Feature Articles

April 2002

Dumping Frankie

Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana and the Kennedys

By John William Tuohy

     Elmer "Bones" Renner was an old-time gangster from San Francisco who owned the Cal-Neva lodge and Casino at Crystal Bay on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. He also owed the IRS $800,000.00 in back taxes, and so, on paper anyway, ownership of the Cal-Neva passed to another old time hood named Bert "Wingy" Grober, who also, as a result of his sudden and unexplainable ownership of a casino, ended up with his own set of tax problems. With the IRS after him, Grober placed the Cal-Neva up for sale.

     On July 13, 1960, the day Kennedy won the democratic nomination in Los Angeles, it was announced to the newspapers that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Hank Sincola, a Sinatra pal and business partner, and Skinny D'Amato, a convicted white slaver, had applied for permission from the state of Nevada to take over the lodge.

     What didn't make the papers about the deal was that Sam Giancana and the Chicago outfit owned a secret percentage in the Cal-Neva and that it was Giancana's influence that persuaded Wingy Grober to sell the place off for the extremely reasonable price of $250,000.00.

     What also didn't make the newspapers about the deal was the FBI assumption that Sinatra was nothing more then a front in the Cal-Neva for New York's mob boss Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno.

     As for Giancana's interest in the money-losing casino, he was probably only in the deal to keep next to Sinatra, who was trying, desperately, to keep next to Kennedy, which everybody in the Chicago outfit wanted.

     Before the deal was signed, Dean Martin saw the mob's interests in the casino and pulled out of the deal. Sinatra was convinced that the Cal-Neva, a seasonal place, could be turned around, that it could produce a hefty profit, even with the mob connected pit bosses stealing the place blind, and he told Giancana that with the right investment the place could become a year-round operation. To draw attention to the place, on opening night, Sinatra's personality guests included Marilyn Monroe, Joe Kennedy, and his son John. Also there that weekend was Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana. Uninvited and hiding up in the hills around the casino lodge, was Hoover's FBI.

     What the agents couldn't see is what went on inside the Cal-Neva secluded bungalows after the opening night party had ended. Sam Giancana reportedly told his brother that he had been present at a Kennedy brothers slumber party that night at the Cal-Neva Casino. "The men," he said, "had sex with prostitutes -- sometimes two or more at a time -- in bathtubs, hallways, closets, on floors, almost everywhere but the bed."

     In 1961 a Chicago hood named Joseph "Crackers" Mendino died of a heart attack. Over the years, he had worked under everyone from Torrio to Giancana in the juke box, pinball and gambling end of the business. Tony Accardo was one of his pallbearers, and anybody who was anyone in the Chicago outfit was there for the burial, probably the last big-time mob funeral since the days of Al Capone.

     At the funeral, Accardo and Sam Giancana held a meeting and directed Johnny Roselli to plant in Nevada somebody to watch over Frank Sinatra because the boys had decided that Sinatra was much too enamored with the Kennedys and wasn't thinking straight anymore.

     When Roselli returned to the West Coast he called a hood named Lewis McWille, whom he had first met back in 1938, when Roselli did a short stint as the Chicago representative to the Sans Souci Casino in Havana.

     McWillie had worked in Cuba for years, mostly for New York racketeer Meyer Lansky. McWillie was never clear to anyone on exactly what it was he did for Lansky, telling the Warren Commission only that he was a "key man" at Lansky's Tropicana Casino in Cuba. When Castro booted Lansky out of Cuba, he brought McWillie with him and placed him inside of his Las Vegas Casino, the Tropicana in Las Vegas. Otherwise, there was very little known about McWillie, who was also used the obvious alias of Lewis N. Martin. It is known that he had deep contacts within the New York and Chicago mobs, and although never a member of any one specific outfit, the FBI kept him under surveillance and considered him to be a top mob hitman and enforcer for hire.

     Roselli told McWillie that Chicago wanted him out at Sinatra's Cal-Neva lodge to keep an eye on their investment in the place, and to watch over Sinatra and report his activities back to Roselli.

