BY JOHN POPE
New Orleans Advocate, FEB 19, 2021
Tom Bethell, a London-born journalist who helped derail Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison’s investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, died Feb. 12 at his home in Washington D.C. He was 84 and died of complications of Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Donna Bethell.
Bethell came to New Orleans in the mid-1960s to write about jazz, stayed for almost a decade then moved to Washington, where he worked for a series of magazines. He also wrote books on a wide range of topics, including the history of property rights and critiques of evolution and the theory of relativity.
“He was curious about so many things,”his wife said. “He had this breadth of curiosity that drove him.”
To earn a living in New Orleans, Bethell got a job as a researcher for Garrison, who accused the businessman Clay Shaw of being part of a plot to murder the 35th president.
“Garrison saw Kennedy assassination conspiracies high and low,” Bethell wrote in The Washington Monthly in 1975. “After a while, it became clearer and clearer that he had no case at all against Clay Shaw.”
At that time, there was no law requiring that one side in a trial tell the other side which witnesses it planned to call. One potential prosecution witness, Bethell wrote, was a man who not only claimed he had heard Shaw plotting Kennedy’s murder but also believed that government agents broke into his house regularly and replaced his children with “dead ringers” so they could spy on him.
“Needless to say, Garrison’s people were not anxious for the man’s eccentricity to emerge in testimony,” Bethell wrote, “and thus wanted the defense to have as little as time as possible to uncover it. When I discovered that Garrison was indeed planning to put this man on the witness stand, … I decided that the time had come to turn the necessary information over to Shaw.”
Bethell didn't name the witness in the 1975 article. But the description suggests it was New York accountant Charles Spiesel, who indeed testified at the trial.
That man was but one of severalindividuals of dubious credibility upon whom Garrison was basing his case. The jury acquitted Shaw after deliberating less than an hour.
For disclosing that information, Bethell said he was charged with “unauthorized use of movable goods.” The charge was later dropped.
“I have mixed feelings about this,” Bethell wrote in an essay. “I feel partly justified, in that Garrison was blithely wrecking the reputation of an innocent man, but at the same time I feel ashamed to admit it, because Garrison had always treated me well.”
The steady paycheck from the Garrisoninquiry enabled Bethell to stay in New Orleans and soak up as much as he could about jazz, to which he had first been exposed through vintage records while he was a student at the University of Oxford.
His wife said he was so eager to get to the birthplace of jazz that he applied for a teaching job at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, thinking from across the Atlantic Ocean that New Orleans must be nearby because both are in the southern United States. Bethell didn’t realize until he arrived in Virginia that New Orleans was almost 1,000 miles away. “He made it to New Orleans on holidays and eventually moved there,” Donna Bethell said.
In New Orleans, Bethell had friends, “but he was kind of a lone wolf who stayed to himself when he was working,” said Rosemary James, a States-Item reporter who was part of the newspaper’s team that broke the story of Garrison’s investigation. “I think he was something of a real night owl.”
After Shaw’s acquittal in 1969, Bethell turned to journalism with hopes of writing about jazz, said Jack Davis, a founder of Figaro, one of the publications for which Bethell wrote. Davis later became The States-Item’s city editor and The Times-Picayune’s metro editor. “He thought he would be writing about what he knew and loved and studied, but he discovered that journalism made you write about stuff that you didn’t know about yesterday.”
Nevertheless, he seemed to adapt well. In discussing his work with Jeannette Derbes, later Jeannette Hardy, at The Vieux Carré Courier in “The Electric Windmill: An Inadvertent Autobiography,” Bethell wrote, “She would be delighted by what I thought of as ephemeral piecework – in one ear and out through the pen the same day – about some local rascals seeking office.”
Bethell did manage to write about jazz. His book “George Lewis: A Jazzman From New Orleans,” a biography of the jazz trumpeter, was well received. Nicholas Lemann, who had befriended Bethell when both worked for The Courier, said Bethell wrote a 10,000-word piece, never published, on the cornetist Buddy Bolden.
After a stint at New Orleans magazine, Bethell moved to Washington in 1975, where he was editor of The Washington Monthly and then the Washington editor of Harper’s magazine. He also was a senior editor and columnist at The American Spectator, and he wrote for American Enterprise, the magazine of the American Enterprise Institute. For 25 years, he was a media fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
“He lived in the world of the conservative movement,” said Lemann, who went on to be dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a staff writer for The New Yorker.
And Bethell never shirked from courting controversy. Biologists attacked “Darwin’s Mistake,” an assault on the theory of evolution that Bethell wrote for Harper’s, and he was in a group that assailed the notion of man-made climate change and maintained that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.
“I think he was the consummate intellectual, the consummate man of ideas,” said Charlotte Hays, a friend since the two worked on The Courier. “I don't think he ever thought he wouldn’t be popular if he wrote about a certain topic. I think he was fascinated by ideas. He was a man of ideas.”
In addition to Bethell’s wife, survivors include a brother, Richard Bethell of Horley, England; and three sisters, Cecelia Barton of Taranaki, England, Magdalen Gee of Coniston, England, and Anne Klemets, of Wilton, Connecticut.
A Mass will be said Feb. 25 at 11 a.m. at St. Thomas Apostle Catholic Church, 2665 Woodley Road NW, Washington. Burial will be Feb. 26 in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland. De Vol Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.