Priscilla Johnson McMillan knew both John F. Kennedy and the man who assassinated him, Lee Harvey Oswald.
She tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that Kennedy was full of questions, “always asking you things, always asking questions, so I wanted to understand for him, why somebody would assassinate him. … He would have wanted to know why somebody had nothing better to do than just go out and kill him, and that is what I wanted to answer.”
To find the answer, McMillan lived with Oswald’s widow for several months, helping to take care of her two young children. She also spoke with dozens of people who knew the couple, and went through all of the documents she could find.
The resulting book, “Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald’s Assassination of John F. Kennedy,” which has just been re-released, was called, “the single best book ever written about the Kennedy assassination,” one “not likely to be surpassed,” and “the closest we’ll ever get” to the mind of Kennedy’s assassin.
McMillan’s reporting led her to some surprising facts: A previously unknown assassination attempt on the Soviet leader Khrushchev that may have inspired Oswald. Oswald’s attempted assassination of a noted segregationist and anti-communist, General Edwin Walker. Oswald’s admiration for Kennedy.
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So why is “Marina and Lee” not better known? In a new forward to the book (see excerpt below), noted American thriller writer Joseph Finder says it’s because of the answer the book offers to that question of “why” — that Lee Harvey Oswald was a “twisted, small man … far too angry, unbalanced, and delusional” to be part of a conspiracy.
Finder writes that McMillan’s book, “is alive to the small crevices of character — and to the vast and irreducible role of chance. Even today, half a century after the assassination, the cascade of contingencies McMillan documents is painful to absorb.”
Book Excerpt: ‘Marina and Lee’
By Priscilla Johnson McMillan
Foreword by Joseph Finder
Shortly after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, in November of 1963, a Gallup poll found that 52% of the American public believed that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was part of a conspiracy. In the fifty years since, that figure has climbed closer to 80%.
You can understand why. It’s painful to accept that an American president was cut down by one small, half-crazy guy with a mail-order rifle who could easily have been stopped in any of a dozen different small ways—but wasn’t. No wonder Norman Mailer called the assassination “the largest mountain of mystery in the twentieth century. . . a black hole in space absorbing great funds of energy and never providing a satisfactory answer.”
The key word here is “satisfactory.” The simple explanation — that Oswald acted alone — was unpalatable. The enormity of the crime didn’t fit the insignificance of the criminal. Far easier to imagine Oswald as a “cat’s paw” of a much larger scheme, engineered by invisible but all-powerful forces.
There’s something deeply consoling about conspiracy. As a writer of suspense fiction for whom conspiracy is a stock in trade, I know the gratifications of a world in which everything means something, everything adds up, everything is under the control of some grand human intention. We like to think that things happen for a reason, and that large things happen for large reasons.
The Warren Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson a week after the assassination, was meant to set the record straight. Its task was to reassure a grieving nation that everything was under control, that there hadn’t been a coup d’état, that the U.S. wasn’t, in Johnson’s phrase, a “banana republic.” Its published report gave us such turgid bureaucratese as “The Commission does not believe that the relations between Oswald and his wife caused him to assassinate the President” and “Many factors were undoubtedly involved in Oswald’s motivation for the assassination, and the Commission does not believe that it can ascribe to him any one motive or group of motives. It is apparent, however, that Oswald was moved by an overriding hostility to his environment.”
All this bureaucratic caution had a paradoxical effect, however. The Oswald who emerged from the Warren Commission report’s twenty-six volumes was a blank slate. No wonder it was so densely inscribed with our worst suspicions. It didn’t help that Oswald was himself shot dead two days after the assassination, by a nightclub operator named Jack Ruby in the basement of Dallas police headquarters. The shooting of the shooter made him loom all the larger in our imagination. As Thomas Powers pointed out, “Lee Harvey Oswald in prison for decade after decade — surfacing in the news whenever parole boards met, but otherwise forgotten, like Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray, Arthur Bremer, John Hinckley — would have faded back down to size. It is Oswald dead and unexplained that excites suspicion. We needed a good long look in order to forget him.”
