Coming out of a preview screening of J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s new biopic about the founder of the modern FBI, I overheard a young woman ask her date, “So, was J. Edgar Hoover really gay?” I didn’t hear his answer, but I guess I should have been heartened that she would even ask. Despite the lack of any credible evidence, Hoover has long since been reduced to a cartoon in the popular imagination: squeaky clean G-man by day, flaming drag queen by night. No one could possibly make a movie about Hoover now without addressing his sexuality—especially the screenwriter of this one, Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar two years ago for Milk. People are sure to pat him and Eastwood on the back for having handled the subject so tastefully, which in practice means that they steer clear of the most absurd stories and treat Hoover’s love life with some measure of ambiguity, even as they invent all manner of private scenes to portray him as a severely repressed homosexual.

For most of his professional life, Hoover was dogged by rumors about his sexuality. He lived with his mother until her death in 1938, by which time he was 43 years old, and despite social relationships with actress Dorothy Lamour and with Lela Rogers, the mother of Ginger Rogers, he would never marry. For more than 40 years he maintained an intimate friendship with Clyde Tolson, a tall and athletic agent who quickly rose through the ranks to become Hoover’s right-hand man. Tolson was slavishly devoted to the director, and the two men were inseparable, taking meals and even vacationing together. When Tolson suffered a series of strokes in the 1960s, Hoover took him into his home, and after Hoover died in 1972, Tolson inherited most of his estate. Their close relationship became the primary basis for all the innuendo, though Hoover did his best to squash these rumors, dispatching agents to grill people who’d impugned his reputation and demand that they come across with evidence. No one ever did.

Once Hoover and Tolson were both dead, however, the dam finally burst. In 1993 the British author Anthony Summers, who’d written best sellers on Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy assassination, published the scandalous Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. Summers presented numerous anecdotes suggesting that Hoover and Tolson were lovers: for instance, a fashion model named Luisa Stuart claimed to have seen them holding hands in the back of a limousine. He also alleged that the mobster Meyer Lansky had acquired a photograph of Hoover fellating Tolson, which was the reason the FBI never seriously pursued organized crime figures in the 1950s. But the most devastating story came from Susan Rosenstiel, the ex-wife of a business tycoon who was friends with Hoover; she claimed that on two separate occasions, in 1958 and ’59, she attended sex orgies hosted by right-wing attorney Roy Cohn where she saw Hoover dressed as a woman. At the second party, she claimed, he wore a red dress and a black feather boa and ordered one leather-clad rent boy to masturbate him as another read aloud from the Bible.

This outrageous tale immediately became fodder for late-night comedians and gained such traction that even President Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole made public cracks about Hoover’s alleged cross-dressing. But consider the source: according to a subsequent Esquire story by Peter Maas, Rosenstiel had been trying to peddle the cross-dressing story for years, convinced that Hoover had collected dirt on her to help her husband’s divorce case, and according to Ronald Kessler’s book The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, she’d served time at Riker’s Island for perjury in a 1971 case. Even Cohn, himself a closeted homosexual, appears to have debunked Rosenstiel’s story. “[Hoover] would never do anything that would compromise his position as head of the FBI—ever,” Cohn told the publicist Peter Simone, who’s quoted in Richard Hack’s book Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. “There was supposed to be some scandalous pictures of Hoover and Tolson—there were no pictures. Believe me, I looked. There were no pictures because there was no sexual relationship.”

The stories have taken on a life of their own not necessarily because they’re true but because no one deserved them more than J. Edgar Hoover. For nearly 50 years he treated the FBI as his personal fiefdom, spying on American citizens to amass a secret file of sensitive information and using it to blackmail his political opponents. As Black and Eastwood dramatize in their movie, Hoover eagerly exploited damaging material he’d collected about the extramarital dalliances of Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. The swirling rumors that Hoover was homosexual hardly dissuaded him from taking advantage of similar rumors about other people: in 1951 he created a “Sex Deviates” file that was used to purge gay people from all levels of the federal government, as well as police forces and universities; during the 1956 presidential campaign his tip to Walter Winchell prompted the gossip columnist to insinuate on his radio show that Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson was gay; and as late as 1970, Hoover was supplying the Nixon White House with information about closeted homosexuals in the Washington press corps.

