Amtraks Across America: the Ghost of Jim Garrison in New Orleans

This is the seventh part in a series about Amtrak travels during summer 2022.

New Orleans residence of Lee Harvey Oswald at 4905 Magazine Street in the Uptown/Carrollton neighborhood, where he spent the summer of 1963 associating with both pro- and anti-Castro elements. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

The Oswald residence at a distance from the others was 4905 Magazine Street, in the neighborhood known as Uptown/Carrollton. In a real estate ad for the area, one webpage listed its assets as “tree-lined residential,” “classical revival mansions,” and “boutique shopping,” not exactly what I might have associated with drifter Oswald when he went searching for lodgings to rent in summer 1963. Most of his other addresses in New Orleans were either on the east side of the city in the Upper Ninth Ward or in downtown on the edge of the French Quarter.

There may be a perfectly innocent reason why he chose to move to Uptown in summer 1963 (heard about the place from a friend, answered a newspaper ad, etc.), but it’s also possible he looked five miles out of the city just so that he would not be recognized in his old haunts, although he didn’t mind being shown on local television handing out pro-Castro literature.

The rental unit (in the rear of what is now an upscale house near law firms and chic galleries) wasn’t hard to find, as Magazine Street is a major east-west street running across New Orleans, about five blocks north of the arcing Mississippi River.

What is harder to discover is what Oswald was up to in New Orleans.

Lee Harvey Oswald’s Summer Reading

Read enough Oswald literature, and conflicting portraits of his last summer quickly emerge. By some accounts, he was busy working at odd jobs, conducting a passionate love affair with Judyth Vary Baker, looking after his young family, and passing out agitation propaganda for Castro’s Cuba, all while plotting his return to Russia and checking the sight on his rifle.

In other narratives, he is doing little more than getting fired from his jobs (he was lazy and quarrelsome) and hanging out on his front porch reading the 27 books he checked out of the nearby Napoleon Avenue branch of the public library.

His literary tastes that summer ran from Ian Fleming’s thrillers (Goldfinger, Thunderball, Moonraker, From Russia with Love) to numerous science fiction titles, many written or edited by Issac Asimov.

While his exaggerated public footprint that summer was that of a Marxist agitator, his background reading on Soviet Russia was anodyne, limited to What We Know About Communism, Russia Under Khrushchev, and One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich.

His books about John F. Kennedy were limited to William Manchester’s idolatrous Portrait of a President and JFK’s own Profiles in Courage, neither of which suggest any anger toward the president.

If anything, the reading list suggests that there was more Walter Mitty to Oswald than the Warren Commission chose to investigate—someone trying to imagine himself in the great Cold War games of James Bond.

Is it any wonder then that after the JFK assassination, he was captured in a movie theatre?

David Ferrie’s Shadow Over Oswald

Another possible explanation for the location of Oswald’s rental apartment that summer is that he chose to live somewhere in the vicinity of David Ferrie, who himself lived at 3330 Louisiana Parkway, two miles from Oswald. It’s a remote possibility in my view, as he could easily see Ferrie in Bannister’s 544 Camp Street offices, where both of them came and went.

Ferrie was hard to miss. A skin disorder robbed him of facial and head hair, which meant he went around wearing wigs and false eyebrows, some of which he painted on his face.

After reading about Ferrie’s death in On the Trail of Assassins—the memoirs of the New Orleans District attorney in the 1960s, Jim Garrison, about whom the Oliver Stone film JFK was set—I biked out to Ferrie’s Louisiana Parkway apartment, which occupied the second floor of a large residential home on a modest, tree-lined block. I am guessing that as a commercial and soldier-of-fortune airline pilot Ferrie moved there so that he was between New Orleans and several airports.

Garrison went to that house after learning of Ferrie’s death in 1967, and writes in his book that the place was filthy, and smelled of, among other things, white mice, which Ferrie used for bizarre medical research (similar to that undertaken by Oswald’s self-proclaimed lover that summer, Judyth Vary Baker).

Garrison also reported finding not one but two suicide notes near Ferrie, presumably put there so that whoever found his body would know that had not been murdered (just as the DA was ramping up his JFK investigation of Clay Shaw’s relationship with Ferrie and the assassination).

Ferrie is a link (to some real, to others imagined) between Oswald’s childhood in New Orleans (in the mid-1950s he was Oswald’s leader in the Civil Air Patrol, not unlike the Boy Scouts), summer 1963, and the JFK assassination.

Jim Garrison’s Trail of Assassins

Regretfully, I did not find Garrison’s On the Trail of Assassins to be a page-turning read, although most evenings in New Orleans I preferred its prose over the latest incarnation of The 500 Club on Bourbon Street (the nightclub where Jack Ruby would go in the early 1960s to recruit strippers for his Carousel Club in Dallas).

Garrison’s book is a ghost-written legal brief for the case that more than one man, Clay Shaw among them, plotted to kill President Kennedy. He marshals evidence that in 1967 was revolutionary, but which now feels as tame as a blockbuster Hollywood movie starring Kevin Costner.

Garrison does write with some humility and humor, as, for example, when he describes Ferrie’s appearance (“He was dressed, as usual, as if he had been shot by cannon through a Salvation Army clothing store.”)

Garrison’s thesis is that somehow Oswald got swept into a conspiracy to kill the president orchestrated by anti-Castro Cubans, rogue CIA intelligence officers (including Shaw), and gun-running lowlifes (Bannister and Ferrie), all of whom resented Kennedy’s performance in the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco and thought of him as weak on Communism.

