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April 2006 Featured Article

Through the Looking Glass
with Joan Mellen

by Brian Rooney

About three years ago, work circulated that Joan Mellen, a professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University, was soon to come out with a major study of Jim Garrison. It wasn't clear what kind of book could be expected. Although she had not written about the JFK murder, Ms. Mellen was the author of sixteen books, including several works on cinema and literature. Subjects ranged from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Lillian Hellman to Marilyn Monroe to Bobby Knight. The consensus was that it would be a sympathetic portrayal of Garrison, and her pre-publication appearances at the conferences at Duquesne and Bethesda confirmed this.

Garrison was certainly in need of a favorable portrait. In addition to the media scorn heaped on him during the Shaw case (detailed in the book) the controversial D.A. had been lambasted to varying degrees in books by Rosemary James (and Jack Wardlaw), Milton Brener, James Kirkwood, Edward Epstein, and Patricia Lambert. Even in the community critical of the official version of events, many viewed Garrison's case as havingx irreparably harmed their cause: Anthony Summers said last year that mainstream journalists shied away from the subject of the JFK case in large part because the Garrison affair was viewed as a circus. William Davy and James DiEugenio wrote worthy books defending the investigation, but they represented a minority viewpoint. Oliver Stone's JFK created tremendous new interest in the assassination and exposed the holes in the official position to a new generation, but the film also unleashed a massive backlash in the mainstream media. Stone's "Hollywood" representation of Garrison as the Jimmy Stewart-style hero of the story insured that much of the venom would be directed at Garrison himself. Indeed, his death was followed by nasty, gloating articles by Epstein in the New Yorker and Gerald Posner in The New York Times Magazine. (Posner's piece was entitled "Garrison Guilty. Another Case Closed"): One could hope that a writer with Ms. Mellen's background (and not a JFK researcher) could breathe some humanity back into Garrison, even if it turned out to be light on assassination expertise: Above all, a book might emerge that would , actually be that rarity--a pleasure to read.

It is apparent that along the way something happened to Joan Mellen that will be familiar to many of those who have studied the subject at any length-it has completely taken her in. For better, or worse, she has become a critic. As she has said in public and reiterates in the Preface, what began as a biography of an interesting character morphed into a full-fledged investigation of the JFK assassination. A straight-forward biography of Jim Garrison might have taken a couple of years, found a major publisher, and been a commercial success; this book represents a mountain of research and interviews over the better part of a decade, bears the imprint of a small publisher whose specialty is CIA books, and seems destined to find a small, specialized readership.

The result of Ms. Mellen's labors, A Farewell To Justice, is a formidable historical achievement, but it is not a book easily handled. With all of Mellen's skills, the complexity of the investigation and the sheer size of the cast of characters present a daunting challenge to author and reader. Consider Chapter Three, which marks the beginning of Garrison's investigation. In a mere fifteen pages, no fewer than forty characters are introduced for the first time (even more tellingly, fourteen are not mentioned again). For the reader with more than a passing familiarity with the Garrison tale, this literary gumbo is intimidating; someone new to the subject may lose track of the narrative entirely, thinking he has wandered into the New Orleans phone book.[1] This slice of the book illustrates Mellen's problem (imagine if the book had not been edited down from three times its present size), but it also illustrates what faced Jim Garrison: sorting out the truthful witnesses from the liars, the loyal staff from the saboteurs, the honest investigators from the government plants, and the live leads from the red herrings. Garrison liked to use The Old Man and the Sea as a metaphor for his investigation: the case he ultimately brought to court was but a small fraction of the information he unearthed. The real wonder is that the Orleans Parish D.A., with a small staff, spending less than $100,000 and facing betrayal at every turn, was able to bring a defendant to trial and in so doing threaten the assassination's official sponsors with exposure. Even Shaw's quick acquittal could not negate that accomplishment. As Mellen makes crystal clear, Garrison certainly had the right enemies.

A Farewell to Justice takes us chronologically through the Jim Garrison story. Mellen does not use footnotes; unfortunately for those who use the voluminous endnotes, the references are often off by a page or two. Another quibble: the reader must always be alert to distinguish between what Garrison learned as his probe proceeded and information revealed only later. This having been said, the book is the most detailed and richest account of the New Orleans investigation. Garrison the man comes alive as a conflicted, flawed human being (Max Holland is way off the mark when he calls this a hagiography). A man said to be ruthless and lusting after high office actually hated campaigning and was ambivalent about using his power; accused of venality, he was absurdly indifferent about money, to the point of being negligent about his own finances; he was racially progressive and had the instincts of a reformer but was blind to the corruption of one of his closest aides; he could be street smart and yet naive about the double agents in his own office. He was a notorious womanizer, but his ex-wife Liz remarried him and helped care for him during his final illness.

