Myth: The FBI for decades ignored the Mafia for two reasons: First, J. Edgar Hoover was a degenerate gambler who got tips on fixed horse races from senior Mafia people. Second, Hoover was gay, and the Mob had a photo of him in full drag that they used to coerce him.

Reality: Neither is true. Hoover was an avid horseplayer who regularly visited racetracks and had himself photographed there. But he was strictly a two-dollar bettor. He did get tips on fixed races from agents who wanted to suck up to the boss. He knew that the agents got the tips from underworld informants. Probably some of them were Mobbed-up, but there was (and is) nothing irregular or unusual about law enforcement using (and paying) informants for information—even info on fixed races.

Hoover was a mama’s boy and lifelong bachelor. He shared a home and vacationed with Clyde Tolson, assistant FBI director, whose only qualification seemed to have been his friendship with Hoover. Several competent biographers have investigated Hoover’s alleged homosexuality since his death in 1972, and have been unable to confirm it. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t gay—it means there’s no proof that he was.

As a man who owed his 50-plus years’ tenure as FBI director to his ability to collect juicy data on other powerful men’s vices, Hoover knew better than anyone that his own personal life could be prime territory for blackmailers and political opponents. Probably the reason he had himself photographed at racetracks and on vacation with Tolson was to make those peccadilloes just public enough to pre-empt potential foes. The last things Hoover would have done would be to meet Frank Costello on park benches to get horse tips, or to attend gay orgies in drag.

So, why did Hoover ignore the Mafia for so long? His personal popularity and his secret files on politicians enabled Hoover to run the FBI as a personal fiefdom. He was obsessed with the Communist Party USA, and directed a huge share of FBI resources to “the enemy within” (a contemporary joke was that the only thing keeping CPUSA afloat was the dues paid by undercover FBI agents and informants). He also favored high profile, short-turnaround investigations such as bank robbery and kidnappings. He gave Mob-controlled gambling and narcotics a wide berth because he knew that the profits they generated enabled organized crime to corrupt law enforcement almost at will.

So, he preferred to consider gambling and drugs as “local issues.” When the Kefauver subcommittee’s televised hearings on gambling and organized crime (1950-51) raised questions about why the FBI wasn’t stopping them, Hoover replied: “If the laws against gambling presently on the state and local statute books were earnestly and vigorously enforce, organized gambling could be eliminated within 48 hours in any community in this land….The basic answer, is an aroused public opinion which will act on a local level through local enforcement to wipe out the problem” [emphasis in original].

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