Snakes in the Grass
Jeanne Humphreys’ beautiful home at 210 Harbor Drive, Key Biscayne, Florida had a snake problem, but a recent trip to Jamaica had given her some food for thought. She learned that farmers on the island had introduced the mongoose into the local fauna to fight a snake infestation during the 1870’s. Curly Humphreys’ wife found herself thinking about the snake-killing carnivores one night at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach and innocently broached the subject with her husband’s associate and friend, Johnny Rosselli.
“What do you know about the word mongoose?” She asked Rosselli.
Shocked by the question, the gangster balked. “Are you crazy?”, Rosselli inquired before nearly spilling the beans on the CIA’s top-secret plot to kill Fidel Castro, in which he and Jeanne’s husband, were deeply involved.
“This Castro stuff is OK’d by the G [U.S. government]. We’re not supposed to talk about it”, Rosselli protested. “I can’t believe believe Curly would talk about such a thing.”
Jeanne Humphreys had no idea what Johnny was talking about and, wondered aloud what Castro had to do with the snakes in her front yard. Realizing his mistake, Rosselli asked Jeanne to keep it to herself. “Look, I just fucked up.” He said. “Please don’t tell Curly.”
The plot was the brainchild of then Vice President, Richard Nixon, who was angling for the presidency and calculated that a coup in Havana would get him there. After the scheme was hatched at a National Security Council meeting in the Spring of 1960, Nixon encouraged his military aide, General Robert Cushman, to meet with exiled Cuban militants and put a group together for its execution. Originally called Operation Pluto, the plan’s name was later changed to Operation Mongoose and it called for the invasion of Cuba and the assassination of Fidel Castro along with his top retinue of revolutionaries.
“I had been the strongest and most persistent for setting up and supporting such a program”, wrote Nixon, years later. But, the ragtag collection of exiles didn’t inspire the greatest confidence in the planners, and the decision was made to enlist the help of Johnny Rosselli, Curly Humphreys and a handful of other mobsters from the Chicago Outfit.
Murray “Curly” Humphreys was the brains of the Chicago mob, otherwise known as The Outfit. His intellectual abilities would help them outmaneuver many a legal problem. But, one particular maneuver was such a stroke of genius, it would be enshrined in the most celebrated film in American history – The Godfather.
“I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me.”, was the phrase crafted by the brilliant, former jewel thief to repel the onslaught of questions by U.S. Senators during the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, known as the Kefauver Committee. Over and over, Outfit members called to testify simply repeated the mantra, to the immense frustration of the dais.
The Committee called eight hundred witnesses in fifteen cities across the country during an eleven-month-long investigation, that resulted in more than 11,500 pages of testimony and must-watch TV. First broadcast in New Orleans, the hearing’s popularity soon drew in the big markets of New York and Los Angeles, among others. The record ratings attained during the 1950 World Series a year earlier were shattered, attracting between 20 and 30 million viewers. Committee Chairman Estes Kefauver became a household name and, at one point, the front-runner for the 1952 Democratic presidential nomination.
Nevertheless, none of the nineteen legislative recommendations issued by the committee’s report were ever implemented, and Kefauver himself, was found to be an avid gambler who was constantly broke as a result. Jewish mob boss, Meyer Lansky, confronted the hypocritical Senator. “What’s so bad about gambling?, asked the infamous New York Commission boss, “You like it yourself. I know you’ve gambled a lot.” Kefauver admitted as much, but revealed his true bigoted motivations in his repsonse: “That’s right, but I don’t want you people to control it.”
Forty-six “contempt of Congress” citations were issued during the hearings over the mobsters’ repeated use of Humphreys’ legal device. Only three were upheld by the courts. An incredible victory for the man who invented ‘Taking the fifth’, immortalized in Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal film.
The Godfather movie, itself, was a tribute the mob – which controlled most of Hollywood then – made to itself. Paramount producer Bob Evans had the rights to Mario Puzo’s novel and was unceremoniously turned down by MGM president, Jim Aubrey, when he tried to accommodate Coppola’s choice for the role of Michael Corleone – an unknown actor with an “unbreakable” contract with the competing studio, named Al Pacino. Undeterred, Evans sought help from Tinsel Town’s notorious fixer, Sidney Korshak.
“He never heard of the schmuck, either.”, recounted Korshak to Evans about how he dealt with the reluctant Aubrey. “I asked him if he wanted to finish building his hotel.”, said Korshak. The thinly veiled threat was enough for MGM to release Pacino from his contract and allow him to play the part, which would establish him in as one of the biggest names in the business.
