A Mother In History

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by Jean Stafford; Jean Stafford; Pharos Books; 121 pages.

Shortly after the Warren Commission published its report concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, had killed John F. Kennedy, the novelist Jean Stafford went to Texas to interview the assassin’s mother. Stafford found Marguerite Oswald living in a neatly kept house with a print of Whistler’s “Mother” hanging over the couch in the living room. “Now maybe Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin,” Mrs. Oswald conceded. “But does that make him a louse? No, no! You find killing in some very fine homes for one reason or another. And as we all know, President Kennedy was a dying man. So I say it is possible my son was chosen to shoot him in a mercy killing for the security of the country.” Later Mrs. Oswald explains her reason for believing her son’s Russian wife, Marina, is really French: “When she went to New Orleans, she did not want to live in an apartment with high ceilings. Now where does she know about the high ceilings?” At another point Mrs. Oswald finds it significant that although her son attended a particular school for only four weeks, several photographs of him appeared in the yearbook: “It goes on and on and on and on. Lee Harvey Oswald’s picture was taken three times at Arlington High School, out of all the boys there. Why? It doesn’t make sense.”

The early part of the interview is leavened with Stafford’s observations on subjects like Texas coffee drinking and Southern speech. Later she can’t do much more than brace herself against the torrent of words, 180 per minute by Mrs. Oswald’s own estimate. When this interview was first published, in 1965, one reviewer called it “a masterpiece of character study and a gem of personal journalism.” It seems so still.