Remembering Clay Shaw and the JFK conspiracy theory that wouldn’t die
Clay Shaw, the dapper director of the International Trade Mart, was found not guilty on March 1, 1969, of a charge that he had been part of a conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. The jury’s verdict came two years to the day after Shaw’s arrest as part of an investigation led by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison. Shaw was the only person ever prosecuted in connection with the Kennedy assassination.
Because the major participants are dead and because there were no convictions, the inquiry — which The New York Times called “one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of American jurisprudence” — probably would have been forgotten had it not been for the feature film “JFK.” Directed by Oliver Stone, the movie filmed for 10 weeks in New Orleans in 1991, rehashing and reviving the whole episode without really establishing that a plot existed.
- The trial in Criminal District Court lasted 40 days. The jury, which heard from a bizarre array of witnesses, acquitted Shaw after deliberating only 54 minutes.
- Shaw’s friends stood by him throughout his ordeal. When he came to Brennan’s Restaurant before he was acquitted, Ella Brennan borrowed a red carpet from the Royal Orleans Hotel and had it rolled out for his arrival.
- Shaw’s acquaintances knew he was gay. There were persistent rumors that his sexual orientation was the reason he was prosecuted, but Garrison denied it.
- Although Shaw was acquitted, the ordeal left him a broken man, largely ostracized from social circles. Early on in his journal, he described it as “the most horrifying, unbelievable nightmarish experience through which I have ever lived.”
- Shaw suffered from metastatic lung cancer and died on Aug. 15, 1974, in his French Quarter home. He was 61.
- Shaw’s home on St. Peter Street is on a walking tour of gay-related landmarks in the French Quarter, and a plaque honoring F. Irvin Dymond is outside the courtroom — Section E of Criminal District Court — where he successfully defended Shaw.
- Stone’s “JFK” became such a part of the cultural zeitgeist upon its release that part of its courtroom scene was spoofed in an episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld.”
- Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Shaw in Stone’s film. In sizing up Jones’ performance, the website actoroscarblogspot.com says Jones “never for a moment exactly says who Shaw is … but rather creates him into a fascinating enigma that is basically impossible to fully understand.”
As sensational as it was, “JFK” won Oscars for cinematography and editing. Given the debate it revived, it remains one of the most influential and controversial films ever shot locally. Many locals, however, especially those who knew Shaw — or his story — see it as nothing but a continuation of a great travesty that would almost be funny if not so cruel. “JFK,” a NOLA.com commenter identified as “germancoasttiger” wrote in reaction to a 2013 story, “should be thrown back into the dumpster they found it in.”