Interview: Priscilla Johnson McMillan
November 19, 2013, 5:23 pm ET
Historian Priscilla Johnson McMillan was a reporter in Moscow in the 1950s and interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald shortly after his defection to the Soviet Union. Later, after the Kennedy assassination, McMillan befriended Oswald’s widow, Marina, and the two spent considerable time together. In 1977, McMillan wrote Marina and Lee, an intimate portrait of the Oswalds’ life together.
Although Marina declined to be interviewed for FRONTLINE’s program, McMillan talks about the perplexing, troubling events of Oswald’s life based on what Marina confided to her. And, Marina repeated to McMillan what she told the Warren Commission in 1964 — that her husband was not capable of being recruited as a conspirator, and that he most likely acted alone in killing President John F. Kennedy. This interview was conducted in 1993 in conjunction with the first broadcast of FRONTLINE’s Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?
Tell me about your first meeting with Lee back in 1959.
A consul at the American embassy had told me of a young defector from the United States who was staying in the Hotel Metropol, where I lived in Moscow. … He wouldn’t speak to any of the American officials. The young man who told me about Oswald said that perhaps he’d speak to me, because I was a woman.
So I went by this young defector’s room the same day that I heard about him, and asked him if he would give me an interview about his reasons for wanting to live in the Soviet Union. To my surprise, he said he would talk to me, and that he would come up to my room that evening.
What were your first impressions meeting him? Can you talk about what he said, and why he said he defected, or wanted to [defect]?
Oswald was a nice-looking young man and he spoke with a quiet manner and a little Southern accent. He spoke so quietly that it wasn’t until later, when I looked at my own notes, that I realized that the content of them was very angry. He said he didn’t want to live like a worker under capitalism — the way that his mother did — and be exploited all his life, and therefore he wanted to come live in the Soviet Union.
Was he talking about being a Marxist? I mean, how perfect was his ideology, and what role did that play?
He said that as a boy, a teenager in New York City, he had been handed some literature about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and that that had made him political when he was about 15 years old. Then he had started to read Marx. He said he’d read all of Das Kapital, and he used a good deal of Marxist language.
How did you connect with him?
He did speak to me for several hours, but I had trouble getting him to talk about his personal life. Whenever I asked him how his mother lived, he said, “Oh, she lives the way all workers do under capitalism.” When I asked him about his father, he told me his father died before he was born. I said, “What did your father do?” He said, “I believe he was an insurance salesman,” in a way that cut off further inquiry.
Was he foolish? Courageous? What did you think?
I thought he was over his head. He couldn’t pronounce some words accurately, for example, “ask” would come out “axe,” “axed somebody.” He got words mixed up, but he was trying. I thought he was quite courageous, or else very foolish.
What did you make of his situation?
He seemed lonely. He seemed very, very young. He seemed lost in a situation that was beyond [him]. He said he’d been to the children’s store and had bought some ice cream for himself there, but the children’s store was across the street from where he’d been living. He didn’t know the city and he hadn’t seen much of it. He didn’t have much curiosity about it.
Tell me about his very brief courtship.
Marina met Lee at a dance in the Palace of Culture in Minsk. She’d spent a long time dressing up to go. She couldn’t decide who to go with; several people had asked her. She went and she danced and caught the eye of this young man whom she first thought was Estonian. She thought he had a little bit of a foreign accent. He looked nice and clean, he was very polite, and she was proud to have won his attention.
Where was Marina working? How did they get married?
Marina worked as a pharmaceutical assistant, and Lee worked at the Minsk radio plant. A few days after they met, he was hospitalized for trouble with his adenoids, and Marina went to visit him in the hospital. She did visit him several times, and he rather quickly told her that he wanted her not to go out with any other man but him. By the time he was released from the hospital, he asked her to be his fiancée.
What was the attraction for Marina to Lee?
Marina liked Lee for several reasons. One was that he was polite. She liked his being foreign. She thought that an American would treat her better than a Russian. He told her that he had given up his American citizenship, that he could never go back to the United States. He had a very nice apartment and he lived alone. That was a great attraction.
Tell me about the press coverage Lee Harvey Oswald expected when he returned to the U.S.
Marina noticed that on the SS Maasdam, the ship coming back to the United States, Lee was spending a great deal of time by himself in the library. He was oblivious of her, paid no attention, ignored her and seemed ashamed of them at mealtimes on the ship. She noticed that he was very nervous.
Lee spent time writing questions he expected to be asked at the dock by newspapermen, and his answers. In those questions and answers, he was asked why had he defected to the Soviet Union, why he’d come back to the United States. One set of answers ends with someone from the press saying to him, “Thank you, sir. You are a real patriot.”
