American Tabloid

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American Tabloid
First American edition hardcover
AuthorJames Ellroy
Cover artistChip Kidd
CountryUnited States
SeriesUnderworld USA Trilogy
GenreCrime novel
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
Publication date
February 14, 1995
Media typePrint (hardcover)
Pages576 pp (first edition, hardcover)
ISBN0-679-40391-4 (first edition, hardcover)
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3555.L6274 A8 1995
Followed byThe Cold Six Thousand 

American Tabloid is a 1995 novel by James Ellroy that chronicles the events surrounding three rogue American law enforcement officers from November 22, 1958, through November 22, 1963. Each becomes entangled in a web of interconnecting associations between the FBI, the CIA, and the Mafia, which eventually leads to their collective involvement in the John F. Kennedy assassination.

American Tabloid was Time's Best Book (Fiction) for 1995.[1] It is the first novel in Ellroy's Underworld USA Trilogy, followed by The Cold Six Thousand and Blood's a Rover.


American Tabloid is divided into five sections, is exactly one hundred chapters long (many are less than a page in length), and covers exactly five years. The narration eschews both exposition and lengthy dialog exchanges. All chapters begin with the chapter number, the location (usually the name of the city), and the date. The action of the book is completely sequential.

The book is written in the limited third-person, alternating between the three main characters. "Document inserts" reproducing newspaper clippings, letters, and transcripts of telephone calls are interspersed between chapters. There are flashbacks, but they are restricted to the present-tense memory of the protagonists.

Plot summary[edit]

Part I, Shakedowns, November – December 1958[edit]

"Shakedowns" covers just 26 days, introducing the three principal characters, and establishing their relationships, history, and career trajectories. Pete Bondurant is a former LASD deputy; he presently works for billionaire Howard Hughes and runs small-time shakedowns. (Bondurant is also an associate of Jimmy Hoffa.) Kemper Boyd is a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, a southerner, and a man who covets wealth and power. Ward Littell is also an FBI agent and Boyd's friend and former partner. Although assigned to monitor Communist Party activities, his abiding hatred of organized crime leads him to vie for a spot on the Bureau's Top Hoodlum Squad.

Each of the three protagonists plot to entrap John F. Kennedy with a call girl; Boyd and Littell for J. Edgar Hoover, Bondurant for Hughes. The set-up is successful, but the Kennedy family discovers that Hughes's "Hush-Hush" tabloid will print the transcripts before the issue went to press, and prevents their publication. At Hoover's direction, Boyd leaves the FBI and begins working with Hoover's personal nemeses - Kennedy and his younger brother Robert—on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management's investigation of organized crime and union corruption. Boyd strikes a rapport with John Kennedy but dislikes Bobby. The Kennedys, with their wealth and privilege, embody everything that Boyd hopes to gain. Littell, who meets the Kennedys through Boyd, is enraptured by Bobby, both men sharing a hatred for organized crime.

Part II, Collusion, January 1959 – January 1961[edit]

"Collusion" opens with Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro's January 1, 1959, overthrow of the Fulgencio Batista government. The three principals begin to collude with one another to varying degrees. Bondurant and Boyd both become Central Intelligence Agency operatives, while Littell investigates Hoffa and Mafia connections both officially for the FBI and on his own initiative. Boyd also joins the employ of the Kennedy family, working on JFK's presidential campaign. Bondurant and Boyd ultimately collaborate with the CIA, the "Outfit" (seeking to retake its now nationalized Havana casinos), and far right Cuban refugees plotting to overthrow the new communist regime.

Littell becomes increasingly disgruntled with the FBI and Hoover's anti-communism mandates and begins investigating the mob on his own. Much of this information he anonymously feeds to Bobby Kennedy through Boyd. Through a series of snitches, Littell confirms that the Teamsters Pension Fund is being used to fund organized crime. Littell tracks the Fund's supposed "secret" accounting books to the home of mid-level mobster Jules Schiffrin in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Littell coerces Jack Ruby into searching Schiffrin's home. While waiting for Ruby, Littell is severely beaten by Bondurant; Ruby had tipped off Bondurant to Littell's operation, and Bondurant feared that Littell would endanger the CIA's Cuban plots.

After recuperating, Littell takes leave from the FBI, invades Schiffrin's home, and steals the Pension Fund's books himself. Cracking the books' code, he realizes that Joseph Kennedy loaned the Fund millions of dollars. Hoover fires Littell from the FBI, revokes his pension, and blackballs him as a communist sympathizer with every US state's bar association in order to hurt his chances of practicing law. Boyd tries to get Littell a job with now-Attorney General designate Bobby Kennedy, who emphatically refuses, also having received a report from Hoover of Littell's budding alcoholism and invented mob ties.

"Collusion" concludes with the inauguration of Kennedy as President.

