The Exclusive Interview with Lee Harvey Oswald 55 Years Later
HIS PLANO, TEXAS APARTMENT ISN’T MUCH. A one-bedroom on the first floor of a two-story, four-unit apartment building. There are enough south-facing windows to brighten the place up just enough for it not to depress you or make you feel sorry for the guy and the life he’s barely made for himself over the last half-century. Saying that it’s been a troubled life is putting it politely. He lives like a man who never quite settled in and is always considering making a run for it.
He’s America’s most famous nobody and the world’s most infamous piece to one of history’s greatest puzzles. But Lee Harvey Oswald doesn’t want to talk about any of that. Not yet, anyway. Right now, he wants to finish giving me a tour of this little place he calls home.
“It’s a little late in the day for me, but I have made a pot of coffee. Can I pour you a cup?” He asks me.
My nerves are wound like monkey fists. I can feel my heart banging against my ribs, rattling my entire torso. This is the first interview to the press the man once accused of assassinating an American president and a Dallas police officer has given in fifty-five years. I’m wired on dangerous curiosity and irresistible fear. The last thing I need is coffee. But I accept. It was a thoughtful gesture. He smiles slightly and ducks into the kitchen.
“How do you take it?” he calls out.
“Black is fine,” I say.
“Black it is.”
The walls of his apartment are bare, save for the one next to the front door where two photographs hang: one of his mother, Marguerite Claverie, and the other of his ex-wife, Marina Oswald Porter. “I like them here,” Oswald says as he hands me my cup of joe. “They welcome me home. It’s a very nice feeling. To be welcomed home.” Furniture is sparse. The couch in the living room is a worn out hide-a-bed. He bought it in 1968 during the brief moment when it appeared that he might get visitation rights for his kids. He has always lived in tight spaces and though he couldn’t offer them their own bedroom, he thought they’d have fun sleeping on a couch that transforms into a bed. Of course, nothing ever came from that long-shot opportunity. The couch sits across from a dusty bar cart that holds a small TV. He mostly listens to the radio — the local NPR station — but he makes sure to watch Jeopardy! each night. And he consumes Seinfeld reruns like they are keeping him alive. He’s seen every episode at least 100 times. “I really like Kramer. Yes, he’s a silly man used for laughs, but he’s also a master of ingenuity. And mystery. He has such a rich, adventurous life filled with so many unique friends. Everyone respects Kramer. And I like that he only has the one name.”
I try to correct him without sounding condescending. “Well, he has two. His name is Cosmo Kramer.”
“Yes, but he is mostly known by the one: Kramer. It’s very simple. Straight to the point.”
I ask him if he feels he made the mistake of having too many names. Lee Harvey Oswald… Alex Hidell... He pauses a moment. I watch his eyes sink into deep consideration. He looks over to the photographs of his mother and ex-wife, then he looks back at me.
“Perhaps. Perhaps I overcomplicated things.”
IT’S BEEN FIFTY-FIVE YEARS since Lee Harvey Oswald became a three-name, four-letter word. It’s a name synonymous with secrecy, conspiracy, and a broken American judicial system. To call someone an Oswald is to say that they’re carrying a lot of secrets and probably cannot be trusted. Getting Oswalded means you were falsely accused, framed, or that you got away with something you probably shouldn’t have. O.J. Simpson was Oswalded. Oswald also means to survive an injury or illness despite all the odds. That use of his name doesn’t bother him. He tells me that’s the one good thing that came out of the fateful weekend in Dallas in 1963.
“If my surviving what should have been a fatal gunshot wound gives people hope, then let them use my name all they want,” the original Oswald says.
Oswald had turned twenty-four years old less than a month before Jack Ruby ambushed him in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters on November 24, 1963. All of the evidence suggests that Oswald should have died, even that the cops wanted him to die: he way he was paraded out, no protection, just escorts; the chest compressions in the ambulance on the way to Parkland Memorial Hospital that caused blood to geyser out of the wound. His wound, by all accounts, was just as deadly as the one inflicted on President John F. Kennedy two days earlier, but unlike JFK, the Parkland doctors managed to keep Oswald alive.
It was touch and go for a while. It was three months to the day before Oswald was conscious enough to answer questions from the fuzz. The Dallas Police were investigating the murder of one of their own, Officer J.D. Tippit, while the FBI wanted to know why he killed the president and who he had worked with. The four years that followed can be described as nothing less than a media and Justice Department circus on fire. It’s become the stuff of legend.
More than fifty years later and the world is no closer to knowing for sure who killed JFK and why, or who killed Officer Tippit and why. The more we learned about Oswald’s background, the less we understood the man and the motive. Was he KGB or CIA? Did the Russians or Americans pull the trigger? Was Ruby a hired gun for the masterminds — a way to keep the JFK murder from going to trial? The three-year-long trial ended in a stalemate. No one was ever brought to trial for the Tippit murder.
