Obituary: Judith Exner

Christopher Hawtree
Monday 27 September 1999 23:02 BST

A DALLIANCE with Judith Campbell cost the US president John F. Kennedy his life and the taxpayer billions of dollars - which is a high price to ask, even if one is the granddaughter of an estate agent.

Never mind the conspiracy theories about Kennedy's assassination, if it weren't for his constant urge for sex, Kennedy - with a bad back already, and often in need of a corset - should have been able to lurch forward after the first bullet in that Dallas motorcade rather than remain in a position to take the full brunt of the second one.

One unfortunate legacy was not rescinded, and the American economy was blighted. The floundering General Dynamics Corporation had won the contract to supply the US forces with its swing-wing jet fighter, the F1-11, something which those with any savvy about such things had rejected: the navy, for one, was not too happy about taking on board an aircraft too heavy for its carriers. The FBI, when keeping under surveillance Judith Campbell's apartment in Los Angeles, had - bizarrely - not bothered to pursue a break- in which it witnessed by another organisation. By bugging her apartment in August 1962, General Dynamics had gathered enough compromising material to bring pressure to bear upon the Kennedy administration. Later that year the aircraft was foisted upon the services in the face of opposition and protest: the F1-11's shortcomings did indeed become apparent, and fewer were delivered than first ordered, but at a higher cost than estimated.

Not until Seymour Hersch's The Dark Side of Camelot (1997) was the Kennedy story set out in such detail. One need not accept it all, but he has a journalist's nose for facts. His account of Judith Campbell Exner is more on the money than her as-told-to memoir, My Story (1976). She wrote it after leaks about her confidential testimony to mid-Seventies Senate hearings had brought her out from the obscurity of marriage to a golfer, Dan Exner, into which she had retreated after the Kennedy assassination. That move into obscurity was partly decreed by the knowledge that any earlier revelations about her link between Kennedy and the Mob might bring a rapid demise (she always wondered about Marilyn Monroe's death).

One Kennedy aide, David Powers, was being disingenuous when he claimed as recently as 1991 that the only Campbell he knew "was a chunky vegetable soup". The beautiful, sapphire-eyed Judith Campbell had been born into the Immoor family, a rich, large Catholic family in the Pacific Palisades and, overcoming a certain shyness, seemed destined for the life of a socialite. The only blight, and that not too bad, was an unpleasant divorce at 24 from the television actor William Campbell whom she had married six years earlier, in 1952. She soon found consolation with others, and had a weakness for singers of all abilities - that is to say, from Eddie Fisher to Frank Sinatra.

She appears to have been happy enough with the latter until he proposed a threesome: "I just absolutely froze. I went rigid. No one could have moved my arms or legs." Sinatra duly apologised, and introduced her to Jack Kennedy, who - after she had spurned his brother Edward - consummated the relationship a month later, in March 1960, the night before the New Hampshire primary. At one point, being from California, she had claimed not to have known anything about this Massachussetts senator. Be that as it may, she gives a convincing account of his undoubted charm: "When you talked to him, you felt you were the only person on the planet, much less just in the room. He never forgot anything you said - good or bad. He didn't just pretend to be listening to you - he listened to you. He absorbed everything."

One of the things that he absorbed was that she had been introduced by Sinatra to one Sam Flood: that is, as he well knew, one of the many aliases used by the Mafia boss Sam Giancana, and - as she was to detail closely after denying any such knowledge to the Senate committee in 1975 - she agreed to take satchels and envelopes to Giancana and to Johnny Rosselli for Kennedy: these were funds to fuel the election campaign and, after its success, payoffs to bring about the desired assassination of the Cuban leader Fidel Castro (she said that she did not know the exact meaning of "elimination"). The only things - only! - JFK ever gave her, she said, were a ruby and diamond brooch from Tiffany's and $2,000 to buy a mink coat.

Even the FBI agents were shocked to discover that there was so close a link between the Mob and the President, when his brother Bobby claimed to be set upon neutralising it. J. Edgar Hoover was informed, Kennedy was left in no doubt about what was known, and the tangled web took another turn when it became apparent that - either before or after conceiving Kennedy's child - Campbell was also having an affair with Giancana, who arranged the abortion.

Her last encounters with Kennedy, in the summer of 1962, had seen him display the same charm, but she was left - as others were - with an unhappy memory: "Slowly I began to feel that he expected me to come into bed and just perform. I understood about the position he had to assume in lovemaking when his back was troubling him, but slowly he began excluding all other positions, until finally our lovemaking was reduced to this one position . . . the feeling that I was there to service him began to really trouble me."

For all that, she knew - until the very end of her life - that she would fall for it all over again: his line that they were both from large Catholic families, his interest, his concern. As for Giancana, he was murdered that very summer, on the night before he was due to meet a lawyer about his own testimony.

In the welter of evidence, accusation and publicity which followed the Senate committee hearing, her marriage to Dan Exner broke up. In 1978 she was diagnosed with cancer, and there is no denying the courage which, with the solace of cats and painting, she brought to her battle with it - and, if that was not enough, all the while she had to contend with continued questions about what she had done, and had done to her, before the age of 30 in that era between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP: a disc which drew America out of mourning for a President whose demise can no longer tug at the heartstrings in the way it once did.

Judith Katherine Eileen Immoor: born Fort Lee, New Jersey 11 January 1934; married 1952 William Campbell (marriage dissolved 1958), (one son), 1975 Dan Exner (marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 24 September 1999.

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