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