Oswaldworld

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery by Norman Mailer
    Little, Brown, 791 pp, £25.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 316 87620 8

When Gary Gilmore faced his executioners one cold morning in 1977, there was a serious, anxious, bearded reporter-type standing only a few feet away. Before the hood was placed over Gilmore’s head, the man walked over to the chair, and took both of the killer’s hands into his own. ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ he said. Gilmore looked up, and replied sweetly: ‘You’re going to help me escape.’

The man’s name was Lawrence Schiller. And he did help Gilmore escape: he took him to the world, over the tops of the Mormon hills and the mobile homes of Utah, he flew with the story of Gary Gilmore. He produced the television film, sold the interviews, oversaw pictures, advised on chat shows and specials, became the reporters’ reporter, the producers’ producer, and he later brought in Norman Mailer to write the book. He showed himself to be the king deal-maker and media broker, the chief documenter, of grand-scale American tragedy. Wherever there has been sensational news in America over the last thirty years, there you will invariably find Lawrence Schiller.

Schiller has helped all manner of American figures escape in this way, through the portals of recorded history, into legend. Marilyn Monroe, during the filming of a bathing scene in her last, unfinished film Something’s Got to Give, suddenly disrobed on the set, at the studios of Twentieth-Century Fox. Just as she did so, there appeared a young man with a camera. On assignment for Life (expecting to take some pretty pictures of the actress in performance) his eyes nearly popped out of his head. Marilyn, he was alert enough to know, had not been photographed naked since the late Forties, when she accepted 50 dollars to pose nude for a calendar. Schiller’s exclusive photographs were syndicated around the world. And Norman Mailer later wrote the book.

When O.J. Simpson wanted to tell the world of his innocence, and the globe’s media scratched at the door, there was only one man with the skill to breeze into his cell. Lawrence Schiller came in with his beard, his anxiety and his notepad, and he helped Simpson write a book called I Want to Tell You, a book that had nothing to do with Norman Mailer, but which sold uncontrollably during the Simpson trial. Schiller has had one of the strangest – and most strangely necessary – jobs in America. He understood the power of syndication in a way no one else did; he felt the need for made-for-TV movies while others still haggled over cinema releases and back-catalogues; he saw the point of cable; he knows how to cut up a story, how to apportion it, and how to pin down exclusivity. And he has, from time to time, introduced himself as a new sort of figure in the world of books. The Producer.

So it was with a certain inevitability, as the KGB archives were opened up to the West in 1992, that Lawrence Schiller would find himself in Moscow. The new documents would bear on many things, but Schiller, as usual anything but slow on the uptake, knew they might tell us something we needed to know about Lee Harvey Oswald, perhaps the most mysterious and most tragic American figure in the age of Schiller. If the gods of reason were attentive, it would make sense for him to be reunited with his sparring partner and sometime mate, Norman Mailer. Surely, if he was to help Lee Harvey Oswald to ‘escape’, there was only one writer in America who could reliably meet the task.

But there were problems to be overcome. Schiller and Mailer – odd partners in the worlds of show and tell – had not always got on. ‘When it comes to lying,’ Mailer warbled to gossip-columnist Liz Smith of the New York Daily News in the mid-Eighties, ‘Larry Schiller makes Baron von Munchausen look like George Washington.’ Yet at the beginning of this new book there is an appreciation: ‘to Larry Schiller, my skilled and wily colleague in interview and investigation, for the six months we laboured side by side in Minsk and Moscow, and then again in Dallas, feeling as close as family (and occasionally as contentious).’

In a way, Norman Mailer has been staring for most of his life into the face of Lee Harvey Oswald. Mailer’s characters have always been parts of himself, and part and parcel of the America of his time. If Marilyn Monroe was his dream lover – ‘every man’s love affair with America’ – and Ernest Hemingway his idea of a self-like literary champ, it might also be said that his astronauts, his boxers, his single-minded karmie killers, his existential heroes, Greenwich Village idiots, his political ogres and saints, his high-minded Trillings, turncoat Podhoretzes, his self-authenticating graffiti artists, and his cursed, totalitarian generals, were also travellers in Mailer’s inner cosmos.

