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SOCAL P.O.V. / PATT MORRISON

Judith Exner and the End of Innocence

March 01, 1998|PATT MORRISON

Right off, I will say that I like this woman. This surprised me, because we are so different. She is fearful, understandably, of new people and of old ghosts. Yet she is the toughest person I know. Being right matters to her. It does to me, too, but I only have to fight parking tickets. She battles the ponderous flywheel of history.

On Judith Campbell Exner's head has accumulated a nation's civic disenchantment, from Camelot to Watergate and now Fornigate. JFK, Bobby, Marilyn, Jackie--all are dead, their secrets dead with them. But Exner is still here, in a Newport Beach home she leaves only for radiation and chemotherapy, a 64-year-old woman whose life virtually ended before she was 30. Thereafter, it would only be recycled--what she did when she was 26, 27, 28 years old, the lover and storied bagman of the president of the United States.

You think you know her story, told in glib tabloid appositives: "party girl" and "Mafia moll." You don't. Even she scarcely knew its import, but she knew she wasn't paranoid or crazy when she said that JFK, as candidate and president, asked her to ferry money and documents to Mafiosi to accomplish his ends--first to win election and then to "eliminate" Fidel Castro. Did she love JFK unwisely and too well? Certainly. She felt guilty that he was married, and deceived to learn later of his other lovers. Did her lover and friends manipulate her? Probably. Here is the only character reference left to her: "You don't have to like me, you don't have to approve of me. But when you make your judgment, you have to know the truth about me."

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Her family was wealthy, a paramount point if you, too, had heard yourself called a prostitute because you had pretty clothes and nice apartments. Exner has saved the receipt for every car she drove, every pair of shoes she wore--a pack-rat compulsion that has redeemed her.

At 18, she married the first of several ill-chosen men in her life. She divorced at 25 and moved among the moneyed and famous, unawed by either. Frank Sinatra, she says, introduced her to Sen. John F. Kennedy and later to a polite older man named Sam. There is reason to believe that JFK already knew--and certainly knew of--Sam Giancana, Mafioso, well before Exner met him. JFK's father, who ran bootleg liquor during Prohibition, was a golfing pal of another Mafioso, Johnny Roselli. Yet it was she who would be tarnished with the Mafia brush for knowing them.

Exner says she made 10 or 12 courier trips from JFK to Giancana and set up a couple of meetings. It did not occur to her to ask questions. JFK was the leader of the Free World, Castro was the archvillain of the Western Hemisphere, and Sam, so JFK told her, was "working for us."

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Early in 1963, she says, she was pregnant from her final love-making with JFK, and he asked that Giancana arrange the abortion. Giancana offered to marry her. Weary, touched by his proposal, Exner "was intimate" with him for "the only time." So much for "concurrent affairs with the president and the mobster."

Then came November, and Dallas, and grief, isolation, fear. She would have kept the Kennedy secrets if they had brought her in from the cold. Instead, the party line came from a JFK aide she had met often in the White House: the only Campbell the aide knew was the soup.

The FBI had trailed her for years, tapped her phone, logged her shopping trips. Old friends, buttonholed by the agents, fell away. The scoundrels stuck by her. Who was endangering her, she wondered, and who was protecting her? When she had a child out of wedlock in 1965, she gave him up for adoption. How could she look out for him if she couldn't look out for herself? Now her son, coincidentally, is a Times photographer.

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A dozen years after Dallas, a senate committee summoned her to testify about covert doings. As with Anita Hill, she was promised confidentiality. As with Anita Hill, the promise was broken. Each party had its own reasons for besmirching her. She became the box-office poison of American politics.

Even then, she didn't tell the whole truth and nothing but; nor did she in her book, ghostwritten the next year. Giancana was killed before testifying, Roselli was murdered afterward and Exner simply did not know "whether I'd live if I told the truth or didn't tell the truth." So her story emerged in bits and pieces, like the government files she has gone to court to get. In virtually every particular, they match the fervently preserved archives she has kept under her bed, in her closets, like two halves of a broken china plate.

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The 1960s were in some ways as prissy as the 1860s. Newsmen squirmed at having to describe President Eisenhower's troubled innards. A colleague of mine, who saw a blond actress smuggled into a JFK weekend in 1962, said he wouldn't have dreamed of writing about it. Now we have a young president, an even younger woman and no such restraints.

To Monica Lewinsky, Judith Exner--almost the only woman qualified to offer advice--says this:

"Don't lie for him; your life will be destroyed." Whatever is said about him hereafter, she will always be "that little liar, that little bimbo . . . and if she thinks she is being loyal, look what happened to me."

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