“I’m unique, one of a kind,” Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother told me. “I’m the only one in the whole world who’s the mother of the man accused of killing a president. A president! Why else would you come see me?”
It was a sweltering July day in 1977, more than a decade after the deed that cemented Marguerite Claverie Oswald’s place in history. We were sitting across from each other at her dining room table, in a small but immaculately kept brick house on a working-class street in Fort Worth, Texas. She was a stout, lively woman, a week from 70, peering at me sharply through butterfly glasses. She wore an apple-green housedress and her graying beehive hairdo was unyielding against the blasts of a chugging air conditioner.
The subject, as usual with Mrs. Oswald, was money. Why wouldn’t I—then a cub reporter for Crawdaddy magazine, writing about a made-for-TV drama on the JFK assassination being filmed 30 miles away in downtown Dallas, the scene of the crime—agree to pay her for an interview? She deserved to be compensated. “Why should I give interviews for free?” she demanded. “For three years, I did it for free. I’ve done my duty. I don’t need the publicity. I have no control over what they write about me. But at least if I’m taken advantage of, I know I’ve been paid. That’s my solace,” she said.
“Let me ask you this,” she continued with her sales pitch. “They replaced the president, didn’t they?”
“So I understand.”
“There! You see? I cannot be replaced.”
It was hard to argue with that.
Nearly 14 years earlier, on Friday, November 22, 1963, Bob Schieffer was a 26-year-old night police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Schieffer, who was living with his widowed mother and two younger siblings, was fast asleep in the middle of the day. He had gotten off work at 2 a.m. and had dropped by the press club bar, then visited a dive called The Cellar, to mingle with the big-shot national reporters and members of the Secret Service detail in town for President Kennedy’s triumphal visit to Texas. Schieffer had caught only a few hours of shut-eye when his little brother Tom woke him up and told him the president was dead, he better get to the office.
“I was just trying to help people handle the phones when a woman calls in and says, ‘Is there anybody there who can give me a ride to Dallas?’—and I literally almost hung up on her,” recalls Schieffer, today the chief Washington correspondent for CBS News, anchor of Face the Nation, and the host of a two-hour special this Saturday at 9 p.m. commemorating the 50th anniversary of the one of the country’s worst traumas. “I said, ‘Lady, we don’t run a taxi service, and besides, the president’s been shot.’ And she said, ‘Yes, I heard on the radio, and I think my son is the one they’ve arrested.’ ”
It was Marguerite Oswald. Schieffer quickly scrawled down her address. His babe-magnet sports car, a two-seater TR4, was not appropriate for the mission, so he enlisted his friend Bill Foster, the Star-Telegram’s automotive editor, to chauffeur them to Dallas in a brand-new Cadillac lent by a local car dealership.
“When we pulled up she was standing on the curb, this little woman in a white nurse’s uniform and horned-rimmed glasses, carrying a little travel bag,” Schieffer says. “Bill drove and I interviewed her all the way to Dallas. She was a very strange person. She immediately began talking about herself, about how people would feel sorry for Lee’s wife and give her money, but no one would feel sorry for her, and she would starve. It was just the most bizarre thing.”
Schieffer says he “got some pretty good quotes” and made $110 selling them to Time and Newsweek, a welcome bonus to his $115-a-week salary. But 50 years later, he regrets that “a lot of what she said, I didn’t even put in the story”—her jealousy of her daughter-in-law, Marina, for instance, and her self-pitying grievances about her future of friendless poverty and starvation—“because how would you feel if your son had just been arrested for killing the president? So I learned a lesson. When people tell you something, you might as well put it in the paper…I always felt that if I’d put some of those comments in, we may have had a little earlier understanding of who Lee Harvey Oswald was and how he had come up.”
When they arrived at Dallas Police headquarters, “I went to the first uniformed officer I saw and said, ‘I’m the one that brought Oswald’s mother over here—where can we put her?’" Schieffer says. “I always wore a snap-brim hat. If people wanted to think I was a detective, that was fine with me. So they found us a place in the Burglary squad, and there was a phone back there, so it was just perfect. I could go up and talk to all the other reporters in the hallway, gather up the information from them, and phone it in on what became my private phone.
“Anyway, after about four or five hours, Mrs. Oswald said, ‘Do you think they would let me see my son?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ll go ask.’ So I went to the chief of Homicide and he said, ‘We probably oughtta do that.’ …So we were all herded into this little holding room off the jail, and by this time they’d put his wife back there with us, and she had the baby with her, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God! They’re gonna bring him in here and I’m gonna see him talk to his mother and maybe I’ll get to interview him!’ Finally a guy standing over in the corner said, ‘Who are you?’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Are you a reporter?’ And I said, ‘Well…yes.’ And he said, ‘You! Get out of here! If I ever see you again, I’m going to kill you!’—or words to that effect. I always call it the biggest interview I almost got and didn’t.”
Two days later, Oswald was dead, shot in the stomach, on live television, by a strip club manager named Jack Ruby, as cops were moving the accused presidential assassin through a scrum of reporters and rubberneckers in the basement of the Dallas city jail during a transfer to the county jail.
Thus was born a motherlode of conspiracy theories, while the mother was left to fend for herself.
“I don’t own this house,” Mrs. Oswald informed me when I complimented her living arrangements, “and I had to sell most of Lee’s personal belongings and letters for the down payment.”
She pressed on with her sales pitch: “Everybody wants to know about the assassination. Books and more books come out every week. And some of them have even used my research without giving me the credit.” She sighed.
“You say you want to know my views. Well, I don’t just talk off the top of my head. I read every book that comes out. Sometimes I’ll stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning doing research.
Indeed, when she showed off her library, a shelf-lined alcove off the living room, it appeared to contain every volume ever produced on the subject up till then, including the 26 volumes of the Warren Commission Report, each book carefully preserved in plastic sheathing. After allowing me to look for 15 seconds, she barked, “OK, that’s enough!” and bustled back to the dining room.
“This isn’t some kind of communistic country,” she declared, pounding the table for emphasis. “This isn’t Russia. This is free enterprise. It’s profit-sharing…and if everybody’s making money, well, I’m not about to go penniless.”
It was clear we were never going to get to yes, and I soon bade her farewell. Schieffer had a similar experience. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Marguerite would call me, even when I was in Vietnam on assignment, and call my mother, saying, ‘Is Bob there? I need to get ahold of him. I’ve got new information.’ And even after I got to CBS, she would ask, ‘Do you think CBS would pay me?’ ‘No, Mrs. Oswald, we just don’t do that. I don’t think we would.’ She lived out her life selling his clothes to souvenir hunters and people like that. I just came to believe she was deranged.”
Two weeks after the assassination, Schieffer was back on night police, and the full impact of the terrible event hadn’t hit him yet. “I happened to be on the scene of this horrible auto accident,” he recalls. “A whole family had been killed. Their car had run under a truck filled with pipe. And I was standing there looking at all this, and I was like a dog watching television. It didn’t register. I had no emotional reaction whatsoever. It took me a while to get it back. And that’s when I realized that this [the assassination] had really taken something of an emotional toll on me.”
In a way, by giving birth to the infant who became John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Marguerite Oswald had also birthed the turbulent 1960s. “The ’50s really didn’t end until the assassination weekend. That’s when the ’60s began,” Schieffer says, “when so many things we had taken for granted no longer were taken for granted. We questioned everything about America—our leaders, our institutions. The assassination was the first event in a series of violent events and tumult over the next decade, which was probably the most violent decade in the history of this country, with the exception of the Civil War. We had assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate—the country was never quite the same after that weekend.”