A review of On the Trail of Delusion—Jim Garrison: The Great Accuser by Fred Litwin. NorthernBlues Books, 466 pages (September 30th, 2020)
When Quillette asked if I might review Fred Litwin’s On the Trail of Delusion about the failed JFK assassination probe of New Orleans District Attorney, Jim Garrison, I initially hesitated. I did not believe there was much new information that another book could add to the historical record. In Case Closed, my 1993 re-examination of the assassination, I relied on documents from Garrison’s own investigation as the backbone of a 30-page chapter (“Black is White, and White is Black”) in which I exposed the extent of his abusive prosecution. In its review of Case Closed, Publishers Weekly wrote, “About New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, the hero of the movie JFK, [Posner] is merciless, laying out an endless trail of his lies and exaggerations.” Australia’s Sunday Herald Sun noted that “Previously undisclosed files cited by Posner also play havoc with the romanticised portrait of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison that director Oliver Stone presents in his 1991 film JFK.”
Two years later, I wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine entitled “Garrison Guilty. Another Case Closed.” It was based on previously sealed files from the New Orleans District Attorney’s office. “These remaining records confirm that the Shaw prosecution was a travesty,” I concluded. That prompted Oliver Stone to write a letter to the Times, in which he complained: “The case is not closed. It is Posner’s mind that is closed. Unfortunately, the same seems to be true of the New York Times.” Then, in 1998, Patricia Lambert published False Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison’s Investigation and Oliver Stone’s Film JFK, a book I considered then the definitive work on Garrison and his deeply flawed investigation. Lambert had uncovered considerable new information and meticulously demonstrated how much of Garrison’s probe was predicated on unsubstantiated half-truths and rumors. Vince Bugliosi added another nail in Garrison’s credibility coffin with his vast 2007 book Reclaiming History.
However, notwithstanding my doubts, I am very glad that I decided to review Litwin’s extremely readable re-investigation. It turns out that the answer to “What’s new?” is “Plenty.” Litwin did his research the old fashioned way: He reviewed primary sources in the collections of private researchers and authors as well as in government archives. The result is a surprisingly fresh and fully persuasive account of the Garrison fiasco. Litwin’s retelling of the story is straightforward and accessible for an audience far beyond assassination and history buffs, and he writes with the confidence of someone in complete control of the facts. Relying on original transcripts, case files, memos, correspondence, and recorded interviews, Litwin provides unshakeable evidence to buttress his conclusion that the New Orleans investigation was doomed from inception by Garrison’s “mental illness” and “endless paranoias.” Sandwiched between the withering introduction and conclusion, he delivers an avalanche of documentary evidence that allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the extent to which the Garrison probe was a historic travesty of justice.
Reasonably minded readers who have followed the unraveling of Garrison’s assassination probe over the years will likely wonder how anyone ever believed him or allowed him to ruin the life of an entirely innocent man, New Orleans businessman and preservationist Clay Shaw. They will be reminded that he announced to a national television audience that he had “solved the assassination” before he had investigated it. On nothing more than a hunch, he convinced himself that Shaw was a central part of the plot to kill Kennedy, and then tasked his investigators with scraping together the evidence needed to ensure a conviction. And when none materialized, his office resorted to increasingly desperate and unethical methods.
A judge reviewing the investigation later concluded that Garrison had used sodium pentothal (which he believed to be a truth serum) and hypnosis “to implant” a “questionable, vague story” in the mind of his impressionable star witness, who then implicated Shaw in an elaborate conspiracy plot. He also bribed witnesses to get the incriminating testimony he wanted, and even concocted criminal charges to file against others who refused to cooperate. Some of those who contradicted his thesis were hit with perjury indictments. A few key early investigators left in disgust. One of these, William Gurvich, who had been Garrison’s chief investigator on the Kennedy case, later said: “He believes everyone reads the headlines concerning arrests and charges but few people read denials or correcting statements.”
Garrison seemed to have a whack-a-mole approach to the questions of who killed Kennedy and why. At one point he theorized that the assassination was part of a “Nazi operation,” but at others he pointed the finger at “oil-rich psychotic millionaires,” or the Minutemen and the CIA, or possibly White Russians or anti-Castro Cubans or some combination of the above. On one point, however, he remained fairly consistent—he once told Saturday Evening Post reporter James Phelan that the JFK assassination “was a homosexual thrill killing.” Garrison developed the implausible theory that accused JFK assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the man who killed Oswald, Jack Ruby, were also gay. As were the suspects in New Orleans on whom Garrison quickly narrowed his investigation. There were, he told Phelan, “six homosexuals in the plot. One or maybe two, okay. But all six homosexuals? How far can you stretch the arm of coincidence?”