Part III, Pigs, February – November 1961[edit]

In the employ of the CIA, Boyd and Bondurant help train the "Blessington Cadre": Cuban exiles training to overthrow Castro at a CIA camp in Florida. The exiles are recruited through Hoffa's "Tiger Kab" taxi stand in Miami. The CIA also establishes a Ku Klux Klan "klavern" to keep "local rednecks" occupied and away from the camp.

The Mafia, through New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, funds the operation by supplying the cadre heroin for redistribution. As part of his organized crime vendetta, Bobby Kennedy has Marcello deported, unaware of (and uninterested in) Marcello's involvement in the CIA operation. Bondurant covertly absconds with Marcello when his INS plane lands in Central America.

Boyd recommends that Marcello hire Littell as his extradition lawyer. Littell meets Bondurant and Marcello at their Central American hideout, where Littell hands over the stolen Teamsters Pension Fund books (albeit without confessing to stealing them and without the pages implicating Joe Kennedy).

President Kennedy, unaware of Boyd's CIA connection, taps Boyd – now also working for Robert F. Kennedy's Justice Department civil rights task force – to investigate the Blessington operation and advise whether to implement the CIA's invasion strategy. After a sham visit, Boyd naturally encourages the president to authorize the mission, promising Kennedy that it will guarantee his reelection.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion is authorized, although Kennedy second-guesses its wisdom and refuses to provide the air support that the Cadre believes necessary. The invasion is a failure and an embarrassment for Kennedy and all involved—including the CIA, the mob, Bondurant, and Boyd. The night of the invasion, Boyd is shot numerous times in a side operation to distribute "hot shots" of heroin that would be linked back to Castro.

Part IV, Heroin, December 1961 – September 1963[edit]

Through the patronage of Marcello, Littell has become a full-fledged mob lawyer. When Hoffa hires him, it confirms that Bobby Kennedy has become his primary adversary. Through their now-mutual hatred of the Kennedys, Littell and Hoover make amends, and Hoover arranges for Howard Hughes to become Littell's client.

In the wake of the Bay of Pigs, Boyd and Bondurant encourage the mob to authorize an assassination attempt on Castro. When the mob passes on the opportunity, they surmise that the mob is now backing Castro. Enraged, they execute a plan wherein they steal millions of dollars of mob heroin as it comes to shore from Cuba in hopes of recouping their Bay of Pigs losses.

In collusion with Littell, Bondurant also begins running a wire tap hoping to catch the president having an affair with a woman they have set up. They make several recordings of Kennedy, which they also share with Hoover. Boyd, however, remains fond of Jack, and becomes enraged when he discovers the scam. When he confronts Bondurant, Bondurant plays him sections from the tapes of Jack ridiculing Boyd, his social-climbing, and his Kennedy envy. Bobby Kennedy (learning of Boyd's CIA connection and erratic behavior upon discovering the wire tap), fingers Boyd as the person trying to set up the president; he fires Boyd from the Justice Department, severing his ties with the Kennedys, and making an enemy of Boyd.

The mob also figures out that Boyd and Bondurant were behind the theft of their heroin. Littell offers them the mob's price to atone for their theft: Kill President Kennedy.

Part V, Contract, September – November 1963[edit]

Boyd, Bondurant, and Littell plot to assassinate Kennedy during a motorcade in Miami and arrange the logistics to frame right-wing radicals. Without being specific, Littell tips off Hoover about the plot, but due to Hoover's non-committal response, Littell surmises that there is a second assassination plot in the works, which will take place several days later in Dallas. The three men determine that they were set up, and begin to clean up and cover up the tracks of their Miami operation.

Littell visits Bobby Kennedy, confronting him with evidence of his father's collusion with the mob, with the added intent that it will serve as an after-the-fact explanation of why Jack would be killed.

After killing several of the Miami conspirators, Bondurant leaves for Dallas while Boyd returns to Mississippi. Littell is waiting for Boyd at his hotel; Littell shoots Boyd, who dies thinking of Jack Kennedy. Bondurant, his new wife Barb Jahelka, and several mob associates, converge on Dallas on November 22, 1963. The book ends at 12:30 PM, as Kennedy's motorcade drives through Dealey Plaza, with Bondurant closing his eyes, awaiting the shots and screams.

Main characters[edit]

Pete Bondurant is a French-Canadian, ex-law enforcement, Hollywood insider, organized-crime associate, and bodyguard for Howard Hughes.

He bears superficial resemblances to historical figures Fred Otash,[2] (so-called "private-eye to the stars") and Robert Maheu, (who worked for both Hughes and Jimmy Hoffa during the time frame depicted in the book).

Bondurant first appears as a secondary character in White Jazz with only superficial similarities to his character in American Tabloid. The time-frame overlap between the two books leads to some inconsistencies, including the deteriorating mental state of Howard Hughes.

