The longest-serving First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt (c. 1884-1962), wife of the longest-serving U. S. president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (r. 1933-1945), was an incredibly inspiring woman. She was an impressively-prolific writer of books, and she authored an even greater bulk of columns and articles in newspapers and journals. She spent her life in politics, offering her talents to the struggle for civil rights. Altruism was one of her many traits, which inspired her to be a patron for education—the Wiltwyck School for Boys was one of her most notable contributions in this field. In terms of government and representation, Eleanor was also a member of the United States’ first delegation to the United Nations.
Most people, when glancing at the life and accomplishments of Eleanor Roosevelt, would likely conclude that the woman had served her country honorably. Nevertheless, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, was extremely suspicious of her actions and beliefs. Unfortunately for Eleanor, Hoover was not the type of person you wanted to cross. He was basically the monarch of the 20th-century FBI, with an incredible reign over the bureau that lasted from 1924 until 1972, the year of his death.
From the beginning of his tenure as Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover was skeptical of Eleanor Roosevelt. His file on Eleanor, labeled 62-62735, officially began in 1924, when Hoover first ascended to power. Technically, the file was just a collection of information—not an investigation—but Hoover was constantly watching for any sign of criminality, compromising behavior or treachery.
The amount of material that Hoover collected on Eleanor Roosevelt is simply baffling. In addition to the reports taken by the FBI surveillance teams that monitored her activities, the file also included much of her political writings, as well as transcripts of her correspondences that were intercepted by Hoover’s men. The majority of the file, around ninety percent of it, was related to her civil rights activism, including recorded conversations that she had with colleagues in that field. For example, in 1943, J. Edgar Hoover bugged a hotel room where Eleanor Roosevelt had a conversation with a student leader (a later Pulitzer Prize winner) named Joseph P. Lash—around 400 pages about Lash were collected by Hoover for Eleanor’s file. When President Roosevelt eventually found out about the recording, and the file that it was entered into, he demanded that Hoover destroy all of the data that had been collected. Hoover, naturally, disregarded this suggestion and continued his inquiry. Nevertheless, Eleanor was now onto Hoover’s methods and protested that his surveillance of herself and her friends was reminiscent of the Nazi Gestapo.
J. Edgar Hoover continued to diligently collect information about Eleanor Roosevelt until the year of her death, in 1962. By that point, the file had grown to well over 3,000 pages in length. Among the many suspicions and theories that Hoover had concocted about Eleanor, the most bizarre were his inquiries into her possible ties to communism, militant insurgent groups, and even ties to the Ku Klux Klan. These allegations have been deemed unfounded and were either gossip or statements given to Hoover by Eleanor’s rivals and enemies. On a lighter note, the FBI also collected as many of the threatening letters sent to Eleanor Roosevelt as they could find, some of which the KKK was a sender. As of now, the FBI has released up to 3,271 pages of Hoover’s file on Eleanor—considered one of the largest files in FBI history on a single person.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Informal photo of J. Edgar Hoover, Director of FBI, Dept. of Justice, April 5, 1940, and Photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt taken c. 1932, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- First Ladies Revealed, S1:E4 (Television Series). Smithsonian, 2017.