     McWillie did as he was told, and created a job for himself at Sinatra's casino, working under the title of "pit boss," but McWillie, a trained card sharp, was no mere pit boss as he made himself out to be. Instead, he was a very rich, seasoned, major gambler who traveled in the highest circles of organized crime, always driven around in a sleek, new limousine and seldom went anywhere without a bodyguard. Whenever he worked in a mobbed up casino, it was always as a high level executive, several times removed from a lowly blackjack dealer on the floor that he purported to be.

     At about that same time, McWillie was in frequent contact with Jack Ruby, the man who silenced Lee Harvey Oswald forever. In fact, one of the last persons Ruby spoke to before he leaped on to history's stage was Lewis McWillie. The little that is known about their odd relationship is that, according to what McWillie told the Warren Commission, he and Ruby had known each other from their childhood days in Chicago, and McWillie was Ruby's host for an eight-day vacation in Cuba in August of 1959. That same year, the Dallas Police department's Office of Intelligence listed Jack Ruby and "Chicago-Las Vegas hood Lewis McWillie" as being among those connected with mob run gambling in Dallas.

     Gray haired and stylish, McWillie impressed the easily impressible Ruby, who admired McWillie and called him "a very high (class) type person" who reminded Ruby of "Like a banker or a man who understood and enjoyed the finer things in this life, which we are given."

     Yet, after Ruby gunned down Oswald, the FBI asked him to draw up a list entitled "people who may dislike me" and at the top of the list was Lewis McWillie.

     On Sunday, November 17, 1963, five days before Kennedy was gunned down, Ruby showed up at the mob owned Stardust Casino in Las Vegas where he invoked McWillie's name to cash a check and was later seen at the equally mobbed up Thunderbird Casino with Lewis McWillie. Two days after meeting McWillie in Las Vegas, Ruby was back in Dallas, flush with enough cash to pay off his back taxes.

     The party didn't last long. After only two years, the Cal-Neva was starting to sour on Sinatra and overall only added to the miseries he was having in the summer of 1963. On June 30, 1962, an intoxicated Chuckie English, a Giancana hood, staggered out of the Armory lounge and bumped into one of the FBI agents tagging Giancana. English told the agents that if "Bobby Kennedy wants to know anything about Momo all he had to do was to ask Sinatra."

     The agent reported the conversation back to Hoover who brought the comment to Robert Kennedy's attention, who told Hoover to increase the FBI's surveillance on Sinatra and the Cal-Neva. The casino was already being investigated because the Feds suspected that the casino's manager, Skinny D'Amato, was running a statewide prostitution ring out of the place. The agents suspected that the women were being flown in from San Francisco with the operation being run openly from the hotel front desk.

     Then, a few days after the Chuckie English fiasco, there was the attempted murder of a Cal-Neva employee who was shot on the front steps of the lodge. No one knows if it was mob-related or not, since the incident was hushed up.

     Then, on June 30, 1962, Deputy Sheriff Richard Anderson came to pick up his beautiful brunette wife at the lodge where she worked as a waitress because she had been one of Sinatra's girlfriends for a while before she married Anderson, three months before.

     Anderson had noticed the way Sinatra stared at his wife and heard about the rude and off color remarks he made to her and the Deputy, who was twice Sinatra's tiny size, warned the singer to stay away from her. Sinatra backed down and apologized and promised to leave the woman alone.

     But Sinatra was a man who brooded and let things build up inside him and on the night Anderson came to pick up his wife, as he stopped by the kitchen to talk with some of the help there, Sinatra came in, saw Anderson and ran up to him and screamed at him, "What the fuck are you doing, here?"

     Anderson remained calm and said he was waiting for his wife, then, suddenly, while the cop was still in mid-sentence, Sinatra grabbed him and tried to throw him out, and after a brief wrestling match, Anderson ended up punching Sinatra so hard in the face that he couldn't perform on stage for a week.

     Several weeks later, on July 17, 1962, Anderson and his wife were driving down Highway 28, not far from the Cal-Neva, when they were driven off the road by a late model maroon convertible with California plates, driving at high speeds. Anderson lost control of his car, skidded off the road and smashed into a tree, and was killed instantly. His wife was thrown from the car, and suffered severe broken bones and fractures.

     Anderson's parents said, "We still think to this day that Sinatra had something to do with our son's death."

