Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 seems like it should be an open-and-shut case. Many people crowded in the small room at Los Angeles’s famed Ambassador Hotel that fateful night saw Sirhan Sirhan pull the trigger. Sirhan was also convicted of the crime and still languishes in jail with a life sentence. However, conspiracy theorists have jumped on inconsistencies in the eyewitness testimony and alleged anomalies in the forensic evidence to suggest that Sirhan was only one shooter in a larger conspiracy, a patsy for the real killers, or even a hypnotized assassin who did not know what he was doing (a popular plot in Cold War–era fiction, such as The Manchurian Candidate). Mel Ayton profiles Sirhan and presents a wealth of evidence about his fanatical Palestinian nationalism and his hatred for RFK that motivated the killing. Ayton unearths neglected eyewitness accounts and overlooked forensic evidence and examines Sirhan’s extensive personal notebooks. He revisits the trial proceedings and convincingly shows Sirhan was in fact the lone assassin whose politically motivated act was a forerunner of present-day terrorism. The Forgotten Terrorist is the definitive book on the assassination that rocked the nation during the turbulent summer of 1968. This second edition features a new afterword containing interviews and new evidence, as well as a new examination of the RFK assassination acoustics evidence by technical analyst Michael O’Dell.
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About the Author
Mel Ayton is the author of numerous books, including Plotting to Kill the President: Assassination Attempts from Washington to Hoover (Potomac Books, 2017) and Hunting the President: Threats, Plots, and Assassination Attempts—From FDR to Obama. He has been a history consultant for the BBC, the National Geographic Channel, and the Discovery Channel. Alan Dershowitz is Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard University and a distinguished criminal defense lawyer.
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THE AMBASSADOR HOTEL
"We think the Ambassador is of national significance as the assassination site of Robert Kennedy and as one of the most noted sites in Hollywood history. It's one of the buildings that people across the country associate with Los Angeles."
— Los Angeles conservatory executive director Linda Dishman
The sprawling Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, with its red tiled roofs, graceful gardens, and 23.5 acres of velvet lawns, was one of the world's most famous hotels. It was the meeting place for the rich and famous — movie stars, princes, eccentric millionaires, athletes, and politicians. For decades everybody who was anybody stopped at the Ambassador if they were visiting Los Angeles.
The Ambassador Hotel was built on land owned by dairy farmer Reuben Schmidt. Schmidt had sold the twenty-three-acre section of his land to Ella Crowell, who then sold it to the Los Angeles Pacific Railway Company for the purpose of constructing an interurban railway. The railway plans did not develop, and in 1919 both Crowell and the railway company sold their halves to a hotel company. The hotel was originally called "The California," but its name was changed after millionaire, S. W. Straus, stepped in with much needed funding. The hotel then became a part of the Ambassador Hotels chain, which included properties in Atlantic City and New York. The hotel was distinguished by its "H"-shape plan, which allowed the sun to shine into every room, and also by its views of the Santa Monica Mountains. The panorama included mountains on two sides, the sea on the west, and the distant reaches of the sea and valley to the south and over the Palos Verdes Hills and the Channel Islands in the distance.
The Ambassador opened its doors to the public on New Year's Day 1921, and its "grand opening" came on January 18, 1921. Three thousand local society leaders as well as politicians and visitors who traveled in for the party attended the opening. The hotel soon became the center of social life for the rich and famous. Up until the 1970s the stretch of Wilshire between McArthur Park and Western Avenue was as close as Los Angeles ever came to having its own 5th Avenue. The area included world-famous nightclubs and restaurants like the Brown Derby, Perino's, the Windsor, and I Magnin.
The Ambassador Hotel had more than 500 rooms and bungalows and over 200 staff members. On April 21, 1921, the Ambassador's Cocoanut Grove nightclub opened and quickly became the most renowned nightspot on the West Coast. The grove's interior had palm trees adorned with stuffed monkeys and a blue ceiling painted with twinkling stars. From its opening until the 1960s the Ambassador was the place to be seen. The first Oscars were awarded in the Cocoanut in 1930 — it was the third Academy Awards ceremony but the first featuring the golden statues. The hotel was used throughout the 1920s and '30s for the Academy Awards, and in 1944 it hosted the first Golden Globe Awards.
