The curse of the JFK mystery was its propensity to change its shape. On March 1, 1967, I learned that it was far from over. Jim Garrison, the district attorney of New Orleans, had just reawakened it by charging a prominent New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw with “participating in a conspiracy to murder President Kennedy.”
A few days later, I met with William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, at his request. When I was ushered into his office, he was partly hidden behind a mound of manuscripts on his desk. As he emerged, I could see a small man with slumping shoulders, a balding head, and timid eyes. He seemed so frail I feared that a loud noise might cause him to duck behind the manuscript pile. I would later discover that, when it came to supporting writers, he was as strong and unbending as steel.
“Please sit down, Mr. Epstein,” he said in a low but clear voice. The office was modestly furnished and far smaller than I had expected for an editor at the center of the literary world. Shawn said Richard Rovere, the New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, had recommended me to write on Garrison. I had met Rovere briefly at the Congress for Cultural Freedom conference on the island of Rhodes in 1958, and at my publisher’s request, he had written the flattering preface for Inquest. Shawn came right to the point, asking in a hushed voice whether I had a view as to why Garrison had arrested Clay Shaw.
I said that I was as mystified as he was by the news of the arrest in New Orleans. He all but whispered, “But Mr. Epstein, could a local district attorney have solved a mystery that had defied the Warren Commission?” I told him my investigation had convinced me that the Warren Commission could have left loose ends dangling in New Orleans in its rush to meet a 1964 deadline and that it was possible that a determined D.A., using rougher police methods, had found new evidence.
“Would you be willing to go to New Orleans and look into the matter?” he said as if he were asking me a great favor.
As I admired the New Yorker, I accepted. When I called Garrison and said I planned to write a profile on him for the New Yorker, he said I should come to New Orleans right away because there had been a startling new development in the case. He could not discuss it further over the phone because an unnamed “agency” was tapping his line.
I had done the research on the Warren Commission on a shoestring 10 years earlier, but now, thanks to an expense account provided by the New Yorker, I could fly first class, stay at five-star hotels, and hire an able researcher from Harvard Law School. It greatly enhanced the experience, if not the substance, of investigative reporting.
The Jolly Green Giant
I booked a seat on a flight to New Orleans on April 13 and then arranged a car and driver to take me on a tour of the places Oswald had worked and lived in 1963. Garrison had scheduled dinner for us the next night at 8:00 p.m. at Broussard’s, a well-known restaurant in the French Quarter. I arrived a half hour early, as I often do for fear of being late.
While I was waiting for Garrison, the manager, who knew I was writing for the New Yorker, explained that the ubiquitous Napoleonic statuary in the restaurant was the result of founder Joe Broussard’s near worship of the French general. The manager added that “the jolly green giant,” the common nickname for Garrison, was also “a fan of Napoleon.”
Garrison made his entrance shortly before 9:00 p.m. There was no mistaking this giant of a man. He was six feet, six inches tall, with glassy eyes and a jutting jaw. He walked to my table with a slightly askew gait, stopping at nearly every table to extend his hand to well-wishers. When he finally reached my table, he welcomed me to New Orleans, saying that my book on the Warren Commission had helped shape his decision to launch his investigation. I was duly flattered. When I asked about the exciting news he had to tell me, he fixed me with a walleyed stare and, after a long pause, replied, “First let me tell you a little about myself. You are writing my profile, right?”
He told me that he owed everything to two individuals. The first was Ayn Rand, whose book The Fountainhead had impressed on him the need for individuals of higher consciousness to act like supermen. His second “hero” was Huey Long, the late governor of Louisiana, or, as Garrison called him, “the Kingfish.” Before Long was assassinated in 1935, he had won enormous political support by attacking putative government conspiracies.