Given Hoover’s malevolent influence on American history, one can understand why some people would want to strangle him with his own feather boa. To complicate the matter further, his alleged homosexuality has become an article of faith for some gay advocates. Back in January, when a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Eastwood whether the movie would address all the rumors, the director cryptically replied that Black’s screenplay “didn’t quite go down that road.” This provoked online speculation, which Black hastened to tamp down, that the movie would “de-gay” Hoover. Oddly, the critical commentary ranged from people excoriating Hoover for his homophobia (“Could [Black] really have wanted to explore Hoover’s life and ignore his closeted pathology?”) to people claiming him as a role model (“American history will be rewritten once more to give people the false illusion that gay people don’t exist and made no contribution to society”). But few if any entertained the idea that Hoover might not have been gay at all.

To their credit, Black, Eastwood, and Leonardo DiCaprio—who digs into the role of Hoover with relish and commitment—bypass the discredited story of Hoover camping it up at Roy Cohn’s orgy. But they do manage to get their protagonist into a dress. Edgar grows up under the thumb of his domineering mother (Judi Dench), and at one point, after he’s become a prominent man, he returns home after an uncomfortable evening at a nightclub to confess, “I don’t like to dance with women.” His mother icily reminds him of his childhood classmate who was caught wearing drag and later committed suicide (a true story). Her feeling about the incident is unequivocal: “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.” After she dies, Edgar is so traumatized that, alone in her room, he tries on her necklace and dress. “Stay strong, Edgar,” he tells himself before tearing off the necklace and collapsing on the floor in a fetal position. The scene may be more subtle than Susan Rosenstiel’s tale, but it’s no less fabricated.

This business of soft-pedaling the legend without really questioning it persists throughout the movie, especially regarding Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson. The handsome young man (Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network) doesn’t fit most of Hoover’s new criteria for agents, but Hoover hires him anyway after learning that Tolson has “no particular interest in women.” (According to Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox’s The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition, Tolson was reputed to be “strongly heterosexual.”) Gay cliches abound: Tolson squires his new employer to Garfinkel’s department store in Washington to buy some snappier suits; when Hoover requests a wall sign to denote a new forensic laboratory, Tolson jokes about his “decorating skills”; and during a west-coast trip the two men trade catty remarks about Desi Arnaz’s shoes and Lucille Ball’s dye job. Even in old age they’re like a married couple, Hoover helping the paralyzed Tolson crack the shell of his soft-boiled egg at the breakfast table.

Black lays it on the line during the aforementioned trip west, when Hoover and Tolson come to blows in Hoover’s hotel suite. The scene is based on an incident from Hack’s book, Puppetmaster, that took place in August 1942 as the two men were vacationing in Del Mar, California. Hotel management was told of “a ruckus” in the suite, which included smashed dishes and ended with Tolson storming out with a black eye and a bruised lip. That’s all we know, but Black fills in the rest: when Hoover informs Tolson that he plans to marry Dorothy Lamour, Tolson flips out on him. “You’re a scared, heartless, horrible little man!’ he shrieks. Hoover slugs him, but Tolson punches him back and forces a bloody kiss on the director. (Ooh, kinky!) “If you ever mention a lady friend again, it will be the last time you share my company,” Tolson declares, leaving Hoover alone to whisper, “I love you, Clyde.”

Seventy years later, we live in a country so oversexualized that people will accept J. Edgar Hoover being heterosexual, or homosexual, or bisexual. The one possibility that could never gain any popular currency—even though it’s probably the truth—is that Hoover was completely asexual. His appetite for power was so enormous that it might well have canceled out any normal human appetite for physical contact. J. Edgar deals with many other aspects of Hoover’s life and career: his rabid anticommunism, his relentless self-publicity, his ruthless political vendettas, and his rigid professionalism, which enabled him to transform the FBI from an ineffectual paper-pushing bureaucracy into a model of forensic investigation. The one mystery Black and Eastwood can’t solve is Hoover’s love life—perhaps because the solution is too simple to be believed.