Be My Bebe
everyone deserves a best friend - even Richard M. Nixon
Richard Milhaus Nixon was a paranoid man, which made him a solitary man. You could count his true friends on your fingers and have plenty of fingers left over: his brothers; his wife Pat; Don Kendall, the president of Pepsi; Hobart D. Lewis, editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest; self-help guru William Clement Stone; noted philanthropist and anti-semite Elmer Holmes Bobst; and the Reverend Billy Graham.
But only one man could be Nixon’s bosom friend, his boon companion, his number one guy. And that man was Florida real estate developer Bebe Rebozo.
If you ever read a biography of Nixon, Bebe Rebozo is always there. When Nixon calls Kennedy to concede in 1960, Rebozo is the only political outsider in the war room. When Nixon makes the decision to run in 1967, he’s staying as a guest at Rebozo’s beach house. When Nixon first hears about the Watergate break-in in 1972, he’s swimming with Rebozo. When Nixon makes the decision to resign in 1974, he’s taking a cruise along the Potomac with Rebozo at his side. There are times when Nixon seems to spend more time with Bebe Rebozo than he does with his own family.
And yet despite being such a vital part of Nixon’s life, Rebozo himself often seems to be a complete non-entity. Nixon himself loudly defended his friend from all criticism, but mentions him only a few times in his memoirs. Rebozo himself rarely spoke to the press about his politics or life, creating the impression he was a man with few thoughts of his own, and sometimes creating the impression that he had no thoughts at all.
So let’s ask ourselves a simple question: who was Bebe Rebeozo?
Charles Gregory Rebozo was born on November 17, 1912. His parents were Francisco and Carmen Rebozo of Tampa, Florida. They were Cuban immigrants, and Francisco worked in a cigar factory. Charles was the youngest of nine children, and quickly received the nickname “Bebe” from an older sibling who couldn’t pronounce “baby” correctly. The family moved to Miami when Charles was eight, and he’d spend the rest of his life there.
Bebe’s schoolmates remembered him as charming but shy, not an unusual combination for the youngest child of a large family. He was nice to both the popular and the pariahs, empathetic, generous to a fault, but also quiet and discreet. Girls thought cut a striking figure in the white suites he favored, and was a good dancer. When he graduated from high school was voted the best-looking boy in his senior class.
Rebozo was a natural-born hustler, always looking for a way to make a buck. He took his first after-school job at the age of ten, killing and plucking chickens. He found it distasteful and off-putting and as soon as he could he switched to a much more genteel paper route. Later, in high school, he pumped gas at the local service station. Young Bebe also made his first real estate investment during his high school years, scraping together $25 of his earnings to buy an undeveloped plot on Cape Canaveral. It didn’t last long. When the stock market collapsed in 1929 he couldn’t keep up with the payments and the bank repossessed it.
In 1930, Rebozo married his high school sweetheart, Claire Gunn, who was a year behind him in school. It didn’t last, and the two received an annulment in 1933. At the time, Claire claimed that their marriage had never been consummated as a reason for granting the annulment. In later years, some have interpreted that as evidence that Rebozo was a closeted homosexual. That’s possible, but it’s also equally likely that the failure to consummate was a fiction created by the couple as a way to get a no-fault annulment.
He also took on his first full-time job, joining Pan-American Airways as a steward on flights around the Caribbean. He saved every paycheck and quit after a year to open a filling station, which did not do well. He ultimately had to sell it and take a job driving tourists around Miami to pay the bills. In 1935 he took another stab at it, opening Rebozo’s Service Station and Auto Supplies at 330 SW Eighth Street. This time it was a success. In 1941 he added a tire recapping service, Rebozo Safti-Cap, and thanks to wartime rationing he quickly became the largest recapper in Florida.
If that move seems suspiciously well-timed, you’re not wrong. Rebozo’s silent partner in the recapping business was a friend who coincidentally happened to be on the local board of the Office of Price Administration and had advance warning that rubber shortages were on the horizon. Amazingly, the two of them managed to get away with it. It probably helped that Bebe’s friend resigned from the OPA soon after cashing in on his insider information.
