Four decades after covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I have the uncanny feeling as if all this had happened yesterday. To be sure, my own pecking order of the main players in this extraordinary event has changed. In retrospect, the most disagreeable figure was Marguerite Oswald, the mother of Kennedy's assassin. Lee Harvey Oswald was barely buried when she tried to milk the press for money: "Boys, I am a businesswoman," the former nurse told reporters visiting her house in Fort Worth. "Your papers are making a lot of money out of this, so why should I be left out?"
On the other hand, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade has since become my favorite figure in this affair, partly because this big cigar-chomping Texan became the "Wade" of Roe vs. Wade 10 years later, partly also because on the 20th anniversary of Kennedy's murder he informed me that he was busy evangelizing among the condemned. "Even though I can't save the body of these convicts many of whom I had sent to death row," he said, "I can still guide them to the faith that will save their souls."
Wade is dead now. But the stunning occurrence that gave him international prominence-he tried Lee Harvey Oswald's killer Jack Ruby-is still fresh in my memory. I was 27 years old then, a very young political correspondent in the New York office of Germany's Springer Foreign News Service; we reported for the newspapers and magazines of Europe's biggest publishing house.
Like most people who were around then, I remember exactly where I was on that Friday, Nov. 22. It was my day off. I was in my apartment stretched out on my sofa, only half paying attention to the black-and-white TV set I kept running even when I was supposed to relax. Suddenly, I saw Walter Cronkite on the screen, tears in his eyes. He announced that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and, later, that he had died in Parkland Memorial Hospital.
I realized that my colleagues in the office were already handling the running story; so I decided to do sidebars. I raced downstairs, hailed a cab and traveled past clusters of shocked New Yorkers holding portable radios to their ears. We rushed up to Harlem to gauge reaction in the black community. This was, after all, the era of the Civil Rights Movement, and Kennedy had been a hero to many African-Americans. They piled by the hundreds of thousands into their houses of worship. At Adam Clayton Powell's Abyssinian Baptist Church, the largest in the country, there was hardly standing room left. I shall never forget the intensity of the singing and wailing I heard in this magnificent sanctuary that afternoon.
I rushed to my office at Rockefeller Center, and then wrote and wrote until dawn. This was the time of Germany's economic miracle, and our newspapers found themselves swimming in hard Deutsche Marks. This explains a perplexing telex that came in just as we were about to go home for a nap. The message read, "Pack $100,000 into your suitcase at once, fly to Dallas, and find the real killer," signed ... , editor in chief of the largest mass-circulation paper on the Continent.
This made little sense to us and at any rate, where would you find $100,000 in New York at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning? But to Dallas I went, via Washington where Kennedy's coffin had just landed, followed with amazing swiftness by the world's leaders paying homage to the slain president. I remember talking at length with Berlin's governing mayor Willy Brandt, whose city had been divided two years before, only eight months after Kennedy had taken office. We reminisced about the president's visit to this former German capital, a status it has regained in 1990, and about Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech with which he had won every West German's heart.
I took a Braniff flight down to Dallas. While in the air, the pilot informed us of the next bizarre turn of events in that city: Jack Ruby, owner of a modest Dallas strip joint by the name of Carousel Burlesque, had just shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the city's police headquarters. Now I wished for a brief moment I'd had that $100,000 on me; this was too odd a story; there must have been some sort of a conspiracy. Perhaps money would help here. Or would it?
This was the assumption of most European reporters flooding into Dallas and creating havoc in the offices of the Dallas Morning News until the management of this hitherto hospitable newspaper kicked all of us out, lest we hindered its publication with our bodily presence. Speculation was rife. Surely, this must have been a vast right-wing conspiracy. It had just become fashionable for European journalists to take a slight left-wing turn, and hence it seemed highly unlikely that a Communist such as Oswald, a former resident of Minsk in the Soviet Union if you don't mind, could have been the sole culprit, perhaps sent by Fidel Castro or Nikita Khrushchev, two unsavory gentlemen Kennedy had just stared down a year earlier during the Cuban missile crisis (which, by the way, had brought me to the United States in the first place).
Reading through my old clippings now, I am happy to report that this was one of the few Zeitgeist follies I did not participate in. I described Dallas as the conservative city it was, but as one of relative racial harmony at a time of much ferment in neighboring states. Even to those of us who had covered the American South extensively in the Civil Rights days, Dallas seemed an unlikely place for Jim Crow vengeance against this president, a staunch supporter of integration.
I still have no fixed opinion on whether Oswald had acted on his own accord. The 800-page Warren Report, which I analyzed carefully for my newspapers, and which blamed solely Oswald, left me dissatisfied. We'll probably never know in my lifetime if there was any evidence for a Soviet or Cuban involvement. Had there been any, surely it would have been imprudent for the U.S. government to reveal it, for this would have provided a casus belli, a cause for war leading potentially to a nuclear holocaust.
One thing I am sure of, though: Jack Ruby was no co-conspirator. I focused a lot on this strange little native of the suburbs of Chicago. I went to his Dallas strip joint that featured women with stage names like Marilyn Moone and Little Lynn, Shari Angel and Rose Cheramie. What emerged from their chatter-and later from testimony in Ruby's trial-was a curious personality profile. Actually, Ruby, whose balding skull I was soon to see in court every day for several weeks, seemed to be trying to please everyone, especially cops whom he treated to free drinks and hefty sandwiches.
There was a most homely stripper from Baton Rouge in Ruby's Carousel Burlesque, a 28-year-old mother of five children. She told me, "You know, Jack, who is not very muscular, loves to sit in bars next to those big Texans, carrying guns. After Oswald murdered the president, they said, 'Somebody ought to kill this [expletives deleted]. He gave Dallas a bad name.' They just talked like that, but Jack went out and did it, just to impress his friends. It's as simple as that."
This made sense to me, and that's the picture that emerged at Ruby's memorable trial where San Francisco's flamboyant star attorney Melvin Belli, always immaculately attired in pink-lined Savile Row suits, tried to prove temporary insanity due to "psycho-motoric epilepsy," which the jury didn't buy, while the much-beloved judge Joe Brown seemed asleep most of the time because a fan under his desk blew up his robe into a huge black balloon that obscured his rather small face.
At any rate, Ruby received the death sentence, but he never made it to the electric chair because cancer killed him first. In a sense I am glad of it. Not that I entertain particularly strong feelings about capital punishment one way or another, but it would have seemed unfair had Ruby been executed as the only-though certainly not principal-bad guy in this mystifying episode that effectively ended the gaiety of the early 1960s and ushered in postmodernity with all its ghastliness.
A lot of money has been made speculating on what really happened in Dallas. Later I even found myself in the press bench of a New Orleans courtroom where a Cuba-related plot by sadomasochistic homosexual businessmen against Kennedy was alleged. Other reporters will doubtless continue to speculate on what "really happened" in front of the Dallas School Book Repository that Friday morning, and whether or not a second gunman stood at a grassy knoll nearby.
All this will remain conjecture irrelevant to the actual import of this major historical incident. Its true meaning is this: Whatever innocence America possessed prior to Nov. 22, 1963, was lost forever there and then. That's why those of us who were already adults will always feel as if this tragedy had happened only yesterday.