Clay Shaw was well known in New Orleans. He was the managing director of the International Trade Mart, responsible for promoting cultural and business ties with foreign countries. Shaw’s secret was that he was gay. Garrison knew that and used it as a hammer to destroy Shaw’s image and credibility. By the time Shaw was charged in March 1967 with conspiracy to murder JFK, Garrison had leaked fake stories about Shaw in secret trysts with Oswald and other supposed conspirators. When a jury returned a not-guilty verdict in under an hour at the 1969 trial, Garrison simply refused to accept the outcome. He lost interest in who had killed JFK, and pursued a vindictive new mission to punish Shaw at any cost.
Three days after his acquittal, Shaw was charged with perjury over the testimony he had given in his own defense during the trial. It would be another two years before a judge finally issued a permanent injunction preventing Garrison from any further prosecution of Shaw. In a blistering opinion, the judge described Garrison’s assassination probe as “unique and bizarre” and that his continued efforts to prosecute Shaw were “bad faith and for the purpose of harassment, being the product of both selective law enforcement and financial interest.” Garrison had already published a book about the assassination entitled Heritage of Stone and had a contract for three more.
Much of this may seem familiar ground for assassination researchers. However, what is fresh is Litwin’s perspective on those issues that mattered most to Garrison. According to Litwin, the gay murder plot was not, as with so many other Garrison theories, simply another sensational accusation designed to grab attention. The politically ambitious DA—he had an eye on the Louisiana governor’s mansion—was adept at pushing his ludicrous theories onto the front pages of the local and national press, and he knew what captured the public’s imagination. Litwin shows, however, that Garrison remained obsessed with “the New Orleans homosexual underworld” and that this shaped much of his thinking about the murder. Although Garrison made up most of his charges—not to mention the “evidence” he claimed supported them—as he went along, he steadfastly fanned lurid S&M stories to buttress his notion that Shaw had arranged the murder of JFK because Shaw was jealous of the president, the “world’s most handsome man.” Litwin concludes convincingly that Garrison’s peculiar preoccupation with the “homosexual underworld” in New Orleans tells us more about the DA’s own troubled psychology and sexuality than the alleged crimes of those he persecuted.
In his account of the prosecution, Litwin does more than simply reassess what drove the dismal shortfalls in Garrison’s pursuit of Shaw. His book is richly illustrated with photos and copies of documents and newspaper articles that bring the history to life. These help make On The Trail of Delusion a one-stop shop for those who have watched Stone’s JFK but have never read much about the assassination. Litwin provides unequivocal evidence that Stone’s film is slick but dangerous propaganda. He has accomplished more than simply assembling a book that novices to the assassination will thoroughly enjoy. Even veteran researchers will find plenty to like.
Some of the book’s most fascinating new material concerns the remarkable and under-reported stories of other the victims of Garrison’s megalomania. Litwin delves into an account of a Montreal-based man named Louis Mortimer Bloomfield, who suddenly found himself at the center of a KGB-instigated conspiracy tale involving an alleged CIA-front company with ties to Shaw, the Mossad, and mobster Meyer Lansky, among others. This wild story has been retold in many versions since its original 1967 publication in an Italian communist newspaper. But Litwin has uncovered new evidence in Bloomfield’s personal archives as well as in Montreal’s Canadian Jewish Archives.
He traces many of the most outlandish theories about Bloomfield back to Lyndon LaRouche, the anti-Semitic political provocateur whose Executive Intelligence Review incessantly pushed the idea that Jews were somehow the masterminds behind the assassination. Little wonder that at one point Garrison latched onto Bloomfield as a linchpin to Clay Shaw. As Litwin points out, it all fit the simplistic investigative tool that Garrison relied upon during his probe. The word “propinquity” is an innocuous synonym for “closeness,” but in Garrison’s hands it became a means of visiting havoc on the lives of the innocent men and women who fell under his suspicion. Former Garrison investigator, Tom Bethell, explained how this worked:
In Dallas, at the time of the assassination there lived a Russian-émigré oil geologist named George De Mohrenschildt who had befriended Lee Harvey Oswald after Lee returned from the Soviet Union in 1962 (whither he had defected in 1959). There was another member of the Dallas émigré community named George Bouhe, who knew De Mohrenschildt (who knew Oswald). And city directories showed Bouhe lived right opposite… Jack Ruby! (he shot Oswald, just in case you had forgotten.) And there you have the long-sought Oswald-Ruby link—based on propinquity.