Bing Crosby started his career at the Ambassador's Cocoanut Grove. Mack Sennet discovered Crosby singing with a group called the Rhythm Boys. Famous columnist Walter Winchell, who announced on November 22, 1963, that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, lived in one of the Ambassador's bungalows until his death in 1972. Hollywood star John Barrymore stayed at the hotel with his pet monkey Clementine. Gloria Swanson and newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst were also residents. Hearst lived there with his mistress, actress Marion Davies, taking up the entire east wing of the second floor. Movie producer and future billionaire Howard Hughes used to sit at a table in the back of the Cocoanut Grove and eat ice cream. Amelia Earhart's flying club, which included aviators Jimmy Doolittle and Roscoe Turner, met at the hotel. Charles Lindbergh visited following his famous transatlantic flight of 1927.
At the Ambassador Richard Nixon wrote his famous "Checkers Speech," and then, ten years later, he delivered an angry concession speech, directed mainly toward the press, for the California governorship there. Throughout its history the hotel's patrons included not only Hollywood stars but also every president from Hoover to Nixon, explorer Rear Adm. Richard Byrd, and members of the British royal family. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and his wife stayed at the hotel during their 1959 visit to the United States.
During the 1970s and 1980s the hotel slowly but surely fell out of favor because it could not compete with newer hotels in the Beverly Hills area and also because the managers failed in its upkeep. Gradually it had become rundown; floor after floor was closed until it finally shut its doors to the public on January 3, 1989. Nearly sixty-eight years to the day from its opening, the Ambassador closed along with its timeless memories of, Hollywood's golden age. Its contents were auctioned off in the 1990s, and most of the hotel was demolished in 2006 in a controversial move by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The Ambassador Hotel continued to play a part in American film culture even as it declined and even after its doors had been closed to the public. Before its closing it had frequently been used by moviemakers for interior and exterior film scenes. Directors were impressed with the Ambassador's veneer walls, high ceilings, and general 1930s decor. The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, was filmed there. The Ambassador's lobby, reception desk, and Palm Bar were all shown extensively as the young graduate conducted his love affair with Mrs. Robinson. Numerous directors and stars continued to film movies there after it closed. Among the films that used the Ambassador as a set in the 1990s are Hoffa, Forrest Gump, Pretty Woman, Apollo 13, and True Lies.
The Ambassador Hotel, however, will always be associated with one of America's darkest moments: the shooting of Senator Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy, brother of assassinated president John F. Kennedy, on June 5, 1968. Kennedy's murder was a significant turning point in the hotel's history: it initiated the once-grand hotel's decline. To many, a brighter American future was also destroyed when Kennedy died. Following the removal of Senator Kennedy from the presidential sweepstakes that year, the nation endured Nixon, Watergate, and another five years of war. Some might wonder how many names on the Vietnam War Memorial could be removed had the gunman who shot Bobby Kennedy failed in his efforts.
To disillusioned Democrats that spring of 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was a potential savior, a politician independent of the party bureaucracy who could articulate their anger and idealism. Although Kennedy was an "insider," he understood the depth and urgency of the nation's problems. Like Martin Luther King, who was murdered two months before him, Kennedy linked the tragedy in Vietnam with the struggles in the inner cities and the plight of the poor and disenfranchised and the generational struggles within American society.
RFK, as he was known to the American public, was a complicated man. He wore the tragedies of his brother's death, his own dark internal struggles, and the empathy he felt for people who suffered on his sleeve. Although RFK's personae very much fit in with the liberal and radical image popular during the mid-1960s, he was essentially a conservative. He believed in the rule of law, the work ethic, and family values, and he had worked on the staff of infamous Communist hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 19S0s. Some of the policies RFK espoused, such as federalism, welfare reform, and individual liberty rather than state control, later became cornerstones of the conservative platform. However, RFK's fundamental strength was his ability to understand how politics affected the human condition, and he appealed to minority groups, America's youth, and middleclass and blue-collar workers alike.
