In mid-February 1964, 56-year-old Marguerite Oswald, of Fort Worth, Texas, arrived in Washington to testify before the Warren Commission. She was there to talk about her late son, Lee, known around the world as the man who had killed John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and who, two days later, had himself been murdered by Jack Ruby in the basement of Dallas Police headquarters.
Marguerite had been a ubiquitous character in the media since the day of Kennedy’s assassination, when she’d called up the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, identifying herself as Oswald’s mother and demanding a ride to Dallas.
The beat reporter who’d taken the call was Bob Schieffer, the future CBS News star. Sensing the obvious story, Schieffer hurried to Marguerite’s home to pick her up. In the car, Schieffer quickly sensed there was something “peculiar” about Oswald’s mother. As he later recalled, she “began to talk about how nobody would feel sorry for her, they’d feel sympathy for [Oswald’s] wife and they would give her money. She was completely obsessed with money. She expressed no remorse about the president being killed.”
In the weeks that followed, reporters traced how Lee’s unusual mother influenced his troubled upbringing. After a failed first marriage, she wed Robert Oswald, Lee’s father, who died of a heart attack in August 1939, two months before Marguerite gave birth to Lee, in New Orleans. In 1945, she married a third time, to an engineer named Edwin Ekdahl, but that marriage also ended quickly. In divorce proceedings, Time reported, Ekdahl “charged that his wife nagged him constantly about money, hit and scratched him, threw a bottle and a cookie jar at him, [and] once nearly crowned him with a vase.”
By Lee’s adolescence, he and Marguerite were living in poverty in the Bronx, where Lee’s chronic truancy and behavioral problems attracted the attention of authorities. A psychiatric evaluation of Lee at 13 concluded that he was “an emotionally, quite disturbed youngster who suffers under the impact of really existing emotional isolation and deprivation, lack of affection, absence of family life and rejection by a self‐involved and conflicted mother.”
Marguerite’s 1964 testimony before the Warren Commission lasted three days. Meeting with reporters afterward, she still had plenty to say. Lee hadn’t killed Kennedy, Marguerite said, but it was possible he’d been a “scapegoat” and a secret agent for the C.I.A.
What really mattered, though, was that people understood the grave injustices done to Marguerite. She was aggrieved that President Lyndon Johnson had failed to extend an official White House invitation on her arrival in the capital. She was also mad at Jackie Kennedy for neglecting to send her condolences after Lee’s death. “We loved Lee just as much as she loved her husband,” Marguerite said. “I’m indignant at her, and I resent her thinking we’re not as good as she is.”
Marguerite would continue this kind of talk for years, but the press and public eventually tired of her shtick. A handful of historians have returned to her story in the years since, but in the vast ocean of literature that seeks to analyze and explain the events of November 22, 1963, she has mostly been a small tributary.
In American Confidential: Uncovering the Bizarre Story of Lee Harvey Oswald and His Mother, Deanne Stillman makes the case for Marguerite’s greater significance. In the grievance and class rage on display in her comments about Jackie—I resent her thinking we’re not as good as she is—Stillman sees Lee Harvey Oswald’s true motive: to earn his mother’s affection by avenging her rage. Narrating Kennedy’s last living moments, in Dealey Plaza, she conjures an inner monologue for Oswald: “Look Maw! Do you love me now? Are you lookin’ at ME?”
In dazzling, evocative prose, Stillman effectively employs the tools of cultural criticism to shed light on the forces that might have left Marguerite dangerously disillusioned with the American dream. Provocatively, she holds that it matters little whether Oswald acted alone or was a pawn in a larger conspiracy. “For all the questioning and riddling over his motives,” she writes, “Lee Harvey Oswald was simply fulfilling his mother’s lifelong dream—to matter. In the end, they were a conspiracy of one.”
But reading American Confidential, or, indeed, any unifying theory of the Kennedy assassination, I am reminded of a story by the journalist Murray Kempton, written 10 months after J.F.K.’s death. In the then burgeoning Kennedy-conspiracy industry, Kempton saw “the refusal of many of us to accept the absurd.” After all, the only true way to acknowledge that history could be altered by an anonymous loser such as Oswald was to accept “that the absurd really does explain it all and that Mr. Kennedy might as well have been killed by a bolt of lightning.”
After lightning strikes, it is worth examining the forces of nature that produced it. But the best explanation for its tragic impact will always be bad luck and random chance.
Jonathan Darman is the author of Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America and Becoming FDR: The Personal Crisis That Made a President