Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was sitting at his backyard patio table, clutching a tuna fish sandwich, when the call came through. Kennedy had spent the morning at a Justice Department conference on his intensifying war against organized crime. He had invited two of his employees from New York, US Attorney Robert Morgenthau and an aide, back to his sprawling home, Hickory Hill in McLean, Va., to continue the conversation over a private lunch.
A key focus of the morning meetings had been the Justice Department’s efforts to put Mafia kingpins behind bars. Now, by the pool on an unseasonably warm day in November 1963, Kennedy talked optimistically about efforts to neutralize one of those mob leaders, Carlos Marcello. At the very moment when Kennedy and his guests were digging into their sandwiches and clam chowder, Marcello was sitting in a packed courtroom in New Orleans, awaiting the verdict in his deportation trial.
Kennedy had turned 38 just two days earlier, and his mop of brown hair, slim frame, and charging intensity had always combined to project an aura of youth. Still, the bags under his eyes betrayed the weight of responsibilities he had been shouldering for the previous three years, serving as not just the nation’s top law enforcement official but also the president’s most trusted adviser and fixer.
Kennedy glanced at his watch. It was 1:45 p.m. “We’d better hurry and get back to that meeting,” he told his guests.
Photos: Robert F. Kennedy
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Just then his wife, Ethel, called over to him, holding the patio phone extension. “It’s J. Edgar Hoover,” she said, a look of worry playing over her face. They both knew the FBI director never called Bobby at home.
Morgenthau, in a recent interview, recalled watching Kennedy drop his sandwich, race over to the phone, and then quickly cup his hand over his mouth as he heard the devastating news....