Judith Campbell Exner: the missing link between JFK and the Mafia

A mysterious woman at the centre of a powerful love triangle. 

Peter Iantorno November 23, 2014

The year is 1960, The United States is under the leadership of Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, and young US Senator John F. Kennedy has just announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In music, the great Frank Sinatra is at the height of his powers with his smash hit album Nice 'n' Easy topping the charts, while the country is in the grip of a Mafia era, with the likes of Chicago Outfit mob boss Sam "Momo" Giancana controlling vast sums of wealth for the criminal underworld.

On the face of it, a young presidential candidate, a massive music star and a powerful mob boss couldn't be further removed from one another. However, they were all linked by one thing, or to be specific, one person: Judith Campbell Exner.

Known then as Judith Campbell (she married actor William Campbell in 1952 at the age of 18 before the pair divorced in 1958), the young woman was described by all who met her as "stunningly beautiful". And it was this striking beauty, as well as JFK's penchant for affairs with pretty girls, that led to one of the most sensational scandals ever, linking Kennedy to the infamous mob boss Giancana. Judith Campbell Exner. The story begins in Las Vegas, where Campbell was staying as the guest of non other than Frank Sinatra, who she'd become familiar with as a result of her former husband's Hollywood connections.

One evening, Campbell was introduced by Sinatra to up-and-coming US Senator John F. Kennedy, who had just announced that he was seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidential elections. Although he'd been married to wife Jackie for seven years by that time, Kennedy had already been involved in numerous extramarital affairs, and when an opportunity to enter a relationship with a woman of Campbell's beauty presented itself, it seems he simply couldn't resist.

The pair began a passionate romance, which would go on for a period of around two years, and even saw Campbell visiting Kennedy in the White House once he became president.

But the Elizabeth Taylor lookalike wasn't simply another one of JFK's many mistresses. Where her story becomes infinitely more enthralling is a couple of months after Frank Sinatra first introduced her to Kennedy, he also brought her into contact with leading Chicago Mafia boss, Sam "Momo" Giancana. Judith Campbell Exner. Campbell Exner claims in her 1977 memoir Judith Exner: My Story that she was unaware of Giancana's Mafia connections, and that he was initially introduced to her as "Sam Flood". She also claims that although she did have a physical relationship with the Mafia don for a short while, it was not during the time that her and Kennedy were together.

But irrespective of Campbell Exner's knowledge of Giancana's dealing, the most important piece of the puzzle is that JFK was not kept in the dark about the pair spending time together. In fact, not only did he know about the relationship, but he also knew about Giancana's ties to the mob, and, according to Campbell Exner, prior to him winning the presidential primary, he even requested a meeting with Giancana, saying, "I think he can help me with the campaign".

As the affair continued, Campbell Exner claims she acted as a go between, linking JFK and "Momo", regularly arranging meetings and delivering messages between the two. There's even a suggestion that Giancana was contacted by the CIA with regards to the possible assassination of Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro, however, any attempt failed, and it's unclear whether JFK was aware of the apparent plot.

What is for sure is that FBI director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, was certainly aware of the relationship between Campbell Exner and Kennedy. He even had Campbell Exner followed, in order to gain evidence with which it's thought he was able to blackmail JFK into allowing him to surveil Martin Luther King, who he claimed had communist connections. Fidel Castro. After two years of sneaking around, the relationship between Kennedy and Campbell Exner petered out and one year later, JFK was assassinated in Texas.

After severing ties with JFK, Campbell Exner drifted into the arms of Giancana, although the brief romantic involvement never really got off the ground, and the pair separated in 1963. A string of other partners followed, including professional baseball player Eddie Fisher, and golfer Dan Exner, who she married in 1975.

After 13 years of marriage, the pair separated in 1988, and 11 years later, on September 24, 1999, Judith Campbell Exner died of breast cancer aged 65.

Although officials from the Kennedy administration dispute her accounts of conspiracy and corruption in those heady days spent between the most powerful man in the world and a prominent mob boss, she remained insistent to her dying day that she was the missing link between JKF and the Mafia.