That good long look didn’t come until 1977, with the publication of Marina and Lee by Priscilla Johnson McMillan. The timing could not have been worse. It was two years after the ignominious end of the Vietnam War and three years after Watergate. The country had been through two more traumatic assassinations (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King). We were by then steeped in conspiracy thinking. Our distrust of politicians and government organizations was at fever pitch, shaped in part by the paranoid conspiracy thriller that had come into vogue in Hollywood: “The Parallax View” and “The Conversation” and “Chinatown” in 1974, “Three Days of the Condor” in 1975, “All the President’s Men” in 1976.
Marina and Lee offered a deep, nuanced, and spellbinding portrait of Oswald, as seen through the prism of the person who knew him best, his Russian wife, Marina. But it gave us no sensational revelations, no grassy-knoll conspiracy talk. What it offered instead was something far more unsettling: a portal to the life and times of a twisted, small man. The book was widely reviewed but its sales were modest. It wasn’t what the conspiracy-minded American public was in the mood to buy. McMillan’s book forces readers to confront something more vexing than a conspiracy: an absence of conspiracy.
It’s no less suspenseful for all that, in part because of the breathtaking intimacy of its character studies. The author’s gifts of observation are considerable. Yet she was also extraordinarily fortunate in the access that she enjoyed. A few months after the assassination, Oswald’s Russian widow, Marina Prusakova Oswald, was offered a choice of collaborators to write a book about her life with Lee. One was a Russian-born journalist named Isaac Don Levine, who’d written biographies of Lenin and Stalin. But he was mostly interested in talking about politics, and Marina had no patience for that. She wanted to talk about her tempestuous marriage.
The one writer Marina was drawn to was a thirty-six-year-old woman named Priscilla Johnson (later, Priscilla Johnson McMillan), who had a gentle, warm nature and an intriguing background. McMillan had been a friend of John F. Kennedy’s — she had been an aide to him when he was in the Senate, and, pretty and socially connected, was a target of his attentions, though it never led to an affair. She also spoke fluent Russian, which was crucial, since Marina’s facility with English was poor. She understood the idiosyncrasies of Soviet life, having spent several years in Russia as a young reporter.
By a startling coincidence, she had also known Marina’s husband. In November, 1959, as a reporter in Moscow, she had interviewed a twenty-year-old ex-Marine at the Metropole Hotel in Moscow named Lee Harvey Oswald, who’d announced he wanted to defect to the Soviet Union.
Marina Oswald and Priscilla Johnson McMillan hit it off immediately. McMillan then signed a contract with Harper & Row for a book about Lee Oswald for which she received an advance of $60,000. Two-thirds of that went to Marina. Marina signed a release giving McMillan a free hand to write whatever she wanted.
From July 1964 until the end of the year, McMillan all but moved in with Oswald’s young widow and her two small children in her ranch house outside Dallas. They cooked meals and traveled together. McMillan babysat Marina and Lee’s kids. They traded confidences. The terrible event was less than a year old, and its details were still fresh. This was about as close as we could get to asking questions of Oswald himself.
McMillan had a difficult task. Marina had been overinterviewed. Fearing deportation to the Soviet Union, she had given different versions of her life to the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Warren Commission. She was also wary, ashamed, and overwhelmed with guilt. Was she in some way to blame for his actions? She vacillated between wanting to condemn her late husband and wanting to defend him.
The result of McMillan’s immersive reporting is a full, rounded sense of Oswald’s character. His sense of self swings wildly. At times he regards himself as a world-historical figure destined to change the course of human events; at other times, he’s a cruelly neglected victim. It was a highly volatile combination. He fancied himself a Marxist, lived in rooming houses under aliases and was a furtive, nasty man. He wrote in what he called his “Historic Diary” while singing the theme song to the Gary Cooper western “High Noon” (“Although you’re grievin’, I can’t be leavin’/Until I shoot Frank Miller dead”). He was far too angry, unbalanced and delusional to consent to be the cat’s paw of some gleaming cadre of conspirators. (Only if you haven’t read Marina and Lee can you take Oswald’s famous jailhouse remark — “I’m just a patsy!” — at face value.) He’s a liar, a manipulator, a wife-beater, an odious human being, and finally a pathetic one. We like to think that great men make history. McMillan reminds us that small men do, too.