What happened, in fact, was that he was paged at the dock, and he was frightened. He didn’t answer the page. A man from the Traveler’s Aid Society discovered him, Mr. Raikin. He had been sent to find Lee and take him to their offices. So he was treated as an indigent, rather than as a public figure.
Can you talk about the mounting tension between Lee and Marina that seems to happen not long after they returned to the U.S.?
When the Oswalds returned to the United States, they first lived at the house of Robert Oswald, Lee’s brother. They spent several weeks with him there while Lee looked for a job in Fort Worth. One night, Lee got angry at Marina, and he hit her very hard across her face with the flat part of his hand. He said to her quickly that he would kill her if she said anything about it to his brother Robert. That was the first time he ever hit her, and she wondered what kind of man she had married.
As the months went by, how did that kind of tension and difficulties continue? What happened as the months went by?
Lee worked, was out all day. Marina stayed home taking care of the child. Starting in the summer after their return from Russia, Lee began to hit Marina, something he had never done before. By the winter, he hit her more and more frequently and harder, and over very small things that she had done or that he accused her of.
At New Year’s of 1963, Marina wrote a letter to an old boyfriend of hers in Russia, saying that Lee’s attitude toward her had changed; he no longer treated her the way he had when they lived in Russia, that she wished she had married this other man, and she was sorry that she had no way back. She mailed the letter, but she put too little postage on it. Lee intercepted it, and he made her read it aloud to him. Then after that, he beat her with increasing frequency.
What was going on at work with Lee during this period?
He worked long hours in a photography job, which he liked very much. He worked as much as he could, overtime and on Saturdays. He developed photographs of his own at night at the studio on his own time. …
The work required precision, and he didn’t improve. You expect a new man to make mistakes, but as time went on, Lee’s work didn’t improve. He continued making mistakes, and he was rude to the other men. … Others at the photography shop began to notice that he would barge in when they were doing delicate work, developing pictures. And he brought in copies of Soviet publications, especially a humor magazine, Krokodil. That created some bad feeling at work.
What was behind his opening a post office box, do you think?
He began to receive publications that he did not want to get at home. They were The Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party, The Militant, newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party. He began to write letters to the heads of those organizations, and he was writing to the Soviet embassy in Washington. All of this he wanted to receive without his landlord’s noticing.
Tell me about this Russian emigre community, and how George De Mohrenschildt emerges out of that into Lee’s life.
In Dallas and Fort Worth, there were about 20 Russian families. They became interested in the Oswalds, because they wanted to meet Marina and hear about the life of young people in Russia. They brought presents to the Oswalds — a playpen for the baby, food whenever they could do it without offending Lee’s pride. The wisest of these emigres offered Marina an escape, and she left Lee very briefly in the autumn of 1962. After that, the Russians mostly dropped away, when Marina refused to leave Lee. But one couple remained friends with the Oswalds. That was George and Jeanne de Mohrenschildt.
What was the real bond between George de Mohrenschildt and Lee?
De Mohrenschildt had grown up near Minsk, where Lee had lived. He, too, was curious to know about Russia. The bond between them was politics. They talked politics whenever they met and all the time.
You have said that Lee liked secretiveness for his own sake. What did you mean?
Lee took out a post office box. There were reasons. He wanted to receive mail that his landlords wouldn’t see. But Lee always had spun fantasies. Marina had noticed it in Russia, when there were reasons for people to be secretive; even then, she realized that Lee liked secrecy for its own sake, and spun webs when there was no reason to.
Let’s talk about Walker. Tell me about Oswald stalking General Edwin Walker.
As the winter wore on, Lee began to think about doing something outside his humdrum work life. He ordered a pistol, and asked for it to be sent to his post office box. He was waiting for the pistol to arrive in the mail.
He began photographing the back of General Walker’s house on Turtle Creek. He would take the bus or walk to the house of General Walker. He drew pictures of it, descriptions of it. He went back in daylight hours and photographed the driveway, the backyard, the approaches to Walker’s house. He would develop those photographs at his place of work.
Can you talk about the day Lee surprised Marina in the backyard in Dallas?
It was a Sunday in early spring. Marina was in the backyard hanging up diapers to dry. What did she see but a figure walking down the back stairs, dressed all in black. It was Lee. He was wearing a pistol, carrying his rifle. He was carrying a couple of newspapers and he had a camera. She burst out laughing, and asked him what on earth he was doing in that costume. He told her she was to take a picture of him. She objected; she had never taken a photograph before. But she took the camera in her hand. He showed her how to snap it. Instead of holding it at her waist, she held it at eye level, and she snapped a picture. It later turned out she’d forgotten that she had snapped two pictures. It was a day when the neighbors were away. It was sunny. They had the backyard to themselves.