However the business started, the Safti-Cap business was raking in cash hand over fist. Bebe returned some of it to the community, sponsoring local bowling leagues and little league baseball, and contributing to charities, most notably the Boys’ Club and Junior Achievement.
He also spent some money on himself, buying a Piper Cub and earning his pilots license. During World War II, he put those newfound skills to work. From 1943-1945 he worked as a navigator for the “Cannonball Express,” ferrying men and materiel to North Africa for the Army Air Transport Command. In his absence one of his brothers ran the service station.
When the war ended, Rebozo was in excellent financial shape. He ultimately sold the service station and reinvested the profits into real-estate development and a chain of self-service laundromats. He remarried Claire Gunn, bought a beachside home at 490 Bay Lane in glamorous Key Biscayne, and spent his spare time deep-sea fishing on his brand new boat. At 30 feet long, the Cocolobo was the smallest cruiser at the Key Biscayne Yacht Club, but its captain was the most popular man on the dock. Bebe could always be found on the deck with a cold beer in his hand, declaring to the world that “Anybody that doesn’t think this is fun is a son-of-a-bitch.”
With Bebe’s new money and immense personal charm he started to be a mover and shaker in Miami society. He also started to dabble in politics. In 1946 his old high school classmate and current next-door neighbor George Smathers was running for Congress. Bebe became one of Smathers’s biggest boosters and fundraisers, helping elect him to two terms in the House of Representatives in 1946 and 1948, and to the Senate in 1950.
Despite his newfound success, his marriage to Claire began to disintegrate. The two divorced for a second and final time in 1950. Bebe never spoke much about Claire in his later years, but friends insisted he was privately devastated. Publicly, he enjoyed his status as one of Miami’s most eligible bachelors. For the next twenty years he’d never be seen in public without a beautiful woman on his arm, and rarely the same woman twice.
Everything’s Coming Up Milhaus
Throughout his political career George Smathers made good use of his friend Bebe’s boundless charm. One of his favorite ways to butter up fellow politicians was to send them on a long weekend to Key Biscayne, where Bebe would take them out deep sea fishing during the day, and out to experience Miami nightlife after dark. Over the years Rebozo entertained some of the most powerful men in Washington, including Richard Russell, Earle Clements, Stuart Symington, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and John F. Kennedy.
In 1950, though, Smathers sent someone a little different Bebe’s way. Most of Smathers’s colleagues in Congress were workaholics, but they also knew that if you worked hard, you had to play hard. But this guy? He was all work and no play, and it was driving him to an early grave. Doctors had ordered him to get some rest and relaxation, but it was almost as if he didn’t even know where to start. Now, Bebe? He was the most relaxed man in Florida. If he couldn’t get this guy to unwind, nobody could.
And that’s how Charles Gregory Rebozo first met Richard Milhaus Nixon.
It did not go well.
On Nixon’s first night in Miami, Rebozo went to Nixon’s hotel to meet him but got a polite brush-off.
The next day, Rebozo took Nixon out fishing on the Cocolobo. It turns out Nixon didn’t like fishing. As Rebozo tried to figure how to entertain his guest, Nixon just lounged on the deck, surrounded by yellow legal pads and manila folders, catching up on his paperwork.
The rest of the trip was more of the same. Nixon did not want to fish, or golf, or drink, or smoke. He didn’t want to carouse or play tennis or do anything other than sit in a deck chair, lost in his thoughts and taking notes on a legal pad.
Rebozo was not impressed and dashed off an angry note to Smathers. “Don’t ever send another dull fellow like that down here again. He doesn’t drink whisky, he doesn’t chase women, he doesn’t even play golf.”
Nixon, though, had a great time. It turns out Nixon’s idea of relaxation was getting away to somewhere he could focus without interruptions. The sea and sun were soothing, and Rebozo was an attentive and gracious host. Nixon sent him a heartfelt thank you note that took Rebozo by surprise, and a great friendship was born.
