Chapter 9: Photo Finish

Chapter 9


The Cal-Neva resort has a long and storied past that reaches all the way back to the days of prohibition. It was actually built with secret tunnels to facilitate bootlegging. At least that’s the legend. Others say that Frank Sinatra built the tunnels after he bought and renovated the place (with gangster Sam Giancana’s money) in the early 60s. The lodge was built by a wealthy businessman in the 20s to entertain friends. It’s situated on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Lake Tahoe straddles the border of California and Nevada. It’s in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fairly close to Reno. The state line that dissects the lake goes right through the resort. The Nevada side of the Cal-Neva is home to one of Nevada’s oldest casinos. It got it’s gaming license shorty affair gambling became legal in Nevada. Through the years it became the playground of not only the rich and famous, but mobsters as well. It was also a favorite haunt of JFK’s father, Joe Kennedy. Old man Kennedy not only liked to visit, he had Christmas trees sent back east every year. Our interest in the Cal-Neva begins in the mid-fifties when gambler Bert “Wingy” Grober bought the place. There’s a famous photo of Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra dining at the Cal-Neva. In the photo a white haired man standing behind the seated pair leans over between the two. That man is Wingy Grober.

Wingy got the money to purchase the place as the result of a “lucky” hot streak at a mob owned casino. Lucky is in quotes because the streak was said to be courtesy of his mob friends as a way of disguising the mobs share in the casino. An ownership percentage that eventually found it’s way to Sam Giancana.

You see Wingy Grober was not a lucky man. Like most gamblers Grober would often find himself broke and in need of financial help from some friends. In Wingy’s case that usually meant mafioso’s. Grober also got into trouble with the IRS. For help with that mess Wingy turned to a friend who just happened to be an expert in paying the least amount of taxes possible. That friend was the greatest manipulator of the U.S. financial system that ever lived, Joseph P. Kennedy. Joe Kennedy knew how to make money and keep it as well. If “Greed is good,” then Kennedy was the Gordon Gecko of the 20s. But Gecko’s power pales compared to Kennedys because unlike Joe Kennedy, he was never appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. It’s said that Papa Joe had made sure each and every one of his kids had a million dollars in their name BEFORE the great depression. And old Joe had a lot of kids. In terms of today’s buying power, each child started their adult lives with about $14 million. The Kennedy’s were rich. Joe’s wife Rose liked to point out that they weren’t Rockefeller rich, but Joe surely had a top 20 fortune. At times he would find creative ways to put (hide) that money into secret investments. One of those appears to be an investment in the Cal-Neva. He not only gave Wingy advise on his taxes, he likely paid them as well. So now Kennedy, at least by his reckoning, owned a large share of Wingy’s holdings in the hotel and casino.

In the spring of 1958, old Joe made an offer to Frank Sinatra that he couldn’t refuse. JFK wouldn’t officially enter the race for the presidency for another year and half but his old man was already lining things up for the campaign. Joe Kennedy was going to sell his son Jack like soap-flakes and part of that marketing effort involved wowing the Hollywood crowd. Joe had little faith that his actor/son-in-law, Peter Lawford, could get the job done. Peter’s old friend Frank Sinatra was a different story. Frank could not only could bring on board his fellow celebrities, he could pass the hat around to gangster pals as well. The only problem was that Frank and Peter had had a falling out years earlier. Kennedy persuaded Sinatra to mend that friendship, then do what ever it took to get JFK elected. Sinatra and John F. Kennedy were kindred spirits and Frank needed little persuading. But to sweeten the pot, Joe Kennedy promised to sell part of his share of Cal-Neva to Sinatra at a sweetheart price should JFK win the nomination at the Democratic National Convention set to be held in Los Angeles in 1960. That summer in ’60, John Kennedy did win the nomination and Frank Sinatra and his pals became owners of the Cal-Neva. Now exactly who owned what, and at what percentage, became a contested matter, and the matter would simmer below the surface until it finally blew up in the summer of 1962.

When Frank took over ownership of Cal-Neva he had big plans. The hotel had a short season, it was only open in the summer. Snowy, mountain roads made in hard to get to in the winter. So to make the place accessible year round he built a helicopter pad. He also built a large new concert hall and new cabins. Frank’s big plans came with a big price tag. It was going to take a big loan to make it happen. Enter Sam, aka Momo, aka Mooney, Giancana. Frank and Giancana had probably already been making plans as early as that spring or summer of 1958 when Joe Kennedy first proposed the idea. That summer Giancana was hiding out with Sinatra in a small Indiana town during the shooting of Some Came Running. He was ducking Robert Kennedy and the Rackets Committee.

