Before Monica Lewinsky, there was Judith Campbell Exner. Nearly 25 years ago, with the myth of Camelot still largely intact, Exner stepped forward to reveal the first account of an affair that would tarnish the image of President John F. Kennedy. At her death from cancer on Sept. 24 in Duarte, Calif., Exner, 65, was still energetically defending her story.
It was one she first told in 1975, when Senate investigators began probing reports, never proved, that Kennedy had enlisted Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana in a plot to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Exner told investigators that, as a young party girl from Los Angeles, she had been introduced to Kennedy in Las Vegas in 1960 by mutual friend Frank Sinatra. Within a matter of weeks, she said, she was in bed with JFK at New York City’s Plaza Hotel, beginning a 2½-year affair. “When you talked to Jack, he talked just to you,” Exner told PEOPLE in 1988.
Reports of the liaison, leaked to the press in 1975, stirred enormous controversy. Kennedy loyalists accused Exner of making it all up. Yet evidence showed that Exner had visited the President on several occasions in the White House and had spoken to him some 70 times by phone. “I was crucified because I had had the audacity to have an affair with Jack Kennedy,” said Exner.
Born Judith Immoor to a well-off family that settled in Pacific Palisades, Calif., where her father was a successful architect, Exner possessed a seductive beauty. At 18 she married actor Bill Campbell and, through him, became part of a fast Hollywood crowd. Divorced six years later, she dated Sinatra. Her affair with Kennedy then ensued and was followed by a fling with Giancana, whom she met in that same year of 1960. (In 1965 she had a son out of wedlock and put him up for adoption. Now a photographer for the Los Angeles Times named David Bohrer, he sought her out 10 years ago, and they were reunited. “He became the light of her life,” says Exner’s best friend, Felicia Folino.)
In 1988, Exner—recently separated from golf pro Dan Exner, whom she had married in 1975—told writer Kitty Kelley for a story in PEOPLE that, while JFK’s lover, she had served as a courier between the President and Giancana. According to Exner, JFK wanted the mobster’s help nailing down votes in the 1960 West Virginia primary, and she had arranged face-to-face meetings between the two. That story drew fresh skepticism from historians, who questioned whether a candidate would be likely to have risked meeting directly with a Mob kingpin.
Her affair with Kennedy, Exner said, ended partly because she got tired of being the other woman. “I was very lonely a lot of the time,” she explained. She said that she became involved with Giancana after her split with the President. Three years ago, Exner added to her story, maintaining that she had become pregnant by Kennedy and had an abortion.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978, she survived more than two decades in a quiet neighborhood of Newport Beach, Calif., taking care of her cats and painting landscapes and portraits. Recently, Exner sounded more philosophical than bitter about her sensational misadventures. “I will be held accountable for my actions, which were I fell in love with a married man, and that was not proper,” she told PEOPLE. “But your heart rules your head in most instances, and it did with me at that time.”
Leslie Berestein and John Hannah in L.A. and Diane Clehane in New York City