Now, some claim that their first meeting was not so innocent. Instead of taking Nixon out fishing, Bebe took him down to Havana where Nixon had a run of bad luck at the casinos and found himself $50,000 in the hole. Bebe covered the debts, and Nixon owed him for the rest of his life. This story seems suspicious for several reasons. First, gambling seems wildly out of character for Nixon. Second, I’m not sure Bebe had fifty large to spare, or enough stroke to make a debt like that disappear. And finally, there’s not a shred of documentary evidence. But then, there wouldn’t be, would there?
The 1950s were very good to Richard Nixon. Over the course of the decade he went from Representative to Senator to Vice-President, and he seemed a shoo-in to be the next President of the United States. And, whenever he needed to unwind, he would take a trip down to the Keys to visit the man who was quickly becoming his best friend and financial advisor.
The decade was also very good to Bebe Rebozo. He became an important real estate developer, and was instrumental in the early development of Fisher Island, which today has the highest per capita income of any ZIP code in the United States. (It helps that there are only 218 residents, and one of them is Oprah.) He also helped develop Lummus Island, which is now part of Dodge Island, where Miami’s port facilities are located. In 1954, he even purchased the old Cocolobo Cay Club, which had been a vacation resort for the rich and powerful in the 1920s but had gone into decline during the Great Depression. He restored it to some of its former glory and used it to entertain friends and clients.
Nixon and Rebozo did everything together. During the day, they’d take long, quiet walks on the beach or a relaxing cruise on the Cocolobo. At night, they’d stay in at Bebe’s bachelor pad, flipping burgers on the backyard grill and listening to showtunes on the hi-fi. If they were feeling daring, they’d head on down to the Jamaica Inn and English Pub, where they were both members of the “Pewter Vessel Drinking Society” which allowed them to have their own beer mugs hanging from the rafters. (Speaking as a a Daphne du Maurier fan, I don’t know why someone would want to frequent a place called the Jamaica Inn, but different strokes for different folks, I guess.) In the fall they’d take in University of Miami football games. In later years, Bebe even convinced Nixon to take up golf.
They made an unusual couple. George Smathers was characteristically cynical when he assessed their friendship, noting “Bebe’s level of liking Nixon increased as Nixon’s position increased.” There’s a grain of truth there. Rebozo certainly seemed to enjoy being known about town as the Vice-President’s friend. But, other than using the friendship raise his local profile, he made few attempts to directly capitalize on his connection with Nixon. And they would remain friends for the rest of their lives, well past the point where that friendship was actively closing doors for Bebe.
Rebozo claimed it was simple: opposites attract. Nixon was a genius, Bebe was an idiot, and as such, each filled a need in the other. That’s funny, but in truth the two men had a lot in common. They were both self-made men, low-key and uncomfortable with others, persistent and methodical in pursuit of their goals. I honestly think it’s pretty easy to understand why they liked each other.
Look at it from Nixon’s perspective. Bebe Rebozo was probably the first and only person Nixon met during his political career who didn’t judge him or want anything from him. All Bebe wanted was for Nixon to have a good time, and he was willing to do it Nixon’s way instead of trying to mold him into something he wasn’t.
Now look at it from Bebe’s perspective. He had spent years hustling and wheeling and dealing and putting on a show for prospective friends and business partners, but Nixon didn’t want or need any of that. When they were together, Bebe didn’t have to be on all the time. He could just be his usual quiet self, attentive without being obsequious. Stephen Hess once likened Bebe and Nixon’s friendship to a comfortable old shoe, and I think that’s not too far off the mark.
In short, these two men had finally found the one person with whom they could truly drop all their defenses and be honest about themselves. That the result was unconditional love and life-long friendship is hardly surprising.
Astonishingly, despite his friendship with Nixon, Bebe remained a registered Democrat and maintained good relationships with politicians from both sides. When confronted by reporters, he had a simple response: “There are a lot of good men in both parties and I hope we keep electing them.”