It’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The idea of assassination, McMillan believes, is highly contagious, like an influenza virus, and Oswald was infected, not once but on multiple occasions. McMillan was the first to report that, in January of 1962, when Oswald was living in Minsk, there was an assassination attempt on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, probably by one of his own bodyguards, at a nearby hunting lodge. Oswald heard about it from a relative of his new wife, Marina Prusakova. The attempt was hushed up; no one outside Russia knew the details until McMillan’s book was published. “If this had happened in America,” Oswald told Marina and her family, “it would have been in all the newspapers, and everyone would be talking about it.”
Seven months before that afternoon at Dealey Plaza, Oswald had tried to assassinate another political figure: the segregationist and right-wing hero General Edwin Walker. Oswald had missed by one inch, and he was emboldened by how easy it had been — and how no one had ever found out. Neither the FBI nor the Dallas police had an inkling he’d tried.
McMillan’s book undermines all the conspiracy theories so successfully because it doesn’t set out to do so. Marina and Lee doesn’t polemicize; it portrays. It’s alive to the small crevices of character—and to the vast and irreducible role of chance.
Even today, half a century after the assassination, the cascade of contingencies McMillan documents is painful to absorb. Oswald had only learned of the route of the President’s motorcade a few days before, she establishes, when it was published in the Dallas newspapers. The shooting was practically a spur of the moment decision. Once he heard that the President’s limousine would be passing right by the building where he worked, he felt that Fate had put him there. The President’s limousine looped right under his window. (McMillan’s reconstruction of the day of the assassination, documentary yet novelistic, is as pulse-pounding as the finest thriller.)
Would Oswald have shot any politician who passed under his window? Would he have traveled across town to shoot Kennedy if Kennedy hadn’t presented himself, in a slow-moving open-topped limousine, some eighty-eight yards from the Texas Schoolbook Depository? McMillan can’t say for sure, of course, but she doubts it.
And the cascade continues. What if the FBI hadn’t closed its investigation of Oswald —who changed his mind about defecting to the Soviet Union and returned to the U.S. in 1962—once they’d realized he wasn’t a Moscow-directed threat to national security? What if they hadn’t investigated Oswald at all? (McMillan speculates that the FBI’s repeated questioning of Oswald and his wife and their friends may paradoxically have inflated his delusional sense of his own importance and may have even emboldened him to go after the President.) What if Marina had agreed to his repeated pleas that she and their children move back in with him? What if it hadn’t been so easy to buy guns? What if the Secret Service had argued against JFK’s request to take down the protective bubble-top of his limo on that nice sunny day?
“The tragedy of the President’s assassination was in its terrible randomness,” McMillan writes. The task of coming to terms with this reality is the challenge that Marina and Lee bodies forth in meticulous, mesmerizing detail. For most Americans, that challenge remains unmet. The reissue of McMillan’s classic book is the perfect occasion to surrender the salve of conspiracy, and take that good, long look. The truth is out there. Just turn the page and start reading.
Joseph Finder, 2013
Excerpted from the book MARINA AND LEE by Priscilla Johnson McMillan. Copyright © 2013 by Priscilla Johnson McMillan. Reprinted with permission of Steerforth Press. Originally published in 1977 by Harper & Row.
- Priscilla Johnson McMillan, author of “Marina and Lee.”
- Joseph Finder, New York Times best selling author of 10 Books, including “High Crimes.” His upcoming book is “Suspicion.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. Some Americans still think it was the CIA that killed him. Or maybe it was the Russians. Years ago writer Norman Mailer said that the assassination was the largest mountain of mystery in the 20th century, a black hole in space absorbing great funds of energy and never providing a satisfactory answer.
