Hang On, Mister!
by James Kirkwood
Originally published in Esquire, December 1968, under the title, "So Here You Are, Clay Shaw, Twenty Months and Thousands of Dollars After Being Charged with Conspiracy in the Worst Crime of the Century. What Are You Doing About It? Surviving."
Now I sit in my hotel room in the French Quarter of New Orleans, trying, and nowehere near succeeding, to ignore the insistent laser-beam razzmatazz of an army of Dixieland combos blasting out from Bourbon Street. I sit practically on top of the wheezing, gently vibrating air conditioner because it's hot and muggy and my eyes are giving me hell for making them read, in one day, all 491 pages of the Preliminary Hearing of the State of Louisiana against Clay L. Shaw. Shaw had been charged with criminal conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy, a felony under Louisiana law carrying a penalty of one to twenty years in prison.
Without too much of a stretch, the transcript brings to mind the Spanish Inquisition. Hearsay was freely allowed, dead men spoke, objections by the defense were mostly overruled, those of the prosecution were mostly sustained, and even the state's star witness, Perry Russo, it turned out, had been placed under hypnosis three times at District Attorney Jim Garrison's bidding to "refresh his mind" and was, in fact, testifying in court under posthypnotic suggestion.
It's a scarifying document in itself, regardless of one's opinion of the guilt or innocence of the accused. I'm probably feeling the heat and eyestrain all the more because, from the smell of things in this charming, colorful, quaint, maddening funny-farm of a city, I'm afraid I've come to the conclusion that, yes, it could happen to me. Or to you.
So, to get to why I'm sitting here in New Orleans in this far from peaceful state, both of mind and of the Union. Last November I was holed up in my East Hampton cottage, having made a resolution to myself and friends that I now had a stranglehold on the final chapter of a new novel and that nothing, repeat nothing, was going to lure me away from my writing machine and into New York City. Not Bonnie and Clyde, nor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I'd even said to a weekend guest and old friend, author James Leo Herlihy, that I wouldn't come into town if Marlene Dietrich asked me to an intimate supper for G. Garbo -- with De Gaulle serving. That was on a Sunday evening as I drove Jim to the train.
Monday noon the phone rang and it was Jim Herlihy saying in a loud voice, "Guess who's coming to dinner?" I could hear the smile on his face and I knew he had more than fair bait. I swore generously at him before asking.
"Clay Shaw," says Jim, knowing I'm an archfiend when it comes to real-life trials of any kind and their participants. Celebrities to me are not necessarily Liz and Dick, they are just as likely to be Perry and Dick or Dr. Sam Sheppard or Candy and Mel. Jim went on to say that a friend of his was a friend of Clay Shaw's and had suggested Shaw call Jim when he was in New York. Jim had invited him to dinner. I swore a bit more and said I'd be there.
I'd seen pictures of Clay Shaw in the newspapers, briefly glimpsed him on television, but I had no idea what kind of a man to expect. Mostly I'd seen New Orleans DA Jim Garrison who for a while had turned up almost nightly on the six o'clock news. I'd read slews of articles about the case and heard all sorts of people sound off about it. The only person who hadn't really sounded off in detail was the accused himself, outside of a quiet but firm "not guilty."
So, in meeting Clay Shaw, accused of participation in the "Case of the Century," as Garrison has called it, you kind of had the feeling you were being introduced in person to a brand-new movie star who'd had a blockbuster publicity campaign but whose first big film hadn't been released yet.
What do you do? You shake hands -- mine got lost in his, he's a barrel-chested six-foot-four, two-hundred-twelve-pound giant of a man with close-cropped white hair, striking blue eys and, at first sighting, almost handsomely fierce of face -- and sit down opposite him while you're served your first drink, all the time trying hard not to stare through him, inside him, to see if you can possibly detect the answer to the bald question that can't help rattle around in your head: Say, listen, you didn't really conspire to assassinate the President of the United States, did you? I mean, did you really hang out with Lee Harvey and all that bunch?
But you don't. You get your drink, hoist it, and say something bland like, "Here's to your stay in New York." Then there's more light talk: Yes, I've been to New Orleans once, fascinating city. No, I've never been to Mardi Gras but I hear it's wild, etc.
And finally, because I sensed a leveling something in the man, I couldn't help putting my glass down and asking, "Would you mind, or does it bore you, to talk about your [oh-oh, watch the word] predicament?"