Of course, he still stumped for Nixon in the 1960 election and was one of his key boosters in Florida. He even paid a private investigator to dig up dirt on JFK, and sent the campaign documents that proved Kennedy had secretly married Palm Beach socialite Durie Malcom in 1947. They were fakes, but just like your Republican dad who keeps forwarding right-wing e-mail chains to you, that didn’t stop Bebe!
It was all for nothing, of course. On November 9th, as Nixon was drafting his concession speech, Bebe was the only political outsider in the room.
The early 1960s… well, I wouldn’t say they were bad for Nixon, exactly. Obviously, he wasn’t President, and in 1962 he suffered an embarrassing defeat in the California governor’s race. But he did maintain a successful law practice, and his investments, influenced heavily by Rebozo’s advice, did astonishingly well. Nixon and Rebozo’s friendship did change, though. Their duet became a trio when Nixon befriended Robert Abplanalp, inventor of the aerosol valve and president of the Precision Value Corporation.
In April 1961, Abplanalp had a meeting scheduled with Nixon to talk about some legal matters. Nixon was running uncharacteristically late, because he’d been asked by the the White House to provide some advice about the upcoming Bay of Pigs invasion. When Nixon finally did arrive, he stormed into the room and, unaware that Abplanalp had been quietly waiting for him, started cursing like a sailor and complaining about Castro, Cuba, the Communists, and Kennedy. When Nixon finally realized he had a guest, he apologized for his outburst and the two had an insightful conversation about politics. While many would have been turned off by Nixon’s foul-mouthed ranting, Abplanalp was impressed. He saw not a bitter, paranoid ex-politician but a passionate, frustrated patriot upset about the way his country was conducting itself. He gave Nixon’s firm his legal business, and Nixon his hand in friendship.
Abplanalp proved to be the “third heat” that Nixon and Rebozo badly needed. They all had similar ideas of a good time, and Abplanalp’s money and resources opened up new horizons. Leisurely day trips on the Cocolobo were replaced with weekend getaways on one of Abplanalp’s private islands, which he collected the same way your grandma collected Precious Moments figurines. The three-way friendship also had a slightly different dynamic. Abplanalp was upbeat and boisterous, and it was infectious. It often fell to Rebozo to be the only adult in the room when Nixon and Abplanalp were egging each other on. As a result, he was often the butt of their practical jokes, like when they burned off the knees of his jeans with a trouser press. Bebe could take a joke, though, especially since associating with Abplanalp raised his profile even further.
In 1961, Bebe was elected commodore of the Key Biscayne Yacht Club, which had been steered into into perilous financial straits. He quickly righted the vessel and navigated it back to solvency. The grateful club would open its restaurant early so Bebe and Nixon could grab a quick breakfast before they went out on one of their boat trips.
After the Cuban revolution he became a leading anti-Castro figure in Miami. One of his pet projects was the Centro Commercial Cubano, a market catering to Cuban refugees. He brought in Edgardo Buttari Sr., a local with ties to the Bay of Pigs invasion, to manage the center. Even more astoundingly, despite his now-significant personal wealth, Rebozo managed to get a a loan from the Small Business Administration to build the shopping center. He certainly had Senator Smathers, who was then serving on the Senate’s Small Business Committee, and Nixon pulling for him. And also the chief Miami officer of the SBA, who a close personal friend and later a stockholder in Bebe’s bank.
Did I say bank? Yeah. In 1964, Bebe opened his own bank, the Key Biscayne Bank & Trust. The first account was proudly held by Richard M. Nixon, whose bust graced the lobby of the bank for many years.
One night in January 1967, Nixon, Rebozo and Abplanalp decided to have some rest and relaxation at one of Abplanalp’s beach homes, on Little Grand Key in the Bahamas. While Rebozo napped on the sofa, Abplanalp offered Nixon a cigar, only to realize that he’d run out. Abplanalp’s cook said his sister might have some at her bar on nearby Grand Key. So Nixon, Abplanalp and the cook hopped into a small boat and made their way to the next island, blissfully unaware of the dangerous rocks they were barely missing in the pitch darkness.