The principle of propinquity was not simply restricted to geographical proximity. Garrison believed that Bloomfield was a banker who owned half the shares in Permindex, a company that had supposedly been expelled from Switzerland for criminal activities. And Permindex, according to Garrison, had created a trade center offshoot in Rome, the Centro Mondiale Commerciale (CMC). Once Clay Shaw was identified as a former CMC director, Garrison was convinced he had exposed the assassination plot’s inner power sanctum. Bloomfield, Garrison decided, was a former World War II army major who had worked with the OSS, the CIA’s predecessor organization. He was particularly suspicious that Bloomfield appeared to be linked through Permindex to the Banque De Credit International of Geneva, and believed that Tibor Rosenbaum, an arms dealer and alleged money man for Israeli intelligence, worked with international crime syndicates and helped finance off-the-shelf covert CIA operations.
This was, like many Garrison stories, a thoroughly entertaining yarn. Its downside, as Litwin convincingly demonstrates, was that most of it was untrue. Bloomfield had never been an American army major or worked for the OSS. He was a Canadian infantryman before a heart murmur got him transferred to a desk job where, among other tasks, he stopped the Nazis from seizing several Polish ships in New York harbors. After the war he was a corporate attorney, not a banker. And he did not own half of Permindex’s shares but represented clients who owned company stock. Permindex was not ousted from Switzerland because of crimes. He was in fact just a highly respected philanthropist and activist, mostly for a wide range of Jewish charities and causes.
There is no doubt that Bloomfield was another victim—albeit a less famous one than Clay Shaw—of Garrison’s reckless investigation. Litwin has discovered a 1967 letter in the National Archives addressed to Garrison from a Canadian professor. That letter included details about Bloomfield that Garrison had got wrong (Litwin has also uncovered several contemporaneous Bloomfield efforts to get public retractions from publications that had repeated Garrison’s falsehoods). But Garrison simply ignored the contradictory information and doubled down, riding roughshod over his quarry. He even accused Bloomfield of a possible connection to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Garrison never contacted Bloomfield to verify any of these scandalous charges. He never directed any investigator to telephone and question the man he had somehow fashioned by rumor into a kingpin conspirator. “Was it possible,” Litwin wonders, “that Garrison realized the entire story was ridiculous on its face?”
It is not always easy to know if someone has been sincerely duped by false information mixed with a heavy dose of innuendo and aspersion. It is possible that Garrison was merely taken in by the many conspiracy theorists who had eagerly volunteered to help him. The outrageous and unsubstantiated charges against Louis Bloomfield were, after all, reported in about a dozen left-leaning publications, most prominently Ramparts. But the Garrison that Litwin methodically unmasks is not a man who particularly cared if the stories he was peddling were true or not. Garrison had deluded himself into believing that some innocent people might have to be trampled during his race to find Kennedy’s killers. That façade allowed Garrison to clear his conscience even as he gathered and spread lies and half-truths as promiscuously as facts. The only casualty was the truth. As Litwin points out, when Garrison wrote On the Trail of the Assassins almost two decades after his New Orleans investigation had flamed out, he “repeated all of this nonsense” about Bloomfield.
Besides Bloomfield, Litwin provides novel takes on other little-known Garrison victims, Georgio Mantello and Edgar Eugene Bradley. Mantello was one of Permindex’s founders and became the object of a vicious disinformation campaign that tried to paint him as having profited from saving Jews during World War II. Bradley was the second person Garrison charged with conspiracy in the JFK murder (10 months after he had arrested Shaw), based on a second-hand rumor that Bradley was one of three tramps who had been on a freeway overpass before Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza.
Garrison was by no means the first—nor will he be the last—clinically paranoid person to examine the JFK assassination. Nor is he the only one to have studied the case and embraced crazy and unsubstantiated conspiracy plots. What distinguishes him is that he was also a public prosecutor. Armed with the broad powers of his office, he directed a reckless and cruel prosecution that had no basis in reality. Still, his headline-grabbing probe, combined with steady leaks to the press, allowed him to secure the national attention he so desperately craved, while simultaneously ruining the lives of those unlucky enough to fall within his prosecutorial crosshairs.
This careful deconstruction of Jim Garrison and what Litwin describes as his “scam prosecution” is thoroughly persuasive and satisfying. It serves not only as a fast and entertaining read about the pitfalls of looking for buried truths in the JFK assassination, but also as a clarion warning of the dangers of excessive and unchecked power in the office of any prosecutor. On the Trail of Delusion has moved to the top of my “recommended” list as an antidote to Oliver Stone’s portrayal of Garrison as a dedicated truth-seeker. After finishing On the Trail of Delusion, most readers are likely to conclude that the only person who should have been charged and imprisoned as a result of Garrison’s investigation was Jim Garrison himself.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that Louis Mortimer Bloomfield never met Tibor Rosenbaum. Quillette apologises for the error.