Excerpts from James Kirkwood's interview with Perry Russo
From James Kirkwood, American Grotesque, 1992 ed., pp. 597-623 :
[Kirkwood arrived at Russo's apartment for an interview; Russo appeared half-dressed.] He apologized for his appearance, saying he'd overslept, then asked, "Do you like music?"
"Good," he said, moving toward the [stereo] console. "Do you know Mahalia Jackson?"
"Do you like her?"
"Good, so do I. I've got this new record of hers. It's great. Do you want to hear it?"
"Ah, not right now."
He mentioned the name of the song, which I don't recall, and, fumbling for a record, insisted that I really had to hear it. I shrugged and he opened the top of the console, placed the record on and fiddled with switches. The disc dropped, and Mahalia Jackson began belting out a bluesy-religious song. After a few seconds and still standing by the set, he asked, "Isn't she great?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Oh, well," he said, switching it off, "I guess you don't have to hear the whole thing. It's too early for that."
Jim Phelan had told me and testified in court that as soon as he'd entered Russo's apartment, Russo would switch on a record for a few seconds, then invariably display a lack of interest in playing the entire piece of music. I had to smile now. As he walked away from the machine, I noticed a small red pilot button glowing at the lower end of the console. I could not get over it. His naivete in so obviously pulling this stunt -- knowing I'd sat through the entire trial and heard of this precise maneuver not only from a witness but detailed by Russo himself -- was totally refreshing. . . .
Q: Tell me, how did this whole thing affect your life?
RUSSO: Well, the initial effect was news people always around . . . so many of them and I couldn't believe some of the things. They were knocking at the door at all hours, always calling, wanting in, wanting this, wanting a statement, as if I were important. I'd be kind of pretentious to think that my opinion made a difference to anybody. And that was the first shock. After that, widespread publicity just didn't help personally at all. People all had different ideas. Some felt Clay Shaw was innocent, there were some felt he was guilty. Verdict or no verdict, it doesn't really change 'em a great deal. accordingly, people took sides and in taking sides they generally lumped everybody together. If they felt Clay Shaw was innocent, then they thought Garrison was a no good DA and Perry Russo was a liar. If they felt Clay Shaw was guilty, then I was telling the truth and Garrison was a good Da. And this doesn't really follow. . . . But the court ruled, the jury said he was innocent, that conspiracy had not been proven. And that's the way it is. That's all there is to it. It's all over as far as this particular charge is concerned. Now if he does anything -- like sues or whatever he can do, I don't know legally. If he does anything like that, then that's a story of a different color, but as it stands now, he's innocent of the charge of conspiracy. He wasn't involved in killing Kennedy.
Q: Were you surprised by the perjury charges?
RUSSO: Well, I'd talked to Ivon [Lou Ivon of Garrison's staff] that same day, it was accidental. You know, about all this humbug by the States-Item and Picayune. That's a bunch of bullshit -- Garrison's malfeasance in office. If he was malfeasant in office the day of the verdict, he was malfeasant the day before. Right is right. Clay Shaw is innocent, Garrison is malfeasant -- it just doesn't work like that. That same day I read the editorial and heard all the hurrah and humbug on television, which was only right. Clay Shaw should have his say. He's waited a long time to have it. Then there was the editorial. I called up Ivon and said, "Louis, what's going on here, what are you all gonna do, are you all gonna fight back?" He says, "We haven't begun to fight." Now this is around one in the afternoon. Then later on at the six o'clock news I heard Clay Shaw had been rearrested and charged with perjury.
Q: Seemed to me when the serious charge was over, they'd forget about it. But apparently not.
RUSSO: I don't know why they wouldn't. Of course, some people say Garrison is on a witch hunt, that he's out for some odd reason to persecute Clay Shaw, which may or may not be the case. . . . The question is, who are the perjurers? He chose to charge Clay Shaw with perjury, he could have turned around and charged the other seven or eight or however many others there were involved. He could have charged me. Like you say, I thought it would be dropped, that Clay Shaw would probably sue me or sue Garrison or do whatever he could do. Because Dymond's a good attorney and Dymond would know what he could do under the circumstances. Clay Shaw did say he had some things planned. . . .
Q: How did you feel about the verdict?
RUSSO: Well, I tell you. I'm sort of passive about things like that, you know. I mean that's the way it is. I wasn't shocked and yet I wasn't depressed either. I wasn't just sitting around saying, Jesus, I wish it had gone the other way. Clay Shaw maintained he was never at David Ferrie's apartment all along, ever since '67. He said that and, ah, and I'm sure he was, he was there. That's all there is to it. But if the jury felt he wasn't there, then that's the way it is. . . . I'll tell you what I felt was just totally unfair. . . . The news of this was just unfair. Not so much a person's conclusions. You might have a conclusion -- Garrison doesn't have a case, he's a big phony, blah-blah. Not so much that. I'm talking specifically about Phelan, Sheridan, Townley. They just didn't try and report the news, they didn't ask me any questions. Well, Phelan did. Now Phelan was a little more sincere than Sheridan and Townley. But Sheridan and Townley, they were after Garrison's goat, they didn't care whether Clay Shaw was innocent or guilty. It didn't make any difference if it took making Clay Shaw innocent to get Garrison. Get Garrison, get him. And that, just to me, that stinks. It's not fair, period. . . . Say, wait a minute, you mentioned something earlier, just struck me. Did -- you wrote the article in Esquire?
