, a team at the University of Chicago achieved what no one had before: a nuclear chain reaction. At the forefront of this breakthrough stood Enrico Fermi. Straddling the ages of classical physics and quantum mechanics, equally at ease with theory and experiment, Fermi truly was the last man who knew everything – at least about physics. But he was also a complex figure who was a part of both the Italian Fascist Party and the Manhattan Project, and a less-than-ideal father and husband who nevertheless remained one of history's greatest mentors. Based on new archival material and exclusive interviews, The Last Man Who Knew Everything lays bare the enigmatic life of a colossus of twentieth-century physics.

The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams

By Jonathan Ned Katz,

Book cover of The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams

Katz has done yeoman’s work in reconstructing the little-known story of Chawa Zloczewer, an immigrant who came to America in 1912, reinvented herself as Eve Adams, and lived the bohemian life of an anarchist and a lesbian. In the years after World War I, Adams was the proprietor of lesbian tearooms and literary salons in Chicago and Greenwich Village. Her radical politics, lesbian life, and publication in 1925 of a book she titled Lesbian Love led to her unrelenting persecution by the young J. Edgar Hoover (then head of the forerunner to the FBI). She was deported in 1927 and died in Auschwitz in 1943. A fascinating piece of lesbian history.   

Who am I?

I came out as gay in the 1950s. I was a literary teenager, starved for the history of those who came before me. As I learned, there were no such books. As a Ph.D. candidate in the 1960s, I thought about writing a dissertation on a gay subject; but “homosexuality” was still “the love that dare not speak its name.” However, the 1970s saw a “gay revolution”; and finally, as an academic in those new times, I was able to write and publish about what had so long been forbidden. My first book, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, was followed by a half-dozen other books on LGBTQ history.

I wrote...

The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle

By Lillian Faderman,

Book cover of The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle

What is my book about?

The Gay Revolution traces the history of LGBTQ America from the mid-twentieth century to today. How did we go from being criminals, crazies, sinners, and subversives to having the right to marry and to serve openly in the military? What accounts for the remarkable progress from the days when a person suspected of homosexuality could be fired from a job or booted out of college to the present when a “homophobe” is almost as much a social pariah as a racist? How did we become (almost) first-class American citizens, and what remains to be done?  

Spectacular Rogue

By Edwin Palmer Hoyt,

Book cover of Spectacular Rogue: Gaston B. Means

I picked up this biography of notorious Jazz-age criminal, conman, and crooked lawman Gaston Means for research on my own book – early in his career Means was a paid German agent who fed information to my subject, newsman John Rathom. But Hoyt’s brilliant book was much more valuable to me than that. It is a master class in how to tell the story of a less-than-wholesome character. Hoyt does not judge Means’ criminal behavior. Instead, his deliciously wry language left me chuckling at the towering ambition of the conman’s greatest schemes. Who else but Gaston Means would think to exploit the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby to con money out of the wealthy socialite who owned the Hope Diamond? 

Who am I?

One of the great job benefits of being a newspaper reporter is the wide array of interesting people I get to meet. Not only get to meet but in fact, get paid to meet and to tell their stories. Some of them are famous, and that’s fine. Much more interesting, I think, are the ordinary folk nobody knows who are doing something extraordinary. And then there is a third category that I find most interesting of all: The people who have something to hide. They are mysteries who don’t want to be cracked, and I find them irresistible.

I wrote...

The Imposter's War: The Press, Propaganda, and the Newsman Who Battled for the Minds of America

By Mark Arsenault,

Book cover of The Imposter's War: The Press, Propaganda, and the Newsman Who Battled for the Minds of America

What is my book about?

In the years before the United States joined WWI, a fearless New England newsman called John Revelstoke Rathom became a media celebrity for his sensational scoops about German espionage and propaganda in the U.S. His articles were designed to condition America to see the German Empire as an enemy worth fighting at war. What the public did not know was that the famous editor was not who he said he was. Rathom was a confidant of President Woodrow Wilson, he was trusted by millions of readers, and yet there is no evidence he ever spoke his real name on this continent. His darkly funny tale exposes murky details of the propaganda wars waged by foreign nations to influence American public opinion, which echoes today.

James Baldwin

By David Leeming,

Book cover of James Baldwin: A Biography

This is still the most comprehensive and detailed account of the writer’s life and works. Leeming worked closely with Baldwin as an assistant and secretary after first meeting him in Istanbul. 

I love this book, for it was my introduction to Baldwin and his life as an exile and one of the most powerful social and cultural critics of twentieth-century America. It’s written accessibly—the life-story narrative flows easily and one feels the author’s compassion for and understanding of the writer’s evolution, process, as well as his specific works. 

It has taught me that the best biographies both reveal and conceal their authors’ personal investment in their subject and their own life stories. And that the best biographers must skillfully and passionately play with both.

Years ago when I first read it, it was helpful in overcoming my initial terror as an immigrant from the Other Europe, the terror that I…

Who am I?

Born and raised in Poland during the Cold War, I learned that writers and intellectuals could be jailed, exiled, or even killed for their ideas. I came to James Baldwin over two decades ago in search of literature that told of freedom and humanism beyond national borders and simplistic binaries. As a Black queer man driven away from his homeland, Baldwin linked his personal pain, heartbreak, and torment to his public life, authorship, and activism. His art and life story have both inspired my labors as a bilingual and bicultural literary critic and biographer and provided a template for my own journey as an immigrant, mother of a Black child, teacher, writer, and scholar.

I wrote...

James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile

By Magdalena J. Zaborowska,

Book cover of James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile

What is my book about?

Between 1961 and 1971 James Baldwin spent extended periods of time in Turkey, where he worked on some of his most important books. In this first in-depth exploration of Baldwin’s “Turkish decade,” Magdalena J. Zaborowska reveals the significant role that Turkish locales, cultures, and friends played in Baldwin’s life and thought. Turkey was a nurturing space for the author, who by 1961 had spent nearly ten years in France and Western Europe and failed to reestablish permanent residency in the United States. Zaborowska demonstrates how Baldwin’s Turkish sojourns enabled him to re-imagine himself as a black queer writer and to revise his views on American identity and U.S. race relations as the 1960s drew to a close.

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