New Portrait of Oswald as a Violent, Delusional Loner
Belated memoir from a close 1962 acquaintance portrays the assassin as a troubled loser who killed JFK to show wife Marina he was important
A little over a week ago, another anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination—the 59th—passed without much notice around the nation. But in Dallas, the site of the horrendous crime, a passionate group of independent JFK conspiracy “researchers” gathered for an annual meeting under the banner of Citizens Against Political Assassinations, which insists that “the official government conclusion” that Kennedy was murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald alone “is invalid.” It promotes a wide-range of alternative scenarios.
The acolytes’ panels were dominated by a MAGA-style insistence that all the government’s evidence is fake news and a reverence for disgraced former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who, in his own myopic zealotry, destroyed numerous innocent lives (most notably those of prominent New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw and anti-Castro activist David Ferrie) during his assassination investigation in 1967-1969. The jury in Garrison’s capstone 1969 trial exonerated his targets in record time, but the damage had been done, not only to Shaw and Ferrie (who both died during or shortly after Garrison’s charade): Garrison had convinced a large portion of a generation that elements of the CIA had killed the President in a massive conspiracy and cover-up that included not only former CIA executives like Allen Dulles (a close Kennedy family friend), but also the Dallas Police, the doctors who struggled mightily to resuscitate the mortally wounded president, the physicians who autopsied him, the FBI that interviewed over 20,000 people with any connection to anybody, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then-VP Lyndon Johnson, and even JFK’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Director Oliver Stone gave Garrison’s delusional conclusions a mass media and cultural imprimatur with his 1991 fever dream film, JFK.
A corollary of this lunacy is that the man who was actually arrested and charged in the killing, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself an intelligence operative sent undercover to Russia in 1959 for over two years. But in the contradictory world of many a conspiracy enthusiast, he was an innocent bystander on Nov. 22, 1963, oddly one of the few Americans not in on the plot.
The CAPA conference was notable for its exclusion of anybody who actually knew Oswald, of which a handful remain. Pointedly ignored was Paul R. Gregory, Oswald’s only friendly acquaintance in the summer of 1962 in Ft. Worth, where they both were living.
Today, among his many other stellar achievements, Gregory is a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and holds an endowed professorship in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston. And he’s just published a fascinating memoir, The Oswalds: An Untold Account of Marina and Lee, which the conspiracy theorists would do well to read. After devouring the book, I called the author up to discuss his fateful encounters with Kennedy’s future assassin.
A Chance Encounter
In 1962, Gregory was twenty-one years old, the same age as Oswald’s Russian wife Marina; Lee was twenty-two. Through his father, a Russian émigré who interviewed Oswald for the local employment office, Gregory learned of the recently arrived Oswalds, including their four-month old baby, June Lee. Gregory, a graduate student in Russian economics, sought out Marina in hopes she could improve his understanding of the complex Russian language.
What Gregory Gregory witnessed that summer left him convinced of Oswald’s guilt as soon as he learned of his arrest. “I was not shocked at all,” Gregory told me. “It jibed with everything I knew about Lee.”
Oswald had what Gregory calls “the soul of a killer.” (Months earlier Oswald had tried to murder General Edwin Walker and former Vice President Richard Nixon, the world would soon learn. After fleeing his assassin’s perch in the Texas School Book Depository on Nov. 22, he shot and killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit and tried to murder arresting officer Nick McDonald.)
In both conversation and in his book, Gregory says that Oswald was a delusional, violent loner, who heaped horrible abuse and beatings on his virtually captive young wife. She was eventually driven to a suicide attempt. Oswald caught her in the bathroom, standing on the toilet seat with a rope in her hands. For that, he gave her another beating.
Over the course of Gregory’s approximately 20 language lessons with Marina and the numerous times he drove the couple and their baby girl on errands over the summer of 1962, Gregory says he witnessed a struggling couple in constant distress.