The Making of a Patsy

As best Garrison can determine, Oswald was selected to play the role of the fall guy, although in summer 1963 he might well have thought he was getting a better part, one with more singing and dancing.

Garrison believed that there were at least two Oswalds on the loose in the months before the assassination, and that it was another Lee Harvey Oswald who went down to Mexico City and tried to gets visas for Cuba and Russia. (Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover did not believe that Oswald himself had gone to the Cuban or Russian embassies.)

Garrison views Oswald’s presence in New Orleans as an exercise in “sheep-dipping,” in which Oswald (a friend of white Russian emigres in Dallas) could be re-branded (yet again) as an agent of the Comintern, here passing out pro-Castro leaflets, there petitioning Cuba and Russia in Mexico City for visas and a safe haven.

The Garrison Case for Conspiracy

Garrison thought that the Warren Commission was a whitewash, that bullets hit JFK from the front, and that the Dallas police had used a “throw-down” gun (Oswald’s mail order Mannlicher-Carcano with the broken scope) and planted shell casings to incriminate the gullible Oswald. Garrison thought the presidential autopsy was a fix and that the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA had withheld or destroyed importance evidence in the case.

Garrison did not think that Oswald had killed either JFK or Officer J.D. Tippit on that day in Dallas, but did believe that he had some connection to the plotters, although for all Garrison could surmise Oswald might well have thought that the exercise was to pin an assassination attempt on Castro so that the U.S. would then be justified in invading Cuba. (There was never any indication that Oswald hated Kennedy or wished him harm. Even his wife, Marina, testified that he admired the First Family.)

At the end of his book, Garrison writes:

Following the assassination, Oswald was immediately branded a communist, with his leafleting activity in New Orleans cited as the prime evidence.

The sponsors of the assassination also arranged numerous scenes where Lee Oswald was impersonated in hopes of laying a trail of incriminating evidence at his feet. The most significant of these impersonations occurred in Mexico City in October 1963, when Oswald reportedly contacted the Soviet Embassy and the Cuban consulate, ostensibly to arrange a trip to the Soviet Union. The reason this particular impersonation stands out is that all the “documentation” for it was provided by the C.I.A. This evidence—which included C.I.A. memos, photographs of a man who obviously was not Oswald, and tapes of phone calls to the Soviet Embassy that were not of Oswald’s voice—was insultingly flimsy. To me, this meant that while some elements within the C.I.A. participated in the Oswald impersonation charades and thus were doing the necessary preparatory work of setting up the scapegoat for the assassination, other elements within the Agency remained uninformed about the plot, or indeed might have been trying to discover the truth.

An army officer in the reserves, a decorated World War II veteran, and a former FBI agent, Garrison had every reason to be skeptical of official government sources and blue-ribbon presidential commissions, but even Garrison was surprised at the venom that was thrown in his own direction after he brought conspiracy charges against Clay Shaw for plotting to kill JFK.

The last part of the memoir is a description of the trumped-up criminal charges for bribery and corruption that were filed against Garrison himself, and how he managed to beat that rap (which nevertheless sullied the reputation of anyone who had believed in his earlier case against Shaw).

A Garrison Boondoggle to JFK’s Washington

Garrison died in 1992 at age 70, a year after the movie JFK was released. (With some Hitchcock irony, Garrison appears in the film playing the role of Judge Earl Warren, of Warren Commission fame.)

Omitted from the film, however, was the only occasion on which Garrison almost met John F. Kennedy at the White House. As it turned out, Garrison overslept and missed the appointment, although the richer story is told by David Talbot in Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years:

In March 1962, Garrison worked his Louisiana political connections to finagle an audience with the dazzling young president of the United States. Instead of taking his wife, Liz, with him to Washington, he brought his girlfriend of the moment, a flight attendant named Judy Chambers. The night before his meeting with JFK, the fun-loving district attorney and his mistress partied so exuberantly that he overslept his appointment at the White House. Garrison was able to pull himself together, however, for a Justice Department meeting with Bobby Kennedy at 1:30 that afternoon. If JFK discovered the reason that Garrison stood him up, he was likely amused. But Bobby, who never put pleasure before business, did not hide his irritation with Garrison. When the D.A. returned to New Orleans, a friend asked him how the trip went. “Well, I met Bobby,” Garrison replied. He was then obliged to explain why he had missed his meeting with the president. But he was not the least contrite. “You can always meet a president,” Garrison informed his friend. “But you can’t always get a piece of ass like that!”

Napoleon and JFK

On my bicycle I never did find either Garrison’s office or home, although on numerous rides I went past courthouses and official city buildings, and I figured that in one of them would have been Garrison’s office.

I did have a drink and dinner one night at the Napoleon House, where in theory The Little Corporal was offered residence in 1821 by the mayor of New Orleans (Boney was otherwise engaged on St. Helena and not free to take up the offer). In the Stone movie, it’s at the Napoleon House that Garrison watches the assassination on television and plots some of his famous case against Shaw, which included this soliloquy:

One of the stated objectives [of the Warren Commission] was to calm the fears of the people about a conspiracy. But in our country, the government has no right to calm our fears, any more than it has, for example, the right to excite our fears about Red China, or about fluoridation, or about birth control, or about anything. There’s no room in America for thought control of any kind, no matter how benevolent the objective. Personally, I don’t want to be calm about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I don’t want to be calm about a president of my country being shot down in the streets.

After Garrison died, he was buried in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. I thought of biking there and even downloaded directions to his grave (“…section 207, not too far behind the funeral home…”), but in the end I decided his legacy, like so many disembodied spirits in New Orleans, lies elsewhere.

Next: Night train to Chicago. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.