When they arrived at the bar, it was packed. Earlier in the day the Bahamas had just elected their first black government and everyone had turned out to celebrate. They were amazed to see Nixon, but decided he’d come to help them celebrate and welcomed him with open arms. For the next two hours Nixon and Abplanalp raised glass after glass to the Bahamas and Lynden Pindling, and made treacherous journey back to Little Grand Key long after midnight.
They arrived drunk as skunks. Rebozo was awake, and furious. “Don’t you realize you’re risking the life of the next President of the United States?” But Nixon, he just laughed and laughed.
Nixon’s The One
Maybe the Bahamas escapade sparked something in Nixon, and he began to debate whether he should run for President again. To organize his thoughts, he and Rebozo would take long walks on the beach, never speaking a word. Nixon later said, “I knew Bebe’s opinion without asking him.” Of course, Nixon may have been fudging the timeline somewhat, as his campaign operations were already well underway by February 1967. But there’s no doubt that Bebe’s quiet support encouraged him.
With his pal running for president agin, Bebe started to think it might be a good idea if he didn’t have a different woman on his arm at every function. He started exclusively dating Jane Lucke, his lawyer’s secretary, a twice-divorced mother of two who he would later marry. Jane always knew where Bebe’s true affections were, though, and once claimed that “Bebe’s favorites are Richard Nixon, his cat, and then me.”
While dating Lucke was a shrewd move, Rebozo was still capable of astonishing bone-headedness. During the year someone had deposited stock certificates in his bank, but they smelled funny. He ultimately sold them for $90,000 cash, just to get rid of them… and supposedly before he saw the insurance company circular that listed them as stolen. The bank was subsequently sued by the company that had issued the stock and the matter wound up in the federal courts.
Fortunately, that scandal broke after the election. Bebe mostly tried to stay out of it. He continued to raise money for Nixon, and made one important symbolic act: he changed his voter registration from Democrat to Republican.
When Nixon defeated Humphrey and Wallace on November 5th, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Secret Service started the process of examining his friends’ lives with a fine-toothed comb, Bebe included. What they came up with wasn’t pretty.
Those self-service laundromats Bebe opened in 1946? They were long-rumored to be a front for the the numbers racket. The Jamaica Inn and English Pub, where he liked to hoist a pewter mug? It was owned by Bebe’s friend Donald Berg, and his friends were in the Mafia. The principal construction firm on the Centro Commercial Cubano was owned by former Cleveland crime boss “Big Al” Polizzi, and Edgardo Buttari, the manager, had been involved in drug smuggling for Santo Trafficante. Other real estate ventures over the years had brought Rebozo into close contact with Mafia bigwigs like Meyer Lansky. Some of these men were using the Key Biscayne Bank to launder their money, though there was no evidence that the bank or Rebozo were aware of it.
Ultimately, the FBI settled on calling Bebe Rebozo a “non-member associate of organized crime figures” which is a classification so broad that it’s effectively meaningless. Nixon critics and conspiracy theorists would have you believe Bebe was an almost-made man, like Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. If the Feds thought Rebozo was that dirty, though, they did nothing about it. In the end, they found nothing but rumors and innuendo, and settled for asking Nixon to go elsewhere to get his chopped steaks.
Nixon didn’t change a damn thing. Though he did liquidate all of his investments and put them in a trust at the Key Biscayne Bank. Those assets included some $800,000, most of it Florida real estate, all of it purchased on Rebozo’s recommendation. He did make one final big real estate purchase. With assistance from Rebozo and Abplanalp, he purchased George Smathers’s home at 500 Bay Lane, right next door to Bebe. Abplanalp bought the house on the other side, and some of the land around it. The three properties became a sort of compound that would become known as Nixon’s “Florida White House.”
Bebe lived large in the Nixon years. He was treated as if here were a member of the family and was granted privileges extended to few, including flying with Nixon on Air Force One. He had his own telephone extension at the white house, and a coveted flying jacket embroidered with the presidential seal. He served as an unofficial White House social director, often picking movies and entertainment for the First Family. He even paid to have the now infamous White House bowling alley installed. When David and Julie Eisenhower needed a place to live, he purchased a Maryland house and rented it to them at well below market rates. LIFE Magazine even devoted a cover story to “Nixon’s Friend Bebe.”