     The Andersons left behind four children.

     But Sinatra's troubles with the Cal-Neva weren't over yet. A few days after Anderson was murdered, and one week before her own death, Marilyn Monroe, flew to the Cal-Neva at Frank Sinatra's invitation. Sinatra told Monroe that he wanted to discuss their upcoming film together, What a Way to Go. Monroe didn't want to go, but someone told Marilyn that Bobby Kennedy would be there. It sounded logical to Monroe, since it had been in the papers that the Attorney General was in Los Angeles on business.

     Sinatra flew Monroe out on his own plane along with Peter Lawford, although the crooner was no longer speaking to Lawford after the Kennedys dumped him, and Lawford's wife, Patricia Kennedy Lawford.

     Exactly what happened that weekend, at the Cal-Neva, isn't known and may never be known. Louis McWillie, an outfit related gambler who worked for Sinatra at the Cal-Neva said "There was more to what happened up there than anybody has ever told. It would have been a big fall for Bobby Kennedy."

     What is known is that there was dinner with Sam Giancana, Peter and Pat Lawford, Sinatra and Monroe. Giancana, of course, had no business being in the Cal-Neva since he was listed in the state's Black Book of persons forbidden to enter a casino, in fact, he was at the top of the list of restricted persons, but, as San Francisco new columnist Herb Caen said, "I saw Sinatra at the Cal-Neva when Sam Giancana was there. In fact I met Giancana through Frank. He was a typical hood, didn't say much. He wore a hat at the lake, and sat in his little bungalow, receiving people."

     During the dinner, Monroe got uncontrollably drunk and was led by to the cabin where, while she was passed out, several hookers, male and female, molested her while Sinatra and Giancana watched, with Giancana taking his turn with the actress as well.

     While the female prostitutes had their way with Monroe, someone snapped photographs of the entire thing and before the night was over, Sinatra then brought the film to Hollywood photographer Billy Woodfield, and gave him a role of film to develop in his darkroom.

     The next morning, Peter Lawford told Monroe that Robert Kennedy was in Los Angeles and that he didn't want to see her, speak to her or have any contact with her in the future. When she protested, someone showed her the photographs from the night before. That afternoon, she tried to commit suicide with an overdose of pills and had to have her stomach pumped.

     Later on, when Giancana told the story to Johnny Roselli, Roselli said to Giancana, referring to either Monroe or Campbell, "You sure get your rocks off fucking the same broad as the (Kennedy) brothers, don't you?"

     Exactly a year later, Sinatra's involvement with the Cal-Neva came to an end when the McGuire sisters were scheduled to perform there, mostly due to the fact that Giancana was dating Phyllis McGuire, with whom he shared a chalet with during her performance there.

     Unfortunately for Giancana, McGuire, Sinatra and the Cal-Neva, the FBI photographed the hood playing golf with Sinatra and having drinks and dinner together in the Cal-Neva dinning room. The FBI was also watching that same evening when, during a small party in McGuire's room, Victor LaCroix Collins, the sisters' road manager, became irritated when Phyllis McGuire kept walking by his seat and punching him on the arm. "So I told her," Collins said, "You do that again and I'm going to knock you right on your butt. A half an hour later she punches me again and so I grabbed her by both arms and meant to sit her in the chair I got out of, but I swung around and missed the chair, she hit the floor. She didn't hurt herself . . . but Sam came charging across the room and threw a punch at me wearing a huge big diamond ring that gouged me in the left eye.

     "I just saw red then and grabbed him, lifted him clean off the floor and I was going to throw him through the plate glass door, but thought, why wreck the place? So, I decided to take him outside and break his back on the hard metal railing on the patio. I got as far as the door and then got hit on the back of the head. I don't know who hit me from behind but the back of my head was split open. It didn't knock me out but I went down with Sam underneath me, he had on a pearl gray silk suit and blood from my eye was running all over his suit. I had a hold of him by the testicles and the collar and he couldn't move; that's when Sinatra came in with his valet George, the colored boy, they were coming to join the party, the girls were screaming and running around like a bunch of chickens in every direction because nobody knew what was going to happen. George just stood there with the whites of his eyes rolling around and around in his black face because he knew who Sam was and nobody ever fought with Sam. . . . Sinatra and George pulled me off of Sam, who ran out the door."

