In this extract from their book Frank Sinatra and the Mafia Murders, Mike Rothmiller and Douglas Thompson chart how the singer helped Irish American party girl Judith Exner become a conduit between the president and the mob
Distraction had always been JFK’s problem. He believed his brain worked better after he had sex. His father was aware of the faults, and this son was only a presidential candidate by default. Joe Kennedy had planned forever, since his Hollywood mogul period and romance with Gloria Swanson, that a Kennedy would get into the White House. Joe Kennedy Junior was supposed to become America’s first Irish Catholic president, but he was killed in the war and his brother had to fill those shoes.
On the election trail, father could not monitor son because Joe Kennedy’s overbearing presence would have been poor public relations. John F Kennedy had to be seen to be his own man. His sexual adventures were accepted if the women involved could not damage him politically. He was also a show-off and liked an admiring audience. He wanted to impress Californian ‘party girl’ Judith Exner and invited her to his press conference by the main swimming pool of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He was mid-speech when she appeared and he stopped, looked at her, and announced: “Hi Judy, I’ll be right with you when we finish.”
It was audacious but he believed a safe way of operating with these extra women in his life. There were often more women than men in his audience and far more women than men in the groups of campaign workers pursing his presidential dream for him. People and the press, respectful, reticent and not too inquiring, were used to seeing him with smart, attractive women and never suspicious. He told his new sexual attraction that he had borrowed the patio of Frank Sinatra’s suite, which was much more intimate than the restaurant, and there they would be able to talk through lunch. He would persuade her to talk about herself, the Catholicism, the Irish blood which they shared. She whispered the Hollywood secrets: “He could never get enough gossip.” Or sex.
JFK was enamoured. That evening in Las Vegas, the presidential hopeful’s supporters, many of whom had flown in from Hollywood, staged a fanfare party for JFK. The next day, back in Beverly Hills, a dozen red roses arrived for Exner from Kennedy. He telephoned in the evening. The calls began to be regular and from all over America where he was chasing votes. She, it would seem, was a distraction for Kennedy from the constant campaign, this same speech, people and rubber chicken dinners. He was 36 when he married Jacqueline Bouvier and their relationship worked: she had her interests outside politics. Mrs Kennedy was not prepared to make an open issue of her husband’s philandering. Judith Exner was flabbergasted and flattered to the point of exhilarating madness: in the middle of this great political battle, Kennedy would stop and telephone her.
He told her how much he missed her. How much she interested him. He would say he was tired or elated depending on how that day’s campaigning had gone. He told her how to find him any time of the night and day by routine calls through his secretary. Exactly one month after meeting in Las Vegas, they became lovers at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
It was an important evening in many lives. It was also the eve of the New Hampshire Primary in which Kennedy triumphed, a win which vastly improved his chances of being the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.
Two weeks after that encounter on March 7, 1960, in the Plaza Hotel, Exner went to Miami for the opening there of the touring stage act of the Sinatra Rat Pack at the Fontainebleau Hotel. She had a quiet drink with Sinatra and he introduced her to the mobster Joe Fischetti. Four days later, she went to a party and was called over by Sinatra, who was sitting with Joe Fischetti and another man who was introduced to her as Sam Flood. He took her hand and said: “It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Judy. A very real pleasure.” Smiling, he looked into her eyes: “Do you mind if I say something to you, Judy?”
She didn’t think that she really minded at all. “You’re far too beautiful to be wearing junk — excuse me — I mean costume jewellery,” he said. “A beautiful girl like you should be wearing real pearls and diamonds and rubies.”
“A girl like me sometimes does.”
“No offence, please. Real pleasure meeting you. Hope to see you again soon.”
It was one of Sam Flood, aka Sam Giancana’s, favourite chat-up lines. He called it a killer line, which was kind of appropriate for him. By then, Sam Giancana was one of the most powerful gangsters in the world. He had hoodlums, accountants, burglars, counterfeiters, hijackers, drug pushers, chemists, loan sharks, pimps, prostitutes, union bosses, businessmen, theatre and nightclub workers, bookmakers, crooked judges and police and Frank Sinatra under his control. The president of the United States would make a full deck.
He was earning about $1m a week with his interests going all the way out to Hawaii and with the Yakuza in Japan running at around $2bn a year. His home patch stretched from Cleveland to Kansas City, from Hot Springs to New Orleans and out of area were the lucrative rackets in Florida, the West Indies, Arizona and the lively money-making territories of Nevada and California. If diamonds are a girl’s best friend, then Sam Giancana had plenty of them. He quickly wooed and won Judith Exner. She said he fell in love with her but when asked if there might be another motivation, she nodded: “At first he may have just wanted to use me, but it became more than that.”
It certainly did. She became the conduit between the mafia and Kennedy. The narrative might be circumstantial but she met Giancana very shortly after she slept with Kennedy. For Giancana, there was the prospect of sexual blackmail whether Kennedy won or lost the race for the White House: he would remain a powerful person in American politics. Giancana was a widower. For sexual companionship, he had as wide a choice as any man in America. In addition to drug trafficking, gambling and hijacking, he controlled a prostitution business, which provided exquisite beauties for some of the most important men in America. But the days of the gang molls were over. Giancana’s respectability demanded a lady at his side, a ‘classy dame’ in old-days patois.
