RSS
My friend Lee Harvey Oswald
The frustrated loser I knew was desperate to prove he was "truly exceptional"
 
Oswald, in happier times.
Oswald, in happier times. (CORBIS)

IT WAS 7 A.M. on Sunday when the phone echoed through my parents' red-brick house in Fort Worth. "Mr. Gregory," a woman said as my father picked up, "I need your help."

The caller said that she had been a student in his Russian language course at our local library, and that he knew her son. My father, Pete Gregory, linked the voice to a nurse who sat in the back of his class and had once identified herself as "Oswald." Until this phone call, he hadn't realized that she was the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, a Marine who had defected to the Soviet Union only to return two and a half years later with a Russian wife and a 4-month-old daughter. My father had helped Lee and his young family get settled in Fort Worth a year earlier. The Oswalds had been my friends.

It was also clear why Marguerite Oswald needed his help. Two days earlier, Marguerite's son had shot John F. Kennedy. While Lee Harvey Oswald was sitting in a Dallas jail cell, his wife and mother and two young daughters were hiding out. Marina Oswald had become the most wanted witness in America. She needed a translator fast.

The Secret Service first knocked on my parents' door at 3 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 23, 1963. The following day, an agent named Mike Howard picked my father up and drove him to meet Robert Oswald, Lee's brother. As the family's translator of choice, he was now part of the plan to get the Oswald women out of their dingy hotel room and into a safe house that Robert had arranged at his in-law's farm so Marina could be questioned.

The scene at the hotel was worse than my father had expected. Marina, already thin, appeared extremely gaunt; she was having difficulty breast-feeding Rachel, her younger daughter, who was not yet 5 weeks old. As the men began packing the car, Howard whispered that Lee Harvey Oswald had just been shot.

With Oswald dead, Marina's testimony became even more important. Marina chain-smoked and drank coffee and was asked questions about Lee's rifle, a photo of him holding the assassination weapon, and his various associates. My father, who was then 59, translated furiously.

THROUGH MY FATHER, I had become a close — or, as Robert Oswald would later say, almost the only — friend of Lee and Marina Oswald's from virtually the moment they arrived in Fort Worth, in June 1962, until the end of that November. While that five-month period might seem fleeting, it was a significant period in Oswald's life. He was never in the same place for long. By age 17, he had already moved some 20 times. Then he dropped out of high school and joined the Marines, before being released and traveling to Moscow. He avoided deportation by attempting suicide and was sent to Minsk, where he met Marina. In the year and a half after he returned to the United States, he moved several more times. My friendship with him was perhaps the longest he'd ever had.

From nearly the moment I met Lee Harvey Oswald, it seemed that he felt the world had sized him up wrong. He wasn't much of a student, and the Marines overlooked his talent. But now his luck was changing. As virtually the only American living in Minsk, he became something of a celebrity in that provincial capital. Oswald assumed his experience as an American living in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War would be tremendously valuable, and he was already drafting a memoir. He kept a journal, which he labeled "Historic Diary." When he, Marina, and little June touched down at Love Field, on June 14, 1962, he greeted his brother Robert by asking where the reporters were.

A week and a half after his return, he went to the Continental Life Building in downtown Fort Worth. Earlier that morning, my father, a successful petroleum engineer, had received a call from a young man who wanted certification of fluency in Russian. Rather than tell him that there wasn't much of a market for a Russian translator in 1960s Texas, my father, who fled Siberia during the civil war, welcomed the chance to meet this fellow Russian speaker in person. He told him to come in for a meeting.

Around 11 a.m., with the temperature climbing into the 90s, a slight, 22-year-old Oswald arrived, drenched with sweat and wearing a wool suit. My father asked Oswald to translate passages from a Russian book he chose at random, and he was surprised at how well the young man performed. He asked his secretary to type out a "to whom it may concern" letter stating that one Lee Harvey Oswald was qualified to work as a translator, but he also told him that he knew of no jobs in the area that required knowledge of Russian. Upon parting, Oswald offered the address and telephone number of his brother Robert, with whom he and his wife were staying, just in case anything came up.

A few days later, my father decided to check up on Oswald and his wife, and because I was around their age and home for the summer, he took me along. When we pulled up to the house, we were greeted warmly by Robert Oswald, a tall and well-spoken man. Lee, by contrast, was restrained. He was short and wiry, his hairline noticeably receding, and he spoke with a Southern accent, not Texan, perhaps a relic of time spent in New Orleans during his youth.