Some versions of history have Joe Kennedy sitting down with Sam Giancana and making a deal. It’s likely it never happened. What is likely is that Joe Kennedy used Frank Sinatra and had him make the deal. Kennedys “deal” had probably been nothing more than a blanket promise to all donors that when elected JFK would remember the people that had helped him get there. How much Sinatra embellished on that deal can’t be known. What’s almost certain is that Giancana thought there was a deal. But I’m getting a little sidetracked.

Back to the Cal-Neva expansion. Frank turned to his friend and fellow owner, Giancana for the money. In the past, one call to Teamster’s president Jimmy Hoffa would have got Momo as much money as he needed. With the pressure RFK was applying to Hoffa, the large loans at sweet rates had disappeared. A smaller loan from a bank was arranged but Giancana himself had to put up his own money for the expansion.

The exact details are a mystery, but by 1962 Momo felt the Kennedy’s owed him. Any way he looked at his mental ledgers had him coming up short. Giancana must have felt that Kennedy never owned as much of Cal-Neva as he thought, thus Joe couldn’t give Sinatra and his pals such a large share. Now, if old Joe still felt he had points, Momo wanted the Kennedys to put up a share of the money that went into the renovation. This was on top of what he wanted to be paid back for the time and money he “donated” (now money lent with interest due) to JFK’s campaign. With Joe Kennedy having a stroke at the end of 1961, Kennedy made his demands for a payback directly to the president. He used JFK girlfriend and mobster honey, Judith Campbell as a courier of messages to the president. JFK had attempted to payoff Giancana, but the money he sent through Campbell wasn’t enough.

Momo was testing his strength. He knew he had Bobby in check. By May 1962, the CIA was advising RFK not to prosecute Giancana because they had enlisted his help in assassination attempts on Castro. RFK was also learning just how much the Chicago Outfit had helped with his brother’s election, as well as his father’s numerous ties to the very men he was investigating.

Giancana wanted money and his crony Johnny Rosselli wanted the IRS off his ass. Giancana, again with messages sent through Campbell, demanded a “summit,” a face to face meeting with RFK. The date this historic face off was to occur? The last weekend of July 1962.

This was the reason for Sam Giancana’s now famous utterance caught by a bug. A statement never fully understood by biographers and researchers. “I’m going to get my money out and I’m still going to own half the joint.” He was going to get the money out that he put up for the renovations AND he was still going to own his rightful half of the place.

To guarantee RFK would show up and not pull a fast one, Giancana let it be known that while Joe Kennedy and his son Jack had visited Cal-Neva, they had been secretly videotaped. Maybe as a sign of good faith, Momo would to turn over his treasure trove of tapes.

RFK had agreed to the meet. What exactly was planned for the weekend we may never know. It was said afterward that it would have been the “big fall” for Bobby. RFK went west and was in LA on the Friday before the scheduled meet. But something happened that changed history. A tip came in the LA field office of the FBI that an assassination attempt on Bobby’s life had been planned. RFK made a hasty exit from LA back to Washington. Bobby couldn’t now risk the meet, it could never be kept a secret from the J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. (It turns out it wasn’t kept from Hoover. A few weeks later Hoover sent Bobby a memo about his father and Cal-Neva.)

Someone had to confront Giancana to find out his end game. It was a family matter and Pat Kennedy Lawford demanded that she could go and have Peter hear Momo out. The brothers balked at first, but Pat was strong willed and independent. She was going to go. JFK and RFK reluctantly agreed when Pat pointed out that neither Sinatra nor Giancana would let anything happen at their place. Pat trusted Frank implicitly. She finally persuaded her brothers everything would be okay by telling them she would bring Marilyn along. Sinatra would never allow anything to happen that would have put Marilyn in danger. The meeting was arranged. The Lawfords and Marilyn arrived in Lake Tahoe to find Sam Giancana already in lobby.

(As a side note to this story it would be Frank Sinatra who would end up paying the debt Giancana felt he was owed. Frank and his pals did it by performing “free” concerts at various times throughout the remainder of 1962 with the proceeds going into Momo’s pockets. But on this last weekend in July, tensions were high and nothing had yet been settled.) It’s at this this point we now resume the story.

