“My friendship with him was perhaps the longest he’d ever had.” Stanford’s Paul Gregory on Lee Harvey OswaldThursday, November 7th, 2013
I’ve known Paul Gregory for several years (and written about him here and here and here) – I know him as a compelling writer, a fine Russian scholar, and the author of books on the women of the U.S.S.R.’s gulag, Nikolai Bukharin, and Lenin’s brain. He’s mentioned before that he knew Lee Harvey Oswald, but I certainly didn’t know how well until I read today’s story in the New York Times Magazine. I also learned of his unusual donation to the Hoover Archives – more on that below.
Like everything Paul writes, the current NYT story is an excellent read. It’s also a profoundly sad one, the story of an insecure and misguided misfit’s attempt for grandeur, and how an unlucky confluence of events led him to shoot and kill President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. It’s also the story of his wife, Marina Oswald, a confused and abused Russian wife pulled into an international crisis before she knew more than a handful of English words and phrases. So many theories have been spun around the assassin since – after reading this, the theories seem bigger than the man.
But I’ll let Paul tell the story:
It was 7 a.m. on Sunday when the single phone at the bottom of the stairs echoed through my parents’ red-brick house, right off Monticello Park in Fort Worth. “Mr. Gregory,” a woman said as my father picked up, “I need your help.” Who are you? he asked in his Texas-Russian accent, still half-asleep.
The caller said only that she had been a student in his Russian language course at our local library, and that he knew her son. In that instant, 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 helped Lee and his young family get settled in Fort Worth a year earlier. The Oswalds had been my friends. …
My father recounted that weekend’s events to me a few days later over Thanksgiving dinner, when I returned home from the University of Oklahoma, where I had just begun graduate school. 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.
My family tried to put those tragic events behind us, but over the ensuing decades, as I became an academic and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, I felt compelled to combine my memories and the historical record to present my own sense of Oswald. Most Americans believe that Oswald shot Kennedy. Yet according to one recent A.P. poll, only a quarter of Americans believe that one man acted alone to kill Kennedy. “Would Oswald,” as Norman Mailer wrote, “pushed to such an extreme, have the soul of a killer?” As I pored back over those months, I realized that I was watching that soul take shape…
Read the rest here. But this fascinating postscript is not in the New York Times – Paul has just made a valuable donation to the Hoover Archives. The story behind it: Young Paul Gregory began taking Russian lessons from Marina. Here’s what he says in the article about it on one occasion: “As I was leaving their house, he raced to the bedroom and returned with a faded pocket English-Russian dictionary that he used during his time in Minsk. ‘Take this,’ Lee told me. Only later did I realize that Oswald was showing off in front of Marina, pointing out that he didn’t need the dictionary but that I did.” Now that dictionary is at the Hoover archives, thanks to Paul’s generosity. Read about it here. Paul also donated the postcard from the Oswalds that may have ended their friendship. Paul had congratulated Marina on her English after receiving the postcard, with a few corrections. Then he got a phone call from the distraught wife: “’I did not write that letter. Lee did.’ Her tone told me all I needed to know; Lee had been deeply insulted and mortified by my response. Marina then told me she was unhappy. She hinted at physical abuse and explained that she had left him only to reconcile after he pleaded for her to attend Thanksgiving at his brother’s house.”