President Kennedy’s Romantic Affair Links Him to Organized Crime Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

U.S. president John F. Kennedy was tied to organized crime through his romantic relationship with Judith Campbell. The crisis, which threatened to undermine the credibility of the Kennedy administration, was stalled through the intervention of the director of the FBI, who convinced Kennedy to end his relationship with Campbell. Nevertheless, Kennedy was plagued by controversy even after his assassination, as the cause of his death was blamed on Campbell, the mob, and even Fidel Castro, among others.

Summary of Event

The romantic relationship between Judith Campbell, who was linked with two organized-crime leaders, and U.S. president John F. Kennedy, remains one of the controversial legacies of the Kennedy administration. Kennedy met Campbell through singer Frank Sinatra and a group of Hollywood entertainers known as the Rat Pack. She had been introduced to Kennedy on February 7, 1960, in Las Vegas, Nevada, just a few weeks after Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. [kw]Kennedy’s Romantic Affair Links Him to Organized Crime, President (Feb. 7, 1960) [kw]Organized Crime, President Kennedy’s Romantic Affair Links Him to (Feb. 7, 1960) Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and Judith Campbell[Campbell] Campbell, Judith Federal Bureau of Investigation;and John F. Kennedy[Kennedy] Hoover, J. Edgar [p]Hoover, J. Edgar;and John F. Kennedy[Kennedy] Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and J. Edgar Hoover[Hoover] Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and Judith Campbell[Campbell] Campbell, Judith Federal Bureau of Investigation;and John F. Kennedy[Kennedy] Hoover, J. Edgar [p]Hoover, J. Edgar;and John F. Kennedy[Kennedy] Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and J. Edgar Hoover[Hoover] [g]United States;Feb. 7, 1960: President Kennedy’s Romantic Affair Links Him to Organized Crime[01080] [c]Public morals;Feb. 7, 1960: President Kennedy’s Romantic Affair Links Him to Organized Crime[01080] [c]Government;Feb. 7, 1960: President Kennedy’s Romantic Affair Links Him to Organized Crime[01080] [c]Politics;Feb. 7, 1960: President Kennedy’s Romantic Affair Links Him to Organized Crime[01080] [c]Sex;Feb. 7, 1960: President Kennedy’s Romantic Affair Links Him to Organized Crime[01080] [c]Organized crime and racketeering;Feb. 7, 1960: President Kennedy’s Romantic Affair Links Him to Organized Crime[01080] Kennedy, Robert F. Sinatra, Frank Giancana, Sam Roselli, John

Judith Campbell at a 1975 press conference in which she said she had a “close, personal relationship” with former president John F. Kennedy.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Campbell had a long association with the Rat Pack as well, and she had long-term friendships with key members of organized crime, namely Sam Giancana of Chicago, Illinois, and John Roselli of Los Angeles, California. The scandalous relationship that developed between Kennedy and Campbell was closely monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI began surveillance of Kennedy during his association with the Rat Pack and intensified as his relationship with Campbell deepened. Members of the White House staff facilitated the liaisons between Kennedy and Campbell.

In 1961, at the time Campbell and Kennedy were having their affair, the United States was facing increasing tension with the Soviet Union. In May, President Kennedy met with Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. in Vienna, Austria, but the meeting was not successful. Profound disagreements on a host of international questions produced a stormy series of meetings between the two leaders. It was during this time of potential international crisis that Campbell’s relationship with Kennedy was at its high point.

The crisis that was brewing for Kennedy at home included the FBI surveillance. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was concerned about Campbell’s access to President Kennedy, especially considering her ties to Giancana and Roselli. This easy access led the FBI director to request a private meeting with the president.

Prior to meeting with Kennedy, Hoover had a memorandum delivered to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, about the evidence he had on the president, Campbell, Giancana, and Roselli. As Robert already knew, Hoover had material on his brother’s previous sexual encounters with women, including one with an alleged German spy twenty years earlier. Undoubtedly, the memo was meant to intimidate the attorney general, who did apparently speak with his brother about the Campbell affair. The contents of that conversation, if it did take place, remain unknown, however. What is known is that Robert recommended that his brother end his relationship with Campbell and with Sinatra, who had been the president’s friend. Sinatra had gone to great lengths to solidify his relationship with President Kennedy. He had invested in upgrades to his own residence, upgrades that included a helicopter pad for the president’s use and facilities for presidential staff members and secret service agents.

