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Judith Campbell’s relationship with Ol’ Blue Eyes lasted only a few months, but they remained close after their split. So, it wasn’t surprising that Sinatra would invite her to Las Vegas in February 1960 to see him perform at The Sands, nor that she would say yes. What was unexpected was that the night would change the course of her life.
In the crowd that evening was John F. Kennedy, senator from Massachusetts and candidate for President of the United States.
News of JFK’s many mistresses has become so frequent it’s almost mundane. There was the yearbook class of White House interns and staff, the call girls, the actresses, and the icon. There was the German spy and the wife of a CIA officer. The list of women sneaking in and out of the White House and meeting up for quickies on the road is almost endless, especially considering still more are coming forward, one as recently as last year.
Each new story adds a little something to the lore of the interrupted Camelot White House. But the tragedy of those events didn’t end with JFK.
“He has robbed me of my life. Since 1975, I haven’t had a future. I am tired of worrying about the Kennedys,” Campbell, the mistress that the papers dubbed the “mob moll” told 20/20 in the ’90s. “I’m worried about my brothers and sisters. My children. They shouldn’t have to hear someone say I was a mafia mistress. The worst thing I did was fall in love with a married man.”
Campbell claimed that she didn’t know JFK was married when she first met him at the Sinatra show. Even without the 24-hour cable news cycle, that is a little hard to believe given he was a fairly high-profile politician, but her assertion seems sincere and their introduction happened several months before Kennedy won the democratic primary nomination. Campbell’s first husband, actor William Campbell, hurt her deeply with his serial affairs, and she said she would never have wanted to put another woman in that same position.
But her meet-cute with the presidential hopeful against the backdrop of Sinatra’s sultry tunes turned into a day-after lunch date followed by a month of calls from the road. By the time she found out about Jackie, the choice was out of her hands. When the affair turned physical in March 1960 at the Plaza Hotel, Campbell was well aware that she was the other woman, but she couldn’t help herself. “I just couldn’t resist him. I had essentially just lost my heart to him.”
And that’s maybe where it all would have ended. Campbell would have been just another name in Kennedy’s infamous little black book—not the only woman he was sleeping with at the time nor the only mistress he would “take” with him to the White House.
But Campbell wasn’t so lucky. Once again, Frank Sinatra sealed her fate as arguably the most intriguing and scandalous of Kennedy’s affairs.
As well known as JFK’s many romantic mid-century dalliances were the illicit liaisons enjoyed between Frank Sinatra and the mob. The singer was connected and everyone knew it.
Though maybe not Campbell. Just as she was initially naive to Kennedy’s marital status, Campbell says that she didn’t realize the friend her ex-boyfriend introduced her to one day as Sam Flood was actually Sam Giancana, a big-time player in Chicago’s organized crime world. Kennedy, however, knew of the connection and he knew his girlfriend was his in.
About a month after Campbell and Kennedy first slept together, he asked her to deliver a bag full of money to her new acquaintance, Sam. She knew what was in the bag and she did it without question. As she would later tell Vanity Fair’s Liz Smith, “I was 26 and in love. Was I supposed to have more judgment than the president of the United States?”
Her affair with the president lasted for just over two years. In that time, she served as the go-between between the Chicago mob and the Kennedy White House. She delivered letters and packages and she set up meetings, around 10 by her count. It is alleged that her earliest delivery was a payoff to Giancana for helping to tip West Virginia towards Kennedy. She believed the later missives concerned Kennedy’s attempts to recruit the mob to help him take out Castro.
In the late 1990s, she told Smith: “You know, I used to be at the White House having lunch or dinner with Jack, and Bobby would often come by. He'd squeeze my shoulder solicitously and ask, ‘Judy, are you O.K. carrying these messages for us to Chicago? Do you still feel comfortable doing it?’ I always said I'd let him know if I didn’t.”
Their relationship petered out as 1962 came to an end. By that time, Kennedy was putting more pressure on Campbell to move to D.C., but she was feeling increasingly bad about her role as a mistress. She was also very concerned by the FBI surveillance that it had become clear was on her, though Kennedy brushed it off.
As she told People magazine in a 1988 tell-all, “I called Jack immediately to tell him that the FBI had been to see me, asking all sorts of questions about Sam. I told him I had said I knew nothing about Sam’s business affairs. Jack reassured me. He said, ‘Don’t worry. They won’t do anything to you. And don’t worry about Sam. You know he works for us.’ He told me that over and over: ‘Don’t worry. Sam works for us.’”
The final act of their dramatic affair was the one secret Campbell kept until nearly the very end of her life. At the end of 1962 as their relationship was coming to a close, she became pregnant. With Kennedy’s knowledge and support, she decided to have an abortion. It was a decade before Roe v. Wade, so Giancana helped arrange the illegal procedure in Chicago.
Campbell loved Kennedy and trusted him so much that she didn’t question anything he asked her to do while they were involved. But after his assassination just shy of a year after they broke up, that all changed. She came to fear for her life, and for good reason. People who orbited her affair with the president began turning up dead.
Mary Pinochet Meyer, the wife of a CIA operative who Kennedy was also sleeping with at the same time as Campbell (though without Campbell’s knowledge), was killed in 1964 in an unsolved murder. Giancana was murdered in his home in 1975 just before he was scheduled to appear before the Church Committee, which was investigating intelligence agency abuses. Giancana’s associate, John Roselli, was found “in a chain-wrapped 55-gallon drum floating in Biscayne Bay” in 1974 after he had given his own congressional testimony.
Campbell started sleeping with a gun under her pillow. When she was called to testify in front of Congress about the relationship between Kennedy and organized crime, she lied.
But over the next two decades, she slowly began to break her silence. Her affair with the president had been revealed during her Congressional testimony after the committee broke its promise to keep what she said confidential. So, she decided to take her story into her own hands and publish a memoir.
But as the years passed, Campbell—later known as Judith Exner—began to spill even more. When she learned the FBI’s files on Giancana were being declassified and after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she decided to reveal the last few, scandalous secrets she held of her role in Kennedy and Giancana’s relationship and her own final act with Kennedy.
At first, her account seemed salacious. Sure Kennedy slept with a lot of women, but was the country really to believe a woman whose story played into the most salacious JFK assassination conspiracy theories by claiming to reveal not only her own sordid history with the president, but also close mob ties between the two?
But over the years, Campbell’s tale was vindicated. As reporters began to fact check her story and to examine the evidence, many like Liz Smith testified that her claims held up. The New York Times even had to attach a correction to its 1999 obituary of Campbell: “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.”
Despite her best efforts, Campbell’s name has gone down in history as a consort to Kennedy, as a mob moll, as a player in one of the most intriguing and puzzling episodes in the American presidency. And there’s really only one thing to blame: love.
As she told Smith in 1996 (three years before her death from breast cancer, aged 65), ”I was wrong to have an affair with a married man. I take responsibility for all of that. Being brought up Catholic, my middle name was guilt. It’s there forever. I tried to rationalize it, because I fell in love with Jack. Absolutely. He swept me off my feet.”