This has been Mailer’s project: to make something of himself, something that is sometimes too much, an Emersonian üiber-man, or superman, whose fine consciousness sits, full of human character and folly, at the centre of his literary makings. It has been the wellspring of his originality as a writer, this business of letting his time pass through him, of imagining his time altered by his passing through it, and there is virtually no risk he has refused on the way to becoming the sort of writer he is; no embarrassment avoided, no self-abuse too small or too large, and no spectacle of the ego too much to bear. Norman Mailer has been as compulsive a literary character as we’ve had this half-century, but he has also been among the most compelling on the page. He has wasted much of his talent on money-spinning inelegance, and fruitless meanderings and quests into the mysteries of sex and destiny, but he has also risked and emboldened his talent by imagining himself at the core of things.

Mailer has had courage as a writer – and the courage to speak of courage and heroism – at a time when talk of such things can seem fuelled only by machismo, vanity and vicious buffoonery. He may have been mistaken in his self-watching (though he’s more honest a writer than most) and mad with ambition, but it might also be said that he has kept watch over the Republic in ways too various, and too arresting, to be summarily dismissed. He has now, in his seventies, been encouraged to turn his attention to America’s arch-assassin, its First Ghost and anti-hero, and the whole enterprise signals the coming together of the best of his insights and the pared-down style of his best writing self.

It could be said to be natural, Mailer’s interest in Lee Harvey Oswald. ‘Natural’ in the sense that he has always, as a writer, been interested in people who broke rules and took chances, who lived urgently and died violently. He has also set himself the task of shadowing those who, like himself, were greedy for action, and who forged their celebrity in the heat of extreme activity. But his relation to Oswald is even more proximate than that. Oswald may have killed the President, and Mailer, much more than any writer of his generation, has always tended to see himself as an American President manqué. In 1959, in his Advertisements for Myself, he wrote that ‘like many another vain, empty, and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I began.’

In the summer of 1960, the year after he wrote that, he visited John F. Kennedy at home in Hyannisport. He was there on behalf of Esquire magazine, to interview the young Catholic who sought the Democratic nomination, and Kennedy took him very seriously. In fact, he had mugged up before meeting the novelist. He knew that Mailer was hurt over the critical mauling he’d received for The Deer Park, and so, on meeting him, Kennedy named that novel as his favourite book of Mailer’s. The Esquire piece came out, very much in favour of Kennedy, and was called ‘Supermart comes to the Superman’. Esquire, at that time, was not without influence, especially among the young, especially among the young of New York. When Kennedy scraped home in that state, and so won the nomination, Mailer claimed that he was the cause of the victory, and later claimed to have inadvertently won him the Presidency.

So you might well say that Mailer had a bit of a vested interest in President Kennedy, and another sort of vested interest in the mind of an outsider like Oswald. He has the good novelist’s sense of correspondence, the inventor’s joy at the magic of possibility, and he looks into Oswald’s eyes with the thrill of one who imagines those eyes to have fixed on his onetime subject, JFK – very probably through the telescopic sights of a bolt-action Mannlicher-Carcano. Oswald’s Tale is many things, but it is not another framing of the question ‘Who Shot Kennedy?’ The book’s overarching question is just as specific: ‘Did Lee Harvey Oswald have the character to kill the president?’ Unlike Don DeLillo’s terrific novel Libra, in which all things race towards a free-for-all of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy more plausible than reality, a fictive jumble that somehow results in the death of the President in Dealey Plaza, Oswald’s Tale is the story of a life, rather than the life of a story. He wants to know what sort of person Oswald was:

Before we understand a murderer – if he is one – we must first discover his motive. But to find the motive, we do well to encounter the man. In Oswald’s case, that could be no simple task. How many young men are as timid and bold as Lee Harvey Oswald? ... to understand a person is to comprehend his reasons for action. The conceit arose that one understood Oswald.

