Clay L. Shaw is widely known, thanks to Oliver Stone, as someone who was complicit in the assassination of President Kennedy. In Stone’s movie, JFK, Shaw was played, by renowned actor Tommy Lee Jones, as an effeminate, fastidious, limp-wristed gay man who enjoyed homosexual orgies while watching films of the Hitler Youth engaged in exercise, as well as one of the architects of the 1963 JFK assassination.
Yet, the real Clay Shaw was nothing like the man portrayed in Stone’s film. Far from enjoying anything about NAZIs, the real Clay Shaw was a progressive liberal who supported President Kennedy’s election as well as a World War II veteran who fought against Nazism in Europe and who was decorated by three different countries: The United States with the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star, by France with the Croix de Guerre and named Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merite, and by Belgium named Chevalier of the Order of the Crown of Belgium.
Shaw was a man’s man with an athletic and powerful build. While no credible evidence was presented of Mr. Shaw’s alleged homosexuality – he repeatedly denied being gay – one could hardly fault a prominent businessman, in 1960’s Louisiana, for not acknowledging it – were he, in fact, a gay man.. In the end, Mr. Shaw’s sexual orientation is not germane to the underlying issues concerning the miscarriage of justice visited upon him by New Orleans DA Garrison.
Clay Shaw was the only person ever tried for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Most, however, do not know that he was also a highly decorated war hero, a prominent New Orleans businessman, a French Quarter preservationists, a valued civic leader, and, from the age of sixteen, a successful playwright. Some of his plays are still produced to this day.
Born on March 17, 1913 into a respected family in the small Louisiana town of Kentwood, Clay Laverne Shaw was named for his grandfather, Thomas Clay Shaw, Kentwood’s Town Marshal. When he was five, he and his family moved to New Orleans.
At Warren Easton High School, Shaw’s one-act play “Submerged,” which he wrote with a classmate, won a state playwriting contest. After graduation from high school, Shaw moved to New York where he managed a Western Union office, while attending Columbia University, and later, was a booking manager for a lecture bureau, representing luminaries such as poet John Masefield, actor Maurice Evans, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mr. Shaw, a life-long progressive and enthusiastic supporter of “The New Deal,” was particularly fond of Mrs. Roosevelt and her late husband, President Franklin Roosevelt.
When World War II began, Shaw enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Soon commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, he was appointed to the staff of Brigadier General Charles O. Thrasher, directing supplies for the million men who crossed the English Channel in the D-Day invasion.
In a world still recovering from the horrors of war, Shaw saw international trade as more than just a matter of economics. He told a local newspaper, “People who are doing business with each other don’t often get into a fight. Nobody shoots a good customer, and countries that have friendly relations aren’t going to start a war.” While serving as Managing Director of the International Trade Mart, Shaw also became an urban preservationists, renovating French Quarter buildings.
All of these activities left little time for his first love, writing. In 1965, Shaw decided to retire from his position as the Director of the New Orleans Trade Mart. At his retirement, the City of New Orleans awarded him its highest honor, the International Order of Merit, in appreciation of his many contributions to the city. But, the social and political turbulence of the 1960s made a quiet retirement for the aspiring writer impossible.
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas nearly three years prior to Clay Shaw’s retirement. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a blue-ribbon committee to investigate the assassination and to report its findings to the American people. Headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, it became known as the “Warren Commission.” The Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin, but a large portion of the population felt that they had not presented the whole story.
New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison was one such skeptic. Garrison was Liberal, ruthless, and politically ambitious. He saw in the Kennedy assassination his opportunity for fame. He announced that the Warren Commission had deliberately lied to the American people, purposefully covering up a conspiracy. Reveling in the international attention he received, Garrison proposed, variously, that the conspiracy was hatched by the C. I. A., the F. B. I., the military-industrial complex, Cuban Communists, and Lyndon Johnson with the help of his Texas oil baron friends.
But Garrison needed a theory that allowed him jurisdiction to prosecute, so he came up with the idea that the conspiracy was planned in New Orleans, and the assassination was a “homosexual thrill killing.” He told a journalist, “They had the same motive as Loeb and Leopold when they murdered Bobbie Franks in Chicago.”
On March 1, 1967, Jim Garrison arrested Clay Shaw and charged him with conspiring to assassinate President Kennedy. Garrison suspected Shaw was gay, but the general public did not. Shaw would soon forever be known to the world, rightly or wrongly, as a “homosexual.”
A pillar of the New Orleans’s Community, Shaw was soon being falsely described by Garrison and his office a as a sadistic and perverse man who patronized gay prostitutes. Many of New Orleans’s civic leaders protested the false charges as nothing more than a witch hunt.
While the prosecutor had an entire staff and large budget devoted to the prosecution, Mr. Shaw was force to spend most of his life’s savings in defending against the charges.
At trial, it soon became evident that Mr. Garrison really had no case despite having assured the swarm of media organizations covering the affair that he had more than sufficient evidence to convict Mr. Shaw.
