Handsome Johnny: The Life and Death of Johnny Rosselli: Gentleman Gangster, Hollywood Producer, CIA Assassin

Posted on December 23, 2019

by Lee Server

Check out an excerpt from Lee Server’s Handsome Johnny, a vivid account of Johnny Rosselli’s astonishing fifty-year career. From the bloody years of bootlegging in the Twenties as the last protégé of Al Capone to the modern era of organized crime, the mob’s “Man in Hollywood,” introduced big-time crime to the movie industry.

It was “Rosselli” with a double s and sometimes “Roselli” with just the one.

Somebody at the FBI thought that was a pretty funny thing. When a guy starts to write his name different ways in different years you wonder what is his problem. That was how things got started—you found a loose thread and you pulled on it until something opened up. Here was a little mistake that might lead to a bigger mistake and when you found the big mistake there was a good chance you were going to get your man. Agents started to sniff around. This was in the 1950s, after the Kefauver hearings on organized crime in America. What they learned at the hearings was big shocking stuff. Nobody before then had understood how much of the country was populated by gangsters all working together for the common bad. Johnny Rosselli had been among the many forced to testify. He told the senators his story, about being born in Chicago, losing his parents, and being raised by a kindly old uncle. It was a sad story, with little bits and pieces of the truth thrown in.

Someone at the FBI went to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Chicago. They looked for the papers on Johnny Rosselli, and they found out something interesting: The document recording Johnny Rosselli’s birth had been filed thirty years after the fact; the document itself was a forgery, and there was no other evidence to be found that the person described therein had ever been born—in Chicago or anywhere else.

An investigation into the “facts” of Rosselli’s life was begun. In all parts of the country agents gathered evidence, examined files, followed leads, interrogated people from all known periods of the man’s life. It went on for years. They found little that wasn’t already known, or wasn’t what Johnny Rosselli allowed them to find.

He had covered his tracks well—his origins, his early years. The FBI was sure he was not who he said he was. But who was he? What was he hiding? For a guy whom everybody in law enforcement knew about for decades—one of Al Capone’s boy wonders, the Mob’s man in Hollywood, big wheel in Las Vegas, the hundreds of pages of police reports in which he figured, numerous arrests and trials, headlined convictions—he was a mystery.

Agents looked at the file and cursed. It nagged at them. There had to be some good reason he had gone to the trouble of falsifying his birth, covering up his past, when his known record was already so bad. Had he run away from a crime for which he could still be prosecuted? If they could solve the mystery, find out who he was, what he was hiding, they were sure they could nail him good, close the book on another major hoodlum.

One day they lucked out. An old soldier in the LA crime family—and a longtime associate of Johnny’s—had become an informant. His handlers in the Bureau kept the informant on a long leash so as not to expose him to his fellow gangsters, but they kept him under observation too. One day they followed him to the airport, saw him greet a stranger from across the country. The agents pulled him in. What was going on at the airport? He wouldn’t talk, which made them more interested. They told him the deal again: If he ever held anything back it was over and they would throw him in prison. The mobster tried to figure a way out, but he couldn’t. Fuck it, he decided. I’m a rat, I’m dead already. He told the agents he’d been doing a favor for his friend Johnny Rosselli. Rosselli? Keep talking, said the Feds. It was nothing, he said, a little errand. A little cash for the guy’s mama. He’d done it before, many times through the years. For Johnny’s mother back in Boston. The fella at the airport was Johnny’s kid brother.

His mother? the FBI agents said.

Johnny Rosselli had a mother? In Boston? A brother? The agents grinned like cats over a spilled bowl of goldfish.

Armed with the slight but crucial biographical information supplied by their informant, the Bureau refocused its long-running investigation of Rosselli—what it described as an “intensive discreet endeavor to develop the facts,” to “uncover some crime committed which would have caused him to change his identity.” As long as it was still under the statutes, an old crime was as good as a new one to the Feds. But the goal was not just to convict and punish the man for his individual crimes. The Feds were working to undermine and degrade the whole criminal system—La Cosa Nostra, the Mafia, the Syndicate, the Organization, whatever you called it. To blow it up from the inside. The goal was to get him, and then to “turn” him, to make him talk and to keep him talking. 

As the FBI’s investigation advanced, moving deep inside Johnny Rosselli’s shadow world, on a quest to uncover his hidden past, a strange course of events was set in motion, one that would reach far beyond the investigators’ original intent, a Pandora’s box opened to unforeseeable consequences, to chaos and scandal, the exposure of dirty secrets and black lies in the corridors of American power, and, in the end, to sudden and ghastly death.

LEE SERVER is the author of the best-selling and critically acclaimed biographies Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care and Ava Gardner: Love is NothingRobert Mitchum was named a Best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times, “the film biography of the year” by the Sunday Times (U.K.) and one of the “60 Greatest Film Books.” Ava Gardner was a New York Times Notable Book, and a New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today bestseller. He lives in Palm Springs, California.

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