The understanding of Oswald begins in Moscow, and it is a good place to start. He travelled there in 1959 on an Intourist visa, and almost immediately tried to cut himself free of America. He wanted to relinquish his American citizenship, but the Consul refused him, and he spent his first weeks there in a state of utter frustration. He tried, a little half-heartedly, to commit suicide in his bathroom at the Berlin Hotel, but was saved by Rimma, the first of several uncertain Russian girlfriends. The authorities eventually decided he could stay, but he remained under KGB surveillance and was moved to Minsk, to work in a radio factory.

Minsk in the late Fifties looked quite new: its stately apartment buildings of yellow stone, its wide avenues, were all built on top of the earlier Minsk, which had been destroyed by the Germans twice – once when they came in, and again when they retreated back to Poland three years later. Mailer draws up an intimate picture of family life: there are a great many women – women keen on men who were cultured and kind and not cheap – messing around in shared kitchens, trying to keep things clean, making things to eat, worrying over illness and injury.

Marina Prusakova worked in a pharmacy. She had come from Leningrad, and had a few boyfriends, some of whom remember her with affection, some of whom say she was a good-time girl. What is clear about Marina – even before she met Oswald – is that she was no good at housework or cooking. She lived with her aunt and uncle, and they would sometimes despair over her messiness, her lateness and her lack of direction. On 17 March 1961, Marina went to a trade-union dance with her friends from the Medical Institute. She wore a red dress and white slippers. She was asked to dance by an American – at first, she thought he might come from one of the Baltic countries – who called himself Alik. She liked him; he was very polite, sweet and reserved. He was well-dressed. She took him to meet her aunt, who liked men to be polite; and soon enough Marina and Alik were married. At the wedding they all sang ‘Chattanooga Choo-choo’.

Mailer recognises the virtue in attempting to understand Oswald through his marriage. He is not the first to have done so: he acknowledges and borrows from Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s Marina and Lee, though he is able to add to that mostly American account thanks to the KGB transcripts. The newly married couple’s apartment was bugged, and their early married life, their frequent strife and their makings-up, are documented here. Mailer and Schiller interviewed everyone they could find who knew them. Oswald was a lazy worker, and was much resented at the radio factory, not only for putting his feet up on the desk, but for the special treatment he received as a foreigner. He hated the job, but he didn’t seem to notice that his aparment was bigger than anyone else’s.

The surveillance reports on Oswald make poor reading. If he was an American agent (as many suspect) we can only assume from these reports that he was no more effective in this capacity than he was as a builder of radios. He walked around, looked into shops, picked up a book, failed to buy it, walked back home. Oswald was a dissipatcr; he was not a great student in Russia, an ideologue or a planner. He was a ditherer; he wasn’t at all sure who he was, or what he wanted to do. Furthermore, he was dyslexic. ‘His orthography is so bad at times,’ Mailer points out, ‘that the man is not revealed but concealed – in the worst of his letters he seems stupid and illiterate.’ But Mailer argues that this should not be allowed to hide something else about him: ‘considering that he was still in his very early twenties, it is ... not inaccurate to speak of him as a young intellectual.’ Mailer is keen, keener than any writer has been before, to reveal the nuances of Oswald’s character, and the reach of his mind. He serves notice on the common way of seeing Oswald – as an incompetent, shifty, stupid and impotent rat – and encourages us not only to think of him as having intelligence, but of having other qualities that might cause him to be liked here and there, and to be loved, as he sometimes was.

The stuff gained by Mailer and Schiller in their Russian interviews is more interesting than the stuff emerging from the lifeless files of the KGB. The absence of revelations in the KGB documents is more than made up for by Mailer’s imaginative use of the new detail they contain. He uses it to fill out Oswald’s time in Minsk, to give word of his troubles, and the changing shape of his mind. Cold War Berlin seemed dank and sinister in Mailer’s last novel, Harlot’s Ghost; the Minsk of Oswald’s Tale seems bright and tells us quite a bit. The Cold War antics are vaguely comic. The interviews with older Russians bleed lavishly into the tale: we feel we know Oswald better, and are newly acquainted with some possible motivations, by seeing the world he lived in during those confused years. It gives us clues, and deep background, to the hows and whys of Oswald’s state of mind as he plunges forward – or backwards – to his American end.