RUSSO: Oh, well, you're a bad egg too!
Q: No, I'm not. Why?
RUSSO: Well, that's the impression I got. I'm almost sure -- it was Esquire. I went up to the DA's office one day. I was sitting in Sciambra's office or Bethell's office, somebody's office. Somebody came in and asked or said, "Read this!" Sciambra, I'm sure. What, in essence, was your point?
Q: Mainly a profile on Clay Shaw.
RUSSO: Oh, yeah, that's right. About a taxicab driver and so forth?
RUSSO: Yeah, that's right. I remember that. It was you, then. And so, anyway, I read through it. You read it, you feel pathetic toward Clay Shaw, what a pathetic situation! [Laughing.] And, oh, I heard some nasty words about you. Oh! That's a bad guy, one of the bad guys! . . . It doesn't affect me as far as my own -- I'll cooperate with you, but I did hear some nasties. . . . You talked a great deal about his finances. On how the cab driver would let him ride free. It was a well-written article. . . . Well, Sciambra was the one, you know. He was rapping on about you something fierce. . . . Oh, yeah, I remember Sciambra lighting into the article something awful. Bad words up at the office about you and -- "Yeah, but he didn't report all the facts. He didn't say this and he didn't say that!" And all that kind of humbug. I read the article and it was well written. And I felt sorry for Clay Shaw. Man, the guy's busted financially.
Q: What did you think of the jury -- not the verdict, but the jurors themselves?
RUSSO: Just to show you how ironic the situation is, knowing the guys on the jury -- I don't know him personally, but remember the girl I introduced to you in the store [the boutique Russo managed]?
A: Well, that's [Russo's partner at the boutique] Gerald's wife. He put up the capital because I have no money. And her uncle was on the jury [Oliver Schultz]. Now for me that was grounds for a mistrial.
A: But I had never met the man, I don't think. Maybe a some little function there at her house or something like that. Perhaps. . . . You know, and that was grounds for a mistrial. I thought that if they did come in with a verdict of guilty, then I probably would have had to say something about that to somebody. . . .
Q: . . . Of all the people you got to know at the DA's office, who did you feel closest to?
RUSSO: Well, I tell you. Many people I respected. But I was never real close to any of them. Louis Ivon -- very conscientious sort of person. And he's the kind, likes to follow the book. I thought he was always a good guy. Alcock was business. Sciambra -- Sciambra didn't exactly level with me. So I lost a little bit of respect over a period of time. Garrison, I didn't have that much contact -- in the beginning, yes, quite a bit. But after a while, I mean there was no reason for me to see him. Everything could be handled by other people. But the person I respected most was Charlie Ward. . . . Now I told Phelan, if it's really true that Garrison's down to his last nickel and he doesn't have a damn thing except me -- which isn't much, you know -- I said, the one person I hope doesn't really go under, that he could serve the city of New Orleans, would be Charlie Ward.
Q: What about strangers, the reaction of strangers?
RUSSO: Well, I got some crazy ones. The general reaction from friends of mine, the people I'd generally associated with, they just wondered where I was at. I'd get the same thing every night. . . . My own sex preferences doesn't [sic] have anything to do with it. Whether I was all straight or all gay, it wouldn't make any difference to them. They like to play this role of whips and belts and chains and belts -- you know, playlike? And Clay Shaw allegedly entertained those kinds of desires, so therefore, who am I beating up now and all that sort of stuff? They'd just rap on. And I got a lot of that, but that didn't really bother me. A great deal. It's just a funny joke and a way of talking, I guess. . . .
[Regarding the NODA's handling of the issue of Shaw's personal life:] I heard [Garrison] void certain things, you know, talking to some of the assistants. I knew they were sexual things. But you see the problem is -- now I'm talking for myself, not for anybody else -- me, as a witness, and some of the others, too. Now we had not the greatest background in the world. And I kept telling them. That's what I feared most from Dymond. . . . [Laughing.] Because I'm not the cleanest saint that's ever been around, that's for sure.
Q: Well, nobody is.
RUSSO [laughing again]: Well, but -- you should know some of the things I've been in. Boy -- oh, boy! . . . If I probably got a little bit too nasty with Dymond on the stand, if I said something too bad, really way out of the way, he could have pulled this little book from underneath there and asked Wegmann, "Go get file twelve." [Laughing and shaking his head.] I'm sure they had a big old thick book.
