Jim Garrison: Interview with Playboy:
On February 17, 1967, the New Orleans States–Item broke a story that would electrify the world — and hurl district attorney Jim Garrison into a bitter fight for his political life. An enterprising reporter, checking vouchers filed with the city by the district attorney’s office, discovered that Garrison had spent over $8000 investigating the assassination of President Kennedy.
“Has the district attorney discovered valuable additional evidence,” the States–Item asked editorially, “or is he merely saving some interesting new information that will gain for him exposure in a national magazine?” Stung, Garrison counter–attacked, confirming that an inquiry into Kennedy’s assassination was under way and charging that the States–Item’s “irresponsible” revelation “has now created a problem for us in finding witnesses and getting cooperation from other witnesses and in at least one case has endangered the life of a witness.”
New Orleans and the JFK Assassination
On February 18, newsmen from all over the world converged on New Orleans to hear Garrison announce at a press conference: “We have been investigating the role of the city of New Orleans in the assassination of President Kennedy, and we have made some progress — I think substantial progress.… What’s more, there will be arrests.”
As reporters flashed news of Garrison’s statement across the world, a 49–year–old New Orleans pilot, David Ferrie, told newsmen that the district attorney had him “pegged as the getaway pilot in an elaborate plot to kill Kennedy.” Ferrie, a bizarre figure who wore a flaming–red wig, false eyebrows and make–up to conceal burns he had suffered years before, denied any involvement in a conspiracy to kill the President. Garrison, he said, was out to frame him.
Four days later, Ferrie was found dead in his shabby three–room apartment in New Orleans, ostensibly of natural causes — though he left behind two suicide notes.
The press had greeted Garrison’s initial claims about a conspiracy with a measure of skepticism, but Ferrie’s death was front–page news around the world. Garrison broke his self–imposed silence to charge that Ferrie was “a man who, in my judgment, was one of history’s most important individuals.” According to Garrison, “Mr. Ferrie was one of those individuals I had in mind when I said there would be arrests shortly. We had reached a decision to arrest him early next week. Apparently we waited too long.”
But Garrison vowed that Ferrie’s death would not halt his investigation, and added, “My staff and I solved the assassination weeks ago. I wouldn’t say this if we didn’t have the evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt. We know the key individuals, the cities involved and how it was done.”
The Arrest of Clay Shaw
On March 1, Garrison eclipsed even the headlines from his previous press conference by announcing the arrest of Clay Shaw, a wealthy New Orleans businessman and real–estate developer, on charges of conspiring to assassinate John F. Kennedy. One of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens, Shaw was a founder and director of the city’s prestigious International Trade Mart from 1947 to 1962, when he retired to devote his time to playwriting and restoring historic homes in the old French Quarter.
The day after Shaw’s arrest, Garrison declared that “Shaw was none other than Clay Bertrand,” the shadowy queen bee of the New Orleans homosexual underworld, who, according to attorney Dean Andrews’ testimony before the Warren Commission, called him the day after the assassination and asked him to rush to Dallas to defend Oswald.
Shaw heatedly denied his guilt: “I never heard of any plot and I never used any alias in my life.” But New Orleans society, which had long counted Shaw one of its own, was stunned.
On March 14, a panel of three judges heard Garrison’s case in a preliminary hearing to determine if there was enough evidence against Shaw to bring him to trial. Perry Raymond Russo, a 25–year–old life–insurance salesman from Baton Rouge who had once been Ferrie’s “roommate,” testified that in mid–September of 1963, he had attended a meeting at Ferrie’s apartment where Shaw, Lee Harvey Oswald and Ferrie discussed means of assassinating the President in a “triangulation of cross fire.”
Garrison’s second witness, Vernon Bundy, a 29–year–old former narcotics addict, testified that in the summer of 1963, he saw Shaw pass a sum of money to Lee Harvey Oswald on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. On March 17, after a four–day hearing, Judges Malcolm V. O’Hara, Bernard J. Bagert and Matthew S. Braniff ruled there was sufficient evidence to hold Clay Shaw for trial.
