A Mother in History

11.17.13

Oswald’s Mother Was a Thoroughly Disagreeable Piece of Work

She was manipulative, abrasive, and mercenary to a fault. To know his mother was to feel some small sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald.

It was a surreal moment. The widow of Lee Harvey Oswald was telling me her reaction to reading an account of her husband’s funeral, written by her late, long-estranged mother-in-law. “I dropped a tear or two,” Marina Oswald said softly in her Russian accent. The two most influential women in Oswald’s life, his wife and his mother Marguerite, had not spoken with each other for years before Marguerite’s death in 1981. But I was in touch with them both, and Marguerite once asked me to help her get a story about Lee’s burial published. I later shared it with Marina.

Hearing Marina’s emotional response to the article struck a nerve, reminding me that the traumatic public events of November 1963 were also profoundly personal tragedies for the Kennedy, Oswald, and Ruby families. Until 1976, I was just one more American with a crystal clear memory of where I was the moment I heard the news. It was my fifth-grade hall monitor who uttered the stunning words, “Kennedy’s been shot.”

But a dozen years later, I was a broadcast journalist at ABC, working with Geraldo Rivera. He had just made headlines and gotten a footnote in the history books by showing the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination on television for the first time, and he asked me to produce a follow-up program that would feature anyone from the Oswald or Ruby families willing to talk.

Oswald’s widow and brother were not interested in appearing on TV, but his mother Marguerite was—for a price. Since Rivera’s production company owned his “Good Night America” newsmagazine show, I was told I needn’t abide by ABC News standards, and could offer Marguerite up to one thousand dollars. It was checkbook journalism at its finest.

Near the end of a prolonged phone negotiating session, I finally reached a deal with the savvy former nurse for the thousand-dollar fee. As we discussed details of the interview, which was to be done in her home, I said, “I’ve heard you have a small study, sort of a shrine to Lee. We’d like to have the conversation there.” Without missing a beat, Marguerite replied, “That will be another two hundred dollars.” 

Although I was 23 years old and dreaded losing my job for going over budget, I wearily said, “Done.”

Not long afterwards, on a brutally hot day in August 1976, Geraldo and I met a local film crew in Marguerite’s small, stifling house in Fort Worth, around the corner from Lee’s old high school, where she surrounded herself with photos of the accused assassin as a sweet baby and a smiling Marine.

In the midst of proclaiming Lee’s innocence, Marguerite made one of her most intriguing claims. The night before Jack Ruby shot Oswald, she said, “an FBI agent named Bard Odum came to the motel where Marina and I were staying. He had a picture cupped in his hand, and asked me if I knew this man. I said no, I’ve never seen him in my life. Later, after Ruby killed Lee—and remember, I didn’t know then who killed Lee—I walked through a room where we were being held in protective custody by the Secret Service, and I casually turned over a newspaper. And on the bottom of the front page was a picture of a man. I said, that’s the man in the picture the FBI agent showed me. And they said, Mrs. Oswald, that’s the man who killed your son.”

An hour later, with the interview concluded, I sat with Marguerite at her kitchen table as Geraldo finished up business with the crew. “I don’t like him,” she whispered to me. “He believes Lee is guilty. I think you’re more open-minded.” I thanked her for the dubious compliment, then mentioned I collected autographs and would like her to sign something for me. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I charge two hundred dollars for my signature. It’s the only way I stay alive. I also sell my expired licenses and library cards for two hundred dollars each.”

I told her I understood, then handed Marguerite the two legal release forms that allowed her to appear on the program for the agreed-upon $1,200. She signed them both, and I signed as witness. Moments later, clutching the documents in my hand, I walked out of the house, turned to Geraldo and said, “I just saved myself 400 bucks.”

Although that was Marguerite Oswald’s first network television interview in many years, we were not the first journalists to speak with her. That distinction belongs to my CBS colleague Bob Schieffer, who was a 26-year-old newspaper reporter in Dallas on November 22, 1963. He picked up the phone on that chaotic day at the Star-Telegram, and heard a woman ask if anyone could drive her from Fort Worth to Dallas. “We’re not running a taxi service, lady,” Schieffer retorted, “and if you haven’t heard, the president’s been shot.” “I know,” the woman replied. “I heard on the radio that they’ve arrested my son.”

Schieffer jumped in a car and got the scoop of his career, interviewing Marguerite during the ride back to Dallas. She was already complaining that people would send money to her daughter-in-law Marina, but that she would be forgotten.

Fifty years later, Schieffer’s assessment of Marguerite has not changed: “She was a self-centered, seriously deranged person, whose only interest seemed to be money,” he told me this month. “Even years after I came to CBS, she would call and ask if we would pay for an interview. She never once shed a tear on that ride to Dallas.”

Marguerite Claverie Oswald was, indeed, a difficult and bizarre woman. She was married three times, and was once accused of abusing her second husband. Lee’s father died two months before he was born in 1939, and Marguerite frequently moved with the boy between Texas, Louisiana, and New York. Her disagreeable nature made it nearly impossible for her to hold down a job. One family that had hired her as a baby nurse told the Star-Telegram that “everyone hated her,” and she was fired when they began to suspect she was drugging their infant so he wouldn’t cry at night.

