By Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan
On this 50th anniversary of the assassination, as the nostalgia-smudged picture show of John F. Kennedy’s 1000 days is played, rewound, and played again, few will remind us that the shiny Kennedy machine was oiled with dirty grease. Joseph Kennedy, the father, had a long and tangled relationship with organized crime – the U.S. Mafia – and that played a key part both in his son’s rise – and perhaps ultimately in his death.
It was the father – not merely a former U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James but also a sometime bootlegger – who brought the Mob into his son’s orbit. “Joe Kennedy had been involved with us from the beginning,” said mob boss Joseph Bonanno’s son Bill. “He asked for a favor and it was granted.” In the winter of 1959, Bonanno told us, there was a meeting between intermediaries for Bonanno Sr. and Kennedy Sr. that led to consultation with other national crime figures and fundraising .
Joe Kennedy also turned to Jimmy “Blue Eyes” Alo, long an influential member of the mob. “Joe came to me early,” Alo said in 1997. “I got a call from an old friend I’d known since Detroit, from the casino. He said, ‘Phil Regan’s in town, he wants to talk with you.’ I came up with Phil in Brooklyn – a good looking Irishman, good singer, Irish tenor….Joe Kennedy had sent Phil to see me.”
Regan himself acknowledged that he had worked for Joe Kennedy early in the campaign. He told Alo, according to the mobster, ‘Well, you know Jack Kennedy’s going for the nomination for President?….The old man has delegated me to see you, because he’s got everything figured out….’ He said, ‘Do you know Sam Giancana?’”
Sam Giancana, the heir to Capone, the man who ran the Mafia in Illinois. “Joe Kennedy wanted me to talk to him about helping Jack in Chicago” Alo said. “I said, ‘‘Phil, don’t mix me up with politics because I don’t want no part of it….The next thing I hear is that they went to [Frank] Sinatra.”
The elder Kennedy needed to bring Giancana on board because the Mob’s hold on politics was strong in the borderline state of Illinois. Three decades later, when his daughter Tina was preparing a TV movie on his life, Frank Sinatra revealed what happened next. Joe Kennedy asked him to lunch at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port and told him what he wanted. As rendered in the movie, the conversation ran as follows:
Joe Kennedy: “Sing?…I got something more important in mind for you…Frank, we know the same people. And I know you know the people I mean.
Sinatra: Sure, I know.
Kennedy: We need a boost from our friends in Chicago who control the unions. They can win this race for us. But you understand, Frank, I can’t go to those people. It might come back to Jack. The White House can’t owe them any favors.
Sinatra: I understand…”
Sinatra delivered the request for Mob help early – in the movie and in real life, according to Tina – during a golf game with Giancana early in the campaign. “My friend Jack Kennedy,” Sinatra told the Mafia boss, “needs some help with the West Virginia primary….”
West Virginia had looked like a sure thing until Hubert Humphrey, a Protestant, entered the race. The population of West Virginia, which was overwhelmingly Protestant, had never elected a Catholic to important office. Yet Kennedy, the Catholic, trounced Humphrey in the primary election in May, a result that would ever after be clouded by corruption allegations.
“I knew Joe Kennedy well,” Sinatra’s friend Bob Neal said, “He made a deal with Giancana, and the first part of it was West Virginia.” Chicago gangster Murray Humphreys, according to his widow Jeanne, concluded that Giancana agreed “to get that Joe Kennedy’s kid elected president” in part “to impress Sinatra.”
In West Virginia, Sinatra’s intimate associate Skinny D’Amato spread money around like manure. “We got them in,” D’Amato said in an interview shortly before his death, acknowledging that he talked with “the Old Man,” a Kennedy brother or a close aide, every day during the campaign. A photograph shows D’Amato in conversation with John Kennedy. Also visible in the photograph is Angelo Malandra, a mob lawyer who, an FBI agent said, was “one of the people who, with Sinatra, had the mob’s money in West Virginia.”
Money for West Virginia, D’Amato was overheard saying on an FBI wiretap, had come from Las Vegas. Back in February 1960, as Kennedy relaxed in Sinatra’s suite at the Sands, Peter Lawford had taken Sammy Davis aside. “If you want to see what a million dollars in cash looks like,” he whispered, “go into the next room. There’s a brown leather satchel in the closet. Open it. It’s a gift from the hotel owners for Jack’s campaign.”
The actor Brad Dexter, another Sinatra friend, had a similar experience. “He said there was a valise in his car, and to go get it for him.” Dexter said. “I brought it in, and he said ‘Open it.’ The goddamn valise was chock-full of hundred dollar bills, wrapped in packages. There had to have been a hundred, two hundred thousand dollars in there.”
Sinatra’s secretary Gloria Lovell, Dexter said, “used to take messages and money back and forth for him, to Chicago, to Sam Giancana, for Jack Kennedy, to distribute for payoffs.” Giancana would later say that Sinatra was “our errand boy.”
Another player in the dangerous game was a brunette named Judith Campbell. Sinatra introduced her to Kennedy at Las Vegas’ Sands Hotel. “Who is this girl?” show business agent Milt Ebbins asked his client Peter Lawford, Kennedy’s brother-in-law. “And Peter said, ‘She’s a hooker. Frank gave her $200…to go to bed with Jack.’”
Campbell’s memoir offered the romantic version. Kennedy “looked so handsome in his pin-striped suit,” that she accepted when he phoned inviting her to lunch on Sinatra’s patio. She said “a long and intimate relationship” followed, one that lasted until as late as the second year of the Kennedy presidency. At Sinatra’s urging, Campbell claimed, she had early on flown to Miami and met with Mob chieftain Giancana. For a time, she said her life was dominated by the sexual relationship with J.F.K. and parallel contacts with Giancana. Much of what Campbell claimed turned out to be credible, supported by phone records and White House logs. Nevertheless, Campbell was less than frank.