Garrison’s hand was further strengthened on March 22, when a 12–member grand jury of prominent New Orleans citizens, empaneled to hear Garrison’s case, also ruled there were sufficient grounds to bring Shaw to court. Pending trial — which is scheduled to begin sometime this month — Shaw was allowed to go free on $10,000 bail.
Support for Garrison’s Investigation
The American press remained dubious about Garrison’s ability to prove his charges in court, and domestic coverage of and commentary on the district attorney’s case thereafter was, at best, low–key — at worst, contemptuous. But as Newsweek reported on March 20, “In Europe, where thousands still cling to the conspiracy theory in spite of the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone Garrison and his investigation have been the stuff of page–one headlines.”
“I’m encouraged by the support Europe is bringing me,” he told a Paris–Match reporter. “Every day, I receive letters and telegrams from all the capitals. I’ve even had six telephone calls from Moscow.” One was from Literaturnaya Gazeta, a Prestigious Moscow literary magazine, which ran an interview with Garrison concluding that there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy but that Oswald “definitely wasn’t the key figure in it.”
Garrison also had his supporters in the U. S. Boston’s Richard Cardinal Cushing, father–confessor to the Kennedy family, said of the New Orleans probe on March 16: “I think they should follow it through. I never believed that the assassination was the work of one man.” And Representative Roman Pucinski, an Illinois Democrat, said: “I’m surprised more attention hasn’t been paid to the ruling that Clay Shaw go on trial for participating in a plot to assassinate President Kennedy. These aren’t nuts but three judges talking. It’s a new ball game.”
Senator Russell Long of Louisiana also backed up Garrison — an old political ally — contending that he was only doing “what a district attorney should do.” And perennial Warren Report critic Mark Lane (himself a Playboy interviewee last February), whose best–selling Rush to Judgment helped persuade Garrison to launch his investigation, said after a conference with Garrison in New Orleans that the D.A.’s probe would “break the entire case wide open.”
If nothing else, Garrison was certainly affecting public opinion. A Louis Harris poll of May 29 revealed that 66 percent of the American public now believes there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, and “a major contributor to this swelling doubt is the investigation into the assassination by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison.”
Even with public opinion on his side, Garrison was running into difficulties on several fronts by early summer. Three witnesses he wished to question about their complicity in the assassination had fled Louisiana, and he was unable to obtain their extradition to New Orleans — a seldom–encountered roadblock he credits to the CIA, “which knows that some of its former employees were involved in the Kennedy assassination and is doing everything possible to frustrate my investigation in order to preserve the Agency’s good name.” The CIA refuses to comment on Garrison’s charges.
Opposition from the Media
Garrison was also under heavy fire over the improper methods allegedly employed by his staff. The most blistering indictment of his probe was an NBC television special on June 19, charging:
- that Garrison’s investigators had tried to bribe three potential witnesses — Alvin Beauboeuf, Miguel Torres and Fred Leemans — to testify against Shaw;
- that Garrison’s staff had attempted to induce a burglar, John Cancler, to plant false evidence in Clay Shaw’s home;
- and that Garrison had allowed Perry Russo and Vernon Bundy to testify against Shaw even though they had previously failed lie–detector tests.
NBC added that its investigators had also unearthed the real “Clay Bertrand”; and though NBC didn’t name him, it said that he was not Clay Shaw.
Subsequently, NBC might have had second thoughts about its exposé, for the network granted Garrison an unprecedented 30 minutes of prime Saturday–evening time to rebut its own findings. Garrison charged that the three witnesses who claimed his aids had tried to bribe them were perjurers.
He also denied that his office had approached John Cancler to burglarize Shaw’s home, and stated flatly that both Russo and Bundy had passed their polygraph tests. On the key point of the “real” Clay Bertrand, Garrison said that he knew the identity of the individual NBC was talking about and that he was definitely not the man who called attorney Dean Andrews to gain legal aid for Lee Harvey Oswald.
