Clyde Tolson was an American secret service agent and the first Associate Director of the FBI who was in office for over four decades. He was primarily responsible for personnel and discipline, and was honored with the ‘President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service’ by President Lyndon B. Johnson for increasing the proficiency of law enforcement. During most of his career, he was assistant to the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and after his death, briefly held office as the acting director of the FBI for a day. The two were also very close personally, and were virtually inseparable throughout the day during the four decades they worked together. The fact that Tolson retired soon after Hoover died and moved into Hoover's estate, which he had inherited, sparked rumors about the nature of their relationship and fuelled the imagination of later writers who wrote on their intimacy. While many later sources described the two bachelors as romantic partners, the details about their relationship is still a mystery. Both of them were well aware of the repercussions of an openly gay relationship and how such revelations could ruin their careers, and as such, they kept their personal lives private.
Childhood & Early Life
Clyde Anderson Tolson was born on May 22, 1900, in Laredo, Missouri, to James William and Joaquin Miller Anderson Tolson. He had an elder brother, Hillory A. Tolson, who later became the executive director of the White House Historical Association.
He attended Laredo High School, from where he graduated in 1915. He then enrolled into Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Business College, but in 1917, entered Government service as a clerk in the War Department.
While working for the government, he took night classes at George Washington University to further his formal education. After completing his graduation in 1925, he studied law there and earned his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1927. While there, he was a member of the Delta Pi Chapter of Sigma Nu.
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Clyde Tolson served as the confidential secretary to three Secretaries of War — Newton D. Baker, John W. Weeks, and Dwight F. Davis — between 1919 and 1928. In 1928, he reportedly applied for the FBI to use his position as a stepping stone toward a private law practice in Cedar Rapids, and was hired as a Special Agent within a month.
After working at FBI field offices in Boston and Washington, D.C., he was promoted to chief FBI clerk. According to his biographical sketch in Who's Who in America, he was appointed assistant director in 1930.
In 1936, he helped FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in arresting gangster and bank robber Alvin Karpis. Later that year, he was involved in a gunfight with gangster Harry Brunette, which he survived.
He was part of the FBI team that captured Nazi saboteurs on Long Island and Florida in 1942. He became the FBI Associate Director in 1947 and performed duties in budget and administration.
Soon after Hoover's death on May 2, 1972, he served as the acting head of the FBI for brief period of time. He was relieved from the post the following day after L. Patrick Gray took over responsibilities as the acting director.
Throughout his career, Clyde Tolson was primarily responsible for personnel and discipline. He was lauded for his contributions “in raising the proficiency of law enforcement at all levels and in guiding the Federal Bureau of Investigation to new heights of accomplishment through periods of great National challenge”.
Awards & Achievements
Clyde Tolson was honored with the ‘President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service’ by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.
Personal Life & Legacy
Clyde Tolson suffered a stroke in 1964 and thereafter his health continued to deteriorate, making him too frail and weak for FBI duty. However, in 1970, despite reaching the mandatory retirement age, Clyde Tolson was kept on the job by the then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
On May 3, 1972, one day after Hoover's death, Tolson instructed Mark Felt, who was the third-ranking official in the Bureau at the time, to write his letter of resignation. He finally resigned from the Bureau on May 4, 1972, the day of Hoover's funeral, citing ill health as the cause of his resignation.
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His health further deteriorated after leaving his job, and he had to be admitted to Doctors Community Hospital in Washington, D.C., for renal failure on April 10, 1975. Four days later, on April 14, 1975, he died of heart failure at the age of 74 and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery, near Hoover's grave.
Relationship with Hoover
Clyde Tolson’s relationship with the first Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, has been the topic of much controversy for decades, both when the two were alive and after their respective deaths. Both Tolson and Hoover were bachelors, and their intimacy sparked rumors of a romantic relationship, even though they were careful to keep their private lives under wraps as such revelations could have destroyed their careers.
During most the 40 years they worked together, Hoover came everyday at 9 A.M. in his bullet-proof limousine to pick up Tolson from his house, and they often walked along Constitution Avenue before starting work. He has often been described as Hoover’s alter ego as the two “rode to and from work together, ate lunch together, traveled together on official business, and even vacationed together”.
After Hoover's death on May 2, 1972, Tolson performed funeral services for him and was given the U.S. flag draped on Hoover's coffin. He also inherited Hoover's estate of US$551,000 and moved into his house subsequently.
The details about the relationship between the two surfaced through various different versions after research was done on their lives for books and movies. Celebrated model Luisa Stuart saw them holding hands in a car, a taxi driver reportedly saw them kissing, and Harry Hay, gay rights activist, stated that they were known as a couple at gay clubs.
Their relationship has been mentioned in novels and biographies or portrayed onscreen on TV or films numerous times. Among them are the 1977 film 'The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover', the 1987 TV movie 'J. Edgar Hoover', the 1995 film 'Nixon' and the 1997 novel 'Underworld'.
Before the release of his 2011 film ‘J. Edgar’, director Clint Eastwood assured the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation that the film would not “portray an open homosexual relationship” between Hoover and Tolson. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two was the central theme of the movie, which also featured a passionate kiss between Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer, the two actors portraying the two characters.
While Clyde Tolson is best known as an FBI agent, he also had talents as an inventor. He held patents for bottle caps that kept soft drinks carbonated after their bottles had been opened, for a device to open and close windows automatically, and an equipment to operate emergency exits in aircrafts.
He was promoted to the position of Hoover's deputy at a time when he had only about 18 months of experience in the FBI. This is seen by some as confirmation that Hoover promoted men inclined to homosexual indiscretions.