Joan Mellen
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JIM GARRISON: His Life and Times, The Early Years


In 1997, a decade ago, I began to write a biography of Jim Garrison. My goal was to tell the story of my subject from cradle to grave. Garrison would be studied, like my earlier biographical subjects, Kay Boyle, Lillian Hellman, and Dashiell Hammett, for his strengths as for his weaknesses. I would be aided by the fact that as I knew Boyle and Hellman, so I had been acquainted with Jim Garrison over a period of years, beginning in 1969.

I planned, of course, to devote a considerable portion of the book to Jim Garrison’s investigation into the Kennedy assassination, and to why this man, alone of all public officials to this day, was able to bring before the bar of justice someone involved in the plot to assassinate President Kennedy. As I drove up and down the roads of Louisiana, I realized that I had to write as well about my own investigation and examine whether the documents released under the JFK Act confirmed Jim Garrison’s findings or rendered them irrelevant.

After seven years, a book of 1500 or so pages emerged. The exigencies of publishing are grim, and Jim Garrison remained a figure attacked and discredited still, forty years after he began his investigation. Circumstances permitted only a book about Garrison’s Kennedy work. That was “A Farewell To Justice” (2005), for which I utilized about a third of the research I had done.

Since its publication, readers have asked me: what were Garrison’s motives? What kind of man was he? In the elliptical style of “A Farewell To Justice,” I could not convey the complexities of the man, or the contradictions in his character. Nor could I establish the extraordinary single-mindedness and purpose with which Jim Garrison approached his attempt to discover what had happened to the President whom he so much admired.

Had I been permitted to write the long book required to reveal Garrison’s life, I would have been able to consider whether the charges against him orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover and others had any validity: Was Garrison soft on the Mafia? Was he on the take? Was he an egoist investigating the Kennedy assassination in pursuit of personal glory and fame? Was he careless and in violation of the law in his treatment of witnesses and suspects in the Kennedy case? Were suspects treated fairly and with equality by Garrison as District Attorney of Orleans Parish? What were Jim Garrison’s values and convictions, and in what ways, if he did, was he able to transcend his limitations?

Jim GarrisonIt was the idea of my publisher Debra Conway that I return to where I began, to the story of Jim Garrison’s life, and I am grateful to her. When I re-read the original manuscript, I discovered that I had written as much a history of New Orleans in the 1960s as I had a biography of Jim Garrison. Inevitably, hence the subtitle “life and times,” I had placed the man against the landscape of that steamy port of no return, where immigrants from the mid-west, like Garrison’s mother, reached the end of their search for sanctuary. Iowa-born Jim Garrison engaged with New Orleans, and with the state of Louisiana, recognizing that he had an advantage as an outsider. As Garrison himself pointed out, he owed no loyalty to the status quo.

This volume takes the reader not to the end of Jim Garrison’s life, but to the moment when he declared that “nothing else matters” and devoted himself entirely to his Kennedy investigation. In the process, Garrison sacrificed a promising political career, a sacrifice he embraced with no regrets. Like a conventional biography, my book opens on Garrison’s family history and childhood and takes him through his formative years, not least his witnessing the atrocities of Dachau concentration camp at the close of World War Two. For Garrison, as he said later, this was a deeply influential moment. It holds an important place in what would be a life crowded with event. I close on Garrison in the fullness of his prime.

This book is not hagiography, the life of a saint. As Garrison remarked later in his life, the last perfect person walked the earth two thousand years ago. Rather, I hope I have chronicled the life of a person who was both a man of his time, a man of contradictions, and a man who rose above the ordinary. His passage is worthy of note.

Joan Mellen
Pennington, New Jersey
September 2007

EdiA Farewell To Justice Cover