Neither of his intellectual heroes reassured me. I had already done some research on him in Harvard’s Widener Library. Garrison’s career had not gone smoothly. Born in 1921 in Iowa, Garrison served briefly in the Louisiana National Guard, but he was relieved of duty after a military doctor diagnosed him as suffering from a disabling neurosis. Garrison appealed to the surgeon general, who allowed him to complete his service. He then decided to enter politics. After legally changing his name from Earling Carothers Garrison to Jim Garrison, he defeated the incumbent district attorney, Richard Dowling, and once in office indicted Dowling for criminal malfeasance. (The charge was dismissed for lack of evidence.) He also accused a New Orleans judge he had taken issue with of racketeering and conspiracy, which, when he furnished no evidence, led to Garrison being convicted in 1963 of criminal defamation. (The conviction was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later.)
I asked him about the army doctor who had diagnosed him. Garrison said he was a “personal enemy, out to get him.” He then told me his side. He relayed his extraordinary story of persecution while he compulsively consumed three dozen oysters. I wanted to know the specific evidence he had discovered implicating Clay Shaw, but he evaded that issue by telling me about a tangle of characters emanating from the putative plot he claimed to have uncovered. I jotted down their names as he rambled on, then asked, “How did these people connect to the JFK assassination?”
Over the next two hours, Garrison spelled out the elements of the conspiracy he had established. It came—like the Creole specialties that the chef personally delivered, dish by dish, to our table—in sporadic doses. He identified the central character as David W. Ferrie, a former airline pilot and self-styled soldier of fortune, whom Garrison described as “one of the most bizarre men I have ever met.” At one point, Ferrie had professed to be a bishop in a quasi-political cult called the Orthodox Old Catholic Church of North America.
He had also worked as a freelance pilot, a pornographer, a hypnotist, and a gas station operator. He came to Garrison’s attention on November 24, 1963, two days after the JFK assassination, when Garrison’s office got a tip alleging that Ferrie had trained Oswald in marksmanship. Garrison detained Ferrie for questioning. When the tipster, a former partner of Ferrie’s, recanted his story, Garrison had no choice but to release Ferrie. Four years later, he reopened the investigation when he had found other witnesses who claimed that Ferrie had become involved with Oswald. By March 1967, he had decided, as he put it, “to break Ferrie.” But before he could rearrest him, Ferrie was found dead. It was either suicide or murder, he said, but, in either case, he had lost his suspect.
Why had he arrested Clay Shaw? I asked. “It’s exactly like a chess problem,” he answered. “The Warren Commission moved the same pieces back and forth and got nowhere. I made a new move and solved the problem.” What he had done in his chess analogy was to add new pieces to the board. I gently reminded him that he had told me on the phone he had new evidence.
He looked at his watch. “It’s past midnight. Come to my office tomorrow and you can see the evidence for yourself.” He finished his wine and was off, shaking the hands of the few people still in the restaurant on his way out.
No Other Number on Earth
I arrived at 10:00 a.m. at the district attorney’s suite of offices in the Criminal District Court Building. Jones Harris, wearing a straw hat and blue blazer, was waiting for me in the outer office. Harris was part of a rapidly disappearing tradition, the gentleman amateur sleuth. Born in Paris in 1929 to movie star Ruth Gordon and Broadway producer Jed Harris, he did not need to work for a living, so he devoted his time to solving mysteries. He was not only well connected socially, dating a Vanderbilt, but he had a bloodhound’s ability to tenaciously, if not obsessively, track down people. He had helped me find people I needed to see in my original investigation of the Warren Commission, and, as he was good company, I asked him to join me in New Orleans.
Garrison was not there yet. His receptionist said that he had been called away on another case. He had left word that I “should start going through the evidence.” Andrew “Moo Moo” Sciambra, an assistant DA, took Harris and me to a small office in the rear of the suite. When we got there, Sciambra pointed to a table full of whips, masks, and other bondage paraphernalia and said, “Jim wanted you to see what we seized from the home of Clay Shaw.” Shaw, who had been director of the International Trade Mart in New Orleans, claimed to Garrison that these items were part of his Mardi Gras costume.