     The next morning, the FBI, which had a fairly clear idea of what had happened the night before, as a well as several roles of film of Sinatra with Giancana, filed its report, with photographs, with the State of Nevada gambling control board.

     After reading the report, the control board's chairman, Ed Olson, called Sinatra at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas and asked about Giancana being on the property and Sinatra said that he saw a man who looked like Giancana and that they just waved and nodded to each other and that was all.

     But the FBI also had wind of the fight and told the investigators and flew to Nebraska to interview Collins, who filled them in, and then back to Sinatra who denied knowing anything about it. Olson thanked Sinatra for his time and hung up. There was little else he could do. Sinatra was a casino owner, with substantial investments in the state, and he was also a major celebrity who was singularly responsible for drawing tens of thousands of tourists into Nevada.

     Then the newspapers got hold of the story and backed Olson into a corner, forcing him to remark that his investigation would not conclude until "certain discrepancies in the information provided by various people at Cal Neva could be resolved."

     Sinatra read that and called Olson and asked him to come to the Cal-Neva for dinner "to talk about this, your statements."

     Olson said that he felt it was inappropriate to be seen at the Cal-Neva having dinner with Sinatra, since the singer was, technically, under investigation by Olson's office, and even if Sinatra weren't under investigation, Olson said, it would still be unacceptable for the Gaming Commissioner to be seen fraternizing with a casino owner.

     "But Frank kept insisting," Olson said, "and I kept refusing the more I refused the madder he got until he seemed almost hysterical. He used the foulest language I ever heard in my life."

     To calm Sinatra down Olson agreed to meet Sinatra in Olson's office but Sinatra didn't show up. An hour later Sinatra called Olson in a rage "You listen to me Ed . . . your acting like a fucking cop, I just want to talk to you off the record."

     Olson, in an attempt to take back the high ground that his position required said: "Who I am speaking to?"

     "This is Frank Sinatra! You fucking Asshole! F-R-A-N-K, Sinatra."

     Olson avoided the insults and said that any meeting between them would have to be on record in the presence of witnesses.

     Sinatra cut him short and screamed, "Now, you listen Ed! I don't have to take this kind of shit from anybody in the country and I'm not going to take it from you people . . . I'm Frank Sinatra!"

     Sinatra went on and on, until, at one point, Olson warned Sinatra that if he didn't show up for an interview that Olson would have him subpoenaed. "You just try and find me," the singer threatened, "and if you do, you can look for a big fat surprise . . . a big fat fucking surprise. You remember that, now listen to me Ed, don't fuck with me. Don't fuck with me, just don't fuck with me!"

     "Are you threatening me?" Olson asked.

     "No . . . just don't fuck with me and you can tell that to your fucking board of directors and that fucking commission too."

     The next day two investigators came to watch the count at the Cal-Neva and Sinatra yelled across the casino to Skinny D'Amato, "Throw the dirty sons of bitches out of the house."

     But since the count had already started, the agents left before an incident could be started but came back the next day, only to have D'Amato offer them $100 each "to cooperate." The agents reported the bribe to Olson, who took moves to revoke Sinatra's license.

     When the news was announced that Sinatra was under investigation and would probably lose his casino license, very few people in Nevada rushed to his aid. There were a lot of people in Nevada who resented Sinatra, others despised him and very few people felt that he should have gotten a state gaming license in the first place, and the word around the capitol building in Reno was that Sinatra needed to be taught a lesson.

     The lesson they taught him was to take away his license to operate a casino or hotel in Nevada, thus forcing him to sell not only his 50% in the Cal-Neva, but also his 9% interest in the Sands, about 3.5 million dollars worth of holdings in 1963.

     "I talked to Sam (Giancana) the next day," said Joe Shimon, a Washington, D.C. Police officer assigned to the Central Intelligence Agency, "and he told me that Sinatra had cost him over $465,000 on Cal-Neva. He said, "That bastard and his big mouth. All he had to do was to keep quiet let, the attorneys handle it, apologize and get a thirty to sixty day suspension . . . but no, Frank has to get on the phone with that damn big mouth of his and now we've lost the whole damn place. He never forgave him. He washed Frank right out of his books."

