Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Missing Link

By John Branston

MAY 4, 1998:  Perhaps the greatest King-assassination conspiracy theorist of them all was mysteriously missing in the blizzard of coverage of the death of James Earl Ray.

There is a fitting irony to that, because Frederick Tupper Saussy III was mysteriously missing, period, for 10 years after ghostwriting Ray’s book Tennessee Waltz in 1987. The 61-year-old Saussy, a graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, was convicted of failing to file income-tax returns in 1985. Two years later he disappeared shortly before he was supposed to begin serving his prison term. Last November he was apprehended in Venice Beach, California.

He is imprisoned at Taft Federal Correctional Institute, a minimum-security prison in California, serving a one-year sentence.

The pity is that Saussy’s life is more interesting than Ray’s, save for the assassin’s lone moment of infamy. The notion that James Earl Ray wrote a book as literate and philosophical as Tennessee Waltz is plainly preposterous to anyone who ever interviewed him, heard him interviewed on television, or read excerpts of his unedited letters to author William Bradford Huie that were the basis for the book He Slew the Dreamer. Yet this canard was solemnly repeated in all of his obituaries, as well as by people who should have known better, like conspiracy debunker Gerald Posner.

Saussy, who has been described as a genius, is apparently something of a hero to tax protesters, judging from references to him on various Web sites. He is a former prep-school teacher, Nashville advertising executive, songwriter, artist, and restaurateur. In a foreword to Tennessee Waltz, he disavows authorship. “I performed the usual advisory editorial tasks,” he writes in the foreword. But the 322-page book, carefully footnoted and written in a lively, entertaining, and polemical style, is plainly beyond the modest abilities of Ray, who quit school in the eighth grade.

The book was self-published by Saussy and timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the King assassination. For a number of reasons – Ray was then in robust health, the King family had not endorsed the book as they did the later Orders to Kill by William Pepper, the conspiracy fires had not been fanned as furiously as they were this year, and Saussy could not exactly embark on a promotional tour – that anniversary and Ray/Saussy’s book received little attention compared to this year’s media feeding frenzy.

From the opening page, it is clear that Ray could no more have written it than he could have thrown an elephant.
But the book contains the gist of the currently popular anti-government King assassination conspiracies. Tennessee Waltz is part Ray biography, part anti-government and anti-Nashville-establishment screed, and part radical Christian theology. Its subtitle is “The Making of a Political Prisoner,” and it includes an 18-page afterword called “The Politics of Witchcraft,” for which Saussy does claim authorship.

“I didn’t make a hard effort to find Saussy,” says author Posner, whose book Killing the Dream was released last month. “I never had a chance to pursue it.”

Posner told the Flyer it is “absolutely” clear that Ray did not actually write Tennessee Waltz, but he was unable to develop the Saussy angle because he was under a publisher’s deadline to get the book out in time for the 30th anniversary.

“That was the only way to get the media to pay any attention to it,” Posner said.

The omission is a serious one in a book that purports to present the definitive portrait of James Earl Ray and debunk once and for all King assassination conspiracies. For one thing, the bogus authorship makes Ray appear far smarter, more disciplined, and more intellectual than the manipulative con artist, holdup man, and jailhouse letter writer he was. For another, Saussy is key to understanding Ray’s later affinity with attorney/publicist William Pepper, self-styled “genius” Judge Joe Brown, and the peculiar assortment of clergymen who attached themselves to Ray’s claim of innocence.

Posner attributes inconsistencies and factual errors in Tennessee Waltz to “sloppiness about details and an imprecise recall.” More likely, they occurred in the editing or rewriting process. Posner also attributes “anti-U.S. government leanings” to Ray, citing a critique of American policy toward Soviet defectors and deserters after World War II. Ray, he says, was “quite political on subjects ranging from Allied war crimes to alleged government cover-ups of dirty programs.” Again, this claim is fatuous. Saussy likely projected his own well-documented anti-government leanings and his deeper reading of history onto Ray.

From the opening page of Tennessee Waltz, it is clear that Ray could no more have written it than he could have thrown an elephant. It begins with a quotation from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden that reads in part, “Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.” It ends with the radical/biblical injunction, “Remember my bonds.”

In the afterword, Saussy writes: “The truth is that King died so Ray’s repentance could unmask the Beast! You and I make James walk. When James walks, a candle is lit in the darkness, the True and Faithful overcome the Lie.”

In short, it is a Libertarian polemic from its “parenthetically speaking” to its Latin phrases to its highly entertaining indictment and ridicule of Nashville society and its “mediacrats.” Saussy knew Nashville well, having worked there or in Sewanee for some 30 years after finishing at The University of the South. According to a story by Tennessean reporter Jim East, he taught at Montgomery Bell Academy, lived on posh Belle Meade Boulevard, and composed the jaunty 1969 ditty “Morning Girl” performed by the Neon Philharmonic, a group of Nashville orchestral musicians with faux-British vocals.

Rebecca Pierce of Nashville knew Saussy when she was a student at Sewanee shortly before he went underground. He was married and had two small children and enjoyed entertaining students at his home, sometimes remarking that he was somewhat famous and could walk into a grocery store in Nashville and people would recognize him.

“He was sort of a local celebrity in a way but a lot of people did not agree with his attitude on taxes,” Pierce said.

Betty Cook Sanders of Nashville knew Saussy in the advertising business.

“He is a very good man and brilliant,” she said. “He was dedicated, and I’m sure believes what he did was right.”

Three years ago, Saussy somehow found out that Sanders admired his music and he sent her a tape, apparently through an associate.

He was also a clever wordsmith, and he was no more able to hide that skill than Ray was able to mask his illiteracy, faulty grammar, or bad spelling. Those skills help explain the astonishing makeover of Ray from thuggish Alton, Illinois, racist to political prisoner and darling of the King conspiracy theorists.

In 1984, Saussy was charged with criminal violation of the income-tax code. His subsequent trial was aborted when Saussy disrupted it and was finally held in contempt.

Sentencing U.S. District Judge Thomas Hull told Saussy, “You are so intelligent it hurts you.”

He vanished in 1987 but occasionally wrote letters to The Tennessean from Tennessee or California. Once he claimed he walked up to the gates of the federal prison in Atlanta to “surrender directly to the institution” as ordered, but was deterred by the no-trespassing sign.

The Flyer’s request to interview Saussy at the California prison where he now resides is pending with the Bureau of Prisons.

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