Sciambra asked mockingly, “Does this look like an innocent Mardi Gras costume to you?” It didn’t, but even if it was S&M gear, I didn’t see the connection between this part of Shaw’s private life and the Kennedy assassination. I asked Sciambra how this gear was relevant to the case. “Jim will explain that when he arrives,” Sciambra replied.
Pointing to a stack of six cardboard cartons on the desk, he said as he left, “Jim suggests you familiarize yourself with the rest of the evidence.” For the next two hours, Harris and I sifted through the boxes. They contained Shaw’s personal letters, photographs, manuscripts, checkbooks, address books, calendars, and even his blueprints for the renovation of a house in the French Quarter.
Harris then found a five-digit number in Shaw’s address book that partly matched an entry in Lee Harvey Oswald’s phone book: the number 19106 preceded by the Cyrillic letters for the English letters DD. Shaw’s book contained the same five digits attached to the name Lee Odom, followed by PO Box 19106, Dallas, Tex.
By the time Garrison finally arrived, I had gone to lunch. Meanwhile, Harris, who remained in the office, told Garrison about the entry he had discovered and Garrison, without waiting for confirmation, announced to the press that he had linked Shaw to Oswald.
Garrison stated that Shaw’s phone book and Oswald’s contained the identical entry “PO 19106” (which was untrue) and that this number was “nonexistent” (which he had not yet determined). He then went a step further in saying that the number was a code he had deciphered. His method involved arbitrarily rearranging the digits, subtracting another number, and adding the letters WH. So it yielded WH 1–5601, the telephone number of Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, and, Garrison claimed, “no other number on earth” (which was false).
When asked by a reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune for a fuller explanation of how PO 19106 became Ruby’s number, Garrison, without missing a beat, explained that one simply transposed its third, fourth, and last digit (so it became PO 16901) and subtracted the difference.
I had breakfast with Garrison at Brennan’s the next morning. He said the phone number was a major break in the case. I asked how he had derived the WH portion of Ruby’s number. He answered that the code was “subjective.” In other words, he used hocus-pocus to connect Shaw to Oswald and Ruby. Meanwhile, he still avoided answering my questions about the “new evidence” he had told me about on the phone. I left New Orleans.
I didn’t tell Garrison that I had received a phone call from Thomas Bethell, a 27-year-old British academic who was working in Garrison’s office. After graduating from Trinity College at Oxford in 1964, he had gone to New Orleans to write about jazz and was hired by Garrison as a researcher. The disturbing news he conveyed to me was that the decoded number Garrison had shown me was “pure nonsense.” According to Bethell, Garrison’s staff had determined that the entry in Shaw’s address book, PO Box 19106, not only existed but had been assigned to Lee Odom, the exact name listed in Shaw’s book. Further, the same number in Oswald’s address book could not possibly have referred to the same thing because Dallas Post Office records showed that the post office box number did not exist in Dallas before it was assigned to Odom in 1965. He further said Garrison had ordered that no one on his staff discuss this embarrassing mistake.
I did not return to New Orleans until June 22. Garrison had called the night before to tell me he was about to “haul a key witness before the Grand Jury.” The witness, according to Garrison, linked Shaw directly to Oswald. I flew Eastern Airlines from Boston to New Orleans, arriving at 2:40 p.m., and went straight to Garrison’s office. Moo Moo Sciambra met me there. Despite the city’s sweltering heat, Garrison had gone for a sauna at the New Orleans Athletic Club. “The dry heat helps him think,” Sciambra added. Sciambra said Garrison’s “key witness” was Dean Andrews. I recognized the name. Andrews was the lawyer who had told the Warren Commission three years earlier that Lee Harvey Oswald had sought his legal help in appealing his dishonorable discharge from the Marines and that someone called Clay Bertrand had sent Oswald to him. Andrews had no address for Bertrand and said he knew him mainly as “a voice on the phone.” The Warren Commission had been unable to find Bertrand.