But just a few years after the assassination, reviewers agreed that, as Newsday put it, the closest we'd ever get to understanding the mind of Kennedy's assassin was Priscilla Johnson McMillan's book "Marina and Lee." Priscilla McMillan was a young reporter in the Soviet Union when she met Lee Harvey Oswald and his Russian wife Marina. Lee was a 19-year-old Marine trying to defect in the Soviet Union.
Previously, Priscilla had been an aide to then-Senate John Kennedy, making her the only person in the world who knew both men. Her 1977 book has just been republished. Priscilla McMillan is an associate at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard. In full disclosure, she was once my landlady. Priscilla, welcome.
PRISCILLA JOHNSON MCMILLAN: Thank you very much, Robin. Glad to be here.
YOUNG: And with Priscilla is Joseph Finder, a writer of famous thrillers like "Paranoia," "High Crimes," but he's also had a lifelong fascination with Russia, got his master's at the Davis Center and has written a new forward to "Marina and Lee." Joe, welcome to you, as well.
JOSEPH FINDER: Hi Robin, great to be here.
YOUNG: And Priscilla, let's start with you. Your research, exhaustive. You spoke to the Russians who knew both Marina and Lee in Russia. You spoke to their friends and neighbors in New Orleans, Fort Worth, Dallas, FBI agents who had Oswald on their radar because he'd tried to defect and then come home. What ultimately do you conclude? Who was Lee Harvey Oswald?
MCMILLAN: Lee Harvey Oswald was a political actor all his life. And the motivating emotion of his life was spite, anger. He never did anything for a positive reason but to get back at somebody, revenge.
YOUNG: When you say a political actor, he was a Marxist who hated capitalism and inequality. He raged against racism when he had to appear in court once for handing out flyers. He made sure he sat in the blacks only section. But also beat his wife.
MCMILLAN: He showed signs of violence from a very young age, when he went after his sister-in-law when he was 14 with a knife. He never forgot the grievance he had, as a boy of 14, against that person.
YOUNG: Well Joe Finder, you say Priscilla McMillan reminds us that we like to think great men make history, but actually small men do.
YOUNG: Does she convince you that that's really what this is at bottom, is it not a spy who returned from the Soviet Union, turned by them, it's not somebody who was part of a conspiracy, it was just one small man doing one horribly big thing?
FINDER: Yeah, and I write conspiracy thrillers. That's what I do for - that's my day job. And I am used to seeing patterns and creating patterns in order to make conspiracies that seem plausible. And while I was reading Priscilla's book, I realized there is no way that you can read this book and still at the end think that there was any kind of conspiracy.
Priscilla has accounted for almost every minute in marriage, as far as I can tell, and she has given us a picture of Oswald that is so close-up, so fine-grained that you realize he wouldn't work for anyone, he wouldn't be anyone's cat's paw. So as much as we want to believe that yeah, things happen for a reason, and big things happen for big reasons, you can't read "Marina and Lee" and think that he was a cat's paw, that he was part of any kind of conspiracy.
YOUNG: Well, and you also see that this just didn't come out of thin air, as it felt like it did. Oswald did try to assassinate someone before Kennedy, the segregationist and rightwing hero General Edwin Walker. He bought a rifle, but he missed. He thought he was going to go to Cuba to fight with Fidel and thought, well, I know I'll get there, I'll hijack a plane. So he started working out. Incredibly deluded.
MCMILLAN: It's unbelievable his idea about hijacking a plane. He was going to take over the cockpit. Marina was supposed to stand in back, holding their little girl by the hand and holding a pistol in her hand and telling all the passengers not to move.
YOUNG: And she laughed at him. Marina laughed at him, like you're crazy.
MCMILLAN: Yes, that worked. She laughed him out of it.