Bebe’s higher profile brought him to the attention of reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. Hughes wanted to donate money to Nixon and the Republican National Committee to help the 1970 congressional campaigns, but he was wary of dealing directly with Nixon. In 1957, Hughes had bailed out Donald Nixon’s failing drive-in restaurant, which had been used to smear Richard in the 1960 Presidential election and the 1962 California governor’s race. Since he couldn’t approach Nixon directly, he sent his aide Richard Danner to approach the next best person: Nixon’s best friend.
Now, Rebozo, of course, had no direct connection to the Republican National Committee and was not authorized to collect campaign funds. But he met with Danner twice, on September 10th 1969 and July 3rd, 1970. On each occasion Danner handed Bebe an envelope filled with $50,000 in cash. Bebe took the money, counted it, assured Danner it would go to the Republicans… and then kept it. He put it in a safety deposit box. Over the years he would touch the money to help out Nixon’s brothers, his children, and even his secretary Rose Marie Woods (who Rebozo had once been sweet on). In essence, it was a secret slush fund. One so secret that even Nixon didn’t know about it, because Bebe never told him.
I honestly don’t know how to take this. Bebe had a long history of doing things that were arguably corrupt. This was the first time he did something that was inarguably corrupt. In the least charitable interpretation, he’s a grifter bilking Hughes out of untraceable money that he never intended to hand over to Nixon. Even in the most charitable reading of events, he’s a corrupt idiot who should have known better. And, unlike his previous indiscretions, this one would come back to bite him in the end.
But not yet.
Amazingly, Bebe started an attempt to smear Democratic Party Chairman Lawrence F. O’Brien. He passed the Nixon campaign evidence that O’Brien had received a large personal loan… from Howard Hughes. He knew Nixon would be infuriated by the rank hypocrisy of it all. H.R. Haldeman and John Dean looked into the rumors, and found nothing to it. Though it did give them the idea that maybe there was dirt to be found on O’Brien.
In June 1972, Nixon was vacationing with Rebozo and Abplanalp when he received a phone call from H.R. Haldeman informing him of the Watergate break-in. “They did what?” he yelled into the phone, and then started laughing. “What in God’s name were we doing there?”
All the President’s Friends
At first, of course, there was no scandal, just business as usual.
Bebe received a $225,000 loan from Hudson Valley National Bank in Yonkers, New York. On his loan application, Bebe claimed it would be used for purchasing residential real estate, but he ultimately used the funds for business purposes. That is a textbook example of fraud, and a bizarre one at that since Bebe was hardly lacking for credit. The bank honestly didn’t care, and Bebe repaid the loan with interest on time.
On January 9th, 1973 Bebe and Abplanalp gave Nixon a birthday present: a map of the United States, minus the District of Columbia and the commonwealth of Massachussets. The frame was inscribed, “For the man who has almost everything.”
He sold the Cocolobo Cay Club to the National Park Service for $330,000, and it was incorporated into Biscayne National Park. When the bill establishing the monument was first making its way through congress in 1968, Bebe had unsuccessfully tried to get it killed so that he wouldn’t have to sell. He had great timing, as the main lodge building burned down in December 1974. The remaining structures on the island were flattened by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
At some point, an aide had the brilliant idea of using Nixon’s friends to soften his public image from the onslaught of Watergate allegations. Bebe, always willing to help out, agreed to an interview with Walter Cronkite. When Cronkite asked him if Nixon enjoyed practical jokes, Bebe responded with a strange and horrifying anecdote about the time he and Nixon had punk’d Abplanalp by making them think they had a prostitute in the house. Needless to say, Bebe was not asked to do any more interviews.
