Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Q&A with Deanne Stillman




Deanne Stillman is the author of the new book American Confidential: Uncovering the Bizarre Story of Lee Harvey Oswald and His Mother. Stillman's other books include Twentynine Palms. She is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and she lives in Los Angeles.


Q: Why did you decide to write American Confidential, and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: I've written about the American condition for many years, often via the prism of violent incidents in the modern and frontier era, and with place as a character.


We've talked about these other books in previous interviews and one of the things that I touched on in a couple of them was family context for everyone involved in these matters.


With the 60th anniversary of the JFK assassination approaching, it seemed to me to be a good time to offer my view of the whole thing, having learned of the terrible event when I was in junior high school and experienced the shock of it along with my classmates and of course millions of people across the country and around the world.


Over the years, I’ve met various people obsessed with the assassination and seen how it overtook their lives, leading them into a never-ending search for answers and down an abyss of conspiracy theories.


I’ve read a lot on the subject, including the major works and many of the minor, and at some point it occurred to me that the famous pic of Oswald with his rifle was a kind of selfie – although it was really a Polaroid taken by his wife.


This is how he wanted to memorialize himself, like many an outlaw before him. After the assassination it was on the cover of Life magazine and then circulated everywhere to this day.


Oswald himself has been cited in the writings of some school shooters and I realized that it wasn’t just the act of killing President Kennedy that attracted them – though that was a factor; it made Oswald famous – but that photo, that pose with his rifle.


They wanted to be that guy and as I say in my book, the bullets he fired that day are ricocheting in the classrooms and malls of today. (For those who don’t think Oswald was JFK’s killer, the violence of that day – and the nonstop exploration of “shots fired” - still reverberates now).


So I wanted to take a look at that moment in the photo and the people and things that led to it and it all boiled down to Lee Harvey Oswald and his mother Marguerite, a woman who was desperate for recognition. Together, I write, they formed “a conspiracy of one,” inadvertently.


She had passed on her need to Lee and he sought fame in the ultimate way – killing President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the most famous man in the world at that time, and possibly the most revered.


Yet it must be noted that he had plenty of enemies, and threats from various quarters were gaining traction shortly before he was killed.


Regarding the title, I chose it because first of all, I had to change my original title as per my publisher. You have to go through layers of people with titles in nonfiction, from marketing to salesfolk.


My original title was His Mother’s Son: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Take-Down of an American King, or something like that.


When that was jettisoned, I came up with American Confidential because the deeper I got into the story, the more I realized it had elements of noir and it reminded me of everything from High School Confidential, a ‘40s B movie about crime, to Confidential Magazine, a scurrilous tabloid about life in the shadows, to Ellroy’s LA Confidential.


Mainly this was because of Oswald’s mother, a woman driven by desperation and unchecked need, and she brought James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce to mind and also Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.


There’s a scene in The Glass Menagerie in which Amanda is on the phone, trying to get someone to renew a magazine subscription. This is how she makes her living and when the person doesn’t want to, it’s wrenching.


I write about this in my book, and how it compares to Marguerite Oswald, a single mother who worked a series of menial jobs, sometimes from her own living room, and was always stranded. She passed her desperation and need on to Lee, who followed in her footsteps – writ large.


With the title American Confidential, I’m presenting the deep inside low-down of one of the greatest of the country’s true crimes by way of the family from whence it came. Right out of the shadows.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Lee Harvey Oswald?


A: First of all, that he was involved in you name the conspiracy. As mentioned above, as I see it, there was only one, that of collusion between him and his mother in a pursuit of fame and recognition.


This was nothing that was stated other than via Marguerite’s constant expressions of not getting her fair shake and “how come the other guy didn’t get a ticket?” and so on; it transmogrified into something that erupted on Nov. 22, 1963, when Oswald seized a moment before him – and whacked the president.


In my book, I write that he was like Travis Bickle with his gun; this occurred to me as I pondered that famous photo. “You talkin to me?” “Look at me now, Maw! You talkin to me?”

His mother was a withholding figure in private, and Lee never measured up to her expectations. In public he could do no wrong, and this continued at the end and its aftermath.


Marguerite told reporters that Lee didn’t kill JFK but even if he did, “he was doing the country a favor by putting him out of his misery.” In fact, he was “a national hero.”


She was referring to the fact that JFK had Addison’s Disease, a painful affliction which would have taken a serious toll over time. She also said that Lee should be buried in Arlington National Cemetery like JFK.


Another thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that Oswald admired JFK. When he was living in Russia after his defection, Marguerite sent him a copy of Time magazine with JFK on the cover. He took it back with him to the US and kept it on his coffee table.


