Jim Garrison Interrogates Clay Shaw
Tommy Lee Jones as New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw
Oliver Stone’s JFK portrays New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw as a sinister, two-faced conspirator whose arrogance nearly incites New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) to physical violence.
JIM (handing a photo to Shaw) Mr. Shaw, can you identify this man?
SHAW Naturally. (he looks up) Are you claiming, Mr. Garrison, that Mr. Oswald also had dinner with me?
JIM (humorless) Mr. Shaw, did you ever meet Lee Harvey Oswald?
SHAW You really have me consorting with a cast of sordid characters, don’t you, Mr. Garrison.
JIM Please answer the question.
SHAW Of course not! Such a pity, that assassination. In fact, I admired President Kennedy. A man with true panache, and a wife with impeccable taste.
Jim shows Shaw a newspaper clipping.
JIM Mr. Shaw, this is an Italian newspaper article saying you were a member of the Board of Centro Mondo [sic] Commerciale in Italy, that this company was a creature of the CIA for the transfer of funds in Italy for illegal political-espionage activities. It says that this company was expelled from Italy for those activities.
SHAW I’m well aware of this asinine article. And I am thinking very seriously of suing this rag of a newspaper.
JIM It says that this company has heavily Fascist ties to the French secret army organization that tried to assassinate de Gaulle in 1960.
SHAW Nonsense. What next?
JIM . . . and that this company is linked to the Schlumber [sic] tool company here in Houma, Louisiana — which is where their arms may have come from to David Ferrie and his Cubans . . .
SHAW Mr. Garrison, you’re reaching. I am an international businessman. The Trade Mart which I founded is America’s commercial pipeline to Latin America. I trade everywhere. I am accused, as are all businessmen, of all things. I somehow go about my business, make money, help society the best I can and try to promote free trade in this world.
JIM Mr. Shaw, have you ever been a contract agent with the Central Intelligence Agency?
Shaw glares at him. Silence.
SHAW (with powerful contempt) And if I was, Mr. Garrison . . . do you think I would be here today . . . talking to somebody like you?
JIM No, people like you don’t have to, I guess — people like you walk between the raindrops.
SHAW (rising) May I go? Regardless of what you may think of me, Mr. Garrison, I am a patriot first and foremost.
JIM I’ve spent half my life in the United States military serving and defending this great country, Mr. Shaw, and you’re the first person I ever met who considered it an act of patriotism to kill his own president.
SHAW Now just a minute, sir! You’re way out of line!
Susie and Bill [fictional investigators “Susie Cox” and “Bill Broussard”] quiet Jim down.
BILL Come on, chief. (as he shows Shaw to the door) I’m sorry, Mr. Shaw, it’s getting late. That’s all the questions we have. Thank you for your honesty and for coming in today.
SHAW I enjoyed meeting with you gentlemen, and you, Miss Cox. It was most pleasant. I wish to extend to each of you — and to each of your families — my best wishes for a happy Easter. (he exits.)
JIM (beat, excited) “One may smile and smile and be a villain.” Goddammit! We got one of ’em!(1)
Alas, the scene is pure fiction. In reality, Shaw was questioned in a relaxed, informal session on December 23, 1966. He was asked where he was at the time of the Kennedy assassination (in San Francisco) and whether he knew Lee Oswald (he didn’t).(2) He made a favorable impression upon Garrison, who subsequently told his staff to “forget Shaw.”(3) It was two months later, after the death of his only serious suspect, David Ferrie, that Garrison turned his attention to Clay Shaw, due to his theory that Shaw was the mysterious “Clay Bertrand” described in Dean Andrews’s Warren Commission testimony.
At no time during Shaw’s questioning was the CIA mentioned; in fact, prior to the conclusion of Shaw’s 1969 trial, Garrison never publicly mentioned any suspicion of CIA involvement on Shaw’s part. (The prosecution never mentioned the CIA even a single time during the trial.) As discussed in a separate article, there is no basis to the allegations made years later by Garrison and adopted by Oliver Stone in the above scene.