Bebe was not worried at all about the Watergate Scandal. But in 1973, the IRS was auditing Howard Hughes and it was clear they were going to find out about the payouts. So he came clean to Nixon about the money he’d taken from Hughes three years earlier. Nixon was not happy, but at least this one offered a clear resolution. He told Bebe to pay the money back. Only one problem: Bebe didn’t have the liquid assets to replace money he’d already spent. With Abplanalp’s help, he scraped together whatever bills they could find to bring the total back up to $100,000 and returned it to Hughes with their profuse apologies.
When the Watergate Committee investigation finally reached Bebe, it merciless. Congress found out about the Hughes money almost immediately and launched an investigation that wound up taking eighteen months. Bebe, flustered, claimed that he had always intended to give the money to Nixon, but that in 1970 vicious infighting had broken out between factions in Hughes’s corporate empire, and he thought it would be better to hold on to the money until it was less radioactive. He also claimed that he had never touched the money, which was laughably untrue. Hughes had paid off Rebozo with fresh new bills bound by Vegas casino wrappers. The replacement bills he’d used were tattered, dirty, and held together with rubber bands. Investigators were never able to find a direct connection between the money and Nixon, and the general consensus to this day is that he didn’t know about it until the end and never received a dime for his personal or political use.
It opened the floodgates, though. The Internal Revenue Service started a detailed audit of Bebe’s finances, with a focus on “misappropriation of campaign contributions, acceptance of money in exchange for favors by the Justice Department, distribution of Watergate hush money, and alleged diversion of campaign funds to Nixon’s brothers and personal secretary.”
The IRS spent four years poring over Rebeozo’s records. They discovered that Bebe’s net worth had exploded some 600% during Nixon’s presidency, to almost $4.5 million. They found that he had money hidden in Swiss bank accounts. What they didn’t find was anything criminal. The only thing they found out was that he may have slightly underreported his taxable income in 1970 and 1971. In 1977, he paid the back taxes, which totaled… $52,474.
The Washington Post learned about the suspicious stocks the Key Biscayne Bank had cashed in 1968, and wrote it up in a way that implied Rebozo had cashed the checks with full knowledge that they were stolen. Bebe denied it and sued the Post for libel. They ultimately settled in 1983, with prime condition being that the Post had to print his denial in full.
In August, ABC News reported that campaign contributions had been laundered through Caribbean casinos with the aid of the Key Biscayne Bank. The allegations were seriously investigated, and found to be completely baseless.
And that was typical. Bebe was simultaneously being investigated by Congress, the General Accounting Office, the IRS, the Justice Department and the Miami District Attorney. Not one of them turned up evidence of criminality. They turned up a lot of interesting threads, to be sure… but none of them ever connected to anything bigger. In 1975 the Justice Department ultimately concluded that there was no basis for indicting Rebozo for mis-use of campaign contributions. By this point the investigations into Bebe had issued 200 subpoenas, questioned 123 witnesses and even hauled 28 of them before a grand jury.
On June 11, 1974 Bebe received an anonymous letter claiming that a hit man had been hired to kill him and that he would be dead within the month. He turned it over to the FBI, and fortunately it turned out to be a hoax.
Bebe remained steadfast in his support of Nixon. On August 2nd, 1974 Nixon took him out for a cruise on the USS Sequoia, the so-called “floating White House.” Nixon confessed that for the first time, he was considering resignation after seeing the toll. Bebe urged him to fight on, claiming that the majority of Americans still supported the president.
Well, at least that’s how Nixon remembered it. Rebozo remembered it a bit differently. He recalled telling Nixon that he had a choice: “You can resign and leave in honor, or you can be impeached. It’s up to you.” And then he apparently had a panic attack, thinking, “What is a punk kid like you, Bebe, without a college education, doing talking to the president of the United States that way?”
You know how it ended. Nixon resigned.
Just like his best friend, Bebe Rebozo kept a low profile for the next two decades.
In 1979, Rebozo and Abplanalp used some of the same tricks they’d used in Florida to help Nixon purchase the San Clemente estate where the Nixons would spend the rest of their lives. When he moved back to California, Nixon sold his Florida properties. In 1982, the former Florida White House, which Bebe still lived next to, was used as a filming location for the Al Pacino movie Scarface. Scarface, of course, is a remake of a 1933 movie directed by… Howard Hughes. (The Florida White House was eventually knocked down in 2004.)