Perhaps because I would listen to her unrelenting rants, Marguerite seemed to enjoy speaking with me, and we stayed in touch until her death. She sent me items such as a letter she had received from the CIA about Lee’s time in Russia (adding a cryptic comment of her own), a Social Security receipt showing her meager income and pleading, “need an interview to supplement; help if you can,” and a note expressing her wish that “someday the networks will wake up.”

One day, a package arrived containing that long story she’d written about Lee’s funeral. Marguerite hoped it would be the prelude to a book she wanted to write, and asked if I could get it published somewhere. Although the article was printed in pamphlet form in 1965, it never went anywhere and these days is only available in a Dallas library.

Titled “Aftermath of an Execution:  The Burial and Final Rites of Lee Harvey Oswald”, Marguerite begins with her visit to Lee in jail. “He had black eyes and scratches on his face. His eye was swollen. I said, ‘Are they mistreating you?’ He answered, ‘No, mother, I got this in the scuffle.’ Of course, I know that this boy wouldn’t tell his mother the truth if he was being mistreated by the Dallas police. He would not want to worry his mother.”

Marguerite refers to Oswald’s murder the next morning by Jack Ruby as “the tragic event,” then describes in detail preparations for her son’s funeral and burial. She seems astonished by the fact that no ministers wanted to officiate, writing, “So much for Christianity as we know it today.” A non-practicing clergyman finally volunteered. In his brief remarks, Reverend Louis Saunders said, “We are not here to judge Lee Harvey Oswald, but to bury him. May God have mercy on his soul. His mother has informed me that Lee was a good son to her, a good husband to his wife, and a good father to his children.”

In her description of the sparse ceremony, Marguerite reveals her exceedingly odd and egocentric worldview. She laments, “God, in His infinite wisdom, must have wept at the sight of this wife, mother, brother and the two small children of the deceased, the only attendants at this funeral.” Upon leaving, she noticed a sight “I shall never forget. The cemetery flag was at half-staff. Of course, I knew it was flying low because our President had died. But to me, you see, it meant also that my son was being buried under a flag that was at half-staff too. Sometimes there is joy even in sorrow.”

Another moment of insight into her personality comes half a year later, when she watches a TV report showing a dead tree next to Oswald’s grave. “Not one time in the past six months had my composure broken, but this time, alone in my house, I broke down and wept.” She intensified her effort to keep Lee’s grave “neat-looking, for many people passed by to take pictures for history. I, as a mother,” Marguerite concludes, “want these people to go back home knowing a mother’s love for a son is everlasting.”

In 1981, Marguerite was buried next to Lee; they have spent more time together in death than they did in life.

In various radio interviews I conducted with her in her final years, Marguerite’s voice became increasingly shrill and her allegations grandiose. Calling herself “a mother in history,” she insisted, “Lee was offered the job in the Book Depository. He didn’t get it on his own. He was placed there. He was the perfect patsy. They set him up.” She consistently refused to reveal who “they” were, but echoed many critics of the official investigations when she said, “The case against Lee Harvey Oswald is hearsay, distortion, and omission, and the FBI used wrong investigative techniques. Lee died an innocent man. He was neither tried nor convicted for his alleged crime. And history is being defamed.”

Only once was the verbose Marguerite nearly at a loss for words: when the House Assassinations Committee concluded in 1979 that President Kennedy’s murder was probably the result of a conspiracy, one possibly involving organized crime, and that Marguerite herself may have had “personal relationships” with members of the Mafia in her younger days. I called and read her the AP story as it crossed the wire; she was astounded. “What they are implying,” she sputtered, “is beneath contempt!”

During the time I knew Marguerite, there was only one moment in which I truly felt any compassion for her. She confided that a major heartache was the lack of any relationship with Lee’s two daughters. Marina had cut off contact after 1963, and Marguerite told me she sometimes would secretly go to her older granddaughter June’s elementary school and peer through the schoolyard fence, just to get a glimpse of her. In the midst of all her bombast, I suddenly saw her as the sad, lonely old woman she was.

Over the years, I had conversations with Marina and Lee’s brother, Robert, and I got to know Jack Ruby’s siblings as well. These essentially innocent bystanders all expressed regret and remorse about Oswald and Ruby, two pathetic men who failed miserably in nearly every aspect of their existences, yet succeeded in changing the course of American, if not world, history.

But my sympathy for them all is limited. It extends, instead, to the real victims of this heinous crime of the last century. John F. Kennedy would have celebrated his 70th birthday in 1987, and I wrote to his daughter that year, asking if she would consider, for the first time, speaking about his life. To my surprise, Caroline called me, saying she had seriously considered doing an interview. “But I can’t,” she apologized. “I just can’t bring myself to do it yet. Maybe my brother might; why don’t you ask him?”

I never did. Hearing the pain in Caroline’s voice brought home to me in a visceral way that two little children lost their father on November 22, 1963, while the rest of us lost a president with unfulfilled potential, one who touched hearts and minds in ways that few leaders ever do.

And that’s why, to use Marina Oswald’s phrase, I’ll be “dropping a tear or two” on Friday.