     Nevada's Governor, Grant Sawyer, stood behind the Gambling control board's decision to yank Sinatra's license. However, while the case was still pending, President Kennedy came to the state and was given a caravan parade through the streets of Las Vegas, and found himself sitting in the same car with Governor Sawyer. Kennedy turned to Sawyer, and said, "Aren't you people being a little hard on Frank out here?"

     The Governor didn't reply, but later repeated what Kennedy had said to Ed Olson, who was startled by the remark. "That's about the highest degree of political pressure you could ever put into the thing," Olson said.

     But the Cal-Neva incident was, for the Kennedys, as Peter Lawford said, "The end of old Frankie boy as far as the family was concerned."

     Dumping Sinatra from the White House list of favored persons was long overdue. For years, scores of Kennedy's advisors had been after the President to end his highly public relationship with Sinatra. Not that Sinatra was ever really a White House insider to begin with.

     Just how far out of the Washington loop Sinatra really was, was underscored by Peter Lawford when he said that "During one of our private dinners, the President brought up Sinatra and said, "I really should do something for Frank." Jack was always so grateful to him for all the work he'd done in the campaign raising money. "Maybe," Jack used to say, "I'll ask him to the White house for dinner or lunch. There's only one problem. Jackie hates him and won't have him in the house, so I really don't know what to do."

     Sinatra was eventually invited for lunch, but only when Jackie Kennedy was out of the White House and even then, Sinatra was asked to use a side door to the White House, since Kennedy didn't want the press seeing the crooner on the grounds of the Executive Mansion. In fact, according to Lawford, Sinatra was only allowed into the White House twice during the three years of the Kennedy administration, and then only for brief visits.

     "I don't think he wanted," said Lawford, "reporters to see Frank Sinatra going into the White House, that's why Frank never flew on Air Force One, and was never invited to any of the Kennedy state dinners or taken to Camp David for any of the parties there."

     Kennedy, or "Our Mister Prez" as Sinatra called the new Chief Executive, did call Sinatra on an irregular basis, but this was mostly to cover the President's favorite topic, Hollywood gossip.

     "When Kennedy would call," said Ole Blue Eyes' English Secretary, "he would smile at everybody, pick up the phone and say "Hiya Prez." After each one of those calls, Frank pranced around so proud of the fact that the President was ringing him up."

     But Sinatra was an astute man and sensed he wasn't wanted around the White House and asked why he was being pushed to the side, only to be told by the President's staff that the Kennedy brothers' wives said that they were attending too many "Sinatra summit meetings" and their wives were not happy about it.

     Also, aside from being widely disliked by the White House staff, the Kennedys had been cooling off to Sinatra for some time before they gave him the axe, in part due to the singers often erratic public, and private, life.

     The first signs of trouble came back during the election, when Sinatra hired blacklisted writer Albert Maltz to write the screenplay for a film called "The Execution of Private Slovik" from the book by William Bradford Huie, the story was about the only American serviceman executed by the army for desertion since the civil war. Sinatra planned to direct and produce the film himself.

     The media, the public and virtually every civic group in the country attacked Sinatra for hiring Maltz, but the ever feisty Sinatra refused to back down, in large part because he was doing the right thing, and in some part, because he was, simply, a man who wouldn't be told how to live his personal life.

     Boston's Cardinal Cushing, a close friend of the family, told Joe Kennedy that his son could be hurt in the conservative Catholic vote by Sinatra's hiring a communist and Governor Wesley Powell of New Hampshire had already accused Kennedy of being soft on communists.

     The Ambassador called Sinatra and said, "It's either us or Maltz, make up your mind, Frank."

     Sinatra fired Maltz, but it didn't matter. The American Legion got hold of it and went on the attack. The New York Times wrote a long piece about it and John Wayne, then the country's leading box office producer, attacked Sinatra and Kennedy for being soft on Reds.

     "God what a mess!" Lawford said. "The Ambassador took care of it in the end, but it was almost the end of old Frankie boy as far as the family was concerned."