Russia was his bid for the solvent, invisible life. When Russia failed him, something seems to have died in him; something new was born. He eventually wrote to the American Embassy, looking to have his passport back. It took many agonies, much red tape, but eventually it was returned. He’d fought the bureaucracies of America and Russia in turn, and he’d beaten them, but he’d left himself with no open roads after all that. He took a reluctant Marina and child back to Texas, with a head full of scrap, and perhaps some ideas we can’t yet speak of. Mailer ends the Russian part of his book – the firmer and slower-paced part – having provided a portrait of a man in crisis, a man unsure of his next big move. But let us leave Lee Harvey Oswald, for the time being, crossing the ocean, and scribbling some lines on the Holland-America Line notepaper: ‘I wonder what would happen if someone would stand up and say he was utterly opposed not only to the government, but to the people, to the entire land and complete foundation of society.’ You might say that shards of motivation were coming together, to make a window of opportunity.

On 4 May 1901, about eight o’clock in the evening, the building which stood at 411 Elm Street in Dallas was struck by lightning. It burned all night, and the Southern Rock Island Plow Company, who owned the property, were forced to abandon it. They built a new seven-storey building on the same site, of modern design, with arched windows on the sixth floor, and they opened it in 1901. In 1963, the building was being leased by the Texas School Book Depository Company, a private textbook brokerage firm.

I walked along in the too-hot afternoon, in the summer of 1995, and kept thinking how inordinately white the pavements were. The streets around Dealey Plaza looked like they’d only recently been scrubbed. The former Book Depository stood there, like a warning, like a symbol of something not too bright or happy-making. It was one of those buildings that one knew something about; it sat in the memory, though I, for one, had never been to Dallas before. But I knew this building very well. It looked like it hadn’t changed all this century, though many things had changed round about it. It stood up, blank and indifferent, in the hot afternoon, and I thought of Bates’s hilltop house in Psycho.

The building is owned now by Dallas County; they use it as an administration building. It is full of offices and workspaces, except on the sixth floor, which is kept for something special. The whole floor is kept for what is called, by those who keep it, ‘the memory of a nation’. It is known, by those who don’t keep it, as Oswaldworld. But the places that make up Oswaldworld are more than one: they include the houses he rented in Dallas, the streets along which he supposedly made his escape, the place where he shot Tippett, the police officer, and the area of the cinema where he was arrested. It also encompasses the police garage where Oswald was shot; the post office across the road where Jack Ruby mailed his postal order minutes before; the spot where Ruby’s Carousel Club stood. It is a whole bunch of bricks and sticks and marks on the ground, but it is even more than that. It is also a place in the mind – perhaps a place in the minds of everyone in America. Oswaldworld is the place where national chaos is; it’s the place where good Presidents get shot by nobodies. It’s also the place where certainties break down, or fail to hold, and where absurdity and unknowable violence are unleashed from the margins. In the mind of just about everyone alive in America – and in places beyond America – there is a little corner marked Oswaldworld. There in Dallas, I could see it plainly in front of me. It had been appropriately housed.

Just a few streets over from the old Book Depository building, there is a place called the Conspiracy Museum. The guys working there are weird: experts in who-did-what-to-whom-and-why in 1963; twentysomethings with an amateur grasp of ballistics; muggers-up on the constituent parts of the CIA, the internal workings of the FBI, the gripes of the Mafia; young men with strong views on the presence of shadows on the grassy knoll. They charge seven dollars for the low-down on who really shot Kennedy. A guy with a baseball cap and a moustache is speaking to tourists: he edits a fanzine for ‘dudes obsessed with the case’. I hear him speaking to a bunch of tourists from Pennsylvania, emitting a sort of mantra – an Oliver Stone-like loop of verbal fact and fiction – that seeks to pound his guests out of their confusion. He even has theories about the people who run the Book Depository museum, the thing on the sixth floor, round the corner. ‘They don’t know what they’re doing,’ he says, ‘it’s all a white-wash. The people over there aren’t even qualified to speak of this thing.’

