In December, 1991, Warner Brothers pictures released Oliver Stone’s JFK, the film adaptation of the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (1921-1922) into the death of President John F. Kennedy. The film is filled with an all-star cast and remains one of Stone’s greatest accomplishments. Reviews of the movie are generally favorable but there are many critics who have voiced their dissatisfaction with the film believing that Stone omitted crucial information and glorified Garrison on screen. The famed director did an incredible job of bringing the past of life and his effort paid off immensely as more records related to President Kennedy’s assassination were released to the public. The actors that took part in the landmark film all did an incredible job in making the story one that will continue to spark curiosity. From history, we know that Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) was the alleged assassin but was murdered himself before he could stand trial. Several years later, Garrison began his own investigation, focusing on what he believed to be a plot in his own City of New Orleans to murder Kennedy. His investigation resulted in the arrest and prosecution of local businessman Clay L. Shaw (1913-1973). The trial became infamous for its absurdity and Shaw was exonerated in March, 1969. Garrison later tried Shaw on the charge of perjury and Shaw subsequently filed a civil suit against Garrison and others for the violations of his civil rights. These matters and others were unresolved at the time of Shaw’s death from lung cancer on August 15, 1974.
But just who was Clay Shaw and what really was his significance in the murder of John F. Kennedy? In the film we do not know much about Shaw’s past and the focus remains on his alleged connections to Oswald and David Ferrie (1918-1967). The impression that can be made from the movie is that a plot to kill Kennedy evolved among homosexual right wing extremists determined to see the President removed from office. Curiously, nearly none of the popular books on the assassination regard Shaw as a conspirator in the President’s murder. The reality of the case, as shown by Donald Carpenter in this phenomenal biography of Shaw, is that his life was far different from what we have been led to believe and the real Clay Shaw really was a man of a million fragments.
Carpenter researched Shaw’s life over a period of eighteen years before completing the book. Interviews with those who knew Shaw were conducted and Carpenter also reviewed Shaw’s surviving documents, newspaper clippings, statements given by Shaw on screen and other important notes and memorabilia. The final story is simply one of amazement and sheds light on a man who lived a incredible life. For those of us who have visited the French Quarter in New Orleans, we can attest to the level of enjoyment that awaits all of those who pay visit to the legendary Bourbon Street. Today Shaw’s name is an afterthought but at one time, he was a well-known, respected and beloved resident of the French Quarter whose efforts to transfer the neighborhood paid off well and earned him a permanent place in the City’s history.
For all of the shortcomings that plagued JFK, the film was correct regarding the issue of Shaw’s sexual orientation. And in the book it is a reoccurring subject which follows Shaw throughout his life and takes center stage during his trial. The true motives for Garrison trying Shaw remain somewhat elusive and the “evidence” of Shaw’s guilt was fragile at best. Further, rumors about Garrison’s own sexual conduct become fodder for conversation peaking with an incident involving a minor at an athletic club in 1969. I had previously read about Garrison’s indiscretions which are directly addressed by the late Kent “Frenchy” Brouilette (1936-2015) in his autobiography Mr. New Orleans: The Life of a Big Easy Underworld Legend. If Brouilette is truthful, which appears to be the case, then the anecdotes contained within this book carry more clout and shed light on Shaw’s statement to more than one friend that he would tell them the real motive behind his persecution after the trial was completed. As far as we know and the author has concluded, there is nothing in Shaw’s handwriting or oral statements by him addressing the issue.
Carpenter did an immaculate job of chronicling Shaw’s life providing a staggering amount of information on the late star of the International Trade Mart. In particular, he dives into the topic of Shaw’s affiliation with the Central Intelligence Agency bringing more clarity to the issue while also refuting unfounded conspiracy rumors. Shaw’s life is covered from beginning to end and it was an incredible journey that included service in World War II, a stint in New York City, a career with foreign trade, restoration of the French Quarter and a showdown with a controversial district attorney whose case threatened the foundation of the U.S. legal system. There are many things that we do know about Shaw’s life, but there are many more that went with him to his grave. This is by far the most accurate detailed analysis of Shaw’s life that I have read to date. And if you have watched Stone’s groundbreaking film, are planning to or are curious about Clay Shaw, this is the place to start.