Kemper Boyd is an FBI agent who, in 1958, is recruited by J. Edgar Hoover to infiltrate the Kennedy organization. This assignment leads to CIA contacts, as well as employment to influence the future President Kennedy to take an anti-Castro stance in his Cuban policy. It also puts him in the position to organize the collaboration between Cosa Nostra and the CIA in the Cuban cause. He falls in love with Laura Hughes, the secret daughter of Gloria Swanson and Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., half sister of the Kennedy brothers.

Boyd also bears a resemblance to Robert Maheu, a close friend of the Kennedy brothers and former FBI agent who admitted to involvement in a conspiracy to kill Fidel Castro and has been linked to the JFK assassination.[3]

Ward Littell is an FBI agent clandestinely investigating organized crime activity in defiance of his employer. He is dismissed from the FBI but secures employment as a "Mob" Lawyer and wins his way back into Hoover's good graces.

Secondary characters[edit]

Secondary characters, which consist of fictional characters as well as historical figures, include:

  • J. Edgar Hoover: Director of the FBI. He has a personal vendetta against the Kennedys.
  • John F. Kennedy: Massachusetts senator, presidential candidate, and President of the United States. Kennedy begins the novel as a member of the McClellan Committee, which is charged with investigating organized crime.
  • Robert F. Kennedy: Special counsel to the McClellan Committee, named U.S. Attorney General by his brother.
  • Joseph P. Kennedy: Father of the Kennedy brothers. After making his fortune as a bootlegger during Prohibition, he has loaned millions of dollars to the mafia through the Teamsters Pension Fund.
  • Jimmy Hoffa: President of the Teamsters union, Hoffa maintains close connections to organized crime, lending the mafia millions of dollars through the Teamsters Pension Fund.
  • Howard Hughes: Reclusive, eccentric and mentally disturbed, Hughes plans to take over the mafia's casinos in Las Vegas to establish a "germ-free environment" for his residence.
  • Guy Banister: Ex-FBI agent and current CIA liaison, Banister helps establish a militia of anti-communist Cuban refugees, the "Blessington Cadre".
  • John Stanton: Banister's associate, also with the CIA.
  • Lenny Sands: A nightclub singer with mob ties, Littell conscripts Sands as a snitch.
  • Jack Ruby: Dallas nightclub owner with ties to organized crime.
  • Jules Schiffrin: A small-time mobster who keeps the real books of the Teamsters Pension Fund.
  • Chuck Rogers: Ex-CIA agent and pilot who enters the service of the Blessington Cadre.
  • Laura Hughes: Illegitimate daughter of Joe Kennedy and Gloria Swanson who has taken Howard Hughes's last name just to spite her father.
  • Helen Agee: College friend of Littell's daughter who becomes romantically involved with Littell.
  • Barb Jahelka: Los Angeles singer and shakedown artist.
  • Nestor Chasco: A virulent anti-Castro member of the Blessington Cadre.

Other members of the historical cast include mob bosses Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello, Santo Trafficante, Jr., and John Roselli. Others include Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, and J. D. Tippit.

Film adaptation[edit]

In 2002, it was reported that Bruce Willis optioned the rights to produce and star in a TV miniseries based on American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand.[4] Willis's option expired before he produced the series.

In 2008, Daily Variety reported that HBO, along with Tom Hanks's production company, Playtone, were developing American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand for either a mini-series or ongoing series.[5] Screenwriter Kirk Ellis was drafting a screenplay for the potential series.[6]


Critical reception[edit]

On November 5, 2019, the BBC News listed American Tabloid on its list of the 100 most influential novels.[7]


  1. ^ "The Best Of 1995: Books". Time. 25 December 1995. Archived from the original on 21 July 2014. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
  2. ^ Oliver, Myrna (May 13, 2007). "Fred Otash; Colorful Hollywood Private Eye and Author". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 21, 2012.
  3. ^ Boof-Vermesse, Isabelle (October 1, 2004). "James Ellroy's American Tabloid: Conspiracy Theory and Chaos Theory". Retrieved February 25, 2010.
  4. ^ "Bruce Willis plans to make TV series based on James Ellroy novels". 2002. Retrieved February 25, 2010.[dead link]
  5. ^ Fleming, Michael (September 18, 2008). "'Tabloid' news for HBO". Daily Variety. Archived from the original on December 18, 2009. Retrieved February 25, 2010.
  6. ^ Siegel, Tatiana (May 14, 2009). "Kirk Ellis to adapt 'Papa Hemingway'". Variety.
  7. ^ "100 'most inspiring' novels revealed by BBC Arts". BBC News. November 5, 2019. Retrieved November 10, 2019. The reveal kickstarts the BBC's year-long celebration of literature.

External links[edit]