Jim Garrison’s Career
Undismayed — and undeterred — by all the charges and countercharges, Garrison still says, “We are going to win this case, and anyone who bets against us is going to lose his money.” The embattled district attorney may be overconfident, but he has a history of winning every fight he starts.
Born in Dennison, Iowa, on November 20, 1921, Garrison flew an unarmored spotter plane for the artillery in France and Germany during World War Two and then attended Tulane University Law School. He then went to New Orleans to work as an assistant district attorney until 1961, when he resigned with a scorching attack on Mayor Victor H. Schiro, whom he charged with corruption and failure to rigorously enforce the law.
Garrison entered the race for district attorney as a fiercely uncompromising reform candidate, lambasting the “political machine” of Mayor Schiro and characterizing the incumbent district attorney, Richard Dowling, as “the great emancipator — he let everybody go free.” Garrison, six feet six, and 240 pounds, was quickly dubbed the “Jolly Green Giant.” He had no political organization and not much money, but his personal magnetism and refusal to compromise appealed to the New Orleans electorate. He defeated Dowling handily and promptly began convicting men on charges his predecessor had dropped.
Garrison’s five years as district attorney have been stormy. He outraged many of his former supporters in the business community by launching a campaign against vice on Bourbon Street, charging that B–girls were mercilessly fleecing naive tourists. Garrison cleaned up Bourbon Street himself, personally padlocking many honky–tonks and striptease clubs.
But his toughest fight — until the current one — came in 1962, when he announced that the refusal of the city’s eight criminal–court judges to approve funds for his investigations of organized crime “raised interesting questions about racketeer influences.“ The judges promptly charged Garrison with defamation of character and criminal libel — and a state court fined him $1000. Garrison appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and on November 23, 1964, in a landmark decision on the right to criticize public officials, the nation’s highest tribunal reversed his conviction, contending that “speech concerning public affairs is more than self–expression; it is the essence of self–government.“ Never one to turn the other cheek, Garrison subsequently employed his political influence to unseat a number of the judges when they came up for re–election.
The district attorney’s independence has at times nettled both left and right in New Orleans. When the police department tried to prosecute a bookdealer for selling James Baldwin’s Another Country, Garrison stepped in with a broadside against censorship and won the man’s release — promptly bringing down on his head the wrath of the local White Citizens Council.
At the other end of the political spectrum, he has been criticized by the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, which once accused him of trying an alleged rapist “in the press rather than in the courtroom.” But Negro leaders in the city say Garrison has been a fair and impartial district attorney; in his last bid for re–election, he polled as well in the Negro precincts as he did in the white.
The years 1965 and 1966 were — by Garrison’s standards — relatively quiet. His only major public controversy during this period fared up when he interceded with Louisiana Governor John McKeithen to win a pardon for a local stripper named Linda Birgette, who had been convicted on a charge of lewd dancing. Garrison claimed it was impossible to define obscenity in literature or the arts and argued that jailing Miss Birgette would be a “gross miscarriage of justice.” McKeithen acceded to his pleas and, despite cries of protest from local bluenoses, the incident served to increase Garrison’s popularity.
Allowing Garrison to State His Case
The same could hardly be said of his current probe, which has made him both a target for abuse — justified or otherwise — that has tended to obscure rather than clarify the issues involved in the investigation, and a victim of often one–sided press coverage that NBC’s half hour of equal time has done little to rectify.
In Playboy’s opinion, Garrison has not yet had the chance to present his side of the case — in court or out — without expurgation or editorializing. We feel he ought to have that chance. Toward this end, in mid–July, we approached the embattled district attorney with our offer of an impartial, open–ended interview.
The 12–hour cross–examination that followed — in the midst of Garrison’s round–the–clock investigation — was conducted in the living room of the two–story home he shares with his blonde wife and three young children in a tree–lined residential neighborhood of New Orleans. As the dog–tired district attorney stretched his long legs across a couch, battered briar pipe (a political trademark) in one hand, a vodka martini (his favorite drink) in the other, Playboy interviewer Eric Norden began by asking him to answer the most damaging charges of his critics.