Inside ‘The Irishman’s’ Gonzo Theory That the Mob Killed JFK
The roots of the Kennedy conspiracy underlying Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which hits Netflix on Nov. 27.
In early 2018, Vulture ran an interview with then 85-year-old composer and producer Quincy Jones. The exchange stretched beyond the typical bounds of celebrity-reporter lunch chatter, expanding, almost immediately, into a semi-fantastical realm, as Jones lobbed assessments on everything from Michael Jackson to Big Pharma to astrology to the Clintons within the first few paragraphs alone. At one point, interviewer David Marchese asked: What’s something you wish you didn’t know? Jones answered: “Who killed Kennedy.”
When Marchese pressed the producer, he singled out Sam Giancana, a Chicago gangster whose name has floated around Kennedy conspiracy circles for decades. Jones was hinting at a well-trod conspiracy theory that the mob had helped elect John F. Kennedy in 1960; that they had turned on him after Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy began targeting their ranks; and that they orchestrated JFK’s murder in revenge. “The connection was there between Sinatra and the Mafia and Kennedy,” Jones said. “Joe Kennedy—he was a bad man—he came to Frank to have him talk to Giancana about getting votes.” And, in a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Robert De Niro lent credence to the theory, saying, “Maybe there was something to the mob being connected to it somehow? Maybe there was? Frank Sheeran touches on it through things that he was asked to do that connected it, in a way. My feeling is always that it’s got to come out somehow but it hasn’t so far, though these types of things are always released later, so maybe someday we’ll get some kind of answer.”
In the wake of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which hit theaters Nov. 1 and comes to Netflix Nov. 27, Jones’ theory has gotten renewed life. Scorsese’s three-hour epic, based on investigator Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, tells the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), an Irish truck driver turned hitman, who gets roped into the Italian Bufalino crime family, headed by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and winds up involved in one of the most mysterious disappearances of the 1970s: the death of Teamster union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). When Bufalino sends Sheeran to work for Hoffa, the union boss takes him under his wing, befriends his wife and daughters, and even encourages him to run for union leadership. The movie follows the three mob men across decades, from the first inklings of friendship to Sheeran’s final reveal: that after Hoffa lost favor with the Teamsters, the Irishman buckled to pressure and shot his friend in the back.
In the background of The Irishman, Jones’ theory looms large. During a dinner scene, Bufalino warns that Hoffa may be in danger: “If they can knock off a president,” he says, “they can knock off the president of a union.” And Kennedy’s alleged mafia ties are omnipresent in the film, as Scorsese draws a tight comparison between Sheeran—an Irish guy embraced by the mob, who turned against the man who made him—and the first Catholic president, accused of doing the same.
The Kennedy-mob ties theory dates back to the 1960 election, when a tight race between JFK and Richard Nixon was decided by a difference of just 113,000 votes—the smallest margin in history. The verdict was instantly shrouded by conspiracy claims. “You gotta swallow this one,” a strategist says in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) of Kennedy’s victory. “They stole it fair and square.” Rumors swirled that Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had used mob connections in Chicago to fix votes in Illinois, one of two key states in determining the election. Decades later, when journalist Seymour Hersh published The Dark Side of Camelot in 1998, he claimed that Kennedy Sr. had set up a meeting with Sam Giancana—of Quincy Jones’ theory fame—to leverage the power of his Chicago mob syndicate in the election.
After the 1960 decision, the GOP furiously filed for recounts and reviews. In a history of the results, Slate reporter David Greenberg tallied the Republican’s numerous recounts across several states, including over the hotly contested Texas and Illinois elections. In the end, an auditing error was identified in Hawaii, several people in Illinois were sent to jail for election-related offenses, and hundreds were indicted for similar charges, but later acquitted by an Illinois appeals judge, John M. Karns (whom Hersh claimed was allied with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in favor of the Kennedys). Still, the reviews of multiple election boards, several state and federal judges, an Illinois special prosecutor, and a slew of academic studies did not reverse the results.
Then, when Kennedy took office, he appointed his brother Robert as his attorney general. Bobby Kennedy had a bad track record with gangsters, at least from their side of things. As chief counsel of the U.S. Senate Labor Rackets Committee, Kennedy had skewered Hoffa several times in televised Senate testimony and tried to indict him on racketeering charges. Many of the accusations against Hoffa bore out—James Neff’s history of the “blood feud,” Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa, described the union leader’s myriad kickback schemes and illegal wiretapping habit—but Kennedy hadn’t secured a conviction. When JFK made RFK his attorney general, Bobby resumed his hunt, assembling a team of nearly two dozen prosecutors later dubbed the “Get Hoffa” squad. “Something is happening in this country by the name of Bobby Kennedy,” Hoffa said during one hearing in Nashville, quoted in Brandt’s book. “One man has assigned an elite squad of 23 deputy attorneys general to work his dictates on me.”