Here is how Clay Shaw himself later described his experiences with the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office to journalist James Kirkwood:
“On December 23, 1966, I had a call early in the morning from a Detective Otillio in the District Attorney’s office; would I be good enough to come down and answer some questions? I was curious and asked what about. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we’ll talk about that when we see you.’ I said all right and he came by and drove me to the DA’s office, where I was questioned by an assistant DA named Sciambra, who told me they’d come across the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald had known someone named Clay Bertrand when he was in New Orleans. They’d gone over a list of Clays, thought about me, and wanted to know if I’d known Oswald. I said no, that I’d almost met him when he’d come to distribute Fair Play for Cuba leaflets in front of the Trade Mart, but that my assistant had dealt with him. I added, with what in retrospect seems irony, that I guess I missed my tiny footnote in history by not meeting the bird. They wanted to know more about the Cuban consulate — it was the presence of the consulate in the building that drew Oswald to that point to distribute the leaflets — and most of their questions concerned that. I was asked if I knew a man by the name of Dave Ferrie. No, I hadn’t. Then Jim Garrison came in and we rehashed what I’d already told Sciambra. It was all very friendly and then they thanked me profusely for being a good citizen, for being cooperative and coming in and talking to them, and I left. Went on to a Christmas party at City Hall.”
[Kirkwood writes:] I asked Clay Shaw how he felt about this and he smiled and waved a hand in the air. “I felt it was interesting dinner conversation. You know, being called down to the DA’s office and grilled. I thought it was kind of entertaining. I didn’t take it seriously at all. After that I read in the papers about Garrison’s probe, read about Dave Ferrie’s death and about someone named Russo writing a letter to the District Attorney saying he’d known Ferrie. But I had no more than a cursory interest in what was going on.
“Then on Sunday evening, February 26, a Walter Sheridan from the NBC Washington Bureau got in touch with me, wanted to know if he could come over and talk with me. I said yes, and he arrived some after.” Clay Shaw hesitated and lifted a hand in the air, one finger pointed up. “You know, it’s funny but a faint alarm sounded when I asked him if he’d like a drink and he hesitated perceptibly. I thought this was strange, but he recovered and said he’d have one. I wondered why this man wouldn’t want to take a drink with me, but then I thought, Oh, well, I’m imagining things. I fixed our drinks and he said there were rumors in town I was the mysterious Clay Bertrand that a man named Dean A. Andrews, Jr., had talked about in connection with Oswald. I pointed out to him that it would be ridiculous for me to try to use an alias of any kind, that I was well known in the city, I’d been on television, given speeches, my picture had been in the papers over a period of years and, because of my size alone [Shaw was 6’4″], I couldn’t very well get away with running around using a fictitious name. I told him I had no idea what was going on, but I did know that I was not now nor have I ever been Clay Bertrand. We talked in general about Garrison’s probe, then he thanked me and left. I still thought the whole thing was silly,” Clay Shaw added, sloughing it off with a shrug that belongs back in time more than a year.
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“Two days after Mr. Sheridan’s visit, on Tuesday, February 28, a friend of mine came over to see me and mentioned that there were two men sitting outside in a car and that they looked like detectives. I glanced out of an upstairs window and there were two men in a car, but I thought if they were detectives they must be watching someone else. Later on, after an hour or so, I answered the doorbell and found two youngish men standing there, one dark, one fair. The dark one presented me with a card, saying he was from, I believe, Mutual of Omaha, that they were making a survey of people’s insurance needs and would I talk to them. I said it was a bad time, I had company, and I also told him that I was, if anything, overinsured and was not a good prospect. The dark man — I’d never seen him before, but he turned out to be Perry Russo at the preliminary hearing — anyway, he asked if he might phone and speak with me further sometime. I said yes, but again reiterated that my insurance needs were well taken care of, and they left.