Q: The state must have known everything the defense knew, didn't they?
RUSSO: Oh, well, I told them everything. Now I'm sure they know everything there is to know about me. Because in advance I told them. I said, "These are the things that I did." And I said, "Anything else other than that -- I didn't do." And they kept saying, "They can't bring that out in the courtroom," and that made me feel good. But the one that kept telling me that was Sciambra -- and that didn't make me feel good! [Laughter from both of us.] . . .
Q: Did you feel in the end you were the key witness?
RUSSO: Turned out to be. When the state rested its case -- I figured I was it. [Laughing.] I figured I had been.
Q: Until then, did you even think they were coming up with some others?
RUSSO: I thought I was just the lead-up. Yes. It had to be. You know, Sciambra told me, "Just wait till the first day, it's gonna be all over the first day." Talking about the state's witnesses that first day, the Clinton people. I said, "Oh, that sounds good, that'll take the pressure off me. I'm going to be anticlimactic to the whole thing. Forget me!" And he said, "You don't need to worry about a thing from Dymond. Because when Dymond sees what happens the first day, he's going to be so thoroughly demoralized, they won't worry about you; you won't be all that important." So I believed it, you know. I figured that way. Evidently the first day they didn't demoralize anybody -- least of all F. Irvin Dymond! . . .
You know what really gets me in the whole retrospect on this thing. It just bugs me. A couple of times I wasn't being leveled with. I mean I wanted to be right down the middle and play it fair and square and all that kind of stuff. Now this I didn't realize until I heard Clay Shaw -- or read his statements. Clay Shaw said he was called up on subpoena to Garrison's office . . . and after being there a couple of hours, Ivon or Sciambra said this to him: "We know that you knew Dave Ferrie in September. You collaborated with these people and conspired to kill President Kennedy. We have three people that will say you did. What do you say to that?" . . . Now at this stage the three people had to have been Perry Russo, Sandra Moffett and Niles Peterson. . . . The three got me. . . . And they hadn't talked to Sandra or contacted Peterson yet. . . . Either they were ready to arrest him on the basis of other information or they weren't. But not because of three people, one of which is me. But these other two, you see, they had never been consulted. And that -- that bothered me a little bit. . . . They shouldn't have done that, until they at least investigated because . . . I might be a crazy man. . . . And they should check out everything I say before they go around indicting people. . . .
[Much of the above was conducted over dinner and in Kirkwood's car. As Russo and Kirkwood returned to Russo's apartment, Russo again activated the bug in his apartment.]
We had no sooner entered the living room when he said, "Let me just -- just for a second -- I want to turn this on. I just want you to hear this one record."
He walked straight to the console, put a record on for no more than thirty seconds, said, "Oh, well, you don't have to listen to the whole thing," and turned it off. I noticed again that the small red pilot light remained on, so I said, "You know, when I came here this morning, you went right over to that console and turned it on for a minute. I thought about the testimony, you know? About taping Phelan and everyone."
After a small nervous laugh, Perry said, "Oh, no, I'm not taping you. No, you got the tape machine. Now I want to put your mind at ease. I should put your mind at ease about that. We did tape Phelan and we had this thing set up --"
"I don't mind," I said. "I'd just like to know it. Because when I tape you, you obviously know it. That's all. But now there's no reason to be worried about it, because the trial's over with and --"
"Right," Russo said. "Well, anyway, they wanted Phelan bad. I think it was because of -- Sciambra wanted him bad. And Garrison wanted Sheridan bad, too. . . .
But the thing -- him [Garrison] indicting people afterwards. Now this Clay Shaw [perjury] indictment. . . . Purely from the point of view of maybe -- bad taste. That might have been it, you know? That might have been a poor play. Because when I lose on a baseball field, I just say, "I lost." And walk off.
. . . I feel sorry for Clay Shaw. If Clay Shaw's innocent. And if Clay Shaw's not innocent, I don't feel sorry for him.
Q: Yes, but you would be the one that should know!
RUSSO: Well, you see, conspiracy and conversation. Let's suppose I'm lying and I know it. Let's suppose I'm not lying. Let's suppose he's lying. That still doesn't make him guilty. You see? By any stretch of the imagination. . . .
He feels he's not guilty. I feel he's wrong. I never did say I thought he was guilty. But I feel he was there. . . .
I was always reassured all the way along the line, up until the time they said, "The state rests its case." Hmn, rests its case. What happened to the rest? . . . I used to question them, the DA's office, about what else they had. And -- oh, they were playing footsie with me then, trying to keep me happy. . . .
And I got disgusted for a while and I just stayed away from 'em [the state] for about four, five months. I was really disgusted with Sciambra is what it amounted to. . . . Really disgusted. Now, if somebody [like Phelan] would have come up then, I probably would have chimed in along with them. . . .
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