I NEVER WENT to graduate school, but I did graduate studies of a kind in a D.A.’s office. The district attorney was Jim Garrison, and his main interest was the assassination of President Kennedy. I worked with Garrison for two years, from late 1966 to 1968. For six of those months I worked at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
An interest in traditional jazz and its history had drawn me, a recent Oxford graduate, from Britain to New Orleans. Then, in 1966, I told a woman in the city that I had been reading books questioning the Warren Commission’s findings about the assassination. As it happened, she knew an assistant D.A. called John Volz who had told her that Garrison had launched his own investigation. Nothing about it had appeared in the press yet.
She introduced me to Volz in the D.A.’s office. Volz amazed me by taking me to see Garrison right away. The Jolly Green Giant, as he was called, 6 foot 6 inches tall, was sprawled out on a sofa in his back office. More amazing still: Garrison hired me on the spot, no questions asked. I hardly knew what a D.A. was at that point.
Garrison told me that Kennedy had been killed as a result of a conspiracy hatched in New Orleans, where Lee Harvey Oswald had lived in the summer of 1963. The D.A. seemed utterly confident. I was initially impressed, though I later became disillusioned when I learned the details. I did like the $500 a month—more money than I had seen before—they paid me, out of a mysterious “fines and fees” account.
I reported to a laconic police sergeant called Louis Ivon, Garrison’s chief investigator. I always liked him. First I went to Dallas, but that was a waste of time. Everyone had been interviewed three years earlier by the FBI. Ivon once told me (quietly) how impressed he had been by the FBI’s speed and thoroughness. We agreed that I should go to the National Archives and read the available FBI reports.
I returned to New Orleans in June 1967. But the big news was already old news: Clay Shaw, a local businessman, had been charged with conspiring in the assassination of the president, along with a local oddball called David Ferrie. By then Volz had moved on to the U.S. Attorney’s office (he eventually became U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana) and David Ferrie had died of an aneurysm. Over the next year Shaw’s trial was repeatedly postponed. Garrison’s assistants were in no hurry to try the case because they didn’t have a case. I took my time, too. I kept a diary, a part of which later ended up in the National Archives, along with Clay Shaw’s papers. Shaw, who was brought to trial in January 1969, was swiftly acquitted.
Many interesting people came through the small office in which I worked, including Edward Jay Epstein and Mark Lane—both of whom wrote bestselling books critical of the Warren Commission—the satirist Mort Sahl, and conspiracy theorists too numerous to mention. I went to dinner with Norman Mailer and then to West Virginia with his third wife (not the one he stabbed, but the daughter of Lord Beaverbrook). Jones Harris, the son of the actress Ruth Gordon, was another—very well connected. He took me to see the editor of the New York Review of Books, Bob Silvers. I already knew more than was good for my health, so I worried that Silvers might inquire whether Garrison’s case was solid (it wasn’t). But Silvers was the perfect gentleman and didn’t ask.
MOST OF THOSE I have mentioned are now dead: Garrison, Volz, Ivon, Shaw, Ferrie, also an assistant D.A. called Andrew Sciambra, who helped concoct much of the case against Shaw. So I have greater freedom now. But correcting a mountain of errors is often a waste of time. Jones suggested that I write a book. That I did, but it was no good. I was so immersed in rebutting misconceptions that I couldn’t see what was of enduring interest. Also, only books that advocate JFK conspiracies sell. Others tend to be remaindered.
Still, a few impressions are worth sharing: Garrison was reckless, utterly irresponsible, willing to charge a man with the crime of the century regardless of the truth. Above all, he loved to shock people. Occasionally he claimed that Oswald was innocent. Small problem: Shaw’s guilt depended on Oswald’s guilt. When this was pointed out, Garrison waved the objection away. “You can argue it differently in court,” he said. One day he filed charges against Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA. No one in the office would sign the papers, so Garrison had to do it himself.
His political instincts were nonetheless good—shockingly so. Shaw’s acquittal didn’t hurt him; afterward Garrison was promptly reelected. Then he was charged by the Feds for taking bribes, but he escaped that, too. Acting as his own lawyer, he said to the jurors: “I tried to find out what happened to your president and look what happened to me.” Not guilty, your honor. In 1978 he won election to Louisiana’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a position he held until 1991, one year before his death. In his ability to dodge potential disaster, he resembled no one so much as Bill Clinton.
I must admit that I always liked Garrison. His charm was hard to resist. But I knew I could not help to convict an innocent man, so I gave one of Shaw’s lawyers a list of witnesses before the trial. (Louisiana had no “discovery law,” meaning last-minute, surprise witnesses were not out of the question.) Then I told Ivon what I had done. Scary moment, that, especially with the Mafia in the background. Garrison charged me with “unauthorized use of movable goods.” These charges were later dropped, but they helped keep my mouth shut until after the approaching elections.
As for Clay Shaw? I agree with the jury that he was totally innocent. There was no credible evidence that he knew either Oswald or Ferrie, let alone planned to shoot JFK. Shaw was homosexual and everyone knew that, but it never came out in the newspapers. Garrison’s people didn’t mention it, but the deal was that Shaw couldn’t produce character witnesses at his own trial. He died of cancer in 1974.
I HAD A revealing exchange with Ivon one day when I told him I had met, socially, a corrupt courthouse lawyer whose name I shall not mention even now. Ivon knew the man. It was the only time he ever spoke to me severely. “Stay away from him, Tom!” I knew what he was getting at. The lawyer would contact young drug users who had been arrested and were facing criminal charges. He would tell them the charges could be dropped for a cash fee. The money would be paid, then shared with cops and/or assistant D.A.s. Drug charges lacking a complaining witness make shakedowns easy.
Ivon’s unaccustomed severity told me a lot: You can play around with JFK theories all you want; have dinner wid de boss and Norman Mailer at the Royal Orleans. Obliquely, Ivon was saying that no one in the office took the JFK case seriously. But drug laws revealed as shakedown opportunities? You could land us all in jail, Tom! “Stay away from him.” I did.
As to the assassination itself: Kennedy was shot in a plaza with hundreds of spectators, but no one saw the shot fired. Oswald was caught in a movie theater a few miles away and shot a policeman there. He said very little to the police and was killed two days later by Jack Ruby. But Oswald’s background speaks volumes. After working at a marine base in Japan, he defected to the Soviet Union. He returned to the U.S. in 1962 with a Soviet bride and lived in Dallas. There, he shot at (and missed) the right-wing General Edwin Walker. In the summer of 1963, Oswald was filmed distributing pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans. All the indications are that he was a Marxist (as he said he was). He went to Mexico in September 1963 and tried to reach the Soviet embassy, but was rebuffed. He returned to Dallas. Within those thickets, conspiracy theories flourish. But Oswald certainly shot Kennedy. A lone assassin? It’s harder to prove that, but I’m confident he was.
A final lesson: The news media did a good job. Garrison’s investigation was first disclosed by the New Orleans States-Item, Rosemary James being the lead reporter. The New York Times and the Washington Post were also on target. After Shaw’s acquittal, Rosemary and I became friends. Once we went to a restaurant owned by Carlos Marcello, the local Mafia boss. By then Rosemary James was well known and identifiable. At the end of the meal, the head waiter came over and asked if we would mind if they paid the bill. Rosemary assured him that she would not object. She turned to me. I was happy to agree.
Such were my graduate studies. At least I had emerged in one piece, not richer but wiser.