John F. Kennedy was flirting with a political disaster during a 1960 visit to mob-controlled Las Vegas when he was on the brink of being president.
A mob insider at the Sands Hotel contends Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, “was here for the girls” and compromised himself in a number of ways.
In what he described as his first U.S. interview about JFK’s Las Vegas visit, longtime Las Vegan Ed Walters, 77, said he was sent here by the New York mob in 1959.
Walters, who rose to assistant casino manager at the Sands in 1980, said he was in Kennedy’s company twice during the February 1960 visit.
Frank Sinatra’s so-called “Rat Pack” was all the rage at the time. By day they — Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and JFK in-law Peter Lawford — filmed “Ocean’s 11.” At night they rocked the Sands showroom with their special magic, a heady concoction of music and one-liners.
Lawford “set up the Kennedy connections,” Walters said. “I saw him walking with Frank, and Frank just shined. He was so excited to be with Kennedy. Frank changed when he was with him.”
I asked Walters if JFK was on a fundraising trip.
“No, he was at the Sands to get laid. Kennedy had heard that all the big CEOs came in here under assumed names to have a good time. We were very discreet here.”
The decision came down, Walters said, to hook JFK up with Judith Exner, a 26-year-old divorcée who was at one time romantically linked to Sam Giancana, the mob’s Chicago boss.
“Judith was put on him to keep him corralled. We wanted control,” Walters said. “Remember we were trying to operate legally. We were very worried about the Kennedys. We monitored all of his calls. We wanted to know who he was connected with.
“The federal government was against us, and this was the future president. Our main worry was his father (Joseph, a master political strategist).”
Sinatra made sure JFK had a great seat for the show. “He seemed so happy to be around Frank, felt at home,” Walters said. “It was almost like this polished guy was getting a chance to be naughty.”
Walters said he was introduced to JFK in the Garden Room, the main dining room.
“I walked in, noticed him in a booth with Sands casino manager Carl Cohen and Frank Sinatra,” Walters said. “Carl called me over. He introduced me as a ‘young, sharp guy from New York’. I was 22.”
Walters said Kennedy spoke to him “but I didn’t understand a (expletive) word,” due to JFK’s Boston accent. Later, after the late show ended, Sinatra, Martin and Davis were walking into the casino with JFK. Walters was surprised when Kennedy “remembered me, waved and walked over to me.”
As the group walked away, Walters remembers saying “Have a good time” to JFK. Walters heard a voice say, “Oh, we’ll take care of that.”
After JFK won the presidency narrowly over Richard Nixon on Nov. 8, 1960, the Sands got a visit from the White House, Walters said.
“They wanted to know if we had any film, any pictures and who Kennedy was with,” he said. “At that time, we had Judith Exner in hiding.”
Sinatra was on cloud nine, Walters said, when Kennedy asked him to produce the inauguration gala.
Looking back, Dean Martin had it right, Walters said.
“I was there when Dean told Frank, ‘I’m not going to the inaugural. I’m going to stay in Vegas. In Vegas, I know who’s going to try to (expletive) me.’ ”
Walters said he chose not to go public “as long as certain mob bosses were still alive. The last one died two years ago.”
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THE PUNCH LINE
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Norm Clarke’s column appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 702-383-0244 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more online at www.normclarke.com. Follow Norm on Twitter @Norm_Clarke. “Norm Clarke’s Vegas,” airs Thursdays on the “Morning Blend” on KTNV-TV, Channel 13.