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Writer Worked for a Future President, And Interviewed a Future Assassin

Friday, November 22, 2013
In November 1959 Priscilla Johnson McMillan returned from visiting the U.S. to her job in Moscow as a reporter for a news syndicate. Stopping at the American embassy to pick up her mail, which was customary for American reporters in the country, she was approached by the vice-consul, a man named John McVickar. For the past week McVickar and other embassy officials had been grappling with a difficult American, just 20, who’d proclaimed to anyone who would listen that he wanted to renounce his citizenship and move to the Soviet Union.

He’d talked to the Soviets, he’d talked to the Americans, and he’d entertained visits from reporters once the news got out that he was a potential defector. McVickar suggested to McMillan, then 31, that she talk to the man, whose name was Lee Harvey Oswald. Maybe she could get a sense of what he was like as a person, see what he really wanted. She might have more luck; maybe he’d trust a woman more than a man.

“John told me there was a fine line between your duties as a correspondent, and your responsibilities as an American citizen. I didn’t know what he meant,” McMillan said in an interview last week in her home in Cambridge, Mass. “I had no idea what the American government or the Soviet government wanted in this case, if anything.”

Oswald was the present no one wanted to open, an embarrassment to both the American and Soviet governments, judged by both to have minimal intelligence or propaganda value, and to be clearly unstable.

By coincidence, McMillan had a room in the Hotel Metropole, the same hotel where Oswald was staying. She knocked on his door and when it opened she saw a man who, in appearance and manner, seemed even younger than she’d expected.

He looked pale, his build was “on the spare side” and he wore a jacket and slacks. There was a trace of a Southern accent. She told him why she was there and he readily agreed to an interview, saying he’d come to her room that evening at around 9 o’clock. He was prompt, and for the next three or four hours, over tea she prepared for both of them, he politely answered McMillan’s questions. But for all his willingness to talk, and the time spent, he wasn’t an easy subject.

“I would ask him something and he would answer and that would be it. He wouldn’t go on from the answer. With him it was a statement and it didn’t invite elaboration on either one of our parts,” said McMillan. He spoke in a flat, declamatory style about the sins of capitalism and the virtues of Communism, with pronouncement following pronouncement. But when she’d finished, Oswald told her that he’d never talked so long or so much to anyone about himself. If that were truly the case, McMillan thought to herself, then his life must be terribly circumscribed, “because this isn’t really revealing, he’s not really talking about himself.”

Many years later, after McMillan had written and published Marina and Lee, her biography of Oswald and his wife Marina, which has been reissued by Steerforth Press in Hanover in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, she realized that “almost everything he said to me in my interview was a lie. … He just loved lying. He never told the truth if there was a lie around.”

But in 1959, what she didn’t know about Oswald was almost everything. She’d interviewed other American defectors who’d come to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, idealists who’d thought they’d found the antidote to ruthless capitalism and who, in the 1950s, only wanted to go back home again. Maybe Oswald would reach the same conclusion.

She wouldn’t hear his name again until a cold afternoon in November 1963, when she was outside a flower shop in Harvard Square. People were in shock, weeping, walking around like zombies. Commiserating with a friend, McMillan asked her if they knew the identity of the assassin. Yes, said her friend. Someone named Lee Harvey Oswald.

McMillan was floored. But I know him, she said.

McMillan is now 85. She’s lived in the same house in Cambridge for 40 years, a big, roomy place that has the feel of a home in a children’s book, a warren of hiding places. Her voice has a delicate, still-girlish pitch and she wears a pale green cardigan over a cream-colored blouse. She has an unexpectedly youthful laugh, a chortle. Her bookshelves are lined with histories and political science. She married George McMillan in 1966, but they divorced in 1980, and he has since died. After his death she took in his second wife and the child he’d had with her, and they lived with her for a time.

From 1964 to 1977, McMillan devoted her life to researching and writing a biography of Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife Marina, the young Russian woman he courted and married while he was living in the Soviet city of Minsk, after he’d been granted permission to stay in the Soviet Union. In 1961, Oswald returned to the U.S. with Marina, moving to the Dallas area, where he gradually drifted, with tortured logic, toward what he viewed as the defining act of his life.

McMillan has also published books about the life of the nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the nuclear arms race. But Lee and Marina is perhaps her signal achievement. “It is powerful because it’s literature, it’s art, and it’s first-rate journalism,” said Chip Fleischer, Steerforth Press’s publisher.

After 13 years of living with the Oswalds, both as real people — she spent months with Marina in 1964 — and as puzzles she had to take apart and put back together, McMillan’s conclusion was that Oswald was the lone assassin. “I’m just as sure now as I was then that he did it, and also that he couldn’t have done it with anybody else. He wasn’t somebody who, in his life, had ever done anything with anybody else.”

McMillan “followed the evidence where it led,” Fleischer said. “She tries to portray the players as honestly and artfully as she can. When you account for Oswald’s time and all of his idiosyncrasies, you end up concluding that all these conspiracy theories just don’t make sense when you know Lee.”