Pat and Marilyn were alone in one of Frank’s private cabins when Marilyn got sick. She hadn’t been well all day, but none of them were. The day had been draining for everyone. Peter had beaten a path to Frank’s door many times since arriving and had just left on another mission, when Marilyn began to vomit. They hadn’t left the cabin for hours, so Pat immediately flashed on one of Marilyn’s most persistent paranoias and thought “the food was poisoned.” All the food had been brought to them that day and Marilyn hadn’t hardly touched her dinner. After Frank ate Marilyn’s desert, Pat had given Marilyn hers. She had only taken a few bites. Pat thought that if it was poisoned she may have eaten enough to make her deathly ill. Many of the other events of that weekend proved to Pat that maybe Marilyn wasn’t wrong to be paranoid. The threat was real. Pat had known that for weeks but now her eyes were opened to just how serious things had become.

The Kennedy sister knew Marilyn was bright and intuitive. Marilyn could get the gist of a book from just reading small parts, and she had an amazing ability to read people and their intent. Plus, she was smart and informed enough to know the gravity of what was going on, even though Pat could not tell her the details and extent. Even Pat didn’t know everything herself, and now was just as confused as Marilyn. What she did now know was that Marilyn’s fear and paranoia wasn’t just caused by the increasing number of pills it took for her to sleep. The pills made it worse but the threat was VERY real.

This night she didn’t know if it was drugs or something worse but Marilyn was violently ill. Did Marilyn take something while she wasn’t looking? Things were stressful that day and she was medicated, but she seemed fine. The two of were talking when Marilyn’s face took on a peculiar pale shade of green. She didn’t look well at all. Before Pat could ask her if she was feeling okay, she had bolted towards the bathroom. Pat followed and found her kneeling before the toilet. Marilyn had stopped vomiting and now looked like she was about to pass out. Pat knelt down beside her and tried to hold her up over the toilet. She held her for a moment and then the two thought it was over. Marilyn felt a little better and she rested her head on Pat’s shoulder. Suddenly, vomit spewed out again all over both of them. Again Marilyn clutched the bowl and tried to purge into the toilet. But she could only dry heave. This continued until once again she felt that the worst was over. Both women stood. They were a mess. Pat had a hard time getting Marilyn’s blouse off. Between Pat trying to hold her up and Marilyn’s twisting and turning, her top had become bunched up and was restricting her arms. Once Pat had Marilyn’s soiled blouse off, she removed her own. Needing to get Marilyn cleaned up, and with hopes that it would revive her, Pat turned on the shower. She was horrified as she turned back toward Marilyn. Her face was now blank, she had taken on a shade of gray and looked like a ghost. Her eyes rolled up. Her knees began to buckle. Pat was able to grab her before she fell, but she had difficulty holding her upright. In the struggle that followed, Marilyn bending in half, spun around and got drenched from the waist down before falling to the wet floor.

Perched by the toilet, Pat tried to hold on to her but Marilyn kept losing consciousness. This was something completely different from anything Pat had seen Marilyn go through before. A previous weekend at Cal-Neva, when she had fallen out of bed and remained unconscious, it had only taken a splash of water and a lot of coffee to rouse her awake. This weekend she had complained of feeling ill when they arrived but she had rebounded after resting. Now Pat was holding Marilyn in her arms fearful that she was going to die. Marilyn was having trouble breathing. Suddenly her eyes bulged and her tongue looked swollen as she gagged and shuddered. She then passed out.

Frantic, Pat knew she needed help and ran to the phone to ring the switchboard. Nearing hysteria, she ordered the operator to have Peter return and to have Sinatra summon a doctor. A few minutes later, Peter, who was already on route back to the cabin, arrived to find his wife in a state of panic like he had never witnessed before. She grabbed Peter’s arm and explained what was happening as she rushed him towards the bathroom. As they approached they heard Marilyn gasp, then start coughing. Peter helped a groggy, but now conscious Marilyn up while Pat wrapped a towel around her shoulders. Marilyn was cold. She was already wet and didn’t want to get in the shower. So after drying off a bit, the Lawfords helped her out of the bathroom.

Meanwhile, Sinatra’s pal Skinny D’Amato who managed the Cal-Neva, had been notified of the emergency immediately after Pat had called the front desk. He knew there was a doctor in the casino. He dispatched a bellboy to retrieve the doctors bag from his room. He instructed one of his people to notify Sinatra and then he went off into the casino to locate the doctor. He had seen him drinking earlier and now hoped he wasn’t plastered.

When Sinatra was notified he was in his private cabin with two guests; the face and acting leader of the Chicago syndicate, Sam Giancana, and Johnny Rosselli, the Outfit’s Las Vegas “Strategist.” Immediately, Sinatra bolted towards the hidden tunnel that connected the two cabins. Giancana and Rosselli were close behind with Rosselli grabbing Sinatra’s camera on the way out.