Prior to trial, national news outlets, including NBC, The New York times and the Washington Post, began covering stories concerning documented instances of misconduct by District Attorney Garrison’s office. These included, among others, bribery, intimidation and suborning perjury in an effort to coerce people into testifying against Clay Shaw.
Some of the reporting included taped and televised interviews with witnesses Garrison’s office attempted to extort into giving false testimony against Shaw.
INTERVIEW OF JOHN CANCLER BY NBC NEWS
Q. What is your profession, Mr. Cancler?
A. You mean, what was my profession?
A. I was a burglar.
Q. You were in Parish Prison on this burglary rap.
Q. And did you meet a man named Vernon Bundy there?
A. I found out later his name was Vernon Bundy. See, I didn’t know what his name was until I read the paper. I only knew him as “Legs.”
Q. What did “Legs” tell you up there?
A. He just said, “I wonder whether I should say I saw him on Esplanade or I saw him on the lakefront.” I said, “Man, it’s getting bad if you start talking to yourself, too.” You know, like some of these guys will stir bug, you know. He said, “No, man.” He said, “I’m talking about this cat, Shaw.” I said, “What you talking about, man?” He said, “Man, I don’t know whether it’s best for me to say I saw him on Esplanade Street or the lakefront.”
Q. Did Bundy indicate to you whether the story that he was going to tell in court was true?
A. Did he [indicate]? How could he indicate when he would ask me, should he say this or should he say that? If it was the truth, he would know what to say.
Q. It was obvious from what he told you that he was going to tell a lie then?
A. He told a lie.
Q. Did he tell you it was a lie?
A. Sure. I asked him, “Man, is this the truth?” He said, no. He said, “No, it’s not the truth.”(2)
INTERVIEW WITH MIGUEL TORRES BY NBC NEWS
Torres was also incarcerated with Garrision’s important witness, Vernon Bundy.
Q. What did he [Garrision witness Vernon Bundy] tell you about his testimony that day?
A. He says, “Well, that’s the only way that I can get cut loose.” I asked him, how much time did he owe that state. He said he owed the state five years; he was out on five years’ probation. And then I said, “Well, that’s a hell of a thing to be doing in order to do what you want to do.” He says, “Well, the reason I am doing this is, it’s the only way I can get cut loose.”
Q. In other words, he said to you, in effect, that he was testifying as he was in the Shaw hearing in order to prevent his probation from being revoked, is that right?
A. From being violated, yes, sir.
Q. Did you get the impression that he knew that his testimony in the hearing had been false?
A. Well, just exactly how I said. He said, “The reason I am doing this is because it’s the only way I can get cut loose.” And the impression I got was that: that it was [an] out-front lie.(3)
INTERVIEW WITH MIGUEL TORRES BY NBC NEWS
A. A few months back they called me out to the control center at Angola, and there was two district attorney investigators who came to me with some pictures in a briefcase.
Q. Who were they?
A. One of them was Lynn Loisel, and I forgot the other one’s name.
Q. Louis Ivon?
A. Yes, sir, I believe that’s the name. Well, Mr. Loisel, the way he opened up the conversation, he asked me what was the thing that I wanted the most. I told him, needless to say, my freedom. So he said, I could either be cut loose right away, or I could be made to serve this whole nine-year sentence. The way he said it, the District Attorney, Mr. Garrison, could cut me loose completely. He would say he was a very powerful man, that he could hurt many people, or he could also help them. All depend [sic] on how they cooperated with him.
Q. Now, what happened to you after you came back here to the Parish Prison?
A. Well, he started asking me — You see, I lived in the 1300 block of Chartres, way back when I first came to the states. And then I lived in [the] 900 block of Esplanade, which puts me in a good position around Mr. Clay’s house. And he wanted me to say I had been approached by Mr. Shaw in couple occasions [sic], see. And I refused to say that. I told him, I can’t say that.
Q. Approached in what way?
A. Homosexual approach. And he wanted me to say that Mr. Clay Shaw was Clem Bertrand.
Q. Had you ever been approached by anyone meeting that description?
A. No, sir. I have never been approached by anyone like that.
As one might suspect, Mr. Shaw was acquitted at trial where his bewildered jurors, who deliberated less than an hour before rendering a verdict, expressed shock that such a case was even brought to begin with.
Mr. Shaw, who had planned on an early retirement around the time he was charged, ended up having to return to work in order to support himself. He died some five years later as a recluse. The anxiety and extreme pressure he endured as a result of this persecution by Garrison’s office, as well as the smearing of his name throughout the international press, had taken a severe toll on the former war hero’s health. He would never recover – emotionally or physically.
As for Mr. Garrison, the voters drove him from office by an overwhelming majority when he attempted reelection. This, in large part due to the bogus case brought against Mr. Shaw.
Unfortunately for Mr. Shaw, it is impossible to unerring a bell and he spent the remainder of his life tarnished by the event.