In her memoir, Campbell wrote as though – until the Giancana meeting – the world of the mob was unknown territory to her. Sands Casino employee Count Guido Deiro, however, said she was familiar to staff at the Sands “because she was a girlfriend of Johnny Rosselli.”
Rosselli was a leading Las Vegas mobster, operating on Giancana’s behalf, when Campbell met Kennedy. He too had a longstanding connection to Joe Kennedy – they were occasional golf partners and played cards together. Judith Campbell told the Senate Intelligence Committee that she had met Rosselli for the first time “possibly in 1960.” In her memoir she said she had met him “once briefly years before.”
Research and interviews indicate that was not true, that the chronology in which Campbell connected with the key men involved was not – as she claimed – Sinatra, followed by Kennedy, followed by Giancana. It was, rather: Sinatra, followed by Giancana – and then John Kennedy.
“I don’t think it takes a great deal of imagination,” Judith Campbell said years afterward, “to think there is a possibility I was used.” “They deliberately fed her to Jack,” actor Dexter said before his death in 2002, “Very serious….”
There are credible claims, too, that John Kennedy’s relations with Giancana were closer than ever suspected, corroboration for part of Judith Campbell’s claim. “I met Jack Kennedy when he was a senator,” Sinatra’s friend Nick Sevano said in 2004, “and we had dinner with Sam [Giancana] and a few others. Jack was very respectful to Giancana….”
The society columnist Taki Theodoracopulos, who mixed in the Kennedy circle in the early 1960s, recalled a night out in New York with Peter Lawford and the Mafia boss, who was introduced by his nickname “Sam Mooney.” “They talked about all the girls that Mooney used to produce for the Kennedys,” the columnist said, “reminiscing about the girls that JFK had through Mooney. Mooney was very proud of his Kennedy connection.”
In July, at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Sinatra entertained 3,000 of the Democratic faithful. Gangster Murray Humphreys, meanwhile, labored behind the scenes to nail down support for Kennedy. Holed up in a Chicago hotel suite, he worked the phones and met with politicians and union officials from around the country.
The following month, Giancana met with Humphreys to discuss – Humphreys’ widow remembered – “what politicians had to be ‘turned around’….which union heads had to be convinced….Mooney [Giancana] was exuberant….There was a lot of ‘Frank said this’ and ‘Frank said that’ and ‘It’ll all pay off’….”
It did. On election night 1960, when it seemed Illinois could go either way, John Kennedy made a call from the family compound at Hyannis Port to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Daley assured him, Kennedy told aides, that “we’re going to make it with the help of a few close friends.”
In his office at the Armory Lounge, Giancana presided over a bank of phones. During the cliff-hanger hours, Sinatra called time and again from Hollywood. With Johnny Rosselli, in from the West Coast for the purpose, Giancana monitored local returns as they came in. Orders had been issued, and field operatives bent the voting process as required. “Votes weren’t bought,” said Murray Humphreys’ widow, so much as “commanded, demanded and in a few cases cajoled.”
Kennedy won the presidential election by the slimmest of margins. He won the popular vote with a majority of just 113,057 votes out nearly 69,000,000 cast. He would have lost in the electoral college, the crucial part of the process, had 4,500 voters in Illinois (and 28,000 in Texas) cast their votes differently. There was immediate suspicion of fraud, focused especially on Illinois.
The votes that put Kennedy over the top in Illinois had been “stolen – let me repeat that – stolen,” Notre Dame professor Robert Blakey, an organized crime specialist, has said. FBI wiretaps alone, he said, show that mob money and muscle made a difference. The Mafia does nothing for nothing, however, and – Blakey concluded – Giancana believed “the Kennedys would do something for them” in return.
According to Jeanne Humphreys, Joe Kennedy had assured Giancana that a Kennedy administration would “lay off the mob.” Former FBI agent William Roemer, who ran FBI surveillance of organized crime in Chicago, recalled listening to Mafia conversations before and after the election. “Eventually,” Roemer wrote, Giancana had a conversation in which he “indicated that Frank Sinatra had made a commitment to Giancana in 1960….The agreement was that if Giancana used his influence in Chicago with the ‘West Side Bloc’ and other public officials on Kennedy’s behalf, Sinatra felt he could get Kennedy [should he become President] to back off from the FBI investigation of Giancana.”
The candidate’s father Joe may have made other extravagant promises. During the 1960 campaign, the exiled mobster Lucky Luciano would recall, he began to hope for a return to the U.S. “I got a feeling,” said Sal Vizzini, a Narcotics Bureau undercover man who had got close to Luciano, “that [New York’s Frank] Costello and Meyer Lansky were promising him an opportunity to come back if Kennedy won.”
According to Michael Hellerman, an intimate of Skinny D’Amato, Joe Kennedy promised to “do what he could,” should his son become President, to see that another exiled mobster, Joe Adonis, was allowed back into the U.S..
This was perilous deal-making, for – in office – the Kennedy administration did not come through. Under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the new President’s brother, the U.S. Mafia was pursued and prosecuted as never before.
By 1962, according to an associate, Florida Mafia boss Santo Trafficante was saying that the Kennedys were “not honest. They took graft and they did not keep a bargain…Mark my word, this man Kennedy is in trouble, and he will get what is coming to him.”
The associate, businessman Jose Aleman, demurred, saying he thought President Kennedy would be reelected to a second term. Then, speaking very quietly, the Mafia boss replied: “Kennedy’s not going to make it to the election. He is going to be hit.”
The U.S. Congress’ Assassinations Committtee, the second official probe into John F. Kennedy’s assassination, would identify Trafficante as one of two Mafia bosses it suspected of involvement in the President’s murder.