(dailymail.co.uk) More personal scandal than Watergate? Richard Nixon with Bebe Rebozo at Key Biscayne, Florida
He carpet-bombed Cambodia, spewed out anti-Semitic slurs and crude misogynistic jokes in the White House and smeared his political opponents with ruthless ‘dirty tricks’ campaigns.
And, of course, he lied to his country about his involvement in the Watergate scandal and went down in history as America’s shiftiest, darkest President.
Given everything that Richard Nixon has been accused of, it’s difficult to believe there could be any more skeletons left in his cupboard. But it seems there are.
A new biography by Don Fulsom, a veteran Washington reporter who covered the Nixon years, suggests the 37th U.S. President had a serious drink problem, beat his wife and — by the time he was inaugurated in 1969 — had links going back two decades to the Mafia, including with New Orleans godfather Carlos Marcello, then America’s most powerful mobster.
Yet the most extraordinary claim is that the homophobic Nixon may have been gay himself. If true, it would provide a fascinating insight into the motivation and behaviour of a notoriously secretive politician.
Fulsom argues that Nixon may have had an affair with his best friend and confidant, a Mafia‑connected Florida wheeler-dealer named Charles ‘Bebe’ Rebozo who was even more crooked than Nixon.
The book, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets, is out next month — by coincidence at the same time as the UK release of a new film directed by Clint Eastwood about another supposed closet gay among Washington’s 20th-century hard men.
But while FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, played in Eastwood’s film by Leonardo DiCaprio, allegedly had an affair with his squeaky-clean deputy Clyde Tolson, Nixon’s supposed secret paramour was a very different character.
Bebe Rebozo was a short, swarthy, good-looking Cuban-American businessman with a history of failed relationships with women and close alliances with Miami’s Mafia chiefs.
The veteran TV newsman Dan Rather recalled how Rebozo ‘transmitted the sense of great sensuality’, paying tribute to his ‘magnetic’ personality and ‘beautiful eyes’.
Fulsom uses recently revealed documents and eyewitness interviews — including with FBI agents — to shed new light on long-standing suspicions among White House insiders that Nixon may have been more than just good buddies with Rebozo.
He claims Nixon’s relationship with Pat, his wife of 53 years, was little more than a sham. A heavy drinker whom his own staff dubbed ‘Our Drunk’, Nixon used to call his First Lady a ‘f***ing bitch’ and beat her before, during and after his presidency, says Fulsom.
Richard Nixon hugs his wife, Pat, as they leave Republican headquarters in Los Angeles to return to their hotel following his election victory
The pair had separate bedrooms at the White House — and in Key Biscayne, the exclusive resort near Miami where Nixon holidayed, Mrs Nixon didn’t even sleep in the same building. Rebozo, however, was in the house next door.
Fulsom claims one of Nixon’s former military aides had a secret job ‘to teach the President how to kiss his wife’ so they would look like a convincing couple.
How much of this can we believe? Nixon died in 1994 and his reputation is pretty much irredeemable. As with Eastwood’s Hoover film, there is no definitive proof, but plenty of ‘supporting evidence’.
Fulsom quotes a former Time magazine reporter who, at a Washington dinner, bent down to pick up a fork and saw the two holding hands under the table. It was, the reporter judged, sufficiently intimate to suggest ‘repressed homosexuality’.
Another journalist related how, loosened up by drink, Nixon once put his arm around Rebozo ‘the way you’d cuddle your senior prom date. Something was fishy there’.
Henry Kissenger is believed to have resented the way Rebozo would fly on Air Force One, the Presidential plane, wearing a blue U.S. Navy flight jacket bearing the President’s seal and with his name stitched on it
But who exactly was Bebe Rebozo, and how did a shady Florida businessman of unclear sexual leanings end up as the bosom friend of one of the most paranoid and buttoned-up political leaders of the 20th century?
Born two months before Nixon in 1912, Charles Gregory Rebozo was the son of a Cuban cigar-maker and, as the youngest of nine, was stuck with the nickname ‘Bebe’.
He came from poverty but worked his way up through property speculation and then banking. According to the FBI, he had close links with Mob bosses such as Santo Trafficante, the Tampa Godfather, and Alfred ‘Big Al’ Polizzi, a stooge of Meyer Lansky, the Cosa Nostra’s financial brains.
By the 1960s, an FBI agent was describing Rebozo as a ‘non- member associate of organised crime figures’. He bought land in Florida with a business partner who was believed to be a front for some of the most powerful Mafiosi.
When Rebozo started his own bank in Florida in 1964, Nixon — then a lawyer — wielded a golden shovel at the ground-breaking ceremony and became its first depositor.
According to Mafioso Vincent Teresa, the bank was used by the Mob to launder stolen cash. It hardly seems possible that Nixon, who pledged to make fighting organised crime a priority of his presidency, could not have known of his best friend’s Mafia links.
Nixon had just won one of California’s U.S. Senate seats when he first met Rebozo in 1950. Fearing Nixon was facing a nervous breakdown, fellow Senator George Smathers suggested a holiday in Florida and enlisted his old school friend Rebozo to show the socially awkward Nixon a good time.
Their first jaunt together — in Rebozo’s 33ft fishing boat — did not go well. Rebozo later complained that Nixon just sat reading papers and, according to his host, barely said half a dozen words to him.
Smathers said Rebozo later told him: ‘Don’t ever send that son of a bitch Nixon down here again. He’s a guy who doesn’t know how to talk, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t chase women… he can’t even fish.’