YOUNG: Well, their marriage was very strained. I mean, they were both so young, poor. She doesn't speak English. They rely on the kindness of strangers. I just wonder, given that she knew so many things, she knew he'd attempted the assassination of this right winger, she knew he'd bought a rifle, when she heard of Kennedy's assassination she went to look for it.
He ultimately is the one who kills Kennedy. Does she fell culpable?
MCMILLAN: Sometimes she felt culpable, sometimes she felt it was her obligation to tell what she knew, and sometimes she felt it was her obligation to protect him. And after the attempt on General Walker, she made him destroy the evidence. It was to vindicate himself in history that he was doing it, but she made him set a match to a lot of the evidence and put it down the toilet.
YOUNG: There's a lot of what-ifs in the book. Does she ask what if, what if I had done this, could I have changed the course of history?
MCMILLAN: I never heard her deal with it in such a large way.
YOUNG: Joe, some of the other what-ifs?
FINDER: Oh yeah, they jump at you. What if Kennedy had not asked to lower the bubble top on his limousine? What if the FBI had investigated the shooting of General Walker, which they didn't, and...
YOUNG: The shooting attempt.
FINDER: The shooting attempt, right. But Priscilla also points out something very interesting. The FBI was interested in Lee Harvey Oswald because he went to Russia. He was an attempted defector. Priscilla points out that Oswald was, kind of in a delusional way, bolstered by this interest in the part of the FBI. It made him feel important. He was important enough to be interviewed by the FBI.
YOUNG: That's author Joseph Finder talking about "Marina and Lee," the acclaimed and just reissued book on JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. It's written by our other guest, Priscilla Johnson McMillan, the only person known to have known both JFK and his assassin. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
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YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're speaking with authors Joseph Finder and Priscilla Johnson McMillan about Priscilla's newly reissued book "Marina and Lee," considered the definitive book on Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, because of Priscilla's exhaustive research, including months spent living with Oswald's widow, Marina.
Priscilla met Lee Oswald in the Soviet Union when she was a reporter there and he was a Marine trying to defect. Years earlier she'd been an aide and friend to then-Senator John Kennedy. Her conclusion after all her research is that Lee Harvey Oswald had been brutalized by his mother and spent his 24 years lashing out, trying to make himself bigger than he felt.
Just before the break we were hearing how the FBI was interested in Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas because he'd attempted defection earlier and taken up leftist causes, and in a delusional way that that made Oswald feel important. And Priscilla, you spoke to FBI agents who say the sadness is that they dropped their investigation in part because they had to get ready for President Kennedy coming to Dallas, but also that in interviewing Marina without Lee, they may have set something off.
MCMILLAN: That agent coming to see Marina, where she was staying, and asking about Russia, that scared Oswald, and I think it was one of the things that led to the assassination, strangely enough. And Oswald took a note to the FBI building in Dallas a few days before the assassination, and the FBI later destroyed the note. But it probably threatened to blow up the FBI building if that agent tried to interview Marina again.
YOUNG: So if they had just followed, hey, wait a minute, somebody just threatened to blow up our building, maybe we should follow this guy, maybe take him in for a little while...
MCMILLAN: But they didn't read the note.
FINDER: They were much more interested in whether he was a commie.
YOUNG: Well, yeah, and that's why they were looking for the wrong thing.
MCMILLAN: Looking for the wrong thing.
YOUNG: Joe, it's kind of amazing. There have been all sorts of speculative films about the assassination but nothing really about these two people. Do you think it's a film or a, you know, a fiction novel - I don't know if you could get a fiction novel better than Priscilla's fact-based book...
FINDER: Right, yeah.
YOUNG: But is it partly because people just don't want to - maybe don't even want to know Lee Harvey Oswald?
FINDER: Yeah, I think it's easier to sort of imagine him as part of this gleaming conspiracy rather than to look at who he was and what we know about him. And after all, Priscilla spent months with his wife. This is the closest anyone has ever come to interviewing Oswald himself. But to see that life, that kind of miserable, nasty guy that he was, and understand that his motivations were small, and he was a small person, and that yes, it is possible in this world for a small person to destroy a great man.
