Man of a Million Fragments: The True Story of Clay Shaw
Donald H. Carpenter
Donald H. Carpenter LLC. 669 pp. $35.99
By Stephen Roy
The torrent of words and images about the John F. Kennedy assassination, especially the investigation by former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, makes it easy to accept superficial profiles of the accused, while losing sight of who they really were.
Clay Lavergne Shaw is a prominent example of this phenomenon, second only, perhaps, to Lee Harvey Oswald. Arrested by Garrison in 1967 and charged with conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy, Shaw was tried in 1969 and acquitted by a jury after less than one hour of deliberations.
Most people “know” Shaw from Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK”. Tommy Lee Jones portrayed Shaw as a flamboyantly gay secret warrior, adroitly if not infuriatingly dodging Jim Garrison’s probing questions. Stone’s simplistic portrayal of Shaw created a one-dimensional, if not cartoon-like, image of a nuanced individual. Melodramatic and inaccurate, it left movie-goers to believe that Shaw had successfully concealed his role in Kennedy’s assassination.
Now, Louisiana-born accountant and author Donald H. Carpenter has righted that portrait in the first full-scale biography of Clay Shaw. Carpenter has spent years scouring the scouring the documentary record for the “million fragments” of Shaw’s life, and supplemented the paper trial with interviews with many people who knew or interacted with Shaw. Earlier attempts to trace Shaw’s life and career focused on the controversy over his role in the Garrison investigation, either “bad Shaw/good Garrison” or “good Shaw/bad Garrison,” depending on the writer’s bias. Carpenter has his biases, but they are understated in favor of a Facts on File-style chronological recitation of the fragments of Shaw’s life. He stops short of making a sweeping judgment of Garrison’s case, but a savvy reader can easily detect that he doesn't find it impressive.
Man of a Million Fragments is not an assassination book: it is a biography. There is no in-depth discussion of the mechanics of the assassination or Oswald’s life. Carpenter focuses on Clay Shaw the man. But because Shaw’s life was forever changed by Garrison’s prosecution, Carpenter traces it in detail, and recognizes its fundamental legal weaknesses.