"No," he said with a smile, adding he'd be a liar if he said his "predicament" wasn't the most ever-present thought-consuming experience of his lifetime.
He spoke with a combination of wisdom and wonderment and a sort of Somerset Maugham knack for storytelling and also humor -- but certainly not flippancy -- of this most traumatic event from beginning to middle, which is smack where he is, between the indictment of a preliminary hearing and jury trial. By three in the morning we were still listening to his account. You spend eight hours with a man and, though it's only eight hours, you get a definite feeling about whether you'd trust him with his word, your money, wife, life, or even whether he'd be on time for a luncheon appointment. Call it the scratch test, the intuition test, whatever it is, Clay Shaw passed it, at least for me.
Back to work in East Hampton, where I finally finished the novel. In the meantime there were news flashes from New Orleans, dates set for the trial, appeals by the defendant's lawyers, appeals denied, the trial rescheduled, and all the time I was thinking about this man down in Louisiana and wondering what his life was like during all this, wondering if my hunch about him had been 100 percent on the nose. Articles were appearing in almost every national magazine and all those authors who have stumbled upon a second livelihood challenging the Warren Commission were courting hemorrhoids, applying seat of pants to seat of chair, pounding out their theories in staggering quantity that, if nothing else does, should certainly bring on a paper shortage.
I finally wrote Clay Shaw a brief note, months later, telling him I had enjoyed meeting him and wishing him luck. He replied soon, thanking me and saying the evening in New York had been a welcome respite from the situation in New Orleans and that his trial was tentatively set for April.
There was no further correspondence and I started, haltingly on little cat feet, into another novel. One morning I suddenly found myself reaching for the phone and dialing my agent: "Say, do you suppose you could get me a magazine assignment to cover the Clay Shaw-Garrison trial?" She was surprised. First, I'd never written a magazine article; second, a magazine article would be scooped by the daily papers; and third, how had it even occurred to me? I told her of meeting Clay Shaw and of my impressions, which time had strengthened. She said to jot them down, send them to her, and she'd get them off to a magazine. But not to hold my breath.
I didn't, but oddly enough in about ten days I found myself on the Terrifying Silver Bird for New Orleans with a strong suggestion to stick to Clay Shaw's impressions and go light on the actual evidence in the case which had been presented at length all the way from Playboy to The New Yorker.
Having forewarned Clay Shaw of my arrival, I rang from my hotel and was invited for drinks and dinner. Toward the end of the conversation, it was dropped that his lawyer, one of four, would also be stopping by for a drink.
After cleaning up, I strolled the twelve blocks through the Vieux Carre, gawking at the undisturbed architecture of those hardy yet delicate buildings with their shutters and balconies and iron grillwork, until I came to a white brick wall on Dauphine Street with a red door splashed in the middle.
Clay Shaw greeted me and again I realized what an impressive figure of a man he is as he showed me into the high-walled patio bordered on two sides by ferns, with an oblong glass table at the far end for outdoor dining. Then inside for a look at the immaculate kitchen and good-sized living room which compose the ground floor of the small, charming carriage house he had restored with loving care. The furnishings are French, grouped comfortably around a low coffee table, the floors are polished cork topped by several fine Oriental rugs, there is a small desk and a splendid large gold-leaf mirror. At the top of an angled red-carpeted flight of stairs are a large sparsely furnished bedroom and a bathroom. To city dwellers, the house would be comparable to a duplex apartment. Though it might be described as elegant, good taste and simplicity of choice are manifest.
His lawyer of twenty years, Edward F. Wegmann, soon arrived and it is difficult to describe him physically. His height, weight, age, face and eyes melt into one word -- concern. As he sat opposite me I felt I was being looked into the same way I had looked into Clay Shaw that evening in New York. I was being X-rayed, enough to induce a twinge or two of stage fright. He was curious to know how my interest in Mr. Shaw had come about and what my angle would be. I did what I could to allay his concern. Later, when we'd relaxed somewhat, I could still read the tacit message printed across his face and embedded in his eyes: Don't hurt this man; I'm not only his lawyer, I'm his friend; he's been made a target and I'm intercepting all possible potshots. If you've ever seen a lioness guarding her cubs, you'll know the look.