“There is no Clay Bertrand,” Sciambra said. “It was the alias used by Clay Shaw.” I asked how Garrison uncovered that match. Sciambra told me that Garrison assigned him the task of questioning every bar owner in the French Quarter to find anyone with the first name Clay. He came up with a list of a dozen or so Clays, and Garrison further narrowed it down to one—Clay Shaw.
Recalling the legerdemain that Garrison had used to decode the phone number, I asked Sciambra how Garrison decoded Bertrand as Shaw. “Jim figured it out.”
I met Garrison that evening for dinner. He told me he had made progress since the arrest, and release on bail, of Shaw. “I can now prove that Oswald, David Ferrie, and Clay Shaw met at Ferrie’s apartment in 1963,” Garrison said. “During that meeting, they planned out the assassination.”
I asked how Garrison could establish such a meeting took place since two of the alleged participants, Oswald and Ferrie, were dead and the third, Shaw, categorically denied ever meeting Oswald. Garrison said there was another witness named Perry Russo, who happened to be in Ferrie’s apartment at the time and had overheard the conversation. Unfortunately, Garrison said, Russo had repressed his memory of the assassination meeting when he was initially questioned by Sciambra, so no mention of it was made in Sciambra’s memorandum of the interrogation.
Garrison then told me that he had “reconstituted Russo’s memory” by using both sodium pentothal injections and hypnosis. As a result, Russo was able to recall Oswald, Ferrie, and Shaw at the assassination meeting. The problem for Garrison was that the Sciambra memo could be used to discredit Russo’s reconstituted memories in court. Therefore, Garrison said, he needed a witness to connect Oswald to Shaw. This made Dean Andrews, in Garrison’s view, a key witness, since he might be able to identify Shaw as the Clay Bertrand who had sent Oswald to him.
“Will he?” I asked.
“He will when we press him.” Garrison squeezed a lemon over his oysters as if demonstrating his ability to squeeze a witness.
I met Dean Andrews the next day at the Marlboro Club at 4:00p.m. He was in his late 40s. A plump man with a boyish face, he wore a badly crumpled suit, a loud tie, and round dark glasses. After waving me over with exaggerated hand gestures, he told me he had served as an assistant DA in Jefferson Parish and knew “how the game is played.” Andrews had a colorful way of describing people. He called Garrison “a thousand-pound canary.”
“Is Clay Shaw the person you called Clay Bertrand?” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” he answered. “Shaw is just an unfortunate who was grabbed out of the sky by the jolly green giant, and his wizards and practitioners of voodoo labeled him Clay Bertrand, and bang, he’s been tagged ‘it’ ever since.”
“Is there a Clay Bertrand?”
“I can’t answer that question without running into a legal meat grinder,” he said, laughing out loud. All Andrews could say was that someone he knew had called him at the Hotel Dieu in 1963 and told him he had sent him a client. That client turned out to be Oswald, who wanted his military discharge reclassified from dishonorable to honorable.
“So you know who called you?” I interjected.
“Of course,” he answered. “If those lazy bums on the Warren Commission had even bothered to check my phone records, they would have found out no one named Clay anything ever called me.”
“Would they have found another name?”
“They might have found that I got a call from Gene Davis.”
“And you invented the name Clay Bertrand to protect him?”
“I am not saying I did, and I am not saying I didn’t. All I am saying is that it was not Clay Shaw.”
The New Yorker published my 10,000-word “Reporter at Large” article on Garrison on July 6, 1968. Shawn, who chose clarity over wit, changed the title from “The Thousand-Pound Canary” to “Garrison.” The article, as I knew, did not please Garrison. It described how he had used raw power and demagogy to build an entirely bogus case against an innocent man. It concluded: “In the year I have been studying Garrison’s investigation, and have had access to his office, the only evidence I have seen or heard about that could connect Shaw with the assassination had been fraudulent—some devised by Garrison himself and some cynically culled from criminals or the emotionally unstable.”