According to Marina, what are the details of Lee’s actions the night Walker was shot at?
Early in April, Marina was walking the baby when Lee caught up to her at a half run. He was carrying something in his raincoat. It was a rifle. He told her he was going to practice shooting his rifle. Before she had time to object, he jumped on a bus that was marked “Love Field,” and disappeared.
Well, a few nights later, she was waiting for him to come home for dinner. He usually came home at six. She waited until seven, and then she made herself a little supper. At about ten, he still hadn’t come home. She was worried.
She walked into a room, his study, which he told her never to enter. There on his desk, she saw a sheet of paper with a key lying on top of it. She went over and read it, and it said, “This is the key to the post office box.” He explained to her where the post office was and he said, “You have friends here and they will help.” He said, “The embassy” — he meant the Soviet embassy — “will help when they find out.” Then he told her he had paid the rent, he had paid the electric bill, there was enough cash for a certain amount of time to pay the bills. Then he said, “In case I’m in the jail,” and then he explained where to find the jail.
She had no idea what he had gone to do, and she started to shake all over.
When did she learn where he had gone, and what did she think?
Later that night, about 11:30, Lee came in, white, covered with sweat and looking quite wild in the eyes. He said, “I shot Walker.” Marina didn’t know who Walker was and she didn’t care, but she told him, “Who was that?” Then he immediately he started listening to the radio. There was nothing on the radio. He went to sleep quickly that night, and slept soundly the whole night. But she couldn’t sleep.
What did he make of the news reported the next day that there were two cars involved?
The next morning Lee woke up and he started listening to the radio. They told about the attempt on General Walker. The radio said that the police had identified the bullet in the chimney. They had misidentified it. He said, “They’re so foolish, they can’t even tell what kind of rifle I had.” Then there were reports that there had been a white car in the alley behind General Walker’s house, that somebody had disappeared in the white car. Lee said, “Americans are so spoiled, they think you have to have a car.” He said, “By the time the police got there, I was already a long way away on my own two feet.” He explained to Marina that he had left Walker’s house, he had run as fast as his feet would carry him, then he had jumped on a bus and that he had buried the rifle
Can you tell me about how Marina thought that Lee may have taken George de Mohrenschildt into his confidence about the shooting?
A few nights after Lee’s attempt on General Walker, the De Mohrenschildts came by for an unscheduled visit. It was Saturday night. Russian Easter was coming up. Jeanne De Mohrenschildt came in with a big plush rabbit for June, the baby. George came in behind her, broad shoulders, looking very big and hearty. His voice boomed out to Lee, “So, Lee, how come you missed?”
Lee was at the foot of the stairs behind George, and his face just went dead, Marina said. Neither of the Oswalds dared look at each [other] the rest of the evening. Each one thought the other one must have told George about the Walker attempt; in fact, neither one had.
What about what was written on the back of the photo that Marina took that day in the backyard of their Dallas apartment? It was written, “Hunter of Fascists?”
Lee gave her a photograph of himself with his guns and she wrote on it, “Hunter After the Fascists. Ha, ha, ha,” perhaps the way George de Mohrenschildt would have laughed. That would have been the kind of language Lee and George used with one another when they discussed General Walker. Marina was making fun of Lee, “Hunter After the Fascists.” Lee used this particular copy of the photograph to send later to George de Mohrenschildt.
From Dallas, Lee headed home to New Orleans in April 1963. Can you talk about his secretiveness in New Orleans, and whether Oswald could have been involved in a conspiracy?
Lee liked secrets for their own sake. He liked making secrets of things that there was no reason to be secretive about. He kept a great deal to himself. If someone from the outside had confronted him with a real plot to do something, I believe Lee would have disintegrated. Lee had aliases, he had post office boxes, he secretly received guns from various sources. He had an entire secret life, and maybe one or two secret lives along with the life he was leading at home with Marina.
Do you think he could have included anyone in his secrets there in New Orleans?
For two months Lee was unemployed in New Orleans, and he had a rather regular life. He would stay home in the mornings reading, then he would go out taking the bus or walking into the business district of New Orleans. The neighbors who seemed to have nothing better to do than watch his comings and goings were unanimous in saying that he was never gone more than two hours at a time, and that he was always home by six. Marina said that Lee didn’t go out at night. She said he didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, and besides, “He was always sitting home with me.”