There are other guys, perhaps related, who sell conspiracy mags and buttons on the grassy knoll. They sell maps and plans, too, and speak like born-again Christians. They have a way of saying the word ‘truth’ that makes you feel like a liar, or a believer in lies. They walk up and down in shorts: they seem to like being there, so close to something big, and you’re almost surprised to see them stowing away dollar bills. They look up at the windows of the former Book Depository, counting up to the corner window of the sixth floor, and they look at you quizzically, saying: ‘No ... no, it couldn’t have been.’ As one of them says this, I notice there are tracks on his arms.

When you come out of the lift at the sixth floor you’re immediately confronted by a giant photograph of what the floor was like on 22 November 1963. The roof beams are the same as the ones you see above your head, but the place in the photograph is not all corporate and red, as the space is now – it looks grimy, and is covered with boxes of books. I hear a voice beside me say: ‘He was a real people-person.’ There is a display on the wall of things-from-1963: a poster for Psycho, a programme for a new musical starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews called Camelot, an advertisement for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There is a row of books from the time: Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August; Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique; The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. On every side you can hear Kennedy’s voice: ‘Let the word go forth ... that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.’ It is repeated over and over.

There are panels of pictures, with text, all around. This must be what is meant by a multimedia presentation, for there are videos going, radios blaring, and looped bits of speeches and snatches of the Inaugural Address all around. As I walk past, I catch a spread from Life about racial turbulence in Birmingham, Alabama. The headline says: ‘They Fight a Fire that Won’t Go Out’. I take a few steps, and hear JFK’s voice grow louder, drowning out a previous speech of his: ‘I look forward to an America that will not be afraid of grace and beauty.’

As you make your way from panel to panel, you notice a sense of dread in yourself. Like station stops on a terrible journey (dare I say it, like Stations of the Cross) each of these displays, with their separate titles – ‘The Kennedy White House’, ‘Turmoil at Home’, ‘The Trip to Texas’, ‘Reception in Dallas’ – increases that dread. I looked at pictures of them arriving in Dallas, moving through the streets; I saw Jackie in her famous outfit, waving to people, the children smiling back. The Texas Book Depository Building emerges in the corner of the next screen; the cars move slowly, you can hear the voices of radio announcers and snatches of Kennedy’s speech wafting from the front of the room, from the earlier part of the exhibition. You know that when you turn the next corner, and see the next panel, it will show the assassination. As you turn the corner, you can already hear the shots, you can hear Walter Cronkite announce the death of the President at a panel some way in front of that, and distantly, down the far end of the sixth floor, you can hear the funeral march as recorded in Washington. As I turn, I see everything is dark. There are flickering pictures on a TV screen of the President’s Lincoln turning into Elm Street, and running past the front of the building I’m standing in myself. I see him lurch in his seat, and feel it might all be happening now, outside, on this sunny day.

This clamour of memorial sounds, this crosscurrent of hard images and bits of life, this blend of recorded seconds in the unfolding of a prime historical moment – they are all part of what they call the ‘Memory of a Nation’. And being a nation that knows how to harness and punish verisimilitude, and tease out bitter emotion, this exhibition is astonishingly unlike anything of its kind I’ve ever seen. There is, in fact, nothing of its kind. It is a pure exercise in the heightening of reality, in the Disneyfying of a cataclysmic moment in real life, a moment full of mystery and importance but also full of banality and pointlessness and stupidity. The sixth floor offers visitors the thrill of Presidential assassination, the thrill of communal mourning, the thrill of whodunnit, the thrill of revenge, the thrill of national pride, the thrill of having been there, and the gloom of being none the wiser. As I stood by the corner window of the sixth floor, beside the sniper’s nest, looking through the window, down through the trees, I almost expected a motorcade to appear beneath the leaves. You can’t help but feel you are momentarily at the centre of another sort of universe. I stood at the window alone. It was like a movie set, smaller than I’d thought, and maybe like a model. It must all have looked so possible from here, so terribly likely. It was hard to think of it. On 22 November 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald crouched here, lifted his rifle, peered through a telescopic sight stamped ‘Hollywood’ – a detail seldom referred to – and proceeded to shoot the President.