“The following morning, March 1, I went to the office of a friend of mine and a woman, a mutual friend, phoned about ten-thirty to say that she’d heard on local television that the District Attorney had issued a subpoena for me. I said, ‘Well, that’s nutty, I’ll find out about it.’ I called the DA’s office, asked to speak to Mr. Garrison and was told he wasn’t there. I got a Mr. Ivon and said, ‘Do you people want to talk to me?’ Well, yes, they did. ‘You don’t have to issue a subpoena, just call me up,’ I told him. ‘What time would you like to see me?’ Ivon said about one o’clock and I said fine, a friend of mine would drive me out. I stopped by my house to pick up my mail and there were two or three sheriff’s deputies in the patio — I don’t know how they got in — and Detective Otillio, my old friend of December 23. They had the subpoena and asked me to sign it. I thought it was ridiculous and told them I’d just talked to Ivon and had arranged to go out there at one, to check with him. They did and then Otillio said, well, it was getting on toward noon and that I could either come out at one or drive out with him then.”
I interrupted Clay Shaw. “Did you call your lawyer or –” He waved a hand in the air. “No, I didn’t even think about it. Who needs a lawyer?” he asked rhetorically. “I rode out to the DA’s and was kept waiting until about two-thirty in various offices talking to Otillio, who incidentally told me the story of his life.” Shaw grins but the grin soon disappears. “I began to get a little annoyed. I was being cooperative but by this time I’d been there two and a half hours. I hadn’t had any lunch and I was hungry and I began to be a little sharp about the whole thing. Finally I was told that Sciambra and Ivon wanted to talk to me, so I was taken into a room where they were. They got me a sandwich and a Coke — on the state, I didn’t have to pay for it; however, the price turned out to be rather severe. I asked them what they wanted and they began to question me. Did I know David Ferrie, had I ever been to David Ferrie’s apartment? The answer was no. And on and on. They showed me pictures of Ferrie and others. Did I know Lee Harvey Oswald? No. ‘You’ve never been to David Ferrie’s apartment?’ No. Then finally: ‘What would you say if we said we have three witnesses who would testify that you’d been to David Ferrie’s apartment?’ I told them I’d say that either the three witnesses were mistaken or lying — that I’d never been there, period. This went on for the better part of an hour or so. Finally I was asked if I’d take a lie-detector test. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’ve come down here, I’ve been cooperative, I’ve told you the truth.’ They told me that if I wouldn’t take a lie-detector test they were going to arrest me and charge me with conspiracy in the murder of President Kennedy.”
Clay Shaw’s eye, even now, widen in disbelief and he flings his arms out to the side of his chair. “‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding!” No, they said, that’s the way it is. ‘In that case I want a lawyer and I want one now.'”
He called his lawyer, Eddie Wegmann, who was out of town; called his brother, William J. Wegmann, who was also unavailable; finally contacted an associate of the latter, Salvatore Panzeca, who said, “Sit tight, don’t say anything, I’ll be right down.” Shaw was left alone, locked in a room, until Panzeca arrived and took out a pad on which he wrote that the room was bugged, the mirror was two-way, and they’d best communicate in writing. He asked Shaw what this was all about and Clay, now completely stunned, could only scrawl, “I don’t know.” Panzeca then left to speak to the DA, telling Garrison that his client would not object to taking a lie-detector test but that he, Panzeca, would like him to have a good night’s sleep first and they wanted the right to look at the questions; anything pertaining to the President’s assassination was fine, but the questions would be limited to that.
Garrison, however, smarting from a baying press, from the world, in fact, shouting for him to come up with something or someone solid after days of dropping tantalizing hints that he had solved the riddle of the assassination, swung into high gear and said, “No deals, he’s got to do it right now or we’ll arrest him.”
Panzeca immediately set about arranging bail and, with the Wegmann brothers now contacted and on their way and approximately 150 members of the press and TV swarming all over the building, Shaw was formally arrested. The statement was read by William Gurvich, a chief investigator on Garrison’s staff who later defected, even going so far as to appeal to Robert Kennedy to aid in calling a halt, and later appearing before the grand jury under oath. After that grand jury hearing, he repeated publicly that Garrison’s probe had no basis in fact and that there were absolutely no legitimate grounds for the charges against Shaw. At the time of the arrest, however, on behalf of the District Attorney, Gurvich read the formal statement which avoided any specific link of evidence, bluntly saying, “Mr. Shaw is under arrest and will be charged with participation in a conspiracy to murder President Kennedy.”(4)