The Great “JFK” Debate
Nearly a quarter century after Garrison’s case fell apart, Oliver Stone demonstrated that a fraud can have a second life in fiction if not in the universe of fact. He accomplished this by casting Kevin Costner in the role of a truth-telling Garrison in his 1991 movie “JFK.” In the film, unlike in reality, Garrison uncovers a CIA-backed conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
The movie created such an immense controversy over the Kennedy assassination that Victor Navasky, the editor of the Nation, America’s oldest continuous magazine, came up with the idea of a Nation-sponsored debate about whether the movie “JFK” was fact or fiction at Town Hall in New York. Stone, who was claiming that his movie was fact, not fiction, was eager to participate. Navasky asked me to join the debate to provide a counterview because I had written about the actual Garrison inquest in the New Yorker.
I readily agreed. Navasky, the author of Kennedy Justice, had been a friend of mine since we both learned to play tennis together 20 years earlier in the Hamptons. In light of his intelligence and wit, I had full confidence that, as moderator, he would keep the debate on track. When he asked me about other participants, I suggested Norman Mailer.
Born in 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey, Mailer was a prize-winning author, journalist, film director, and political activist. Three years earlier, in August 1989, Mailer had asked me to join him in forming a monthly dinner discussion, which he self-mockingly called the “Dynamite Club.” The other founding member was Don DeLillo, the author of Libra, a novel about Oswald. Mailer hoped that we would come up with a dynamite revelation about who was behind Kennedy’s assassination. Initially, the three of us had pleasant, if not enlightening, dinners at Mailer’s house in Brooklyn Heights. We then moved the dinners to my house and gradually expanded the club to include such leading conspiracy investigators as Jim Hougan, the author of Spooks, and Bernard “Bud” Fensterwald, the founder of the Assassination Archives and Research Center.
At one dinner held at Fensterwald’s house in Washington, G. Gordon Liddy, the organizer of the infamous Watergate break-in, attended and suggested that the FBI had orchestrated, if not the assassination, a massive cover-up of it. Mailer himself concluded that JFK was killed as part of an apocalyptical struggle to change history. As he had just written Harlot’s Ghost, a roman à clef suggesting the involvement of a rogue faction of the CIA in the Kennedy assassination, I thought he would be a lively participant in the debate. He readily accepted.
Navasky chose the film writer-director Nora Ephron as the final participant because she had to deal with the compromises Hollywood makes on reality-based subjects in “Silkwood.” Nora also had a brilliant eye for irony and absurdity, which would be useful in the debate.
The event took place on March 3, 1992. Some 1,200 people jammed into Town Hall. It was scheduled to begin at 7:45 p.m. Oliver Stone arrived five minutes late accompanied by two young aides: Jane Rusconi, his chief researcher on “JFK,” who sat next to him on stage, and Kristina Hare, his production assistant, who sat in front of him in the first row. The almost 10-minute standing ovation he received made it clear too that Stone all but owned the audience.
When the applause for Stone subsided, Navasky opened the discussion with a well-received joke. He asked, “Will all of you out there that think you don’t belong on this panel, please stand up?” No one did.
Mailer spoke first. He began by saying that the JFK assassination should be “seen not as history but as a myth in which the gods warred and a god fell.” About Stone he said, “Of course, like many a movie man beforehand, he mislabeled the product. He did not make cinematic history, and in fact, to hell with that. He’s dared something more dangerous. He entered the echoing halls of the largest paranoid myth of our time: the undeclared national belief that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed by the concentrated forces of maligned power in the land.” After hearing him espouse Manichaean conspiracy theories at Dynamite Club meetings, I was not surprised at his deification of Kennedy as a “god.” For him, great evil needed a god to battle.