Lee and Robert invited us in to meet Marina, who was slender, almost fragile, with a natural beauty. Lee explained to his wife in Russian that he had invited over a pair of fellow Russian speakers as a favor. And so my father, Pete, led the discussion by asking her questions about their voyage to the U.S., life in Minsk, and what it was like to be a young person in the Soviet Union. Marina answered most of the questions, speaking quietly and occasionally showing photographs.

ABOUT A WEEK later, my father and I drove from our house to Lee and Marina Oswald's new home, a cramped one-bedroom duplex. My father was taken by Marina, and he wanted to help her. He asked Marina if she would offer me Russian lessons. Before we even set a fee, Marina agreed to see me twice a week. She seemed happy for the company.

The next Tuesday, at around 6 p.m., Marina invited me in for my first lesson. The Oswald living room was extraordinarily bare; there was a shabby sofa and chair and a worn coffee table. As our first session came to an end, we decided that future lessons would take the form of my driving the Oswalds around town and having Marina correct my practical Russian as I pointed out landmarks. This, we reasoned, would be better for my language skills and help Marina learn the city. But we all knew it would also greatly benefit their ability to run errands.

On a typical lesson evening, I would show up around 6:30, when Lee got home from his welder's job. We would drive by department stores or Montgomery Ward, and I'd bring them back home by 10. These were lean times for the Oswalds, but they weren't without hope. During a trip to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, Oswald exuded an air of optimism. He was back in America with a beautiful wife and an adorable daughter; his life ahead promised more study and a possible university degree; a publisher would surely understand the value of his memoir, and he could use it as a platform to further the socialist causes in which he believed. Marina would understand what kind of man he really was.

But over the course of those months, it became harder for him to convince her of his exceptionalism. Early that summer, Lee brought home a catalog and class schedule from Texas Christian University, and we eventually decided to drive to the TCU campus so Lee could talk to a school official. But when we arrived, he motioned for Marina and me to wait at a distance while he had a whispered consultation with the woman at a desk. They spoke for a while, but when Lee rejoined us, he was sullen and quiet. (At the time, I didn't realize he hadn't graduated from high school.)

ON THE SATURDAY morning after Kennedy was killed, a Secret Service agent and the local chief of police took me to Oklahoma City for questioning. The agents homed in on the question of the day, which, of course, has lingered over the past 50 years: Did I think Oswald worked alone or was part of a larger conspiracy? I told them simply that, if I were organizing a conspiracy, he would have been the last person I would recruit. He was too difficult and unreliable.

Over the years, despite public opinion polls, many others have agreed. The opening of formerly secret archives in Russia indicates that the KGB didn't want to recruit Oswald. Cuban intelligence officers, a KGB agent or two, Mafia bosses, and even CIA officers (including, supposedly, members of Nixon's "plumbers" team) have somehow been tied to Oswald's actions that day, but it's difficult to understand how these conspiracy theories would have worked. Oswald, after all, fled the Texas School Book Depository by Dallas's notably unreliable public transportation system.

It's discomfiting to think that history could have been altered by such a small player, but over the years, I've realized that was part of Oswald's goal. I entered his life at just the moment that he was trying to prove, particularly to his skeptical wife, that he was truly exceptional. But during those months, his assertion was rapidly losing credibility. Marina would later tell the Warren Commission, through a translator, about "his imagination, his fantasy, which was quite unfounded, as to the fact that he was an outstanding man." Perhaps he chose what seemed like the only remaining shortcut to going down in history. On April 10, 1963, Oswald used a rifle with a telescopic sight to fire a bullet into the Dallas home of Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, the conservative war hero, narrowly missing his head. Oswald told his wife about the assassination attempt, but she never told authorities before Kennedy's death.

Seven months later, a far greater target would be scheduled to pass by the very building where he worked. "The whole series of frustrations had now brought him to this final stage," Robert Oswald writes in his memoir. "The discouragements and disappointments beginning in his childhood, continuing through the school years and the years in the Marines, the death of his dream of a new life in Russia, the boring jobs back in the United States, which made it impossible to support Marina adequately and gain some recognition as a man...the whole pattern of failure throughout most of his 23 years led to the outbursts of violence in April and the final tragedy in November 1963."

Adapted from a piece that originally appeared in The New York Times.

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week