- - Thursday, May 9, 2019


By Thomas Maier

Skyhorse, $25.99, 416 pages

Although mobster Johnny Roselli was murdered in 1976, his body discovered in a 55-gallon oil drum floating off Miami, Florida, this appears to be his year.

Lee Server wrote an interesting biography of the mobster, “Handsome Johnny: The Life and Death of Johnny Roselli: Gentleman Gangster, Hollywood Producer, CIA Assassin” (which I reviewed here). And now Roselli is also featured as one of the main historical characters, alongside fellow mobster Sam Giancana, President Kennedy, Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro, and Frank Sinatra and the other “Rat Pack” entertainers, in Thomas Maier’s “Mafia Spies: The Inside Story of the CIA, Gangsters, JFK, and Castro.”

Although during his lifetime he was well-known in organized crime, gambling and Hollywood movie-making circles, the notably handsome, well-dressed ladies’ man was not as well-known to the general public as many of the other gangsters he was associated with.

That books have been written about his life, as well as an upcoming film about him, has to do with his association with the CIA and the failed plot to kill Fidel Castro.

“The original 1960s Castro murder conspiracy remained a secret for fifteen years, until Congressional hearings in the mid-1970s revealed the spy agency’s basic plot. More spy details were released in the years to come,” Mr. Maier writes. “But the recently declassified files about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, released in batches by the National Archives in 2017-2018, were the biggest help for this book.”

“Mafia Spies” covers the time when the United States desperately wanted to get rid of Castro, a committed Communist and Soviet ally who allowed America’s adversary access to Cuba, a small island only 90 miles from Key West.

The CIA wanted to have Castro assassinated and it was thought that American gangsters, who lost millions when Castro shut down their casinos in Havana after the 1959 revolution, might also have good reasons to want him dead.

The book opens with Johnny Roselli leaving a closed-door congressional hearing in June 1975, where he testified about his role in working with the CIA. According to Mr. Maier, Roselli’s testimony was an assortment of lies and deceptions, sprinkled with a few moments of truth. He fielded questions about his and Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana’s actions in the CIA’s plot against Castro.

“Poison bills, exploding cigars, lethal James Bond-like gadgets, midnight boat raids from Florida with Cuban exiles carrying bombs and long-range rifles — a veritable army of undercover spies, double agents, and “cutout” handlers — were all part of this ill-fated campaign emanating from the White House.” Mr. Maier explains.

Mr. Maier states that this marked America’s first foray into the assassination business, but the assassination of Isodoku Yamamoto, the Imperial Japanese admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, comes immediately to mind.

After testifying, Roselli was besieged by the press, who snapped photographs of the gangster in designer sunglasses and a blue blazer. The photos of him failed to capture “his personal charm, the debonair sense of danger that made women swoon and fellow gangsters refer to him as “Handsome Johnny.”

Roselli and Giancana came up together in Chicago under the leadership of Al Capone. Roselli was sent west to Los Angeles and later Las Vegas to look after the Chicago mob’s illegal interests.

Giancana rose up the ranks of the Chicago mob, known as “the Outfit,” while Roselli worked back room deals and alternately charmed and threatened people who stood in the way of the mob making money. Roselli lived a charm life out West. He played cards and golf, and beautiful women, including well-known movie stars, accompanied him to expensive restaurants and nightclubs.

During the Eisenhower administration the CIA formulated a plan to eliminate Castro. In addition to the murder plots, the CIA backed the anti-Castro Cubans who were organized into an army that would invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. When President Kennedy assumed the presidency, he was briefed on the anti-Castro plans. A huge fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers, President Kennedy liked the intrigue surrounding the plots.

The Bay of Pigs operation failed due in part to Castro’s spies’ near-total infiltration of the Cuban exiles’ organizations, and Kennedy’s refusal to commit American air power to support the exiles. Later, came the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviets placed ballistic missiles on the island. Adding to the CIA-Cosa Nostra connection was the Hollywood connection. Judith Campbell, a beautiful party girl who floated between Roselli, Giancana and Frank Sinatra, was introduced to Kennedy, who began a risky affair with her.

“Mafia Spies” is a well-researched and interesting look back at the nexus of gangsters, entertainers, politicians and CIA officers who conspired and failed to assassinate Castro.

I only wish that they had succeeded.

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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