How one of Al Capone’s ‘boy won­ders’ lived and died

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Paul Davis Paul Davis is a writer who cov­ers crime, es­pi­onage and ter­ror­ism.

HAND­SOME JOHNNY: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF JOHNNY ROSSELLI: GEN­TLE­MAN GANG­STER, HOL­LY­WOOD PRO­DUCER, CIA AS­SAS­SIN By Lee Server St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 544 pages

From the Pro­hi­bi­tion era to the mid1970s, Johnny Rosselli trav­eled first class through the nexus of Hol­ly­wood movies, Las Ve­gas gam­bling, shady busi­ness deals, se­cret gov­ern­ment as­sas­si­na­tion plots and or­ga­nized crime.

He al­ways had money and tipped gen­er­ously. He was al­ways groomed per­fectly. He was al­ways with a beau­ti­ful ac­tress. He was al­ways seated at the best spot in a night­club or restau­rant. He was al­ways in the com­pany of wealthy and pow­er­ful men on the golf course and ten­nis court and at a card ta­ble. He was the in­ti­mate friend of movie stu­dio bosses, casino bosses, ma­jor en­ter­tain­ers and no­to­ri­ous mob­sters. He was called “Gen­tle­man Johnny” or “Hand­some Johnny.”

Johnny Rosselli lived a charmed life right up un­til he ended up dead in a 55-gal­lon oil drum float­ing in the At­lantic Ocean.

Lee Server’s “Hand­some Johnny: The Life and Death of Johnny Rosselli: Gen­tle­man Gang­ster, Hol­ly­wood Pro­ducer, CIA As­sas­sin” of­fers a com­plete pic­ture of a smooth op­er­a­tor who be­gan life as Filippo Sacco in Frosi­none, Italy, on July 4, 1905. Raised in Bos­ton, his early trav­els took him across the coun­try to Chicago, where he changed his name and then changed his life.

In the 1950s, the FBI no­ticed that Rosselli spelled his name dif­fer­ently at times. Some­times with dou­ble “s” and some­times with only one “s.” The FBI thought that when a man spells his name dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent years, some­thing is def­i­nitely wrong.

“He cov­ered his tracks well — his ori­gins, his early years. The FBI was sure he was not who he said he was. But who was he? What was he hid­ing?” Mr. Server writes. “For a guy whom every­body in law en­force­ment knew about for decades — one of Al Capone’s boy won­ders, the Mob’s man in Hol­ly­wood, big wheel in Las Ve­gas, the hun­dreds of pages of po­lice re­ports in which he fig­ured, nu­mer­ous ar­rests and tri­als, head­line con­vic­tions — he was a mys­tery.”

On Jan. 16, 1920, the decade known as “the Roaring Twen­ties” be­gan with the 18th Amend­ment to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, fol­low­ing the 1919 Vol­stead Act, in which made al­co­hol il­le­gal. Pro­hi­bi­tion made Johnny Rosselli and many other crim­i­nals wealthy men.

“The Crim­i­nal gangs run­ning this un­der­ground econ­omy grew big, rich, and pow­er­ful be­yond any­one’s imag­in­ing. It was one of the great in­dus­trial suc­cess sto­ries of the age. Pro­hi­bi­tion ef­fec­tively sub­verted the “na­tion of laws.” Mr. Server ex­plains. “In some parts of the coun­try the level of power the gangs wielded soon made them a vir­tual shadow gov­ern­ment, cor­rupt­ing and con­trol­ling politi­cians, po­lice, and courts, com­mit­ting crimes and vi­o­lent acts with­out fear of con­se­quence. Pre­vi­ously tame mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans be­came law­break­ers, drawn into an un­der­world cul­ture of speakeasies, gam­bling, pros­ti­tu­tion, and jazz.”

Johnny Rosselli grew and thrived from the Pro­hi­bi­tion era to the 1960s. While only a young man in his 20s, he was Al Capone and the Chicago mob’s man on the West Coast. He op­er­ated in Los An­ge­les, Hol­ly­wood and Las Ve­gas. He over­saw the Chicago “Out­fit’s” in­ter­est in casi­nos; bro­ker­ing deals, is­su­ing threats and or­der­ing vi­o­lence when re­quired.

He be­came friendly with Frank Si­na­tra and the other “Rat Pack” en­ter­tain­ers. Rosselli, Frank Si­na­tra, Chicago mob­ster Sam Gian­cana and Sen. John Kennedy all had ro­man­tic li­aisons with the same woman, Ju­dith Camp­bell, a beau­ti­ful 26-year-old.

Rosselli was the mob’s point man on many crooked and dirty deals, so when the CIA planned to as­sas­si­nate Fidel Cas­tro, they thought to re­cruit or­ga­nized crime, know­ing the mob had an ax to grind with the Cuban Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor due to their loss of the casi­nos Cas­tro shut down, and so they reached out to Rosselli.

Rosselli was a pa­triot af­ter a fash­ion, and he brought in Gian­cana and the Florida mob boss, Santo Traf­fi­cante. Rosselli served as the go-be­tween with the CIA, the Cuban ex­iles hop­ing to over­throw Cas­tro, and the mob. Af­ter John Kennedy be­came pres­i­dent, his brother and at­tor­ney gen­eral, Robert Kennedy, took over the plan per­son­ally, dub­bing it “Op­er­a­tion Mon­goose.” The Kennedys also had an ax to grind af­ter the dis­as­trous and hu­mil­i­at­ing Bay of Pigs in­va­sion. The in­va­sion failed to over­throw Cas­tro due pri­mar­ily to Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s lack of U.S. mil­i­tary sup­port, which had been promised to the Cuban ex­iles.

Bobby Kennedy re­cruited the CIA’s leg­endary op­er­a­tor, Air Force Gen. Ed­ward Lans­dale, and a no­table CIA op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer, Bill Har­vey. Har­vey, a for­mer FBI agent, did not at first get along with Rosselli, but soon the gov­ern­ment man and the mob­ster bonded over the mis­sion.

“Hand­some Johnny,” a well-re­searched and well-writ­ten book, of­fers a huge cast of his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters and cul­tural icons who in­ter­acted with Johnny Rosselli through­out his life.

The book opens, and per­haps should close, with a joke from the late co­me­dian Joe E. Lewis, “Re­mem­ber chil­dren, crime does not pay. Not like it used to.”

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