YOUNG: And just another thing that just doesn't square, it's so weird. Here he was, he thought at different times he was a communist, and he was a member of the Communist Party, they didn't know who he was. As we said, he was so against inequality and racism. Here's President Kennedy working on civil rights legislation when he gets gunned down. That doesn't square.
MCMILLAN: He did like Kennedy. He did like Kennedy, but as he saw it, and in a way he saw it as his duty, his historic duty was to strike a blow or to bring down American capitalism.
FINDER: I think it's evidence of how delusional he was that he could admire Kennedy for his civil rights stance and yet decide to kill him.
YOUNG: You say that what this book documents above all else is the vast and irreducible role of chance in what happened, because we don't like that. We want to think...
FINDER: We want patterns. We want conspiracies. We want big reasons.
YOUNG: Yeah. Priscilla McMillan, I've asked you this before, but here we're coming up on this anniversary, so I don't know how much you're thinking about this. You are the only person whose life intersected with both John F. Kennedy's when he was young, and let's just say it, perhaps had his eye on you; and Lee Harvey Oswald. Have you long ago stopped trying to figure out why that is?
MCMILLAN: Well, I knew a lot of people when I was young, and I guess my sense of life was that you do bump up against people a lot. I had wanted to talk to Oswald, if he was back in the U.S., because he was a very interesting defector, and I'd written a piece about him. He was the only one I'd ever seen who came to the Soviet Union for ideological reasons.
So I had thought of him in the intervening years. And then when this event happened, I wanted in a way for Kennedy to try to figure out why this person, this small person that Joe speaks of, had nothing better to do than go out and kill him. Kennedy was so full of questions. If you knew him, he was always asking you things, whether you might have any reason to know about them. He was always asking questions.
And so I wanted to understand - well, I think I wanted to understand for him why somebody would do that.
YOUNG: Well, and you make it very clear you think that the person that ultimately he's wanting to get revenge against is his mother, who also seemed pretty spiteful.
MCMILLAN: In a way his mother was the author of the assassination.
YOUNG: Isn't that something? I'm sure there are people saying, oh, why does it always have to be blamed on the mother? You were sitting in the kitchen of a neighbor, somebody who had actually had Marina and Lee Harvey Oswald living with her at times, when who walks in the door but Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, Marguerite.
MCMILLAN: Yes, Marguerite walked in, and it was as though she wasn't in reality.
YOUNG: It became clear in the stories that - that what, that she didn't care for Lee Harvey Oswald, that she tormented him? I mean what was the cause of his anger towards her?
MCMILLAN: Her detachment from reality, her being inside a world of her own, and she paid no attention to him. And he himself wrote that he had a mean streak brought on by neglect. And she put all her children in an orphanage when they were very, very young. And all three brothers hated her and left as early as they could.
YOUNG: When you got that answer, was it unsatisfying? Was it even more sickening?
MCMILLAN: No, no, I was just very interested in how he worked, why he worked. But again, I wanted to explain to Kennedy why he died. And Kennedy was such a directed person. He was busy all the time. He even had operations that he wouldn't have had to have if he weren't ambitious in politics.
And here's somebody goes and kills him. Well, he would've wanted to know why somebody had nothing better to do than just go out and kill him. And that's what I wanted to answer.
YOUNG: Priscilla Johnson McMillan, the book that is the result of that question why is the newly re-released "Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald's Assassination of John F. Kennedy." It is hundreds of pages of detailed research and incredible storytelling. And it also has a new forward by Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling author of 10 books now. What's the one down the road? What's coming?
FINDER: It's called "Suspicion." It comes out in May 2014.
YOUNG: "Suspicion," what a perfect word for this conversation. Thank you both.
FINDER: Thank you, Robin.
YOUNG: You're welcome. And we are preparing our program for November 22. Are you old enough to have memories of that day 50 years ago? Let us know at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.