Throughout the 1980s he kept a low profile. In 1990 he sold Key Biscayne Bank to the Panamanian Kardonski family, and retired to a life of leisure.
He remained Nixon’s friend to the end. Over the years he convinced his bosom body to loosen up and enjoy a round of golf and a nice stiff drink from time to time. When Nixon’s health took a turn for the worse, his doctors told him to cut out the martinis. Rebozo’s reply was short: “Get a second opinion.” When Nixon died in 1994, Rebozo was at his bedside.
Bebe didn’t last much longer himself. On May 8, 1998 he died of complications from a brain aneurysm. He was survived by his wife, Jane Lucke Rebozo, who still lives in Key Biscayne to this day. He bequeathed a large chunk of his fortune, nearly $19 million, to the Nixon Presidential Library. (Later, the Nixon daughters would go to court over the best way to handle the bequest. It wasn’t pretty.)
It’s hard to know what to make of Rebozo. Nixon’s opinions on the matter were unsurprisingly simple:
Bebe Rebozo is one of the kindest and most generous men I have ever known. He is a man of great character and integrity. Yet anyone who read only the press stories about him, his business dealings, or his friendship with me would have had to conclude that he combined the worst traits of Rasputin and Al Capone.
There’s so much that Rebozo did that feels like it’s the surface of something sinister and large. And yet, no reputable investigation has ever turned up a shred of any sort of intentional criminality on his part. Every tantalizing thread that the press and prosecutors just unraveled, or turned out to not connect to anything. With a handful of notable exceptions, there’s just no proof. Like Bebe himself, it just seems that there’s no “there” there.
But there’s just so much circumstantial evidence! And he’s so quiet it just feels like Bebe had to be hiding something! Why are we so suspicious? Is it just the nature of the real estate business, or politics, or Florida?
Perhaps it’s just easier to remember Bebe the way he would have wanted to be remembered: as Richard Nixon’s friend.
Bebe Rebozo was a “known associate” of Meyer Lansky, who famously conspired with Carlo Gambino to run the casinos in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The Gambino Crime family would later be taken over by “Teflon Don” John Gotti, who briefly figured in the fraudulent miracles of Series 2’s “Goodnight, Irene.”
Bebe Rebozo was born in Tampa in 1912. You know who was also new to Hillsborough County in 1912, was voted the most beautiful boy in his high school, invested heavily in Florida real estate, and lost his shirt after Black Monday? Our old friend Rondo Hatton, from Series 1 episode “Monster without a Mask.” I’m not saying a teenage Rondo ever babysat the infant Bebe, but I’m not saying it didn’t happen either. Alternate history buffs, hop to it!
Rebozo’s “known associate,” Mafia don Santo Trafficante, was probably responsible for disappearing Key West fire chief Bum Farto in 1976. We talked about Bum’s disappearance in Series 10’s “With Both Hands.”
- Aitken, Jonathan. Nixon: A Life.. Washington, DC: Regnery, 1993.
- Fulsom, Don. Nixon’s Darkest Secrets. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
- Nixon, Richard M. The Memoirs of Richard M. Nixon. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978.
- “Bebe Rebozo.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bebe_Rebozo. Accessed 7/31/2019.
- “Nixon’s Friend Bebe.” Life Magazine, Vol. 69, No. 5 (31 Jul 1970).
- Glad, Betty and Link, Michael W. “President Nixon’s Inner Circle of Advisers.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter 1996).
- Binder, David. “Bebe Rebozo, Loyal Friend in Nixon’s Darkest Days, Dies at 85.” New York Times, 10 May 1998.
- Bell, Maya. “Nixon Daughters Dig in over Money for Father’s Library.” Orlando Sentinel, 28 Apr 2002.
- Josephson, Kelly. “What Happens when a President makes a small island Village his second home?” Islander News, 11 Dec 2017.