Around that time, tell me about the kind of people he was reading about.
In the summer of 1963, Lee did a good deal of reading in that hot New Orleans summer. He went to the public library and took out a book on Mao Tse-tung. He took out a book on the Huey Long murder case. He took out a book about President Kennedy. The day he returned that book, he took out President Kennedy’s own book, Profiles in Courage.
Lee told Marina that, in 20 years, he would be president or prime minister. She said, “But right now, I need a new pair of pants,” and she made fun of him for it. He said that the child they were about to have would be prime minister. He didn’t seem to distinguish or realize that, in the United States, there’s no prime minister.
Tell me about Lee wanting her to sign his Fair Play for Cuba Committee card.
One day he asked her to sign a card for an organization, and she said, “You mean that organization with only one member?” He said it didn’t matter how many members it was, it needed two signatures. It would seem as though there were more members. He told her she was to sign under the name A. J. Hidell. She refused, but then she agreed, and she practiced writing A. J. Hidell several times. She asked him, “What’s that name, an altered Fidel?” He was embarrassed to be caught out, and he told her to shut up.
Talk about his pressures on Marina to return to Russia, and the night he made her write the embassy.
Early in their time in the United States, Lee told Marina he wanted her to go back to Russia. He forced her to write to the Soviet embassy in Washington and request a visa to go back and to take the baby with her. She did not want to go, and she dreaded it. This was a threat that hung over her throughout her time in the United States.
You told a story about the very emotional night he makes her write the embassy, and then he writes at the bottom, “Please consider her separately.”
There was a night in the summer of 1963 when Lee had lost his job. He seemed quite downcast. Marina found him in the kitchen with his legs wrapped around the back of a kitchen chair and his head on the back of the chair. He was sobbing, and he told her he didn’t know what to do with himself. She put her arms around him and tried to comfort him. Then he said, “What about I go back with you to Russia?”, and that cheered her up a great deal. They had a conversation about which city in Russia they would try to live in.
So she wrote to the Soviet embassy. There was one official, a consular official with whom she’d had correspondence. She wrote him quite a chatty letter that time, asking to go back, but unknown to her, Lee added a postscript. He said please to consider his visa application separately, but he meant that they should process hers ahead of his. She had already applied five to six months earlier, and he didn’t want anything to slow down her going back.
But why did he pressure her to go back to the Soviet Union? Because he wanted to go to Cuba, perhaps?
It’s hard to tell why Lee wanted to send Marina back to Russia, because his plans changed all the time. His brain was like a stove with a front burner and several back burners. What was on the back burner could shift to the front burner. But once he said to her, “I’ll go to Cuba, then I’ll go to China, and you wait for me in Russia.” I think Russia was the fallback place that he thought would always take him in. He could go and have his other adventures — maybe do something that would be illegal, so that he couldn’t stay in the United States. But Russia, for political reasons, would take him in, and he would join his family there.
Regarding Cuba, can you talk about the hijacking scheme, according to what Marina told you?
Lee wanted to go to Cuba to help teach the Cuban army how to shoot. He decided the way to go was to skyjack an airplane. He told Marina that he would sit in the front row of the airplane cabin. She would sit in the back row with June. At a certain point, he would put a gun in the back of the pilot of the aircraft. She would stand up and keep the entire passenger contingent at bay with a pistol, and would speak to them. She would speak to the crowd and tell them to be quiet. Marina laughed at him, and said, “Well, but I don’t speak English. How am I going to explain to them?” Eventually she laughed him out of the skyjacking plan, and she begged him to find a legal way to get to Cuba. Then he thought of going through Mexico.
Tell me about Marina’s reaction to seeing Lee on the porch with the rifle.
One evening, Marina came home about dusk. She saw Lee on the screened-in porch of their apartment in New Orleans. He was perched on his knee with his rifle at his shoulder, and he was aiming it. She was extremely surprised at this. She hated to see him with the rifle again. But he continued to dry-fire the rifle and aim it for about three weeks — the last part of August and the first part of September, that fall, 1963 — before he went to Mexico City.
Did he tell her he was planning to join up with Castro?
Marina told me that he had discovered a legal way to get to Cuba, and that was through Mexico; from Mexico, he would go to Cuba, and he would help Fidel. He was very enthusiastic about Castro, and he wanted to name their baby Fidel. Marina said, “There is no Fidel, and there will be no Fidel in our family.”
Can you talk about Lee’s relationship with June?
