Living with Oswald

Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy
By Thomas Mallon. Pantheon, 224 pages, $22.00

Why did Mrs. Ruth Paine of Irving, Texas, make the notation "LHO purchase of rifle" on the March 1963 page of her Hallmark pocket calendar? Soon enough, everyone would find out that LHO was Lee Harvey Oswald. But how and why would an unassuming mother of two young children in a Dallas suburb know, eight months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, that Oswald had purchased a rifle?

Could she have been in on the plot? Consider the incriminating evidence: In the spring and fall of 1963, she gave free room and board to Oswald's Russian-born wife, Marina. She made the crucial phone call that helped the almost unemployable Oswald get a job at the Texas School Book Depository warehouse. It was her garage that stored LHO's Mannlicher-Carcano rifle until the morning of November 22. And after the fateful shots rang out from the sixth floor of the warehouse that day, and after police caught up with Oswald hours later hiding in the Texas Theatre and then traced their way to the Paine house in Irving, hadn't Ruth Paine greeted the officers by saying, "Come in, we've been expecting you"?

Imagine how it must have looked that November afternoon to the Dallas County sheriff's officers as they drove Ruth Paine and Marina Oswald to the station. It was too soon to know whether Lee Oswald had anything to do with the shooting of the president, but he seemed like a man on the run: He had killed a Dallas patrolman shortly after noon, before rushing into the theater. And now they had discovered that Oswald's wife was Russian. Top federal authorities already knew that Lee also had lived in the Soviet Union. On the ride to the station, an officer turned to Paine and asked her directly, "Are you a Communist?" She denied it. Then, translating the question for Marina, Ruth began speaking in Russian!

Who dares not to call it conspiracy?

Anyone, answers Thomas Mallon in Mrs. Paine's Garage, who takes the time to get to know Ruth Paine. Mallon gives us a portrait of an honest woman, a Quaker-inspired pacifist who was, and is, dedicated to improving the world around her. A retired schoolteacher in Florida by the time Mallon began spending time with her (in 1999 and 2000), Paine comes across as someone whose clear conscience is the one thing that gave her strength to bear up through the investigations, accusations, and recriminations that came out of the death of the president. "I think of people this kind of catastrophic event could happen to, I'm probably better off than most," she tells Mallon, "because I feel the world is a kindly place and it'll treat me okay, that there may be chaos around, but I'll come out okay."

And she did. Her cooperative attitude from the earliest days of the investigation resulted in her quickly being released from suspicion by Dallas authorities, the FBI, and, later, the Warren Commission, which made her the principal witness (with her testimony taking up more pages than anyone else's) in establishing the role of Oswald in the assassination. The questions about her own activities, in fact, were easily answered. She had given Marina Oswald a room in her house partly out of a desire for the companionship of another young mother in difficult circumstances and partly as a way of learning a foreign language. She had made that notation for March 1963 after the facts about Oswald's activities became public, as she went back and tried to establish a timeline for the events she had indirectly been a party to. She was unaware that a rifle wrapped in a green blanket was among Oswald's possessions in her garage. And she did not say to the Dallas sheriff's officers, "Come in, we've been expecting you." It hadn't yet occurred to her that the assassination she had heard about on television earlier that day could have anything to do with the morose and shiftless husband of her new Russian friend.

It isn't primarily exoneration that Mallon is concerned with, though. Only the most suspicious of conspiracy theorists actually think that the Paines were in on the plot. (They are out there, of course. According to Mallon, one assassination "researcher" said at a recent convention: "There's still a lot more work to be done" on the Paines. If one believes that the CIA and the FBI were complicit in the killing, then it's a short jump to believing that authorities have "protected" the Paines from being exposed.) What drew Mallon to the story was his desire to understand how it felt for an ordinary American such as Ruth Paine to be swept up in such a spectacular and mysterious political crime.

The way bystanders get pulled into historical events is a theme that Mallon has previously explored in novels (he is the author of Henry and Clara and Dewey Defeats Truman, among others); and he reports that Paine "had been on my mind, in one way or another, for thirty years," since he read a story in the newspaper about her in 1963, when he was 12. So here is Ruth's story, told for the first time at book length. We learn of her upbringing, her family history, her deep feeling for Marina Oswald and her despondence when Marina cut off the friendship after the assassination, and her recollections of the worst moments in her life and the way she has lived with them.

Clearly, Mallon was touched by Paine's Quakerly benevolence, and he finds it heartbreaking that she ever crossed paths with the Oswalds -- a family that, from all evidence, didn't deserve her. It wasn't just the delusional unbalance of Lee or the coldness of Marina that beset her, but (after the assassination) the unhinged pettiness of Oswald's mother, Marguerite, and the suspiciousness of Oswald's brother Robert. "None of the Oswalds . . . had been much equipped by their own experience to understand a vessel of disinterested kindness like Ruth Paine," Mallon writes.

It's also clear that characters such as Paine don't come alive on the page in quite the way characters in a good novel do. Mallon hints at a kind of quirkiness about Paine that other writers have noticed, but somehow she never seems to emerge as a fully developed person in all her complexity. One suspects that she is, in fact, not a complex person and that Mallon found in this case that truth is duller than fiction.

Though he finds Ruth Paine blameless, he takes a different tack with Ruth's husband, Michael. The Paines were in the midst of an amicable divorce at the time of the assassination, and for a while after the event they reconciled. Michael Paine, now living in Massachusetts, faced a harder line of questioning when Mallon caught up with him. It turns out that Michael had admitted in a 1993 documentary that months before the killing of the president, he had seen the famous picture of Lee Oswald holding up a rifle with two radical newspapers. Yet he had not told Ruth back then about the evidence that Oswald owned a weapon.

Mallon attributes this momentous failing to Michael's passivity, which is plausible, but then goes on to implicate Michael's familial roots in New England, which supposedly gave him a live-and-let-live "worldview and sensibility." Sometimes, Mallon speculates, "a refusal to think the worst of people is precisely what brings it out in them." Leaving aside the dubious regional theory (one could also argue that a typical New Englander would react more strongly against gun ownership than any Texan would have), the tone in the section about Michael is discordant. Both Paines were guilty of a lack of vigilance; but even these many years later, Americans are not good at rooting out unimaginably devious plotters. If it is unfair to torment Ruth Paine with "what ifs," the same ought to hold true for her husband, who, after all, is not the one who brought the Oswalds into their lives.

Nevertheless, Mallon is a writer with an interesting mind, and he makes good points about the banality of evil and the enduring "paranoid style in American politics" when it comes to the Kennedy assassination. Almost 40 years later, conspiracy theories still captivate us, especially "in the danker precincts of the Web, where everything is, literally, linked." And in today's media culture, conspiracies make for the best entertainment value, as Oliver Stone demonstrated with the movie JFK. What Mallon has contributed is an anti-conspiracy theory. Facts are put into context and things add up. Sometimes life is ordinary even in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

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