After Mr. Wegmann had gone, dinner was served in the patio by Willie Mae, who keeps a quieter but nonetheless carefully concerned eye upon her employer. During dinner the talk was easy and I asked Clay Shaw about his political background. "I suppose I'd describe myself as a Wilsonian-FDR-Kennedy liberal. By that I mean I agree with those men who have seen that the capitalist system had to be adapted to give a better life to more people. These days a man has some kind of income when he's finished working, what with Social Security, and now there's even Medicare, so that the fundamental needs for a basis of decent living have been assured. I thought John Kennedy was in the same tradition, a man who looked hard at the foundations of things and would move to further adapt the system to provide a better life for the most people, which is what any political system should be about. Most of my friends consider me very liberal indeed. I remember when Kennedy was running against Nixon. I went to visit friends of mine at their farm and when the hostess asked me who I was going to vote for and I told her Kennedy, she was extremely chagrined. If she hadn't been a well-brought-up Southern girl I don't think she'd have given me any lunch.
After dinner, on the way back to the hotel, I stopped by a Bourbon Street bar for a nightcap. The shapely barmaid, who'd blown at least one full can of hair spray to concretize her teased souffle of blond hair, turned out to be Shirley. When Shirley asked me with misty eyes and a baby-whisper voice if I'd care to feed the jukebox, I figured I could ask Shirley a favor in return. "What do you think of this whole Clay Shaw thing?"
"Clay Shaw?" she mused. "Oh, yes, Clay Shaw . . . Oh, well, I wouldn't know anything about him. You mean the whole thing?" she purred.
"Yes -- well, then, what do you think of the District Attorney?"
The eyes sharpened into baby-blue bullets, the voice unfurred and she boomed, "Garrison! Garrison!" She leaned close in over the bar, threatening my vodka and tonic and, giving each word equal time, drummed out the following message: "Baby, Jim Garrison is on a bad trip." This brought Louisiana State University drama student Buddy Campbell up out of his glass of beer and into it. "Man, I'll tell you something else. Shaw's on a bum rap."
The following morning I arrived at the red door on Dauphine Street with yellow legal pad and pencils, anxious to start at the beginning. One day Clay Shaw was all of this: a respected business and social leader of New Orleans, possessed of a fine war record ending with an honorable discharge as a major in 1946, having served as a secretary to the General Staff and having been decorated by the United States with the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star and by France with the Croix de Guerre; a man who, besides being Managing Director of the International Trade Mart from its inception in 1946 until his retirement in 1965, is widely known as one of the pioneers who began the rehabilitation and restoration of New Orleans' famous French Quarter; a man who believes firmly that hopes for world peace and understanding might well be enhanced by increased and closer trade between nations and who worked to bring this about, at the same time drawing added revenues into the Port of New Orleans; a man who was present at and supported most of the artistic and cultural events in the city from theater to symphony to opera; the author of several published plays, one of which, a one-acter called Submerged, has had thousands of performances and is still widely played by amateur groups around the country.
One day he was all of this, the next day his credentials were irrevocably smeared, squirted upon by inky stains charging him with conspiracy to assassinate the President. How did this happen? How does a nightmare begin? Very easily.
First off, why the retirement at such a comparatively early age? Clay Shaw smiles. "Well, I'd worked hard from the age of fifteen and upon the realization of the new ITM building, designed by Edward Durell Stone, I felt I'd achieved what I'd set out to accomplish in that area of my life. Although I wasn't a millionaire, I had enough put aside to carry me along until the time at which I reasonably expect to shuffle off. I wanted, from here on in, to devote my life to writing. I also wanted to travel and I thought it might be more pleasant to do this while I could still get up a gangplank unaided. So, in 1965, I retired and on October 1 there was a testimonial luncheon, all of that, and the Mayor presented me with the International Order of Merit medal." Shaw smiled, took a deep breath and smacked his hands together. "And I was free. Right away I took a couple of months off and went to Mexico. Then in the summer of 1966 I boarded a freighter, spent a month in Barcelona and a month in London, getting back here in the early fall. I probably would have continued traveling if it hadn't been for my father's death in November of 1966. This held me here, keeping an eye on my mother, who lives in Hammond, a small town very near New Orleans. Then, when this period of transition for her was over, I had every intention of --" Clay Shaw broke off, smiled and held his hands out, palms up. "But the best-laid plans of mice and men . . ."
"When did you first have an inkling there was a diversion being planned for you in New Orleans?"
"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."
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, 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.
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."
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