Some of Mellen's assertions will surprise: Sylvia Meagher was "wide-eyed in her support for Clay Shaw" (she even sent Shaw a congratulatory telegram on his acquittal). Bill Turner is presented as inept or worse for convincing Garrison to proceed with baseless charges against Edgar Eugene Bradley and for touting Farewell America, which Mellen considers a right-wing "ragtag jumble of disinformation" designed to distract Garrison. Jones Harris and other well-meaning volunteers hurt the effort more than they helped. In Harris's case, no shocker there.

Mellen first met Garrison after the Shaw verdict. Her then husband, Ralph Schoenman, a leftist activist and early Warren critic, had sent Garrison the now famous Paese Sera articles. Presumably the idea for a Garrison book had been percolating ever since. The author briefly sketches Garrison's family background and childhood, and his World War II service flying reconnaissance missions over Europe. He was at Dachau the day after the camp's liberation; the experience would haunt him for the rest of his life. We get a brief glimpse of his early legal and political career, and his deferred dream to be a writer. He had an eventful first term as D.A., including a landmark US Supreme Court victory in a defamation suit brought by New Orleans judges he had criticized. We are introduced to Pershing Gervais, an almost comically corrupt man whom Garrison hired as his chief investigator. Garrison's unaccountable loyalty to Gervais was to cost him dearly during the Shaw case and afterward. Mellen's theory is that this reflected Garrison's "profound naivete about people."

All of this rich material would surely have been expanded on had Mellen written the book she originally planned but the JFK investigation now takes over the story. Mellen uncovers new data and infuses familiar episodes with new detail. A brief review cannot convey either the massive detail or the research behind it. What follows are the highlights. Garrison's interest in the case was jump-started by an Esquire article by Dwight MacDonald and prodding from Hale Boggs. (Not, as per Stone and Garrison, Russell Long; Garrison wanted to protect Boggs.) The D.A. spent about six months in 1966 reading the twenty-six volumes. It is striking that the FBI immediately felt it necessary to interfere with this embryonic effort by developing "sources" in his office and smearing him with false accusations of mob ties. By October 1966, Garrison was convinced of Oswald's intelligence connections. It was then that he had his pivotal lunch with hipster lawyer Dean Andrews, who had claimed to have gotten a call from a "Clay Bertrand" asking him to represent Oswald, newly charged with killing JFK. In late 1963, the FBI had wasted no time in floating the story that the call was a figment of "Deano's" imagination. Mellen makes it clear that it was nothing of the kind. Already in 1966, officialdom is taking great pains to conceal "Bertrand's" identity from Garrison. David Ferrie quickly became a "person of interest" (the D.A. had zeroed in on Ferrie in 1963 and turned him and his dubious story over to the FBI--they cleared him in record time). Mellen details the myriad links of Shaw, Ferrie and Oswald to intelligence agencies (and to each other). By now Garrison is certain that Oswald was set up to be the patsy, and that Ferrie's role was "transportation manager" and Oswald babysitter. Shaw's role will be clarified with the emergence of Perry Russo.

It has long been clear that Garrison's probe was infiltrated. This book documents the extent of the sabotage as never before. As the outmanned D.A. relies on private funds (challenged but legal) and "volunteers", Mellen describes the parade of moles in his office: "Boxley", Gurvich, (William) Martin, Bethell, Bringuier, DeTorres, and others. These men are invariably portrayed by Garrison's critics as principled individuals who came to realize Garrison was losing touch with reality and abusing the powers of his office. The author shows once and for all that these were not spontaneous acts of conscience but part of an extensive and systematic scheme involving several agencies and layers of government officials. The best proof Garrison "had something" was the unprecedented unlawful effort the government, through its assets, took to destroy him and his case. Garrison's antagonists do not even attempt to justify it.

If there is a villain of the story, other than those who actually planned and carried out Kennedy's murder, it is Walter Sheridan. Mellen would have been more persuasive had she not overplayed her hand by introducing Sheridan as RFK's henchman in the persecution of Jimmy Hoffa; Hoffa is a hard-sell as victim and in any case, an argument for another book. Suffice it to say that the RFK/Hoffa saga is more complex than Mellen makes it. She is clearly prepared to believe the worst of Bobby Kennedy, who, she tells us, is "ever given to hero-worship of brutal men." The contrast between her accusation of prosecutorial misconduct against Bobby and her defense of Garrison on the same charge is stark.