The feud between Hoffa and RFK was deep-seated, furious, symbolic, and often silly. Hoffa referred to Kennedy as “Booby.” Kennedy wrote in his memoir that Hoffa amounted to little more than “a bully hiding behind a façade.” They boiled America’s perpetual class war down to two bodies: one, a wealthy Harvard kid born to political dynasty; the other a high school dropout turned Teamster. In his memoir, Hoffa recalled a moment when RFK challenged him to an arm-wrestling match: “I couldn’t believe he was serious but he stood up, loosened his necktie, took off his jacket, and rolled up his sleeve,” Hoffa wrote. “Like taking candy from a baby, I flipped his arm over and cracked his knuckles onto the top of the table. It was strictly no contest and he knew it. But he had to try again. Same results... he just got up, his face red as fire, rolled down his sleeve, put on his jacket, and walked out of the room. He didn’t even stay for dinner. I’m damn certain in my heart that Robert F. Kennedy became my mortal enemy that night.”
In the book version of I Heard You Paint Houses, Sheeran and Brandts’s allegations about the JFK assassination are quite clear. Citing Mob Lawyer, a 1994 memoir from Hoffa’s lawyer Frank Ragano, Brandt described a conversation where Hoffa and Bufalino imagined killing Bobby Kennedy. “The consensus reached in the discussion,” Brandt wrote, “was that if something happened to Bobby, Jack would unleash the dogs. But if something happened to Jack, Vice President Lyndon Johnson would become the president, and it was no secret that Lyndon hated Bobby. Lyndon, it was agreed, definitely would get rid of Bobby as attorney general... Jimmy Hoffa said, ‘Damn right he would. He hates him as much as I do.’”
The evidence is light on solid proof, heavy on innuendo. But the closest thing to a smoking gun came a few months after that chat, when Sheeran was called to an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. According to Brandt, Sheeran drove down, parked, and stood at the bar, where he met a gangster called Tony Pro. Pro handed him a long duffel bag and told him to drive it Baltimore. “You didn’t have to spend all that time in combat to know you had a duffel bag with three rifles in it,” Sheeran told Brandt. “I knew it was rifles, but I had no idea what it was.”
In Baltimore, Sheeran passed the cargo to a pilot named Dave Ferrie. Ferrie, whom Joe Pesci refers to in The Irishman as “a faerie called Ferrie,” was an eccentric anti-communist pilot and self described “psychologist,” known for wearing fake eyebrows and a toupee to hide a medical condition that had cost him his hair. (Ferrie was later accused by New Orleans investigators of helping Lee Harvey Oswald escape Dallas. Ferrie denied knowing Oswald, though in 1993 PBS Frontline identified a photo that appeared to show the two together.) Two days after the alleged dropoff, Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president with a rifle.
To the chagrin of the tin-hat crowd, Sheeran’s gun story didn’t make it into The Irishman. Scorsese did not respond to requests for comment about the theory. But in a press junket at the New York Film Festival, where the movie debuted, the director explained his decision to tread lightly. “The decision had to be made, very clear, before I read the book,” Scorsese said, first reported by Esquire. “Are we going to get into what could be considered conspiracy theories?”
It was, in some ways, an odd distinction to draw, given that the accuracy of Sheeran’s memoir has been called into question by reporters and investigators (the publisher defended the claims in a reply). But for a movie so focused on the affections, warring loyalties, and aging memories of three men, it is also fitting to sideline debates over fact, fiction, or conspiracy. As it’s told, with Sheeran, isolated, recalling the story from his nursing home, the emotional thrust of the movie rests in the question of how people tell their stories and regrets to themselves. To dispute that telling, to dip into conspiracy, risks dragging that narrative into something larger than itself, something in the realm of straight history or semi-fantasy. “What we wanted to do was [explore] the nature of who we are as human beings,” Scorsese said, “the love, the betrayal, the guilt or no guilt, forgiveness or no forgiveness, all of this.”
Scorsese acknowledged the memoir had holes: “Everything else that plays out can be considered—and I’m not denigrating Charles Brandt’s book or what Frank Sheeran may have said, because this is not Frank Sheeran in the film, this is a character that we all created—may be considered arguably to be contested.” Why elaborate if facts, or conspiratorial fictions for that matter, weren’t really the point? As it happens, Quincy Jones didn’t elaborate either. When asked about the Kennedys, Jones cut the subject off short: “We shouldn’t talk about this publicly.”
An earlier version of this article indicated that Robert Kennedy questioned Hoffa as a senator. The testimonies occurred while he was chief counsel of the Senate Labor Rackets Committee.