Directors in a league of their own

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Next in line, William J. Burns - also a former agent - enjoyed a piquant reputation in gossip columns and detective magazines as an international crime investigator.

“The flame-red hair and full mustache of his youth had faded, but not his seemingly limitless energy. He wore vested suits decorated with a gold watch chain and sported a black derby,” noted one popular description of the time.

Burns eventually was asked to resign in 1924 for his entanglements in the Teapot Dome scandal.

It is Mr. Hoover, the agency’s sixth director, who is best known to Americans. He was the face of the FBI for 48 years, babying and bullying the agency through several identities and eight White House administrations.

The son of civil servants and a champion debater even as a lad, Mr. Hoover was a native Washingtonian with pronounced convictions.

“His life-long guiding principles were formed early: he was convinced that middle-class Protestant morality was at the core of American values, and he harbored a deep distrust of alien ideas and movements that called those values into question,” says a World Book Encyclopedia entry.

He was a driven achiever, working days at the Library of Congress and earning his law degree at night from George Washington University. At 22, he began work at the Justice Department and was made supervisor of a surveillance operation that netted 4,000 “alien Communists” in two years.

Mr. Hoover was offered the FBI director’s job at age 29 - and the appointment became a very personal mission.

He set about turning his agency into a well-oiled machine by standardizing hiring practices and investigative techniques. In the early 1930s, some high-profile gangster arrests and new legislation that expanded FBI powers brought the agency considerable recognition as the likes of “Baby Face” Nelson and George “Machine Gun” Kelly were brought to justice by Mr. Hoover and his G-men - dramatically chronicled in newsreels and breathless press accounts.

“Hoover was famous for his successes in public relations, legend-building and image-making his Bureau into a Hollywood extravaganza, firmly entrenched as a mainstay of popular culture through films, comic strips, books, and carefully orchestrated publicity campaigns. The FBI and its director became dear to the hearts of the American people, and Hoover himself became a hero of almost mythic proportions,” says the World Book Encyclopedia biography.

World War II and the 1950s set a different stage for Mr. Hoover, who pursued suspected Nazis and communists with zeal, closely allied with the House Un-American Activities Committee and such anti-communist politicians as Richard M. Nixon, then a California lawmaker, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

He made loyal friends. He also made fierce enemies, including the Kennedy family, according to many historic accounts. Few crossed Mr. Hoover, it was said, because he had “something” on them.

“Critics of Hoover argued - and continue to argue - that he went beyond law enforcement in these efforts, using so-called dirty tricks to undermine the reputation of persons he believed to be subversive,” says a Legal Encyclopedia biography.

But he was thorough. Mr. Hoover kept files on the rich, the famous, the infamous - tracking such luminaries as John Lennon and Martin Luther King. When the FBI transferred Mr. Hoover’s collection of confidential files to the National Archives in 2005 - 33 years after his death - the cache of more than 8 million documents included half a million pages devoted to civil unrest and five boxes devoted to Tokyo Rose, the World War II-era radio propagandist.

It was after his death that Mr. Hoover himself was investigated by emboldened researchers who claimed he had hid a multitude of lifestyles. They said he was gay, was a cross-dresser or had had a longtime relationship with a male associate. Others claimed the real love of Mr. Hoover’s life was the beautiful actress Dorothy Lamour.

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