If information is power, then so too is gossip. In Gossip Men: J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and the Politics of Insinuation (U Chicago Press, 2021), historian Christopher Elias shows how three men who sat at the center of the mid-century surveillance state—FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the bellicose anticommunist Senator Joe McCarthy, and the gold-collar lawyer from New York, Roy Cohn—understood that power and used it to their advantage, elevating themselves and intimidating others. The trio investigated the private lives of their enemies, and mastered the tools of implication, sensationalism, photographic manipulation. By putting “the politics of insinuation” at the center of American culture, Elias, an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo, provides an innovative and entertaining reading of celebrity, and masculinity, and the mid-century surveillance state.
More than anything, Gossip Men illustrates that many seemingly disparate historical processes in the middle decades of the twentieth century were not coincidental but intertwined. The fact that “the golden age of American gossip magazines” preceded and overlapped with the McCarthyist witch-hunts turns out to be historically significant. (Or that Roy Cohn was one of the two funders of the National Enquirer throughout the fifties.) Gossip Men should interest a wide variety of readers, from historians of the Cold War to scholars of politics and popular culture.
Dexter Fergie is a doctoral student in US and global history at Northwestern University. His research examines the history of ideas, infrastructure, and international organizations.