In what may be history’s most ironic occupation, he worked at a gun range where he cleaned up discarded bullet casings.
Without answers, the world was left to jump to conclusions on everything. Oswald was blamed for killing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by the fringe conspiracy theorists. The FBI broke into his first-floor Plano apartment — the very one I was visiting — and arrested him in the middle of the night after Bobby Kennedy was shot. They wanted him on conspiracy charges, tried to nail him on colluding with Sirhan Sirhan. Less than nothing came from that, and Oswald was encouraged by liberals like poet Alan Ginsberg and feminist Gloria Steinem to sue the FBI. He had a case. The ACLU offered to pay for all legal costs. Oswald declined. He’d had enough of the life in the spotlight, trading punches with the Feds. He wanted quiet. He wanted to be left alone.
All that, the first thirty years of his life, he wanted to forget. The military, the politics, the accusations of attempted murder and murder, the attempt on his life, the abuse from the police, the smearing of his name, the making him into a monster his own children became afraid of. Oswald wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted to start over.
“Why not change your name? Have work done to alter your appearance? Move out of Texas?” I ask.
“Because I wanted to live my life, not someone else’s. That’s what got me into all that trouble in the first place. I was always striving to be something — anything — more than what I was.”
“And what were you?”
“I was confused.”
WE HAD AGREED TO SPEND THE DAY TOGETHER FOR THIS INTERVIEW. When we spoke on the phone, he mentioned that he would make us lunch no fewer than three times. I thought he was joking when he said, “If you’re getting hungry, I’ll make us our lunch. I hope you like Cuban sandwiches.” Oswald doesn’t have a publicist. He’s kept quiet and hid so well in plain site for so many years that he might as well have died on the ambulance stretcher on the way to Parkland. Major media outlets gave up on him. Never in American history has there been anyone so tight-lipped. He stuck to the old rule about bullies: Ignore them and they’ll go away. Even the crazies stopped camping out in front of his house. The death threats stopped coming sometime around 2002, he tells me, likely because America had a new enemy to focus on — Muslims.
“It’s unfortunate,” Oswald says as I bite into my sandwich. “This country, it always needs someone to hate. It can’t ever be at peace.”
It wasn’t until I listened back to the recording I made of our time together that I noticed his comment. I wish I had been aware of it at the time because I would have asked him to expand. But I was distracted. The Cuban sandwich Lee Harvey Oswald made for me was the most incredible thing I’d ever put in my mouth. I don’t think Anthony Bourdain would have been able to find the words to define how delicious and perfect it was. I polished off the first half of the sandwich before managing to reengage in our conversation.
“Why didn’t you ever open a restaurant? A small sandwich shop? This is an amazing sandwich.”
“Thank you, David. I prefer to cook for my friends.”
“Who are your friends?”
“Well, David, to be candid with you… I don’t have many. My neighbor upstairs, Dalton, he was a friend.”
“We would visit with each other every day. He was a retired lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Lost part of his foot in Vietnam. We talked about our time in the military, about our kids and about the news of the day. We were neighbors for twenty-five years, and not once did he ask me about Kennedy. He was a good man. A reasonable and peaceful man. He didn’t deserve cancer. He died three years ago. I was with him when he went. So was his sister. She lives up there now, but we don’t speak. I think she’s afraid of me. Do you know what his last words to me were?”
“I wish I could have Oswalded this goddamn cancer.”
“How did that make you feel?”
“Sad. I wished I could have taken the cancer for him. It was stomach cancer.”
“And if your stomach could take a bullet—”
“Exactly, David! If my stomach could take a bullet, it could sure take a little thing like cancer.”
We finished our sandwiches in silence. Oswald, I imagine reflecting on his friendship with Dolton; me in culinary ecstasy.
THE LIFE OF LEE HARVEY OSWALD HAS NEVER BEEN EASY. Most of his troubles were of his own making. He was an angry, bitter young man and that got him mixed up with the wrong people, he says. I ask who those “wrong people” are. He stares at me. It’s almost a glare. I can almost see the face of the angry young man being hauled out of that Dallas movie theater. He holds the gaze long enough to make me think I’ve crossed a line. I consider apologizing but I’m too scared. Visions of him in the Texas School Book Depository taking aim at President Kennedy and shooting Officer Tippit on that quiet Dallas street flood my mind. If he can kill a president and a cop, he can kill me, I think. Maybe I woke up that killer inside of him.
“David, please. You know who I mean. Come on, I can tell, you’re smarter than that.”
And with that, his face relaxes. His eyes settle back into the calm, quiet, kind old man I’d been enjoying a visit with all day long.
