Our very first Spy Book Club selection, "Mafia Spies: The Inside Story of the CIA, Gangsters, JFK, and Castro," is a tale of deception, outlaw friendship, and government-sanctioned hitmen mixed with a dash of Havana and Hollywood flair. Author Thomas Maier gives us a peek into the world of the Chicago Outfit, Hollywood, and the mobsters recruited by the CIA for a daring international assassination.
You’ve written another book, Masters of Sex, set in roughly the same time period but with decidedly different subject matter. What drew you to the world and material of Mafia Spies?
My most recent book, WHEN LIONS ROAR: The Churchills and the Kennedys, contained a chapter about spying in 1940 that involved Winston Churchill and JFK's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who was then the US ambassador in London. It was a fascinating story and spurred my interest in writing more about espionage. Because I've written two previous books about the Kennedys, I was aware of the CIA's attempt to kill Castro in the early 1960s. But I felt this story -- with many characters in south Florida, Chicago, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Havana, Washington DC and other locales -- was best told through the two gangsters, Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli. As with my book about Masters and Johnson, I like to compare and contrast between two protagonists caught up in a very controversial and secret endeavour. I think MAFIA SPIES is very timely today because it contains so many themes of our current Trump era -- from the role of the CIA and FBI to such things as "kompromat", Russian spies and presidential indiscretion.
In your author’s note, you write: “In putting together this book, lies of various size and sort posed the greatest obstacle. Virtually every major character engaged in some form of deception, half-truths, fabrication and outright falsehood.” How much of a challenge was it to parse through the various layers of deception, and how do you think it shaped the story?
Deception is a big part of spying and MAFIA SPIES, with all its twists and turns, has plenty of it. For example, the two main characters used aliases. Giancana used the name "Sam Gold" when first introduced to the CIA at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. And Johnny Roselli's name was a phony (taken from an Italian painter at the Vatican) that he used his whole adult life. It was his biggest secret. "Johnny" always feared his real identity would be exposed. And when the FBI learned his secret, it became of the one of the biggest turning points in the book.
As you researched this story, what surprised you the most about the world of mafiosos and spies it deals with?
MAFIA SPIES shows how much the world of mobsters and spies depend on sheer violence. The CIA's campaign to kill Castro was America's first state-sanctioned assassination attempt against a foreign leader, and was launched with a cold-blooded calculation that would rival any organized crime family. Like a don who sends out a hitman on a mission, I was struck how certain CIA officials and their Washington bosses wanted to keep their culpability in these deadly actions from becoming known by sending out underlings to do the dirty work.
Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli, Chicago mobsters two of the story’s central characters, had an interesting and often dangerous friendship. What made you decide to feature their role in the events of the story so highly, and what was the most interesting part of researching their relationship?
I was struck by the uniqueness of this outlaw friendship between Giancana and Roselli. They sort of reminded me of the "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" buddy movie, only these gangsters rose away on jet planes rather than horses, lol! They both ambitious and thought "big picture", none of the penny ante stuff of most mobsters. To me, they also represented two very different male archetypes in their personal lives. Giancana was a hair-trigger guy who wanted to be the boss of everything and had the classic "Madonna/Whore" view of women. Whereas, Johnny was a very smooth and suave Casanova-type, who dated a number of famous Hollywood actresses and never settled down. In this story, he was a main facilitator with both the CIA and the mob, as well as difficult characters like Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes.
If you could give your readers one essential takeaway about how the events of this story impacted relations between the US and Cuba, what would you tell them?
We are still very much living with the consequences of this blood-filled spy story. Cuba has remained an impoverished Third World nation ever since Castro's embrace of Russian-led Communism in the early 1960s. And our failed attempts to get rid of Castro became an obsession for the Kennedy administration and made Fidel a boogeyman for every US president since then. To understand the future of US-Cuba relations, you must know this story.
What advice would you give to a young writer or investigative journalist who is interested in publishing a book like this?
I think the most important thing is to keep a master outline of every little finding and significant detail and make sure it is constantly updated, and is based on a verifiable documents or other written proof. It's also important not to get lost in the weeds in the story-telling and try to help the reader understand where the overall story is going. MAFIA SPIES is about a 1960s murder conspiracy that the CIA didn't acknowledge until 2007 and the question of who killed Giancana and Roselli still remains unsolved. For me, as someone whose books have all dealt with America in our times, the big themes are found in the small details.
The characters of "Mafia Spies" run the gamut from Washington power brokers, Hollywood entertainers, and Chicago mafiosos. Gain some insight from the book's author about the dangerous world they inhabit.