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Guilty of Being Gay: NOLA Businessman Clay Shaw

March marked the 50th anniversary of Shaw’s arrest in connection with the death of JFK

Clay Shaw
New Orleans Businessman Clay Shaw. (Photo via The Times-Picayune)
- Photo by Photo Credit: The Times-Picayune.

The International Trade Mart building at the foot of Canal Street (tip: check out Spanish Plaza) will soon be home to the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences, one of the world’s finest hotels. What you may not know is that the Trade Mart building itself was founded by closeted New Orleans’ businessman Clay Shaw – yes, that Clay Shaw – the only person to ever be tried in connection with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. From 1947 until his retirement in 1965, Shaw was the managing director of the Trade Mart, which promoted international trade and the Port of New Orleans. When he retired, the City of New Orleans presented him with its highest honor, the International Order of Merit, for his many contributions to the city.

Members of New Orleans’ gay community who knew Shaw will tell you that director Oliver Stone’s depiction of him in the film JFK was anything but fair. While actor Tommy Lee Jones portrayed Shaw as a limp-wristed gay man, the truth is Shaw was a war hero (he rose to the rank of major general), a successful business leader, a die-hard French Quarter preservationist, and a playwright.

Unfairly tried

The International Trade Mart building, founded by Clay Shaw.

In 1961, Jim Garrison was elected New Orleans District Attorney. They say that in his first two years, he never lost a case. After investigating the case of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, who was also from New Orleans, Garrison became convinced that a group of right-wing activists including Shaw was involved in a conspiracy with the CIA to kill the president. Some believe Garrison’s pursuit of Shaw was motivated by – surprise – homophobia. Garrison called JFK’s assassination a “homosexual thrill killing,” in the vein of the Chicago murder of Bobbie Franks by (Nathan) Leopold and (Richard Albert) Loeb.

Before the 1967 trial, NBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post wrote stories about documented instances of bribery, intimidation, and suborning perjury by Garrison’s office, all in an effort to get people to testify against Clay Shaw.

NOT GUILTY!

Former French Quarter home of Claw Shaw. (Photo courtesy of: The Historic New Orleans Collection)

In the end, the jury found Shaw not guilty. In fact, the jurors deliberated for less than an hour. (In 1973, Jim Garrison lost his office to Harry Connick, father of singer/actor Harry Connick, Jr.) Shaw, who spent much of his life savings on his defense, was forced to come out of retirement. Five years after being acquitted, at the age of 61, he died a recluse in a house at 1022 St. Peter St., a victim of lung cancer and one of the ugliest smear campaigns in history. (Tip: If you want to stroll by the house while you’re here, you might also want to view the building at 701 Bourbon Street, former home of Dixie’s Bar of Music, where Shaw hung out. You might also want to visit two of Lee Harvey Oswald’s Uptown residences: the first at 4905 Magazine Street, where he lived in 1963, the year he shot JFK, and the second at 1452 St. Mary St., where he lived as a child.)

Clay Shaw at Mardi Gras in the early 1950s, outside Dixie’s Hall of Music. (Photo credit: Jack Robinson Photo, The Jack Robinson Archive, LLC)

GET YOUR HISTORY ON

For those interested in LGBT history, the Historic New Orleans Collection at 533 Royal Street is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. The LGBT Archives Project also has several resources that promote the preservation of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community in Louisiana. Check them out and be the most interesting conversationalist at the party.

Related: Walt Whitman’s New Orleans Awakening

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