The Hoover memorandum was upsetting to Robert. It implied that his brother had connections with organized crime. During the late 1950’s, Robert had helped to investigate the influence of organized crime in the United States. He carried this zeal for investigatory activities from the 1950’s into his job as attorney general, leading the Kennedy administration into pursuing organized crime at the same time the president was involved with Campbell.

A clear dichotomy existed between the Kennedy administration and organized crime, but a paradox existed as well: The Kennedys had relied upon the support of organized crime in winning the endorsements of several unions during the 1960 presidential Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1960 campaign. Sinatra had acted as a go-between who contacted Giancana to secure the political support of unions for John Kennedy. It was during this time that Sinatra introduced Giancana’s girlfriend, Campbell, to the presidential candidate. Robert knew that the Hoover memo was a threat to his brother’s presidency.

Impact

On March 22, 1962, Hoover met with the president, but no minutes of the meeting exist. The only other person in attendance was Kennedy’s aide, Kenny O’Donnell, who later denied that anything of significance happened during the meeting. Kennedy ended his affair with Campbell soon after the meeting with Hoover, and he also severed his ties with Sinatra. So significant was Kennedy’s break with Sinatra that when the president traveled to California the day after his meeting with Hoover, he stayed at the home of entertainer Bing Crosby, a Republican, rather than with Sinatra.

In 1977, Campbell published her own account of the affair in her autobiography My Story. (Campbell had remarried in 1975 and taken the name of her new husband, golfer Exner, Dan Dan Exner.) Despite O’Donnell’s denial of a romantic relationship between Campbell and the president, the revelations in Campbell’s memoir contain enough detail to confirm otherwise.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 23, 1963, led to several conspiracy theories about why he was murdered. The Campbell-Kennedy relationship lends credence to the claim that organized crime was involved in his assassination. Through her ties with Giancana and Roselli, Campbell did establish a linkage, although much of the evidence remains circumstantial. Campbell’s relationship with the president also links him to Cuba Cuba and Castro, Fidel Fidel Castro, as Giancana and other elements of organized crime reportedly were involved in assassination plots against Castro.

The sexual relationship between Kennedy and Campbell highlights the shadow overhanging the Kennedy legacy. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Americans were positive about the legacy of the Kennedy administration. During the 1970’s, several new works appeared that cast doubt on his legacy. Many of these new studies focused on Kennedy’s propensity to engage in reckless sexual behavior. Without question these revelations damaged his standing with many Americans. Other sexual liaisons have been difficult to prove, but Kennedy’s affair with Campbell has been more verifiable, and given the FBI’s involvement, it has been deemed much more serious. Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and Judith Campbell[Campbell] Campbell, Judith Federal Bureau of Investigation;and John F. Kennedy[Kennedy] Hoover, J. Edgar [p]Hoover, J. Edgar;and John F. Kennedy[Kennedy] Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and J. Edgar Hoover[Hoover]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Lee. The Greatest Menace: Organized Crime in Cold War America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002. A history of organized crime in the United States, focusing on the Cold-War era, which was at its height during Kennedy’s time in office.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Exner, Judith. My Story. New York: Grove Press, 1977. Campbell’s autobiography, which focuses on her relationship with President Kennedy. Written with Ovid Demaris.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giglio, James N. The Presidency of John F. Kennedy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991. A historical look at John F. Kennedy’s time in office as president of the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leaming, Barbara. Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Traces the influences of Kennedy’s friends and life circumstances on his “intellectual and political formation,” showing, also, a leader “torn between politics and principle” and “a president wrestling with private demons and unresolved conflicts.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Brien, Michael. “The Exner File: Judith Campbell Exner, John F. Kennedy’s Mistress.” Washington Monthly, December, 1999. A comprehensive magazine article that examines Campbell’s connections with John F. Kennedy. Published three months after Campbell’s death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Sally Bedell. Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House. New York: Random House, 2004. A rare behind-the-scenes look at the White House during John F. Kennedy’s tenure as U.S. president.

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