Christmas with Oswald’s mother
Marguerite Oswald, at that moment the most notorious mother in America, was being dropped off at her Fort Worth home by FBI agents on the morning I met her 50 years ago this month. The bureau had taken Mrs. Oswald into protective custody after the Dallas Police Department arrested her son, Lee Harvey Oswald, and charged him with the murder of President John F. Kennedy.
As a 30-year-old reporter for the New York Times, I had been sent from the Los Angeles bureau to interview Mrs. Oswald and glean any scrap of information about her son, who by that time had been shot and killed by Jack Ruby.
At the curb next to my rental car, the FBI agents checked my credentials and drove off, leaving Mrs. Oswald to usher me into her small, neat bungalow. Rather than resent my presence, she seemed to welcome an audience.
After she had settled me on the couch across from her easy chair, she poked through an envelope the agents had left with her, while I looked her over. Short but sturdy, mid-50s, with graying hair, a generous nose and lips that pursed disapprovingly, Mrs. Oswald regarded the world from behind black-framed glasses like a wary owl. It was impossible to imagine her laughing.
And why should she? Her youngest child had just been killed, and although she had been a practical nurse, she said she couldn’t expect to find work now.
As we spoke, she opened her mail, shaking out bank checks into her lap. To show their distress, the American people had sent contributions to the widow of J.D. Tippit, the officer shot by Lee Oswald as he fled the scene in Dallas, and to Marina, the Russian waif who had married Oswald during his defection to the Soviet Union.
And from blind impulse, the public had also reached out to Marguerite, to show that the sins of the son would not be visited on the mother. Before the year was out, she would receive some $6,000.
As Mrs. Oswald gathered up the checks and brushed aside the letters of sympathy, I said, “You’ll be wanting to answer those?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Later.”
But for the next week or more, I kept Mrs. Oswald distracted with my questions. Editors in New York instructed me to stay with her as long as there were any new insights to gather, and Mrs. Oswald had surmised that my daily visits would end when she had parted with the last of her meager recollections.
It became apparent that Lee Oswald had fled his mother, just as his two brothers had done, only he had gone farther, moving to the Soviet Union for a time. Neither John, her son from her first marriage, nor Lee’s brother Robert were in touch, she told me, despite the catastrophe that had overtaken the family. I was beginning to see, though, that the role of victim suited their mother, and there might be more contact than I knew.
“I know your boys will be in touch before then,” I told her, “but if not, and I’m still here, I would like to take you to dinner on Christmas Day.”
“They won’t call. They won’t,” she said sadly. “Thank you, Jack.”
By the time Christmas came, I had come to sympathize with the sons. The portrait that was emerging from our interviews was of an angry woman, aggrieved at being cheated out of what life had owed her. She told me that she had always reminded Lee that their reduced circumstances did not mean they weren’t superior to members of the wealthy and powerful class in Texas who patronized them.
But I didn’t think that his mother’s resentments had turned her son into an assassin. And for all her enduring grievances, I had started to feel sorry for the woman, thrust friendless and ill-prepared into the international spotlight.
I was happy to oblige when she asked for a ride to Dallas to meet with an early conspiracy theorist.
Mrs. Oswald’s own theories shifted by the hour. Lyndon Johnson was behind the assassination. No, it was Richard Nixon. Her innocent son had been framed. She deviated from that script only once, when she said defiantly, “You have to admit, Jack, that whatever Lee did, he did well.”
We found her interviewer, who had come to Dallas from New York, ready with his tape recorder. His finger was highly selective. Whenever Mrs. Oswald said anything that smacked of conspiracy, he pressed the “record” button. When she wandered into her woollier speculation, he quickly cut off the machine.
Just before the holidays, still in Texas, I called Fort Worth and heard Mrs. Oswald declare triumphantly that she had been right and neither son had called. I arranged to pick her up at 1 p.m. on Christmas Day, and she directed me to a modest steakhouse nearby.
To my chagrin, she presented me with a gift: two bars of guest-room hand soap decorated with sequins. I remembered that she had once sold the soap in hopes of adding to her income.
The restaurant was filled with families laughing and trading gifts. Mrs. Oswald seemed to think that they were eavesdropping and lowered her voice. When we finished our meal, she whispered, “When we leave, walk a little behind me and hear if people say, ‘That’s Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother.’”
I caught up with her at the cash register, where she was waiting expectantly. “You were right, Mrs. Oswald. Everybody recognized you.”
It was Christmas, and that lie was all I had to give her.
A.J. Langguth, a professor emeritus at USC’s Annenberg School, is the author, most recently, of “Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War.” His book on the Reconstruction era, “After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace,” will be published in July.
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