His wife Marina would say that JFK was handsome and told him at some point that he reminded her of an ex-boyfriend. After Marina had their first daughter, he told her he hoped to have a son some day so he could grow up to be president – an American dream.


In my view, he – a serf, a low-level worker with no clout – decided to take down the king, because that’s how things coalesced for him, a nobody with a weapon. And in the act killing him, he became linked with JFK forever.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: Lots of reading, library trips, archive deep dives – there’s an extensive bibliography in my book, as I always include.


Also I talked with various people, include Ruth Paine, the woman in whose garage Oswald was storing his rifle, unbeknownst to her. Marina was living with Ruth during one of the many periods of estrangement during their marriage, and Lee would visit on weekends, to see her and their daughter. He was good with kids, Ruth told me, and seemed to dote on his daughter.


After JFK was killed, Ruth was of course horrified – all the more so because the man who killed him had kept his weapon at her house, picking it up shortly before the assassination, and also because such a person was in close proximity to her own children, toddlers at the time.


She was essentially giving safe harbor to an assassin and didn’t know it and she spent many years trying to come to terms with that. As a Quaker, she felt that her religion compelled her to offer help to anyone in need and that was why she invited Marina to move in with her.


She too was a single mother, going through a divorce, though an amicable one; she could use the company, she felt, and also learn Russian which interested her from a native speaker.


It was an extreme act in the view of many; not all Good Samaritans would invite a stranger in dire straits to live with them but Ruth did and her garage became a notorious site in the annals of the investigation of the assassination.


And so too did Ruth become a figure of interest to many, interviewed by dozens, implicated in conspiracies, rarely appreciated for the simple act of opening her house and heart to a fellow single mother in need.


Q: The writer Lucian K. Truscott IV said of the book, “Was Lee Harvey Oswald a crazed right wing gunsel or just a momma’s boy gone wrong? Deanne Stillman gets into one of the darkest corners of America’s past not by spinning conspiracies but by digging into the family that produced the man who killed a president.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: See above for some discussion of this but also will add that Lucian is right on two counts. Oswald was a crazed gunsel, in the sense that he had gone berserk just before the assassination, having been rejected after yet one more attempt for a reconciliation with his wife the night before, and now the time had come to make his mark.


Of course we’ll never know exactly why he killed JFK; he himself was killed by Jack Ruby following his arrest so there was no trial. As his older brother Robert later said, most of all, Lee wanted a trial. He would be the center of attention – at last; the entire world would hear his story.


But in my view, behind it all, he committed suicide by presidential assassination. It was he who was put out of his misery, essentially by his own hand.


He was indeed a Mama’s boy gone wrong, the son of a deeply tormented woman who was constantly aggrieved, manipulative, and histrionic and the greatest public defender a young man could ever want.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Well, I rarely talk about works in progress but would like to draw everyone’s attention to my play, Reflections in a D’Back’s Eye, about the mass shooting in Tucson in which Gabby Giffords was wounded and others killed, including a little girl who just wanted to play baseball.


Unlike other writing about that episode, my play centers the little girl and also looks at the killer, who once upon a time was playing Coltrane on his sax.


This was produced just before pandemic lockdown at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica and directed by Darrell Larson, and has won prizes around the country.


It’s set in the desert and looks at our gun violence problem through the prism of the natural world, and ends at the Grand Canyon with the little girl taking an at bat as “A Love Supreme” plays. Can the natural world save us?


If anyone can suggest a producer and/or theatre for this play, please let me know. In the meantime, hope you’ll order a copy of my book and consider how we might go about finding ways to reconnect with the land upon which we and all creatures great and small live and endure.


Now we are destroying our own living room and turning on each other. Let’s cut it out!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Speaking of the natural world, in American Confidential, I weave place in as I do in my other books. In this case it’s New Orleans, the Bronx, Fort Worth, and Dallas – all places where Lee and his mother lived.


Interestingly, shortly before the assassination, JFK was coming out of the Texas Hotel under a marquee that says “Welcome to Fort Worth/Where the West Begins.”


As I write in my book, Oswald lived in a Wild West of the imagination, and the night before the assassination was whistling the theme song from High Noon, as reported by Patricia McMillan in her book, Marina and Lee. To me, that spoke volumes.


As it turned out, it was shortly after high noon that Oswald fired his shots from the window at the Texas Book Depository – and soon he would be memorialized in history books, just like the ones he was packing up on the job.


So many strange elements swirling around this story, and I have tried to weave them together in my book.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Deanne Stillman.

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