Thomas Powers, the writer on the U.S. intelligence community who lives in South Royalton and is one of Steerforth’s founders, reviewed Marina and Lee when it was first published. Of the many serious studies of the assassination, this is one he particularly admires.

“It’s the intimacy of the tale,” he said. “She follows them both very, very closely so you are kind of with them through the final months of Oswald’s life and after you do that, you step back and think, Where was there room in this man’s life for some other kind of conspiracy? People refuse to admit that such a small man ... could have had such an effect on the world.”

McMillan was, in a sense, in a unique position to write the book. Not only had she met Oswald but, for a brief period in 1953, she’d worked for John F. Kennedy when he was new to the Senate.

McMillan grew up in the New York City area and went to Bryn Mawr College, where she studied Russian. She went on to get a master’s degree in Soviet Studies from Radcliffe College in 1952. Eager to put her Russian to use, she had gotten a tourist visa to the U.S.S.R. in December 1955, going by rail. “I loved being on the train from Helsinki through to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). I loved the fir trees and the snow and I think I had a great sense of anticipation,” she said. In the back of her mind was Lenin’s famous journey in a closed train to the Finland Station in St. Petersburg when he returned from exile in Switzerland in 1917.

She managed, perhaps through sheer ignorance of the fact that she shouldn’t do these things, to infiltrate parts of Soviet society where you wouldn’t assume a young American woman would necessarily go on her own during the Cold War. She observed the Soviet court system and a class at Moscow University in Soviet literature taught by one S.I. Stalin, Svetlana Stalin, Joseph’s daughter, but such excursions were infrequent.

McMillan was not encouraged at any time during her various stays in the country by the American embassy or her employers to “penetrate Russia or know Russians in any way at all. ... You were effectively walled off, except for Russians who, for some reason, were allowed to know you, and you assumed they were reporting to the secret police. I didn’t get as much of a chance to know Russian life, which is what I minded.”

Russia was, in Winston Churchill’s words, the “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

But, then, so was Kennedy.

McMillan went to his office in early 1953 when she was in Washington, D.C., looking for a job. Kennedy had been elected to the Senate just a few months earlier, and he was eager to make a name for himself in his maiden speech to the Senate. He offered her a brief stint as a researcher, and he had one issue in particular he wanted her to pay attention to: whether the French should leave Indochina. Curiously, and to this day McMillan doesn’t know why, he behaved, she said, as if he’d never been briefed on the issue, although she was to later learn that he’d already schooled himself thoroughly in the history of French involvement in Southeast Asia. He was, McMillan said, an anti-colonialist.

“He thought we could put pressure on the French to leave,” McMillan said.

Kennedy was a cipher. He put her through the paces as a researcher but he forgot to pay her and she had to write to remind him. He repeatedly asked her to lunch after the job ended, although he was already married to Jacqueline.

He also asked her to visit him after two surgeries to repair his spine, one of which nearly killed him. “It was said he had Extreme Unction (last rites) said over him at one point,” McMillan said. When McMillan arrived in the hospital room, she was only one of a number of young women to visit him that day.

He fascinated with his irreverence, his energy and ability to cut to the heart of an argument, but he also unnerved her. “He gave off light, I thought, but not warmth or heat,” she said. And although she voted for him in 1960, she wasn’t certain she wanted him to be president.

“I knew he was sitting on top of several lies: one was about his home life and one was about his health.”

After Kennedy’s death, though, she felt she owed him, in a strange way, a debt she needed to repay. “He always peppered me with questions when I knew him. Very often they were questions about things that were sometimes very personal, and sometimes they were political questions. He must have wanted to know how people like me thought about things. And I knew he’d want to know why this young man would want to come along and have nothing better to do than shoot someone he didn’t know.”

Lee and Marina traces Oswald’s difficult childhood, the erratic behavior that he displayed throughout his life, his periods of mania followed by periods of the lowest depression, his time in Russia which, at least in this biography, seems to have been the most successful period in his life, his tendency toward physical and emotional violence (he beat Marina frequently, excoriated her and forbade her from learning English), his checkered job history, his failures to impress the people he most wanted to impress, and his suggestibility, the way he jumped from one scheme to another.

On a whim, he planned to hijack a plane to Cuba to show his anger over U.S. policies toward Castro; and most significantly, in the months leading up to the assassination, he brooded over an off-the-cuff remark by an older, more sophisticated friend, whom McMillan describes as a father figure to Oswald, that someone should do the country a favor and shoot Gen. Edwin Walker, a committed anti-Communist and the head of the conservative John Birch Society, who lived in Dallas. On April 10, Oswald went to Walker’s home and shot at him through a window, but although he injured the general, he failed to kill him.

“What do they mean by borderline personality? It seems to me (Oswald) went right over the border,” McMillan said. “I don’t think it was his failures, really, to provide for a family that depressed him. He’d been a political actor since he was 15. Either he was on the streets handing out pamphlets, or he was planning and executing acts of political violence, and both had to do with politics.”

