Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Myth of Mob Gallantry

Judith Exner: From the Outfit to the Oval Office

Gossip columnist Liz Smith once called Judith Campbell Exner "one of the most maligned people in American history."

In an interview with CNN's Larry King, Smith recalled the woman who would finally put the Camelot myth of President John F. Kennedy to rest, describing Exner as "a deluded 25-year-old girl who was in love with the president of the United States."

"But no dummy, Judith?" King asked.

"No," Liz replied. "I mean, terribly, terribly misunderstood, maligned, misbelieved because, you know, she did lie a lot, Larry, because she was fearful for her life. And I think what people don't remember about Judith Exner was she didn't talk or blab or anything until they made her, a congressional committee made her talk."

Judith Campbell Exner, younger
Judith Campbell Exner, younger

Long before the Clinton sex scandal, it wasn't just the fact that Exner had had an affair with one of America's most beloved presidents that prompted a congressional committee to issue her a subpoena and get her to break her silence. It was the fact that Exner had served as go-between for Kennedy and one of the Underworld's most feared leaders, the head of the Chicago Outfit: Sam "Momo" Giancana. What's more, while Exner was carrying on her affair with Kennedy in the Oval Office, she was still romantically involved with Momo.

Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra

Exner's story begins in 1960, when Frank Sinatra, whom she had met through her ex-husband's Hollywood connections, invited her to Las Vegas, where he was filming the original Ocean's 11. While she was there, the Elizabeth Taylor look-alike, known then as Judith Campbell, met an up-and-coming United States senator from Massachusetts, who had just announced he was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. The Exner-Kennedy relationship started right there in Las Vegas, and Judith told interviewers that because she was in such constant contact with Kennedy, she didn't know he was married for several weeks.

Sam Giancana
Sam Giancana

It was Frank Sinatra who brought in the final side of this bizarre love triangle, by introducing Judith to Sam Giancana, who she knew as "Sam Flood." Exner said that she was not dating Kennedy and Giancana at the same time, but that she maintained a platonic friendship with Momo while Kennedy was seeking the presidential nomination. She also said she didn't know of Giancana's mob ties when she was introduced to him, but in hindsight, Kennedy obviously did.

"[We] were talking about the campaign, of course, and toward the end of the dinner, Jack asked me, could I set up a meeting with Sam for him," Exner told CNN's Larry King in 1992. "And I said, yes, if you want to, but why, or should I ask why? And he said, I think he can help me with the campaign."

President John F. Kennedy, headshot
President John F. Kennedy, headshot

The evening where Kennedy asked Judith to set up the meeting with "Sam Flood" she said he gave her a satchel filled with cash that she was to give to Momo. Years later, she learned that the money was taken to West Virginia, where Giancana's operatives used it to help Kennedy win a come-from-behind victory in the primary against Hubert Humphrey. From 1960 to 1963, while Judith carried on her relationship with Kennedy, she often acted as a go-between for Kennedy and Giancana, and revealed that she delivered top secret intelligence on Fidel Castro that Giancana used to set up a botched assassination attempt.

J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover

Exner's affair with Kennedy ended in 1962 shortly after FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover brought a top secret agency memo about her to a lunch with the president. As New York Times columnist William Safire wrote shortly after Exner's death from cancer in 1999, "That must have been some lunch."

Judith had unwittingly given Hoover the ammunition he needed to blackmail the president, wrote Scripps-Howard News Service journalist Dan Thomasson.

"When they were apart, she often called the president from Giancana's Chicago home, completely unaware that the FBI was tapping that telephone," he wrote in a memorial to Exner.

"J. Edgar Hoover, who had little regard for President Kennedy or his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, lost no time in warning the Kennedys that he was aware of the affair. The implication was obvious and Hoover got pretty much what he wanted after that, including authorization to eavesdrop on Martin Luther King, Jr.,whom he claimed had communist connections."

As the affair between Exner and Kennedy soured, she briefly had a physical relationship with Momo, but that ended when he proposed marriage and she turned him down.

In 1974, she was summoned before the Church Committee, a Senate investigation of assassinations and under oath, testified about her relationship with Jack Kennedy. She did not, however, tell them everything she knew, which would damage her credibility somewhat. Having moved in the circles of the top echelons of government and organized crime, Judith believed she had a good reason for keeping secrets.

"She said (it was) because everybody around her had been murdered - Giancana, his lieutenant Johnny Rosselli, Marilyn Monroe, both the Kennedy brothers. Judith claimed to the end she feared for her life," Smith wrote.

Judith Campbell Exner would likely have been relegated to the sealed files of the nation's classified archives, had not Thomasson, his partner Dan Wyngaard and later Safire, looked deeper into a brief footnote in the 1974 Church Committee Report that summarized the Kennedy-Mafia relationship and made several references to an unnamed "friend of the president" who acted as courier for information. While the Church Committee had promised Judith anonymity, someone leaked her identity to the Scripps Howard team who spent months trying to get her to go on the record with her story.

Fearing for her life from mafia hitmen if she talked, Exner was at first reluctant, but when it was clear that the Church Committee could no longer keep her name out of the papers, she talked. While she was not a target of the mob, the publicity destroyed her life.

"A myth-loving public, steeped in the idea of Camelot, reviled her. The press piled on. As a result, Exner was labeled a "Mafia mistress," and found herself hounded by the FBI and others," wrote Liz Smith in Exner's obituary.

Even after the affair had been independently confirmed, Kennedy defenders continued to belittle Judith Exener. In her New York Times obituary, the paper's headline read "Judith Exner Is Dead at 65; Claimed Affair With Kennedy" and included this comment from the Kennedy camp:

"Former aides maintained that Kennedy had not had an affair with Mrs. Exner, who was then Judith Campbell. Dave Powers, a Kennedy aide who Mrs. Exner said had assisted in setting up her encounters with the President, said in 1991, "The only Campbell I know is chunky vegetable soup."

Three days later the Times issued the following correction:

Judith Campbell Exner, older
Judith Campbell Exner, older

"The article reported that aides of President Kennedy's, including Dave Powers, denied the affair. But it should also have reflected what is now the view of a number of respected historians and authors that the affair did in fact take place. The evidence cited by various authorities in recent years has included White House phone logs and memos from J. Edgar Hoover."

Judith Exner said she had been destroyed by her experience as the messenger between the parallel powers of government and organized crime; even in the end, when the evidence and media culture made it acceptable to reveal the personal failings of a president, she continued to pay a high price for loving two powerful men.

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