A Fucking Hoofer
The Outfit’s incursion into the entertainment industry had begun after the end of Prohibition forced them to find other rackets to grow and launder their fortunes. The movie business, with its massive budgets and licensing opportunities, was the perfect vehicle. But, before film, the mob had taken over the music industry and bankrolled many of its brightest stars. Frank Sinatra was, perhaps, the brightest of them all.
The mob not only made Frank Sinatra, but also saved his career when it was foundering in the early 1950’s. Despite his marriage to Hollywood A-lister, Ava Gardner, Frank’s bid to jump-start his career again by getting a part in Harry Cohn’s upcoming movie, “From Here to Eternity”, was falling flat with the producer, who wanted a real actor for the part. “You’re nothing but a fucking hoofer”, Cohn told the desperate crooner, who immediately appealed to his mob buddies for a helping hand.
In a scenario similar to the one, that would play out years later between Korshak and MGM’s Aubrey, Johnny Rosselli came to Frank’s rescue and made Cohn an offer he couldn’t refuse. The movie won a total of eight Oscars, with Sinatra taking home the award for Best Supporting Actor and a new professional lifeline.
Meanwhile, things were picking up over in Havana, Cuba; the very place where Sinatra’s career had been launched. Santo Trafficante, Jr. was making a killing in the revamped casino business in Havana, in league with dictator Batista, who made Trafficante’s partner, Lansky, “adviser on gambling reform”.
The Commission boss soon opened a casino inside the iconic National Hotel, designed by Igor Plevitski, who also designed The Biltmore in Coral Gables. Six years earlier, a historic meeting between the biggest mafia bosses took place at the legendary hotel. Yet another pivotal moment also dramatized in The Godfather, when the heads of all the families gathered at the National to discuss something that was left out of the classic film – their participation in a highly classified, CIA-sponsored operation. Just before the mob summit, Frank Sinatra landed in Havana with two million dollars in a suitcase for the CIA’s point-man, Lucky Luciano.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano was recruited by CIA-precursor, OSS in 1942 to ostensibly safeguard New York harbor from acts of sabotage by the enemy axis. After being convicted to 30 years in federal prison for running a prostitution ring, Luciano was approached by undercover OSS agents , the precursor organization of the CIA, and offered a deal, that would mark the beginning of a far-reaching partnership between the U.S. government and the Sicilian and Italian-American mafia.
An argument can be made, that the CIA was created for the sole purpose of managing this partnership, which involved the creation of secret militias financed by world-wide heroin trafficking, called Operation Gladio.The meeting at the National Hotel in Havana was made to convince the Gambinos, Genoveses, Accardos and other top mafia families to get into the narcotics game, many of whom considered a dishonorable endeavor, and help Uncle Sam “fight communism”. The money Sinatra delivered to Luciano in Havana was part of a down payment he intended to distribute among the guests.
The Wrong Cuban
Cubans were becoming part of America’s collective consciousness, thanks in large measure to the “I Love Lucy” show, which featured the bongo-playing Ricky Ricardo, Lucile Ball’s real-life husband and the sitcom’s producer, Desi Arnaz.
Arnaz is credited with inventing the multiple-camera sitcom method, which made his production house, Desilu Studios, one of Hollywood’s most successful, at the time. In 1959, Arnaz had another hit on his hands. The Untouchables, a show about fabled law-enforcer, Elliot Ness and his mobster-chasing adventures, ran for four years on ABC and became one of television’s classic shows. But, the Italian-American community did not take well to the portrayal of their culture on the series and it drew special ire from the real crime bosses, who went after the producer.
Desi’s childhood friend had been none other than Sonny Capone, the only son of the legendary mob boss, Al Capone. It was Sonny who first complained to Arnaz about the problem he had stirred up, but Arnaz insisted he was the best person to make such a show because of his own personal connection to the subject matter. From there, the issue only escalated and Sam Giancana, nominal head of the Chicago Outfit, sent Frank Sinatra to talk some sense into the Cuban.
The conversation between Arnaz and Sinatra ended with the singer storming out and pulling all of his productions from of Desilu Studios. Outraged, Giancana dispatched two of his henchmen to remove Desi Arnaz from this earth. Al Capone’s widow, Mae, stepped in to call off the hit and Ricky Ricardo was spared.
As it turns out, the mob had been worried about the wrong Cuban. Fidel Castro was about to turn the mob’s Havana dreams into a nightmare as his revolutionary forces ousted Batista and his entrenched elite. With Eisenhower riding out the last year of his Presidency and more worried about how his legacy would be affected by starting a conflict 90 miles from the U.S. mainland, Castro caught a break.
Nevertheless, the calculation regarding Castro seems to have changed among the real policy-making circles of America, and Castro’s sudden take-over of the island was seen as more of a boon than a detriment to U.S. designs for the rest of Latin America.