Following his election to the Senate in November 1964, Robert Kennedy continued to fight for minority groups that he had championed as attorney general in his brother's administration. During the last four years of his life, his passion to help became more intense. The celebrated Kennedy charisma added force to his every activity. He began to differentiate himself from his brother by advocating more radical programs to help the poor and the less powerful in American society and around the world. During his first two years in the Senate, he initiated a number of projects in New York of which even veteran legislators were proud. They included assistance to underprivileged and emotionally disturbed children, the establishment of a corporation to bring industry to Brooklyn slums, and the setting up of regional development councils for upstate New York. Nationally RFK spoke out for jobs, housing, and education. Whereas JFK's call for action was disinterested and remote, according to Kennedy biographers Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen, RFK became personally involved in his work. He visited American Indian reservations and experienced firsthand the plight of the natives. On trips to places like the Mississippi Delta, inner-city ghettoes, and the homes and workplaces of California migrant workers, where poverty was endemic, he became enraged.
The possibility of violence and danger were ever-present during RFK's 1968 presidential campaign. A number of Kennedy's friends and relatives, still haunted by the loss of JFK, believed a run for the presidency was simply an invitation for danger. Not a week went by without one news story or another making reference to the tragic events in Dallas in 1963. Bomb threats and crank calls plagued the Kennedy campaign organization. In Salt Lake City, at the end of March, the police chief appeared in front of a campaign rally to announce that the police had received an anonymous call saying a bomb was about to go off at the rally. The police chief said everyone who stayed, stayed at their own risk. No one left the venue. Later RFK joked about the incident: "That's what I call opening my campaign with a bang. I hope we are all able to see each other at the end of my speech. In case we don't I just want you to know that I couldn't have wanted to go with a greater group of fellows." During campaign visits to cities and towns across America police officers were alerted to Kennedy's presence. Newspaper and television reporters joked about being on a "death watch," ready at any moment for a waiting gunman poised to claim the life of another charismatic leader.
Outside Gary, Indiana, in May, the open car in which Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, were riding suddenly pulled off the road in a scene eerily reminiscent of the November 1963 assassination. As it turned out, the car had stopped to allow RFK's wife to put on a topcoat. In San Francisco's Chinatown, on the last day of the California primary campaign, the sound of exploding firecrackers frightened Kennedy aides and reporters and paralyzed Ethel with fear. Many onlookers had mistaken the explosions for gunshots. The sound of balloons bursting caused similar moments of fright. Friends and campaign workers repeatedly expressed fears for RFK's safety as the senator plunged into adoring crowds or stood up in cars surrounded and mobbed by excited supporters. During one incident, in Los Angeles on May 16, after a visit to Valley State College, RFK was hit by a stone hurled from a bridge. The stone left a mark on the senator's cheek and landed in the car. Soon after, a mistaken newspaper report flashed around the world suggesting that RFK had been the target of an assassin.
Kennedy's fatalism was an eerie presence during the campaign and unnerved many of his aides and supporters. Time reporter Hays Gorey believed it hastened the senator's "undoing." Gorey talked to Kennedy about how exposed he was — the open car, people grasping for him. Gorey said RFK was "aware. But he knew no other way to campaign. He had to go to the people." "If someone out there wants to get me badly enough he will," Gorey quoted Kennedy as saying. Friends recalled that when RFK was asked about the dangers of plunging into crowds he shrugged them off saying, "It doesn't bother me, the physical part of getting hurt. What happens beyond that ..." Kennedy did not like talking about the danger he had learned to live with. His personal bodyguard, Bill Barry, was concerned about the senator's safety at many campaign rallies and intended discussing the issue with him on their return to New York. Barry was particularly concerned about Kennedy's desire to allow as many supporters as possible to be close to him.
During the 1968 presidential primary campaign, Kennedy, looking not so much like a politician but a pop culture idol followed by excited fans, attracted friendly crowds everywhere he went. America had not seen such an outpouring of adulation for a politician since the John Kennedy days. Some believed that the American people gave their love to the martyred president's brother in an effort at reaching catharsis. Others believed RFK was opportunistically exploiting his brother's memory.
