Almost half a century has passed since John Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, but two questions linger: Was Lee Oswald really the trigger-man, and if so, did he act alone? Nothing I’ve written in 11/22/63 will provide answers to those questions, because time-travel is just an interesting make-believe. But if you, like me, are curious about why those questions still remain, I think I can give you a satisfactory two-word response: Karen Carlin. Not just a footnote to history, but a footnote to a footnote. And yet. .
Jack Ruby owned a Dallas strip joint called the Carousel Club. Carlin, whose nom du burlesque was Little Lynn, danced there. On the night following the assassination, Ruby received a call from Miss Carlin, who was twenty-five dollars short on the December rent and desperately needed a loan to keep from being turned out into the street. Would he help?
Jack Ruby, who had other things on his mind, gave her the rough side of his tongue (in truth, it was the only side Dallas’s Sparky Jack seemed to have). He was appalled that the president he revered had been killed in his home city, and he spoke repeatedly to friends and relatives about how terrible this was for Mrs. Kennedy and her children. Ruby was heartsick at the thought of Jackie having to return to Dallas for Oswald’s trial. The widow would become a national spectacle, he said. Her grief would be used to sell tabloids.
Unless, of course, Lee Oswald came down with a bad case of the deads.
Everybody at the Dallas Police Department had at least a nodding acquaintance with Jack. He and his “wife”—that was what he called his little dachsund, Sheba — were frequent visitors at DPD. He handed out free passes to his clubs, and when cops showed up there, he bought them free drinks. So no one took any particular notice of him when he turned up at the station on Saturday, November twenty-third. When Oswald was paraded before the press, proclaiming his innocence and displaying a black eye, Ruby was there. He had a gun (yes, another.38, this one a Colt Cobra), and he fully intended to shoot Oswald with it. But the room was crowded; Ruby was shunted to the back; then Oswald was gone.
So Jack Ruby gave up.
Late Sunday morning, he went to the Western Union office a block or so from the DPD and sent “Little Lynn” a money order for twenty-five dollars. Then he wandered down to the cop-shop. He assumed that Oswald had already been transferred to the Dallas County Jail, and was surprised to see a crowd gathered in front of the police station. There were reporters, news vans, and your ordinary gawkers. The transfer hadn’t occurred on schedule.
Ruby had his gun, and Ruby wormed his way into the police garage. No problem there. Some of the cops even said hi, and Ruby hi’d them right back. Oswald was still upstairs. At the last moment he had asked his jailers if he could put on a sweater, because his shirt had a hole in it. The detour to get the sweater took less than three minutes, but that was just enough — life turns on a dime. Ruby shot Oswald in the abdomen. As a pig-pile of cops landed on top of Sparky Jack, he managed to yell: “Hey, guys, I’m Jack Ruby! You all know me!”
The assassin died at Parkland Hospital shortly thereafter, without making a statement. Thanks to a stripper who needed twenty-five bucks and a half-assed showboat who wanted to put on a sweater, Oswald was never tried for his crime, and never had a real chance to confess. His final statement on his part in the events of 11/22/63 was “I’m a patsy.” The resulting arguments over whether or not he was telling the truth have never stopped.
Early in the novel, Jake Epping’s friend Al puts the probability that Oswald was the lone gunman at ninety-five percent. After reading a stack of books and articles on the subject almost as tall as I am, I’d put the probability at ninety-eight percent, maybe even ninety-nine. Because all of the accounts, including those written by conspiracy theorists, tell the same simple American story: here was a dangerous little fame-junkie who found himself in just the right place to get lucky. Were the odds of it happening just the way it did long? Yes. So are the odds on winning the lottery, but someone wins one every day.
Probably the most useful source-materials I read in preparation for writing this novel were Case Closed, by Gerald Posner; Legend, by Edward Jay Epstein (nutty Robert Ludlum stuff, but fun); Oswald’s Tale, by Norman Mailer; and Mrs. Paine’s Garage, by Thomas Mallon. The latter offers a brilliant analysis of the conspiracy theorists and their need to find order in what was almost a random event. The Mailer is also remarkable. He says that he went into the project (which includes extensive interviews with Russians who knew Lee and Marina in Minsk) believing that Oswald was the victim of a conspiracy, but in the end came to believe — reluctantly — that the stodgy ole Warren Commission was right: Oswald acted alone.
It is very, very difficult for a reasonable person to believe otherwise. Occam’s Razor — the simplest explanation is usually the right one.
I was also deeply impressed — and moved, and shaken — by my rereading of William Manchester’s Death of a President . He’s dead wrong about some things, he’s given to flights of purple prose (calling Marina Oswald “lynx-eyed,” for instance), his analysis of Oswald’s motives is both superficial and hostile, but this massive work, published only four years after that terrible lunch hour in Dallas, is closest in time to the assassination, written when most of the participants were still alive and their recollections were still vivid. Armed with Jacqueline Kennedy’s conditional approval of the project, everyone talked to Manchester, and although his account of the aftermath is turgid, his narrative of 11/22’s events is chilling and vivid, a Zapruder film in words.
