Christina Lind will change dresses often as she brings Judith Exner to life on a New Haven stage. She also aims to change how history views the mistress of both JFK and the don of the Chicago mob—to get beyond the wardrobe and the good looks.
Lind plays Exner in Ride the Tiger, which premieres Long Wharf on March 27 and runs through April 21. Willilam Mastrosimone’s play, directed by Gordon Edelstein, explores how sex and roughhouse politics intersected in the once-storied Camelot of JFK’s brief presidency.
Exner remained quiet for 15 years about her love affair with JFK. When it was revealed in the context of Senate hearings on U.S. intelligence gathering in the 1970s, Lind says she was character-assassinated as a gold-digging slut.
Lind doesn’t buy that character-assassination for a moment. Nor have other writers who have subsequently frayed the JFK myth.
This is Exner’s first posthumous trip on a major theatrical stage, Lind intends to seize the opportunity. She’s on a mission to change the way history views Exner. "She was vilified for being caught up in a river she couldn’t control,” Lind said in an interview a week into rehearsals, when the many dresses she’ll be wearing were not yet quite finished.
The play goes back and forth between Joe Kennedy’s plotting the rise of his senator son into the presidency; Frank Sinatra’s gigs in Las Vegas, where his pal JFK takes note of Exner; and Sam Giancana’s various digs as he murders his way through the drug trade and maybe trying to help JFK and the CIA knock off Fidel Castro with exploding cigars. By some accounts, Exner carried messages between the mobster and the president.
Mastrosimone’s play is a whirlwind of intrigue. It offers a behind-the-scenes look at the 1960 presidential campaign, where Giancana allegedly fixed union support for JFK in the expectation that the young prez’s brother Bobby would take off the Department of Justice heat. When that didn’t happen, Giancana allegedly expected some other kind of payback or threatened to retaliate.
For example: In the second act, Sam says to Judy: “Bobby wants to fight organized crime, he should indict his fuckin’ brother. The Bay of Pigs was a crime. And it was organized.”
Or Jack to Judy in a moment of post-coital truth-telling: “You know, Judy, we’re more alike than I thought. We ride the tiger just to say we did it.”
There’s a lot of history mixing with racy, messy, and intriguing might-have-beens.
The through line is Exner, a rich young California woman who early on married an actor and whose social circle was the wealthy and the powerful. In other words, Lind points out, she was no poor social climber.
Actors are always looking for windows that let them inside a character. Lind (pictured) is a young actress who’s best known for her work as Bianca in the daytime soap All My Children. Exner is the first real character she has portrayed. Lind said she feels a sense of artistic “responsibility” to portray the character’s complexity, not the black and white.
Lind read in Exner’s biography, Judith Exner: My story, that Exner absolutely never let the powerful men in her life pay for her. “She was self-sufficient, wouldn’t let people buy her stuff. She booked her own flights.”
Those would be airplane flights for her cross-country trysts with the young new president, who is portrayed in this play as a sexual athlete who needs Exner—or Marilyn Monroe or any number of other women—either to distract him from his presidential burdens or to relieve the extreme back pain from his PT-109 wartime injuries.
“She wanted what everyone wanted, to be loved. And they used her. And before she knew it, she was used up. Affairs with powerful people are not black and white. She had power herself,” reflected Lind.
That power was perhaps rooted in Exner’s beauty. In her intense dark eyes and, in the view of some, a Jackie look-alike quality. “She was not a slut or easy. I feel she had a great personality, a charisma too. She had a sway over these men. JFK was a prince, and he had something like love for her,” Lind argued.
Lind noted that her colleagues [Douglas Sills as playing JFK, John Cunningham as Jack’s dad Joe, Jordan Lage as mobster Giancana] have a different challenge: to portray with freshness characters people already know.
Exner is different. In the received history as well as in the play, “all the other characters characterize her as a certain thing,” Lind observed. She called it “a great privilege for me to reveal her in this way. These details about her have been ignored by history, as is the case for many women, especially those who were in submissive position with powerful men. It’s easier to call them home-wreckers than to examine their psychology.”
Lind was asked how she would want Exner, who died at age 65 in 1999, to respond to the play if she were in the audience. “I would want her to tell me, ‘Thank you for understanding me,’” Lind responded. “That’s my greatest wish.’”
The young actress, who is about the age Exner was in the 1960s, splits her time between Brooklyn and L.A. She has several other roles percolating for her next steps in her career, she said. She declined to name them, to avoid hexing her chances. Then she went back to her colleagues to resume running lines for Judith Exner.
Thanks to Allen Appel.