Mellen's theory on why RFK had to destroy the Garrison case is this: Bobby, with a group of anti Castro Cubans loyal to him (and not the CIA) had been embarked on a two-pronged mission: to eliminate Castro and at the same time protect the President from the CIA-led plots to kill him, using Cubans who felt betrayed by JFK's efforts to seek accommodation with Castro. The CIA, while setting Oswald up as the patsy, was able, through the Odio incident, to both frame Oswald and place him with Bobby's Cuban group (Bobby loyalist Angelo Murgado was the third man at Odio's flat, with Oswald and CIA operative Bernardo De Torres). The Attorney General would thus be neutralized: "One of the Cubans whom Garrison had targeted, and was attempting to extradite from Dallas, Sergio Arcacha Smith, knew that Bobby's people were aware of Oswald. So Bobby unleashed Walter Sheridan to ensure that his two secrets be kept: that he was attempting, independently of the CIA, the avowed enemy of his brother, to assassinate Fidel Castro, and that Oswald had come to his attention. Governor Connolly [sic] then did his part and Arcacha was not extradited to Louisiana." (p. 382)

Whether it was the CIA or RFK calling the shots, though, Mellen has the goods on Sheridan when it comes to the "journalist's" sojourn in the Big Easy. The segments on Sheridan's campaign to discredit Garrison's probe (culminating in the notorious NBC "White Paper") and later attempts to use the IRS to bully Garrison are devastating. Another theme of the book is the role of working journalists as CIA "assets". (Sheridan was really an agent posing as a journalist.) We were already familiar with the hidden agendas of James Phelan and Hal Hendrix, but Mellen's dissection of Hugh Aynesworth is an eye-opener. The reader can contrast her depiction of his pro-Shaw machinations with the self-serving account in Aynesworth's own book. Mellen also reveals that Shaw, through James Leo Herlihy, recruited James Kirkwood to write a sympathetic book about the trial. American Grotesque was not the spontaneous result of Kirkwood stumbling into the Shaw-Garrison affair, as his Preface would lead one to believe.

An important aspect of A Farewell to Justice is the central role played by a heretofore obscure character, Thomas Beckham. Beckham was a figure in the 544 Camp Street "menagerie", a runner for Banister, and a protege of Jack Martin. He has been disparaged by some as an itinerant con man, liar, and forger; Mellen, who obviously spent a lot of time with Beckham, places great faith in his credibility. She outlines his contacts with Shaw, Oswald, Ruby, and other plot participants, and posits that he was set up as an alternative patsy should something happen to Oswald. Another maligned figure the author places great credence in is Jack Martin. She rejects the picture of Martin as a pathological liar and drunk and fully credits his claimed intelligence credentials. [2]

There are many other fascinating details in the book. Space allows only a brief mention of a select few: --Discrepancies in Ferrie's death: a mysterious contusion in his mouth, a "slipshod" autopsy, with Dr. Chetta fudging the time of death (Jack Martin claimed Chetta "sold natural causes like a prostitute"; missing suicide notes; Arthur Goldberg's rejection of the HSCA counsel job when it was made clear that CIA cooperation would not be forthcoming. Guy Banister's demise, thought by some to have been a shooting. The D.A.'s office's rejection of helpful testimony from Dr. McClelland. Mellen's pegging of Lawrence Houston as a major player, with Helms and Angleton, in JFK's murder: Marilyn Murret's mysterious knowledge of Oswald's presence in Russia. Oswald's contacts with US Customs, and the nexus of Juan Valdes and Mary Sherman. Banister's friendships with George Lincoln Rockwell and Edwin Walker. Beckham's delivery of Dealey Plaza maps from G. Wray Gill to Lawrence Howard. Mellen asserts that Howard was a participant whom Garrison foolishly let off the hook. Garrison's interesting opinions on Blakey and the HSCA. Dark hints about Shaw's sex practices, including a rumored death at his home Sheridan's briefing of Johnny Carson before Garrison's tense appearance on the "Tonight Show."

A Farewell to Justice is a challenging, monumental work of scholarship that will undoubtedly touch off much debate about the significance of Jim Garrison and his investigation. It is a bold attempt to place the man and the story into perspective. History will pass the final judgment.

1. In contrast, Mellen shows her ability to cut to the chase in the concise section on Richard Case Nagell. Anyone who has found Dick Russell's tome almost impenetrable, despite its importance, will appreciate the brief, crystal-clear rendition on pp. 152-157.
2. An interesting, and novel, concept Mellen develops is that fringe religious churches can serve as ideal fronts for intelligence agencies. The membership of Ferrie, Martin, Beckham, and others in such organizations at first glance seems to confirm their mental instability; to Mellen, they indicate intelligence contacts.


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