Well. . almost everyone talked to him. Marina Oswald did not, and Manchester’s consequent harsh treatment of her may have something to do with that. Marina (still alive at this writing) had her eye on the main chance in the aftermath of her husband’s cowardly act, and who could blame her? Those who want to read her full recollections can find them in Marina and Lee, by Priscilla Johnson McMillan. I trust very little of what she says (unless corroborated by other sources), but I salute — with some reluctance, it’s true — her survival skills.
I originally tried to write this book way back in 1972. I dropped the project because the research it would involve seemed far too daunting for a man who was teaching full-time. There was another reason: even nine years after the deed, the wound was still too fresh. I’m glad I waited. When I finally decided to go ahead, it was natural for me to turn to my old friend Russ Dorr for help with the research. He provided a splendid support system for another long book, Under the Dome, and once more rose to the occasion. I am writing this afterword surrounded by heaps of research materials, the most valuable of which are the videos Russ shot during our exhaustive (and exhausting) travels in Dallas, and the foot-high stack of emails that came in response to my questions about everything from the 1958 World Series to mid-century bugging devices. It was Russ who located the home of Edwin Walker, which just happened to be on the 11/22 motorcade route (the past harmonizes), and it was Russ who — after much searching of various Dallas records — found the probable 1963 address of that most peculiar man, George de Mohrenschildt. And by the way, just where was Mr. de Mohrenschildt on the night of April 10, 1963? Probably not at the Carousel Club, but if he had an alibi for the attempted assassination of the general, I wasn’t able to find it.
I hate to bore you with my Academy Awards speech — I get very annoyed with writers who do that — but I need to tip my cap to some other people, all the same. Big Number One is Gary Mack, curator of The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. He answered billions of questions, sometimes twice or three times before I got the info crammed into my dumb head. The tour of the Texas School Book Depository was a grim necessity that he lightened with his considerable wit and encyclopedic knowledge.
Thanks are also due to Nicola Longford, the Executive Director of The Sixth Floor Museum, and Megan Bryant, Director of Collections and Intellectual Property. Brian Collins and Rachel Howell work in the History Department of the Dallas Public Library and gave me access to old films (some of them pretty hilarious) that show how the city looked in the years 1960–63. Susan Richards, a researcher at the Dallas Historical Society, also pitched in, as did Amy Brumfield, David Reynolds, and the staff of the Adolphus Hotel. Longtime Dallas resident Martin Nobles drove Russ and me around Dallas. He took us to the now-closed but still standing Texas Theatre, where Oswald was captured, to the former residence of Edwin Walker, to Greenville Avenue (not as gruesome as Fort Worth’s bar-and-whore district once was), and to Mercedes Street, where 2703 no longer exists. It did indeed blow away in a tornado. . although not in 1963. And a tip of the cap to Mike “Silent Mike” McEachern, who donated his name for charitable purposes.
I want to thank Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband, former Kennedy aide-de-camp Dick Goodwin, for indulging my questions about worst-case scenarios, had Kennedy lived. George Wallace as the thirty-seventh president was their idea. . but the more I thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. My son, the novelist Joe Hill, pointed out several consequences of time-travel I hadn’t considered. He also thought up a new and better ending. Joe, you rock.
And I want to thank my wife, my first reader of choice and hardest, fairest critic. An ardent Kennedy supporter, she saw him in person not long before his death, and has never forgotten it. A contrarian her whole life, Tabitha is (it does not surprise me and should not surprise you) on the side of the conspiracy theorists.
Have I gotten things wrong here? You bet. Have I changed things to suit the course of my story? Sure. As one example, it’s true that Lee and Marina went to a welcome party thrown by George Bouhe and attended by most of the area’s Russian émigrés, and it’s true that Lee hated and resented those middle-class burghers who had turned their back on Mother Russia, but the party happened three weeks later than it does in my book. And while it’s true that Lee, Marina, and baby June lived upstairs at 214 West Neely Street, I have no idea who — if anybody — lived in the downstairs apartment. But that was the one I toured (paying twenty bucks for the privilege), and it seemed a shame not to use the layout of the place. And what a desperate little place it was.
Mostly, however, I stuck to the truth.
Some people will protest that I have been excessively hard on the city of Dallas. I beg to differ. If anything, Jake Epping’s first-person narrative allowed me to be too easy on it, at least as it was in 1963. On the day Kennedy landed at Love Field, Dallas was a hateful place. Confederate flags flew rightside up; American flags flew upside down. Some airport spectators held up signs reading HELP JFK STAMP OUT DEMOCRACY. Not long before that day in November, both Adlai Stevenson and Lady Bird Johnson were subjected to spit-showers by Dallas voters. Those spitting on Mrs. Johnson were middle-class housewives.
It’s better today, but one still sees signs on Main Street saying HANDGUNS NOT ALLOWED IN THE BAR. This is an afterword, not an editorial, but I hold strong opinions on this subject, particularly given the current political climate of my country. If you want to know what political extremism can lead to, look at the Zapruder film. Take particular note of frame 313, where Kennedy’s head explodes.
Before I finish, I want to thank one other person: the late Jack Finney, who was one of America’s great fantasists and storytellers. Besides The Body Snatchers, he wrote Time and Again, which is, in this writer’s humble opinion, the great time-travel story. Originally I meant to dedicate this book to him, but in June of last year, a lovely little granddaughter arrived in our family, so Zelda gets the nod.
Jack, I’m sure you’d understand.