     Sinatra had tempted his fate with highly publicity sensitive Kennedys, once to often. Especially after word leaked out to the press that he was partners with the mob in a New England racetrack.

     Like everyone else on the inside, the Kennedys knew about Sinatra's overwhelming desire to be around the rough-edged set. Even while Sinatra was helping JFK into the White House he maintained his ownership in the Villa Capri, LA's most mobbed up restaurant, that was a home away from home for every displaced wiseguy who traveled west to make a name for himself. But, owning a piece of a restaurant where small-time hoods ate was a different thing from buying into a major Rhode Island racetrack with crime bosses Raymond Patriarca, Tommy Luchese, and New Jersey's gangster Angelo "Gyp" De Carlo.

     When word of the racetrack investment reached the White House, combined with Frankie's mysterious role in introducing Judy Campbell to the President, it was decided to drop Sinatra once and for all.

     The catalyst behind giving Sinatra the axe, was, of course, Robert Kennedy. As far as the Attorney General was concerned, Sinatra's loyalties really lay with the mob, and, when and if, a push came to a shove, Kennedy was sure, true or not, that Sinatra would go along with the mob in blackmailing the President to get what it wanted.

     Dropping Sinatra wasn't a tremendous loss for the White House, they had gotten what they wanted out of Frank, and, if they ever needed him again, they knew that all they would have to do woulb be to snap their fingers and he'd come running.

     To neutralize Sinatra, and always aware of their place on the historical record, the Kennedys justified dropping Sinatra, by having one of Robert Kennedy's employees at the Justice department suddenly "discover" that Sinatra had ties to organized crime, by reading a Department of Justice report about extortion in the movie business which mentioned Sinatra.

     To be absolutely certain that Sinatra, and everyone else, understood that he had been axed, the Kennedy boys decided to humiliate him publicly.

     Towards the end of January 1962, Peter Lawford, at John Kennedy's request, asked Sinatra if Kennedy could stay at his Palm Springs home in March while Kennedy was out west for a fund raiser.

     Sinatra was honored and rushed into a massive renovations program on his estate, including building separate cottages for the secret service and installing communications with twenty-five extra phone lines and a huge helipad with a pole for the President's flag.

     When everything was set, and Sinatra had bragged and boasted to all of Hollywood that he would host the President, the President called Peter Lawford into the Oval office and said: "I can't stay at Frank's place while Bobby's handling the investigation of Giancana. See if you can't find me someplace else. You can handle it Peter. We'll handle the Frank situation when we get to it."

     Lawford was terrified of the thought of calling Sinatra with the bad news, and when he did, Lawford, who probably didn't know why the President had changed his plans, blamed the secret service and security reasons for the change in Kennedy's plans.

     "Frank was livid," Lawford said. "He called Bobby every name in the book and then he rang me up and reamed me out again. He was quite unreasonable, irrational really. [His valet] George Jacobs told me later that when he got off the phone he went outside with a sledgehammer and started chopping up the concrete landing pad of his heliport. He was in a frenzy."

     Things went from bad to worse when Sinatra learned that Kennedy was staying at the home of Republican Crooner, Bing Crosby. Sinatra, according to Lawford, "telephoned Bobby Kennedy and called him every name and a few that weren't in the book. He told RFK what a hypocrite, that the mafia had helped Jack get elected but weren't allowed to sit with him in the front of the bus."

     A few months afterwards the truth hit the Mafia as well. All bets were off, the Kennedys had not only double-crossed the outfit, they had secretly declared war against it.

     As far as allowing Joe Adonis back into the country, as was agreed before the West Virginia primary, the mob was informed by Joe Kennedy, through Skinny D'Amato, that the Kennedys not only intended to renege on the deal, they were going to start deporting and locking up hoods on a nationwide basis.

     The national crime commission called Giancana on the carpet for an answer and in turn Giancana called Sinatra on the carpet right after he got back from the commission meeting. One of his underlings heard Giancana screaming into a phone, "Eat'n out of my hand! That's what Frank told me! Jack's eat'n out of the palm of my hand! Bullshit! That's what that is!" and then watched as the mobster threw the telephone across the room.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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