On May 29 RFK led a motorcade into downtown Los Angeles. Police were assigned to observe the motorcade's course to ensure the even flow of traffic. At one point in the motorcade, at Ninth and Santee Streets, the vehicles came to a halt as the crowd enveloped the Kennedy car and pulled the candidate from the vehicle. A traffic enforcement officer tried to assist RFK back to his vehicle, but Kennedy aides berated the officer for interfering. Later, Kennedy aide Fred Dutton "shouted obscenities" at several officers who were trying to manage the crowd of enthusiastic supporters. The police considered arresting Dutton but decided it would simply inflame an already difficult situation.
At 3:00 p.m., Sunday, June 2, RFK, his wife, and four of their children arrived at Orange County Airport to begin the final two days of the California campaign. RFK and his entourage went to Bolsa Grande High School for a campaign rally, then visited Disneyland with their children around 6:00 p.m., returning to the Ambassador Hotel at 7:00. On Monday, June 3, Kennedy left Los Angeles International Airport and flew to San Francisco to give a brief speech at Fisherman's Wharf and returned to Long Beach at 4:00 p.m. RFK gave a twenty-minute speech in Lincoln Park to a crowd that included a few hecklers, before his motorcade journeyed to the Watts area, where Kennedy stopped numerous times to give short campaign speeches from his car. Except for a drunken man who jumped on the hood of the senator's car, the people Kennedy spoke to were enthusiastic and friendly. Hays Gorey quoted one observer as saying, "This is madness. Some nut with a gun could climb one of these trees and it would be all over."
At 5:30 p.m. the motorcade left Watts for the Venice area, where Kennedy again gave speeches from his car, exciting the crowds who poured out to see him. That evening Kennedy toured some of the poorest areas of Los Angeles. People surged against the convertible in waves. His official bodyguard, ex-FBI agent Bill Barry, became exhausted protecting the candidate. His unofficial bodyguards, Los Angeles Rams star Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier and Olympic decathlete Rafer Johnson, held Kennedy as he jumped on the trunk of his car. Kennedy suffered blisters from shaking so many hands. His bodyguards were buffeted by hordes of admirers. By the evening RFK was tired and emotionally drained, his face burned and his hair bleached by the sun of an open car. In public he personified youth and vigor. In private his friends saw he had been pushing himself to the limits while also risking death.
Kennedy knew that his efforts on the campaign trail were the only way he could persuade the American people to turn to him instead of his opponents. He had entered the race late and did not have the advantage of consolidating his support among those delegates who were appointed outside the primary election system. He needed the delegates in the primary contests if he was to secure the Democratic nomination at the convention to be held in Chicago that August. Following his electioneering, Kennedy, his wife, and six of his ten children went to the Malibu Beach home of their friend, movie director John Frankenheimer, who had spent 102 days working with Kennedy on his television ads during the campaign. Frankenheimer had directed the 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate, which starred Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. The movie's plot centered on a captured American soldier who was brainwashed by the North Koreans and their Chinese allies to assassinate a presidential candidate.
The movie director and his wife gave up their bedroom for Bobby and Ethel to give them some escape from the frantic campaign. Later that evening Frankenheimer intended to have a dinner party and had invited Hollywood celebrities, including Roman and Sharon Polanski, to share the meal with RFK and Ethel. However, the candidate did not return until the wee hours of Tuesday morning and the dinner was cancelled.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Forgotten Terrorist"
Copyright © 2007 Potomac Books, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of University of Nebraska Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Acknowledgments Time Line Introduction 1. The Ambassador Hotel 2. RFK and Israel 3. Sirhan and Palestine 4. The Shooting 5. The Trial 6. Controversies: The Physical Evidence 7. Controversies: The Witnesses 8. Distorted Truths 9. The Manchurian Candidate Assassin 10. Sirhan's Obsessions 11. The Unaffiliated Terrorist 12. Why Did He Kill? Afterword Afterword to the Second Edition Appendix A Appendix B Appendix C Appendix D Notes Bibliography Index