While Pat helped Marilyn to a chair she instructed Peter to go find Sinatra and a doctor. After sitting for just a moment, Marilyn decided she wanted to lie down. Pat told Peter, “Go, I’ll help her over to the bed.” Peter was leaving as Frank was arriving and the two stopped long enough for Peter to explain the immediate need of medical attention. Frank told Peter to go to the casino and help find a doctor. Their pause was long enough for Giancana and Rosselli to rush past. As the gangsters arrived in the room, a startled Marilyn leaned into Pat sending both women to the floor. Giancana raced over to the women to help. Marilyn was on her hands and knees. Pat was already starting to stand when Giancana stood behind Marilyn and awkwardly grabbed her by the waist to help her up. Johnny Rosselli was across the room standing close to the doorway taking pictures!

Sinatra burst into the room and when he saw what Rosselli was doing he knocked the camera out of his hands and screamed, “What the hell are you doing?” The odd trio across the room; a topless Marilyn, Pat wearing a bra, (but because she was standing behind Marilyn looked like she was also nude from the waist up) and a very surprised but seemingly amused Sam Giancana; were momentarily frozen like deer in headlights. With wide eyed wonder the three watched the camera fly across the room and crash against the wall. An angry Rosselli grabbed Sinatra, pointed at the busted camera and exclaimed, “We’re gonna take that.” An angrier Sinatra grabbed Rosselli by both hands, drew Rosselli’s face to own, pushed him toward the wall, and in the most menacing tone he could muster screamed, “Over my dead body!” Rosselli was prepared to make that happen. He already had a hand on his revolver when Sinatra let go, clenched his fist and was about to strike Rosselli. A now very serious Giancana put an end to the scuffle with one word. “FRANK!” Realizing his “dead body” outburst could actually happen made Sinatra freeze in his tracks.

A stern look from Giancana as he shook his head back and forth was all that was needed to tell Rosselli to back down. Another tilt of the head towards the door told him it was time to leave. Peter, who was blocking his way, raised his hands and jumped backward to let him pass. When Peter had went out the front door he had spotted Skinny D’Amato heading down the hill leading another man with a black bag towards the cabin. Peter had come back to assure everyone a doctor was on the way, but now with mouth open, he couldn’t get out the words. What seemed like an eternally long, tense, silent, frozen moment was broken when Marilyn began swaying. Peter rushed over and helped Pat get Marilyn into bed. Pat then took charge and yelled at the men to “GET OUT!”

It was a decisive moment for the man sometimes called Mooney, a man so crazed that in his younger days people thought he was a lunatic. First, nobody gave him orders, but he had already decided to leave. His problem was Frank. Frank was his buddy and had been for a long time, but Sinatra had just disrespected one of the Outfit’s top men. He couldn’t allow Sinatra to push Rosselli around like that. Rosselli was a fixer and had been connected to the Chicago syndicate for decades. He was now in a top position, acting as kind of an ambassador between all the major crime families in Vegas. It was now Giancana who had to find a diplomatic solution to the current problem. He looked at the camera but didn’t move towards it. Instead he just left. As he passed by Sinatra he sneered “We’ll settle this later.” Then the underworld boss followed Rosselli back into the tunnels.

Frank grabbed the camera and told the others that he would find a doctor. As he was leaving, Peter told Frank the doctor was coming, but Frank ignored him. Pat looked at Peter and said, “Get us out of here.” The plan had been to leave in the morning but when Peter caught up to Frank he persuaded him to make arrangements for them to leave that night. Frank didn’t need much persuasion. He was extremely angry and believed Marilyn had just almost overdosed. He thought Marilyn needed more help than she was getting and wanted her to check into a hospital so she could reduce her growing dependence on drugs. He completely misread the situation and was livid that she could let this happen and also blamed the Lawfords for not stopping it.

Frank told Peter that he would make sure Marilyn was alright and then he wanted them ALL gone. Eager to return to the casino, the doctor briefly attended Marilyn. He wasn’t sure exactly what happened, but when he heard about Marilyn’s traveling pharmacy, he too, thought it was the drugs. When the doctor relayed Pat’s concern to Frank that it may have been the food, Sinatra just scoffed and said that was impossible. Later that evening when Marilyn and the Lawfords were leaving, Sinatra pulled Peter aside, looked him dead in the eye and with a bone-chilling delivery growled, “Never come back.”