“What was the hardest part for you? Of all of the last fifty-five years. What was the hardest part?” I ask.
“Knowing I will never see my children again,” he says.
At this point, I’ve spent enough time with the man to know that he recognizes things have gotten a little too heavy. Not for me, but for him. He leans back on the the couch and sighs. When he speaks, his voice is an octave higher. I know that octave. He’s about to tell a joke.
“There were other hard moments,” he says.
“I’m sure. Like what?”
“Like… having to choose who to root for in the 1980 Winter Olympics hockey game between USA and USSR.”
He snickers. I laugh. “Who did you choose?”
He gets dead serious — part of the punchline, I figure. “I can’t disclose that information, David. It’s highly classified.”
As the Legend of Lee Harvey Oswald grew, the Man shrunk. He made ends meet by taking on whatever jobs he could find, which always depended on the forgiving or ignorant kindness of hiring managers. He built playgrounds in public parks and school yards for a number of years. He had a lawn care business called Lee’s Lawns before an outdoor furniture store of the same name owned and operated by Korean-American Brian Lee sued him for copyright violation. Oswald apologized and closed up shop after less than six months. In what may be history’s most ironic occupation, he worked at a gun range where he cleaned up discarded bullet casings. A lot of things have been said about Lee Harvey Oswald. The one thing that’s been apparent among all of them, the most glaring fact about the man who was accused of killing the President of the United States that has never been spoken or written is that he is a survivor. Yes, he survived a gunshot to the gut, but he is a survivor in the Gloria Gaynor sense of the world. More than Gaynor.
Like it or not, the guy has made it to seventy-nine years old and shows no signs of turning in for the Long Sleep.
“I have no interest in dying,” he says. “I’m getting by on the little bit I make as the custodian at St. Monica of Hippo Cathedral. I like working there. It’s been fourteen years…. Last May. I was never a religious person, and I’m still not a believer today, but there’s something nice and calming about being in the cathedral. I don’t talk to the parishioners. I’m not even sure they know I’m their custodian. But the priests and nuns are all very kind to me.”
I consider asking him about the irony because of Kennedy’s Catholicism but decide against it because it doesn’t matter. It might have mattered to Lee Harvey Oswald the Communist-Marxist-Socialist-Whateverist, but it has nothing to do with this Lee Harvey Oswald, the gourmet Cuban sandwich chef, janitor, friendly neighbor and quiet citizen of Plano.
“LEE, WHY DID YOU GRANT ME THIS INTERVIEW? Why spend the whole day with me? Why invite me into your home, make me lunch — the most amazing lunch I’ve ever had, mind you, talk to me at all? Why? After all these years of silence, why was I the one?”
“I liked your persistence.”
“I called twice. You agreed to meet three minutes into our second call.”
“I liked the way you were persistent.”
“What do you mean?”
“You weren’t interested in Kennedy or Tippit or Walker or Ruby or the CIA or Russia or New Orleans or any of it. You were interested in me, in the life I’ve lived after all of that. No one has ever asked about my present life. There’s not much of a story to it, so I don’t know what you’ll write about, but I was touched to know that there was another living human out there interested in me beyond everything that happened in Dallas. Today has made me feel less lonely in the world.”
“But you have spent most of your life striving for absolute solitude.”
“Yes. But there is a difference between being alone and being lonely.”
I agree. And I hated to leave him. But it was getting late and I could tell by his tired eyes that this visit had exhausted the old man. We exchanged pleasantries, which I felt were genuine. It really was nice to meet him and be a guest in his home. That Cuban sandwich… Oh, my god… The day was a day made for work — this was my job as a journalist, but it was much more than that. Dare I say I even made a new friend?
“David, thank you for coming to my home today. It was nice to have someone to talk to today. It was nice to get to know you. I hope the best for you and your young family. May I impart some old man wisdom on you?”
“Don’t ever take them for granted. Always be the best version of yourself for their sake, even when it feels wrong. Humans are complicated. We experience so much so quickly and feel so much so intensely. Always take the time to let Katie and Harrison understand that about you. Make sure they know the real you. And get to know the real them.”
With that, he extended his arm. I extended mine to meet his and shake his hand, but he placed his hand on my heart as he said, “Make sure they know the real you. And you get to know the real them.” We shook hands at his front door, next to the pictures of his dead mother and estranged ex-wife — the family he couldn’t hang onto. Perhaps he felt it was my mission to live the Family Man life he never could. Do it in his honor. Be the man he couldn’t be.
I thought about what he might have wanted me to take away from our day together. But twenty minutes into my drive back to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, all I could think about was that Lee Harvey Oswald knew my son’s name, and I couldn’t shake the odd feeling that this was the stuff the strangest fiction.