Cuba, after all, had no value besides that of a playground for the rich. In terms of natural resources, for instance, it was hardly worth the trouble to invest any kind of man-power to the goal of regime-change, even if such efforts were comprised of disposable mobsters and Cuban exiles. On the other hand, having a communist boogie man they could wave around as a warning to those in the continent who dared to dream of self-determination was much more valuable.
The Snake Pit
After the fiasco in the Caribbean, the upper echelons of the mafia saw the writing on the wall and made the necessary adjustments. Trafficante, Jr. cut a deal with the new island boss and gave Castro a piece of the bolita proceeds, a street-level gambling racket up and down the U.S. east coast. In contrast, Johnny Rosselli would go down with the ship.
Rosselli, like many of his Italian-immigrant brethren, dreamed of becoming full-blooded Americans. For him and his ilk, legitimizing their fortunes and joining the ranks of the “upperworld”, or the realm of sanctioned wealth creation, was also part of that aspiration.
He considered himself a patriot and his sincere commitment to anything the “G-men” would ask of him bore this out more than once. As far as Rosselli was concerned, he had reached the dream. Narrowly escaping fire from Cuban forces and twice having to jump out of speed boats during failed CIA-missions in the Caribbean, Rosselli had the war stories to prove it.
The era of the “Goombahs”, however, was coming to a close. The new RICO laws were successfully used to dissolve the crime family model in the United States. Rudy Giuliani, future Mayor of New York and Italian-American son, was the first and most prolific prosecutor of the mafia under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, passed in 1970.
In 1976, Filippo Sacco’s decomposing body – Johnny Rosselli’s real name – was found in a 55-gallon steel drum floating near Miami, Florida after he had been called to testify before the Church Committee for a second time about who had killed Kennedy. As it turned out, Johnny Rosselli had a snake problem of his own and would have been better served by following his friend Curly’s advice all those years ago and taken “the fifth”.
The real scope and implications of what Rosselli was lending himself to, through his participation in the anti-Castro plot and other deep state operations probably escaped him and other members of the Outfit who were a part of them. Ultimately, they were pawns in a covert war that continues to this day, under different guises and with different players.
If you would have carried out a poll in early November of 1963 about who was most likely to be assassinated that month between the President of the United States and Fidel Castro, the final tally would have likely tilted toward the latter. The fact that the bearded, cigar-smoking revolutionary remained in power for another five decades should tell us something.
The Cuban exile community blames Kennedy for the failure of the Bay of Pigs. But, it is clear that a decision had been made by more powerful, invisible players to keep Castro in power. The same ones who made the decision to remove Kennedy, and his entire mob-connected family, from it.
The scramble for power between the time of JFK’s assassination and Nixon’s resignation almost a decade later, was real. America’s post-war superpower status was seriously threatened by the Arab oil embargo. The Vietnam war and other internal strife had frayed the social fabric of the country.
Concurrently, Operation Gladio was unraveling in Europe and the usefulness of the CIA’s partnership with the mafia was becoming a liability. Luciano’s Sicilian networks and their affiliation with CIA-sponsored right-wing terrorists were being exposed by Italian law enforcement and attracting unwanted international attention. The whole house of cards was starting to come down and it would have, had it not been for the operation’s success in Afghanistan, where the Soviet military was exhausting itself fighting Gladio-financed Mujahidin led by one Osama Bin Laden.
Despite teetering on the brink of collapse, “anti-communism” was still fungible currency in American political theater, which could be traded for lowering protectionist barriers and other obstacles to U.S. interests at home and abroad. Fidel Castro, as a gatekeeper for an economic embargo that destroyed the lives of the Cuban people – not to mention a clear and present “nuclear threat” to the region, represented a valuable hegemonic tool for these same interests.
Sleep with the Fishes
The mob developed Hollywood’s proof of concept and built the industry’s SOPs. Today, the CIA and the Military Industrial Complex exerts direct control and oversees the messaging of almost every theater release; especially in the superhero/comic movie genre, which is little more than war propaganda.
The Cuban Missile Crisis and Ricky Ricardo are two sides of a false dialectic. Nuclear annihilation or Merengue; starvation or dinner with Ethel and Fred. The ‘TV-fication’ of America allowed simple yes/no narratives to be delivered right to the viewers’ prefrontal cortex.
Today, the ‘Internetification’ of America is bypassing even this step in the flow of perception and taking it straight to the limbic system, where discernment is an afterthought and the need for a narrative is eliminated altogether.
Much of the research for this article comes from Gus Russo’s fantastic account of the Chicago mob scene in his book The Outfit – The Role of Chicago’s Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America