But Rebozo persevered — and according to a cynical Smathers, Nixon’s rising stardom in Washington and the potential influence it offered ‘had a lot to do with it’.
In months, the pair were inseparable, holidaying with Nixon’s wife Pat — and without her. Rebozo became an ‘uncle figure’ to the Nixons’ two daughters, Tricia and Julie. The dapper Cuban-American chose Nixon’s clothes and even selected the films he watched at the White House.
President Richard Nixon (left) says goodbye to family and staff in the White House East Room on August 9, 1974
On Nixon’s solo visits to Key Biscayne, they swam and sunbathed, indulging in their shared passions for discussing Broadway musicals and barbecuing steaks.
Both men were also extremely secretive, and their relationship — described as the ‘most important unsolved mystery in Nixon’s life’ — was kept so discreet that the New York Times did not mention it for nearly 20 years.
Observers noticed their intimacy became most apparent when they were drunk. An aide recalled them playing a game called King of the Pool at Key Biscayne: ‘It was late at night, the two men had been drinking. Nixon mounted a rubber raft in the pool while Rebozo tried to turn it over. Then, laughing and shouting, they’d change places.’
They were seen together at the same British-themed hostelries in the Key: the English Pub, where they drank beer from tankards engraved with their names, and the Jamaica Inn, where they ate at a discreet booth.
Both spots were owned by another businessman with Mob links and the secret service asked Nixon to find another place to eat.
Why the President’s minders didn’t raise alarms about Rebozo’s Mafia connections has puzzled experts, but they probably didn’t dare. When a New York newspaper investigated Rebozo’s Mob links in the 1970s, its staff suddenly found themselves under secret service surveillance.
A White House aide once dismissed Rebozo’s role as ‘the guy who mixed the Martinis’, but he was far more important than that.
Richard Nixon died on April 22, 1994, four days after suffering a major stroke in New York. He was 81
When Nixon became President, Rebozo got his own office and bedroom at the White House, and a security clearance that allowed him to go in and out without being logged by the secret service. Using a false name, says Fulsom, Rebozo even got into Nixon’s hotel suite during a trip to Europe.
The President’s closest colleagues complained at the way Rebozo monopolised Nixon’s time. General Alexander Haig, his last chief of staff, is said to have imitated Rebozo’s ‘limp wrist’ manner and joked that Rebozo and Nixon were lovers.
According to Fulsom, Henry Kissinger resented the way Rebozo would fly on Air Force One, the Presidential plane, wearing a blue U.S. Navy flight jacket bearing the President’s seal and with his name stitched on it.
Away from Nixon’s side, Rebozo surrounded himself with glamorous women and threw Miami parties that descended into orgies, but was it all a front?
Aged 18, Rebozo reportedly enjoyed an ‘intense’ affair with a young man, Donald Gunn. He later wed Gunn’s teenage sister. The marriage lasted four years and, according to his wife, was never consummated.
Rebozo didn’t marry again until middle age, when he entered what Newsweek magazine described as an ‘antiseptic’ alliance with his lawyer’s secretary. ‘Bebe’s favourites are Richard Nixon, his cat — and then me,’ the lady complained later. A fellow Miami resident told Nixon biographer Anthony Summers that Rebozo was definitely part of the city’s gay community.
Summers and co-writer Robbyn Swan, however, question whether there is enough evidence to suggest Nixon was gay. ‘They held hands on occasion, and both men had problems with consummating physical relationships with women, but we found no evidence that Nixon was actively homosexual,’ Summers told me this week.
Physical or not, Nixon’s attraction to Rebozo has struck many as politically reckless. Nixon expert Professor Fawn Brodie couldn’t understand how he would be ‘willing to risk the kind of gossip that frequently accompanies close friendship with a perennial bachelor’. After all, she added, Nixon was, in public, a virulent gay-hater.
When Walter Jenkins, a trusted aide to President Lyndon Johnson, was caught providing sexual favours to a retired sailor in a YMCA lavatory, Nixon denounced him as ‘ill’. People who suffered this ‘illness’, he added, ‘cannot be in places of high trust’.
Rebozo was certainly in a position of ‘high trust’, and not only because he was a key fundraiser. He was with Nixon when he announced his successful run for President and again in June 1972 when Nixon learned that five men hired by the White House to break into the Watergate building had been arrested.
‘We were swimming at Key Biscayne in front of my house,’ Rebozo recalled. ‘They came out and told him. He said: “What in God’s name were they doing there?” We laughed and forgot about it.’
Rebozo also ended up being investigated by the Watergate committee, which found that a £64,000 cash contribution from the industrialist Howard Hughes that was meant for the Republican Party was actually in Rebozo’s safe deposit box.
It also emerged that both Nixon and Rebozo’s personal wealth had soared during Nixon’s first five years in the White House, Rebozo’s rising nearly seven-fold from £432,000 to nearly £3million.
Rebozo escaped prosecution — allegedly because of a White House deal — and he stood by his disgraced friend. He was at Nixon’s bedside during his final days.
When Rebozo died in 1998, he left more than £12million to the Nixon memorial library, whose executive director eulogised him as a ‘consummate gentleman’ on whose ‘wise counsel, shrewd political insight and ready wit’ Nixon relied.
Typically, Nixon had been rather less charitable — he always described Rebozo as just a ‘golfing partner’.
- Nixon’s Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story Of America’s Most Troubled President by Don Fulsom (Thomas Dunne Books, £16.62) is published on January 31, 2012.