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Assassinations

The Homophobic Backdrop to Garrison’s Persecution of Clay Shaw

 

 

Cruising for Conspirators: How a New Orleans DA Prosecuted the Kennedy Assassination as a Sex Crime
Alecia P. Long
University of North Carolina Press. 247 pp. $28

 

 

By Martin J. Kelly, Jr.

 

 

    Conspiracy accounts of the JFK assassination in 1963 have flourished for almost six decades since the Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. A range of conspiratorial scenarios, vivified by books, movies and TV docudramas, orbit public awareness as cultural truisms. While Jack Ruby’s murder of the assassin in Dallas on live TV, two days after JFK was gunned down, provided the initial thrust for the conspiracy movement, it is Jim Garrison’s New Orleans 1967-69 prosecution of Clay Shaw for JFK’s murder that seems to thrive as an iconic modulus against Oswald’s status as the sole perpetrator.

    Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, JFK, used the Garrison prosecution as the Rosetta stone to construct a three-hour narrative of conspiracy. Garrison was not only an advisor but made a cameo in the film as Chief Justice Earl Warren, a cruel casting if there ever was one. JFK spun a vivid tapestry of plots and sub-plots populated by flamboyant characters and exerted a strong influence on the public sensibility about the case. The film was a catalyst behind The John F. Kennedy Records Collection Act of 1992, which mandated that an independent panel review all the government’s assassination-related records, particularly documents still protected for reasons of national security.

    When the independent panel (aka the Assassination Records Review Board) finished in 1998, the promise to completely release all government records by 2017 became another pacemaker for the incessant drumbeat of conspiracy in the assassination research community. After a large volume of records was made public in 2017, nothing new to the case seemed to capture the imagination of the research community. But, as if a coda, in July 2021 Oliver Stone appeared at the Cannes Film Festival with his new documentary, JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass. To the press he said, “. . . an important bookend to my 1991 film. It ties up many loose threads, and hopefully repudiates much of the ignorance around the case and the movie.” James DiEugenio, whose book, Destiny Betrayed: JFK, Cuba, and the Garrison Case is a long and detailed defense of Garrison’s prosecution of Shaw, is listed as a writer of the documentary.

    Now Alecia Long’s monograph emerges as an interesting amplification of the Garrison case. Cruising for Conspirators is not a typical screed of conspiracy-or-not arguments that characterize the JFK assassination literature. Professor Long has produced, instead, a solidly researched and expertly written academic history book. Thirty years ago, before Post-Modernism opened up academic disciplines to include marginalized social groups, such an enterprise might not have seen the light of Coverday. In our present historical moment, though, Professor Long excavates clearly the role played by homosexuality for cultural ideation in ‘60s New Orleans when Garrison launched his crusade against Clay Shaw, a gay defendant.

    Cruising uses primary sources such as official investigators’ notes, personal papers, newspaper and magazine articles by journalists in contact with Garrison’s prosecution, and diaries, court records, and trial transcripts. Material from well-researched secondary sources is also utilized to render a clear picture of the rational frailty of Garrison’s persecution of Shaw. Two books she cites, Patricia Lambert’s False Witness and Fred Litwin’s On the Trail of Delusion, are filled with primary evidence the Garrison investigation was “hoax-like” from its inception.

    Professor Long navigates through the capricious human contingencies that launched and supported the action against Clay Shaw. She intensifies the previous revelations of Garrison’s rash crusade as a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” by meticulous documentation and a fresh look at homosexuality as a factor in Clay Shaw’s prosecution. Her historical analysis of homosexuality in the Garrison context creates an indelible impression of the complexity of a case that turned out to have no evidentiary foundation. While she makes no psycho-historical leaps about Garrison, or his personal psychology, a salient attitude about sadistic gay men as perpetrators of baroque violence is unmistakably present in identifying Clay Shaw as a suspect and persists until his acquittal by a jury in 1969. And, in the course of her exposition, Professor Long sketches out the perilous atmosphere enclosing gays in New Orleans in the ‘60s: because homosexuality was illegal, all sorts of options for defense against charges were more difficult to muster.

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