I inherited Lee Harvey Oswald’s Mother

Marguerite Oswald, left, and Marina, holding her baby: the mother and wife of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

On the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, I remember the mother of the alleged gunman. For a time, she was my friend. Read her story in an excerpt from my Memoir of Sorts, The Man Who Talks to Strangers.

NONE OF US have ever forgotten the day a President, the Crown Prince of Camelot, rode past the cheering multitudes and into Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. A bullet lay in wait. Three of them would be fired. Maybe more. Who knows?

Moments later, he was dying. Minutes later, he was dead.

The shots came from the Sixth Floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building, they said. The shots had been fired by a lone gunman, they said.

I never met the lone gunman. A strip club owner gunned him down before any of us got to know him. All we ever knew was what they wanted us to know, and we never knew who they were and what was real or imagined.

Death was real. Everything else may have been imagined.

The lone gunman remained a mystery. Who was he? Did he fire the shots? Did someone pay him? Why kill a president? Why Kennedy?

We all loved JFK.

I never spoke to Lee Harvey Oswald, but I did inherit the lone gunman’s mother. Marguerite Oswald was a bitter little woman. She ranted a lot and raved even more.

She was short, had gray hair knotted up into a bun on the back of her head, and could be called dumpy, maybe even squatty. She never smiled when a scowl would work just as well. She had a shrill voice, was sometimes repulsive with her profane use of profanity. She was always annoying and afflicted with a bad attitude. She dressed plainly, wore big plastic frame glasses, and had always lived on the threshold of poverty.

She was forever upset. She was angry. She was paranoid.

No.

Other people might be paranoid, but Marguerite knew they were really out to get her. She said she knew who they were, she said. She may have been right.

In short, Marguerite Oswald was not a pleasant person to be around. But she was lonely. She needed someone she could talk to when she had fallen into a state of depression, and depression became her permanent place of residence.

Marguerite could not afford a shrink. She didn’t have enough money to run a tab with a bartender. But a newspaper reporter would do just fine. At least the price was right. Jerry Flemmons wrote the best copy to ever appear in the Star-Telegram, but he made the mistake of interviewing Marguerite shortly after the assassination. She loved what he wrote about her, and she latched on to him like a long-lost son.

That was fine. For a while, Flemmons enjoyed the notoriety. He had replaced Lee Harvey in Marguerite’s life. Then came the phone calls every day, twice an hour, sometimes more, and she always had a new theory on why her son was innocent of shooting down John F. Kennedy. Flemmons collected shoeboxes filled with notes, and, one day, he woke up and realized he couldn’t take it anymore.

Flemmons sat down beside my desk. “I’ve got a deal for you,” he said. “I’m moving out of hard news to become the Star-T’s travel editor.”

“Travel the world?”

“I will.”

“Congratulations,” I said.

“I have a gift for you,” he said.

“Great.”

“I’m giving you Marguerite Oswald,” he said.

I looked stunned.

“Congratulations,” he said.

We hit it off, she and I, and, for a time, I became the newest lost son in Marguerite Oswald’s life. We talked for hours by phone and in person. We cried, ranted, and prayed together, and I often think the lone gunman’s mother may have known the answer to the riddle and the mystery, behind the assassination.

She said she did.

But no one listened to her.

I wrote a story about her theory.

“You don’t believe that,” my editor said.

“I do.”

“But she’s crazy,” he said.

“She’s crazy,” the government said.

“She’s crazy,” law enforcement said.

“She’s crazy,” the Secret Service said.

“She’s crazy,” the Warren Commission said.

Here is what Marguerite Oswald believed. And the more I have thought about it over the years, the more sense it makes.

We were living in the midst of the Cold War. Everyone feared Russia. Everyone feared the bomb. We went to sleep at night hoping that some Intercontinental Ballistic Missile wouldn’t wipe us off the face of the earth before morning. Peddlers were selling bomb shelters from one end of the country to the other.

Marguerite Oswald told me the government had assigned agents to every major city in the country. Their files were thick with convincing and unshakable backstories that linked them to Russia or Cuba or some other unsavory enemy we happened to have at the moment.

Lee Harvey was one of the agents.

“Was he CIA?” I asked.

“The CIA has many names,” she said.

In her words, those in power lived in constant fear that the Russians would someday assassinate the President. If it happened, God forbid, the government needed some Patsy already established in the city so they could immediately have a shooter to arrest within hours, maybe even minutes, after the President had fallen.

The script had already been written. Arrest somebody, and the nation would relax. If a President died, and the assassin remained on the loose, and no one knew who fired the fatal shot, the nation, they feared, would go into a state of panic. They did not want to take that chance. People, they believed, would be running loose in the streets, loading their rifles, and waiting for the Russians to attack with or without its nuclear missile.

In Dallas, a President was murdered. Lee Harvey was arrested right on cue. America breathed a sigh of relief. He said he was a Patsy. Everyone ignored him. And another gunman took him out.

The truth died with him.

That’s what Marguerite told me. I was afraid to believe her. I was afraid not to believe her. So I met with her a lot and let her babble a lot, and I listened a lot, and after a while, my editor said, “There’s no use writing anything else about Marguerite Oswald.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“She’s crazy,” he said.

When I left the newspaper, as far as I know, no one ever bothered to take her phone calls again. She had lost three sons: Lee, Flemmons, and me. Maybe that was enough.

Please click HERE to find The Man Who Talks to Strangers on Amazon.

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  • Les Thomas

    Caleb, great story. When I was working at the Star-Telegram after you left, I had just gotten married and the phone rang early one Sunday morning. My wife answered. It’s for you, she said. Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. I had written a story about how Oswald’s grave was mostly forgotten and untended. She called to complain. Not sure how she got my home phone number (probably the same editor who said she was crazy). That was her one and only call to me. Maybe she was crazy, but she was smart enough to know that you and Flemmons were a lot better listeners and storytellers than I was.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Les, your storytelling was as it as it got at the Star-Telegram and Southern Living both. If you had volunteered to go out and visit with her, you would have become Marguerite’s newest favorite son. You were smarter than Flemmons and me. You hung up.

      • Les Thomas

        Caleb, you are too kind. Keep up the great work. You are better than ever.

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