The tragedy, said McMillan, is that Oswald had never really expressed any animosity toward Kennedy. Indeed, he’d talked to Marina mostly admiringly about the young president, saying that even though Kennedy’s father had bought him the presidency, he was making an earnest attempt to deal with the serious issues of the day: civil rights, the independence movements in Africa and Asia, nuclear arms control. He deserved the job, Oswald told his wife.

In 1964, when the assassination was still a fresh wound, McMillan went to Dallas to interview Marina Oswald, who was caring for her and Lee’s two young children, June and Rachel, the two people whom Oswald unreservedly adored and indulged. Marina Oswald was still only 23. “She was sitting at a table, chain-smoking, speaking indistinctly so that the ends of sentences got lost, throwing away her lines, drinking coffee,” McMillan said. McMillan had a book deal from Harper & Row to write about the assassination through Marina’s eyes. Over the next eight months McMillan became, she said, Marina Oswald’s confidante, mother, chaperone and psychiatrist.

After the assassination, Marina Oswald was treated with generosity by the people around her, and by strangers from all over the world, who wrote notes of condolence and sent her money. Some of the investigators from the Secret Service, the F.B.I. and the Warren Commission developed close, sympathetic relations with Marina Oswald. If Jacqueline Kennedy was the dignified widow who bore, in public, on her shoulders the sympathies of the country, Marina Oswald was the other, private half of the equation, more pitied than reviled.

“If Marina and I went to the Piggly Wiggly to get groceries, she would look at movie magazines and I would get the groceries, and (the employees) either looked at us a lot or tactfully paid no attention,” McMillan said.

After living with Marina Oswald during the research, McMillan returned to New York, where she then lived, and kept in touch by phone. “I could always call her with questions and she was very patient with the length of time it took me, and I will always be grateful.”

Her aim in writing the book was not only to delve into the lives of the Oswalds but to give them both, particularly Marina, their dignity while not glossing over the inconvenient truths. This is one of the reasons, McMillan said, it took her 13 years to write the book, quite apart from her insistence on following the evidence where it led. If Marina had spoken to her about a second gunman, or conspiracy, McMillan would have pursued that, she said.

“One thing that took me time,” McMillan said “was to write a serious book that would tell the truth but give her dignity, too. I really felt it was kind of a responsibility … to tell as much truth as possible, and that was a superior obligation to me than making money. I felt it was important she not come across badly because she had a whole life to live.”

Indeed, was Marina married again, in 1965, to a Texan named Kenneth Porter, who gave his last name to June and Rachel Oswald, and who has fiercely protected his wife’s privacy in the years since, McMillan said. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary, McMillan said, Porter began blocking interviews with Marina Oswald early on. McMillan has heard, through people who know the family, that there is no anniversary they have dreaded more than this one.

Although McMillan and Marina Oswald were in close touch until the 1980s, they haven’t spoken since. McMillan said that Marina Oswald, who for years had adamantly maintained that her husband was the sole actor, began to say that he was a “patsy” for other agents. And in 1982, when the Oswalds’ oldest daughter, June, came to visit McMillan in Cambridge with a then-boyfriend, the boyfriend, unbeknownst to McMillan, rifled through her voluminous files and stole notes that he later sold to an unknown buyer. (McMillan first heard about the theft from a policeman in Texas, and June Oswald Porter later described the incident in a 1995 interview with the New York Times.) After that, McMillan never heard from Marina again.

But McMillan has kept contact with others who knew the Oswalds well, before and after November 1963, including some of the investigators; she called it a community forged by having been part of one extraordinary event. And McMillan experienced her own collateral damage. Other writers have claimed she was working at the direction of the U.S. government, that she was a CIA plant, and even that she planted evidence on Marina Oswald that would point to her husband as the sole assassin.

In conversation, perhaps evidence of how one subject can consume one’s life, she discusses with intense interest the most recent additions to the Kennedy literature, and what position they take in contrast to hers. Yet it’s clear she also appreciates the second life her book has been given, and the press she’s gotten as the anniversary neared: interviews on NPR and with reporters from Europe and Australia.

Fifty years later, McMillan has had ample time to reflect on what the assassination meant. It’s impossible to know, she said, what kind of president Kennedy would have been if he’d finished his term and been, presumably, elected to a second term. It’s impossible to state definitively although possible to speculate about, whether Oswald’s act, and his status as the lone gunman, incited the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and mass shootings by other lone gunmen in the decades since.

“I think those were highly suggestible crimes, as were the ones we’ve heard of since, which are not replicas of John, Robert, or the others. Still I think that germ of violence had been brought into the American body politic in a way that ... hadn’t been acted on in a long time.”

Part of the bewilderment and the belief by some that only a grand conspiracy can explain the assassination, McMillan said, comes from the “disproportion of the act.” The most powerful man in the world, killed in an instant by a man of insignificance.

Although it has passed into history as an event in which America lost its putative innocence, McMillan views it differently. Americans forget, or overlook, “how much violence there was in the putting together of this country. The winning of the frontier, keeping down black people. Europe had violence, it had all those wars, so we’re maybe not as conscious of how much violence we’ve had and it’s all been civil violence. So we’re not innocent.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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