Judith Exner filled both roles. Giancana was the opposite of the handsome Kennedy, but he had power. He got royal attention. If he went into a restaurant and wasn’t pleased, the unfortunate owners would know that their business was doomed. Deliveries would halt, unions would strike, customers would fade away and vandals would finally work things over so that nothing of value would be left. There was no one, in the world which Giancana dominated who did not fear his power. Even the powerful names of showbusiness. They all toed the line and some more than others.
Exner maintained that even, in the heartland of the mob, she still believed Giancana was ‘Sam Flood’. It was quite an act, for some of those still alive who met him say that he smelled of evil. The way they tell it, he even had the look of Dorian Gray’s picture, all that badness knotted up inside him reflected in his face and demeanour. Arguably, given his savage, cruel temper, and sense of self-importance, even less believable was Giancana’s role as the “other man”. Although sharing a woman with another man was totally alien to his position and background, he accepted it; as long as she saw him when she wasn’t with Jack Kennedy. Then, they could talk. An excited Judith Exner liked to do that, especially to a man who was friendly, sympathetic, the perfect listener.
In a 1992 television interview with Larry King on CNN, Exner said that shortly after she became involved with the mobster, JFK asked her if she could set up a meeting between them. She said she and Kennedy were discussing his election campaign and Kennedy told her he was sure Giancana could help him get elected. She said Kennedy gave her a bag of cash — she did not elaborate how much and King didn’t ask — to deliver to Giancana to influence the election campaign in West Virginia.
At the time, there were also questions about the result in Illinois. Republican candidate Richard Nixon won 92 of the state’s 101 counties but the state’s electoral college votes went to Kennedy because of a win in Chicago. The problem was that the ballots cast in Chicago were victim to the corrupt political machine run by Democrat mayor Richard J Daley. A ‘retired’ Chicago mob capo said that winning an election in Illinois did not depend on voting. It depended on the people counting the votes, and the mob controlled them.
What Giancana had in play was the future of America. The Kennedy brothers had been campaigning on a law-and-order ticket and Bobby Kennedy had pledged to hound organised crime out of business. In answer, the mob needed bargaining power. The connective tissue between them and the government was already well established. Which was when America’s Central Intelligence Agency helped the mafia. The CIA wanted the mob to kill Fidel Castro.
Billionaire Howard Hughes’ right-hand man and CIA part-timer Bob Maheu was the perfect man to introduce them to his pal Johnny Rosselli, whom they offered $150,000 to do the job. Rosselli brought in Giancana and Santo Trafficante Jr, a seriously powerful boss headquartered in Tampa, Florida. They had lost their gambling bonanza in Havana to Castro’s coup and when the dictator turned sharp left, pro-Moscow, anti-Washington, they saw it as their patriotic duty — and an opportunity to retrieve their Havana casinos — by launching what became ‘Operation Mongoose’. It was not only the fruit, rum and sugar interests that were hit when Castro imposed his Caribbean-style socialism. It was also the crime industry.
The manipulators were supposedly covering every angle. Kennedy was mounting the most professional political drive for the White House that America had seen since the days of Franklin D Roosevelt. He was surrounded by a group of tough, hard young political organisers, the new breed in politics — men who could never be outsmarted. The supreme professionals all led by his brother Bobby. Their reputations, their incomes, their total futures depended on him winning. And to win there must be no slip up. They had a motto: ‘No risks’.
And yet, at this vital moment, Kennedy’s campaign was totally vulnerable. Some of the men around him were beginning to know about Judith Exner but not one of the supreme professionals checked her background and contacts out or asked: “Is she a risk?” And the reason for this was the unwritten law around JFK. He had to have his fun — his girls. Then he could get out of bed and into politics. It was an unwritten law that became tolerated, accepted, even admired. It built a false confidence, for not one person could imagine such innocent, manly fun would harm JFK.
Regarding Kennedy’s sexual appetite, it’s relevant to note that during talks to establish the Nassau Treaty, which was signed on December 22, 1962, which was to replace Skybolt with Polaris as the basis of the UK nuclear deterrent programme, Kennedy confided about his sex drive to Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan. He told Macmillan that he had to have plenty of sexual relationships with different women or he felt unwell. Macmillan, with elegant Edwardian diplomacy, changed the subject to the weather to cover what he considered rather bad form.
Yet Kennedy should never have been in the Bahamas — or become president. Had anyone known before the Democratic Convention or the November election that his lover was traipsing between him and Giancana, that would have been it. He got away with it. He certainly pushed that luck, for the more he survived, the more open he was about the affair.
Her friendship with Frank Sinatra eased, although FBI records show they still talked on the telephone. When her story of it all first emerged, Sinatra offered: “Hell hath no greater fury than a hustler with a literary agent.”
Sinatra was central to the Giancana manoeuvre of planting Judith Exner on JFK on behalf of the mafia. He was one of the few people who knew the astounding secret that the president’s mistress was also sleeping with a mafia chieftain — and he kept it.
‘Frank Sinatra and the Mafia Murders’ by Detective Mike Rothmiller and Douglas Thompson is out now, published by Ad Lib