Mailer’s role in the second half of Oswald’s Tale is different: he calls himself a ‘literary usher – there to guide each transcript to its proper placement on the page’. Using testimony from the Warren Commission, from many previous books on the assassination, and from dozens of interviews with Marina Oswald, we gain a picture of Oswald’s earlier life, his army career, his political maturation (or degeneration), and his continuously troubled marriage. His oddness as a child is brought out; the bullying to which he was subjected is examined. We learn of baby Lee being left very often alone, to sit in soiled diapers, by an eternally too-busy Marguerite Oswald, his mother. She spent a lot of time then tending a little store in her front room called Oswald’s Notion Shop.

Mailer sees Oswald’s struggle to become a man – to become an important and effective male character – as the foundation for much of his adult distress, and his later turn towards nihilism. ‘His young life,’ Mailer writes, ‘is a study in one recurring theme – I am not yet a man and I must become one – which in the late Fifties and early Sixties became a compelling motif for young men terrified by homo-sexual inclinations and willing to go to great lengths to combat and/or conceal them.’ Mailer dwells on such notions in the way he often does, feeling, on behalf of Oswald, how intolerable a situation it was, in those times, for a man to perceive himself as a sort of woman.

The portrait offered by Mailer is of a man speeding towards disaster. He was violent towards Marina – their Russian émigré friends testify that he once stubbed a cigarette out on her shoulder at a party – and he watched TV while making love to her. He did not trust her to bath the baby, thinking she would drown it. He sent away for a rifle, which he kept in the garage, and he worked on a system for fighting governments, the Aethian System, which was a sort of manifesto for a new non-fascist, non-totalitarian world. This was the credo of a man who had jumped all the fences, and who now felt strong and independent, and desperate.

Mailer is very good on Oswald’s possible sense of himself in those last crucial months. ‘What is never taken seriously enough in Oswald is the force of his confidence that he has the makings of a great leader.’ As we come to the end, we have a sense of an Oswald more human, yet more guilty, than we usually have. The sad sum of Oswald, the accumulated facets of his difficult nature, point to the fact that he not only had the motivation to kill Kennedy: he had the will, the rifle, the vantage point, and the distorted sense of grand purpose. Mailer has given us every reason to trust him, his portrait is not hateful or obfuscating: you have the feeling that he sees Oswald in a new way. ‘If one’s personal inclinations would find Oswald innocent,’ he writes, ‘or part of a conspiracy, one’s gloomy verdict, nonetheless, is that Lee had the character to kill Kennedy, and that he probably did it alone ... every insight we have gained of him suggests the solitary nature of his act.’

It is a hard enough thing to swallow. The idea that the President-King was felled in broad daylight, in the midst of his courtiers and limousines, by a frustrated, dyslexic, scrawny egomaniac who watched TV while making love to his wife, is not the sort of idea that fortifies our sense of there being a higher order, a rational turn, to the universe. It must have been somebody more important, we say: the CIA, the Russians, even his own Vice-President, some proper opponent, some respectable assassin. But no, Oswald had the character and the means, and he probably did it. He may, after all, have been the man for the job, and perhaps only Norman Mailer had the character to find the essential character in him. Mailer has had occasion to associate with Oswalds before, and it might be that he has now and then found them not entirely far from himself: ‘Let us, then, say farewell to Lee Harvey Oswald’s long and determined dream of political triumph, wifely approbation, and high destiny. Who among us can say that he is in no way related to our own dream?’

With a little regret, Mailer tells us that but for the title of Theodore Dreiser’s last work, he would have liked to call this book An American Tragedy. You tend, at this late hour, not to doubt his taste, or his reasons.