He loved his baby June. She was the thing in his life that was happiest and best. He would put her to bed at night. It would take him about an hour and a half. He would play with her, and often he’d end up in bed with June as if Marina were going to put two babies to bed instead of one. He used to take baths with June. When he got out of the bathtub, he’d put out his arm and his legs and ask Marina to dry him off, as if he too were a baby. Sometimes she told him he was acting like a prince, but he loved the baby. If Marina tried to discipline her, he very often would discipline Marina.
June was the one person he lived for and whom he loved. He played with her every night when he put her to bed. He played with her during the day. When he was doing exercises to practice going to Cuba, she ran after him and laughed, and they played together. She was what he lived for.
What did Marina know about his contact with the anti-Castro Cubans or some of his other clans?
Marina didn’t know everything about his life in New Orleans that summer. Lee was never gone from home very long. She noticed his absences at other cities where they had lived. [In] Dallas, he wasn’t gone long. She knew nothing about any connections he had with anti-Castro people. As far as she was concerned, and as far as she knew, he was pro-Fidel, pro-Castro’s Cuba, and that was all there was to it.
Can you tell me Lee’s views about the capitalist system and how one could change it?
He didn’t like capitalism. He thought that it exploited people. He didn’t think much about reform of capitalism; he seemed to have despaired of the political parties. Lee despaired of both the Soviet system and the American system. He felt that he was rather a special person, because he had witnessed both systems in operation. But he concluded that the most he or anyone could do to alter the capitalist system was to strike it a blow at the very top, to decapitate it. He wrote this before he shot at General Walker. He seemed to have it in mind the rest of his life.
Can you talk about this contradiction between Oswald’s personal feelings for President Kennedy and the notion of how important his death was to changing capitalism?
Lee liked Kennedy. He liked him in civil rights. He disliked him for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He told Marina that Kennedy’s father had bought him everything, had paved the way for Kennedy and helped him to become president. At the same time, he made it very clear that he wanted his own son, whom he did not yet have, to be president. But insofar as he spoke about Kennedy, it was to praise him.
He suffered, as Marina did, in the summer of 1963, over the death of the Kennedy’s baby. Both he and Marina took this very personally, and they thought that if the best doctors couldn’t save the Kennedy’s baby, then the baby they were expecting might not be born alive either.
Can you tell me about Lee’s last moments with Marina?
On the afternoon of Nov. 21, when Lee got back to the Paines’ house, he spent, Marina thought, a much longer time than usual outdoors playing with June, his daughter, and with the Paines’ son, Chris. He played out there until dark. He carried June on his shoulders, she and he reaching for the oak rings that were flying off the trees. Looking back on it, Marina thought there had been a farewell quality to his playing.
They talked. He took a shower. He tried to kiss her, she didn’t let him. He said to her that she was getting spoiled, living with Americans. … Early that evening, he asked her on three separate occasions to join him in Dallas — he would get an apartment the next day. After her third refusal, they had dinner with Ruth.
The next morning, he nearly slept through the alarm clock, and he got up reluctantly. He got dressed, and then he came over to her and he said, “Don’t bother to make breakfast for me,” which was unusual, because she never did. Then he said, “I’ve left some money on the bureau. Be sure and buy shoes for Junie and Rachel.” Then he said he would not be coming home for the weekend, because it wasn’t good for Ruth to have him there too much.
When she saw how much money he had left, she had never seen so much. She said to herself, “That must be everything he had.” It was $170. Later that night, she found something else — her wedding ring, his wedding ring, in a cup that her grandmother had given her, on the bureau.
After the assassination, why did Lee want to contact John Abt? What were Marina’s views on this?
Lee, in jail, told Marina that she had friends, that they would help her. He told her that there was someone in New York who would help him. He was counting on John Abt, lawyer for the American Communist Party, to be his lawyer. He telephoned Ruth Paine and asked her to call Abt. Marina thought, when she saw Lee in jail, she could see that he was frightened. But then she thought that he would use the trial to proclaim his ideas, and to say that what he had done was justified by history.
Can you talk about Lee’s funeral — held the same day as President Kennedy’s — and how Marina felt about Lee’s funeral?
Marina and the rest of the family were watching the Kennedy funeral in a motel. Marina wanted to keep watching it. Then they left for Rose Hill Cemetery. When they got there, they drove straight to the chapel, expecting that Lee would be buried in a religious service. But the chapel was empty. They found that Lee was just to be buried with a service at the gravesite. Reporters who were covering the funeral carried Lee’s casket in. She felt humiliated that he was denied a religious ceremony.
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