Next came Nora Ephron, who was as insightful in person as in her books and movies. “I’m not here to talk about “JFK” per se,” she began, “but about what it is like to have written a movie based on something that happened.” She provided immensely entertaining anecdotes about the filming of Silkwood and how a factual story had to be varnished with a layer of fictive embellishment, such as adding “spoons at a table,” to create the illusion of reality. Her account neatly evaded the issue of Stone’s movie.
So it fell to me to point out that Stone’s “JFK” had diverged so far from the facts of the case that it was nothing short of a total misrepresentation of reality. But surveying the audience, I said: “I’m going to be in the minority. But I believe there is a difference between nonfiction and fiction. I don’t believe the difference is trivial. Stone has every right to present whatever view he considers valid—or even entertaining—in a work of fiction. Everyone else does it. And as such, it may contain much truth in it, and it may look like a news documentary, but it cannot be considered nonfiction because it blends in fictional characters and fictional episodes. But, as we all know, a real event also happened in New Orleans in 1967.”
I pointed out that in that event, there was a flagrant abuse of prosecutorial power by Jim Garrison. Clay Shaw, whom Garrison had charged with conspiring to assassinate President John F. Kennedy, had been acquitted and exonerated. Over a dozen people were arrested or charged with a crime by Garrison (though they were never prosecuted). Three were members of the press—Walter Sheridan of NBC News, David Chandler of Life magazine, and Richard Townley of WSDU-TV. Arrest warrants were issued for them on charges of libel because they had claimed that Garrison was fabricating evidence.
Three were members of Garrison’s staff. They were charged with larceny for leaking Garrison’s purported evidence to the press. Six were potential witnesses. They claimed Garrison asked them to perjure themselves or plant evidence in return for legal favors or cash. Garrison also arrested someone called Edgar Eugene Bradley, charging him with “conspiracy to kill JFK.” The arrest was just a desperate effort to divert public opinion. After Bradley—whoever he is—was released, Garrison forgot about him. The assistant DA said, “It was a mistake.” You won’t find Bradley’s name in the movie “JFK.” At this point, having appealed to the civil liberties side of the Nation audience, I was not booed. So I proceeded to make the points I had prepared.
“A Martyr in His Quest for Truth”
Stone was the final speaker. Born in 1946 in New York City, Stone had directed such critically acclaimed films as “Platoon,” “The Doors,” and “Wall Street.” He strode over to the podium and responded, “I obviously would like to address some of your questions, Mr. Epstein, but we’ll wait till afterward.” He said that his film represented the mythic “common man, Jim Garrison, risking a comfortable life to do battle with the forces of overwhelming evil. He cannot in the end, of course, be triumphant because this would mean a successful political revolution against this invisible government. He must fail and become a martyr in his quest for truth.” The audience gave him another standing ovation.
The debate ended at 11:00 p.m. Afterward, we gathered backstage, where my guest, Sonserai Lee, joined me. A 27-year-old Korean-born practitioner of Asian traditional medicine, she had accompanied me on a three-week trip to China, Inner Mongolia, and Japan in 1990. She instantly caught Stone’s eye. Although he had not previously spoken to me off-stage, he suddenly shouted from across the room, “Hey guys, where are you going to dinner?” Sonserai said, “The Royalton,” and next thing I knew, he joined us for dinner. He brought with him his production assistant Kristina Hare.
At dinner, Stone proved to be far more insightful than I had expected from his JFK movie. He also was completely charming. I realized that charm was a skill that a successful movie director like Stone needs to get peak performances from his actors. (Stone would later give me a small part in his movie “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps.”) Toward the end of dinner, he brought up the CIA’s former counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton. When I mentioned I knew Angleton, he exclaimed, “Wow. Did he say if the CIA killed JFK?”
“Angleton is a story for some other time,” I replied. What I didn’t tell him was that Angleton had had an enormous influence over the way that I viewed the work of intelligence services.
This essay is adapted from Assume Nothing: Encounters with Assassins, Spies, Presidents, and Would-Be Masters of the Universe, by Edward Jay Epstein (Encounter Books, 404 pages, $36.99).