The family shared a three-room hovel of an apartment with four pieces of worn furniture. It had no air conditioning or fan to ward off the Texas heat, no TV, radio, or telephone, no bassinet (the baby slept in a suitcase), and no car. Domineering Lee, marginally employed, left Marina at home alone with a crying baby to sweat through the sweltering heat, with no one to talk to, no news or entertainment to listen to or watch. Tightwad Lee gave Marina two dollars per week to feed herself and June Lee. To Gregory, Marina was clearly undernourished, stick-thin and pale. When she wasn’t staring at the four walls she’d carry the baby (she had no stroller) four blocks to the Montgomery Ward department store, where she’d gaze at all the things she could never dream of owning. Surprisingly, she later told Gregory the Russian lessons she gave him were not about money so much as , companionship (or keeping maybe her sanity).
During their time together, Gregory and the Oswalds spoke only Russian. Lee, rabidly jealous, forbade Marina from learning English lest she get a job and leave him.
Gregory says “Lee’s Russian grammar was non-existent.” (Odd for a supposed CIA agent, no?) But it wasn’t what Gregory heard during their get togethers that haunts him; it was what he saw.
“It was hard to miss Lee’s physical abuse of Marina,” he writes. “I witnessed the facial bruises and black eyes.” (According to Marina, the beatings occurred three or more times per week and had increased in ferocity since their 1961 marriage. With no acquaintances or visitors other than Gregory, “Lee could beat her without repercussion,” he said. Most chilling was the time he saw Marina, who was holding June, fall backwards off their porch steps, with the back of her head smashing on the concrete sidewalk. Gregory was certain she was unconscious and needed to go to the hospital, but Lee just screamed and cursed at her for being so clumsy with the baby. A trip to the hospital was out of the question.
There were many details to which Gregory wasn’t privy, he admits, but which Marina would later divulge to her biographer Priscilla Johnson McMillan—most horrifically, Lee’s frequent rapes of her. Gregory also couldn’t have known about Oswald’s violent youth, in which he tried to stab his sister-in-law, beat his mother, abused animals, and was twice court-martialed, once for assaulting a fellow Marine. This is certainly not the sort of pedigree that would appeal to CIA recruiters. Nor did Gregory see any evidence of Oswald’s alleged spy pals.
“I was his only outside contact other than his brother Robert,” Gregory says. “He had no friends. He even hated his mother.”
Gregory would later introduce Marina (and Lee, tagging along) to a group of local Russian émigrés, in hopes of finding “a lifeline” for her. But upon meeting her sullen, “unpleasant” husband, they were horrified, he says—even without knowing in advance about the beatings he meted out to his wife.
“They never would have agreed to meet the couple if I had told them about Lee’s violence,” Gregory says. Eventually clued in, the Russians did everything they could to get her away from her monster mate, and Marina indeed left him many times. But he would always find her, drop to his knees weeping and begging her forgiveness. She usually relented, causing the émigrés to eventually give up. To this day, Gregory worries that his introduction of the Oswalds to the Russians, and their role bringing Marina—and unintentionally, Lee—from Ft. Worth to Dallas, was a key domino that resulted in Oswald’s murderous Texas sojourn. Lee’s murder spree, Gregory concludes, was his delusional attempt to show Marina and the world that he was someone to be reckoned with.
With The Oswalds: An Untold Account of Marina and Lee., Gregory joins McMillan’s seminal 1977 biography, Marina & Lee, (written with Marina) as a go-to account of the star-crossed couple. Neither impressive volume, alas, is likely to dislodge the JFK truthers from their conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, for those who believe the Earth is round, the truth of Lee Oswald is not the stuff of a CAPA espionage confection—it is the stuff of nightmares.
Gus Russo is the author of nine books, and has written, reported, or produced over a dozen major documentary television specials, both in the US and abroad, on the Kennedy assassination. He doesn’t read social media, so feel free to troll away.