"Which One Are You?"
President John F. Kennedy had been dead less than an hour. J. D. Tippit, only the third Dallas policeman in a decade to die in the line of duty, was killed shortly after the President. Rumors swept the city. Dealey Plaza, the site of the presidential assassination, was in pandemonium. Dozens of witnesses sent the police scurrying in different directions in futile search of an assassin. While most police mobilized to hunt the President's killer, more than a dozen sped to Dallas's Oak Cliff, a quiet middle-class neighborhood, to search for Tippit's murderer.
At 1:46 P.M., after an abortive raid on a public library, a police dispatcher announced: "Have information a suspect just went in the Texas Theater on West Jefferson." Within minutes, more than six squad cars sealed the theater's front and rear exits. Police armed with shotguns spread into the balcony and the main floor as the lights were turned up. Only a dozen moviegoers were scattered inside the small theater. Officer M. N. McDonald began walking up the left aisle from the rear of the building, searching patrons along the way. Soon, he was near a young man in the third row from the back of the theater. McDonald stopped and ordered him to stand. The man slowly stood up, raised both hands, and then yelled, "Well, it is all over now." In the next instant, he punched McDonald in the face, sending the policeman's cap flying backward. McDonald instinctively lurched forward just as his assailant pulled a pistol from his waist. They tumbled over the seats as other police rushed to subdue the gunman. The gun's hammer clicked as the man pulled the trigger, but it did not fire.
After the suspect was handcuffed, he shouted, "I am not resisting arrest. Don't hit me anymore." The police pulled him to his feet and marched him out the theater as he yelled, "I know my rights. I want a lawyer." A crowd of nearly two hundred had gathered in front of the building, the rumor circulating that the President's assassin might have been caught. As the police exited, the crowd surged forward, screaming obscenities and crying, "Let us have him. We'll kill him! We want him!" The young man smirked and hollered back, "I protest this police brutality!" Several police formed a wedge and cut through the mob to an unmarked car. The suspect was pushed into the rear seat between two policemen while three officers packed into the front. Its red lights flashing, the car screeched away and headed downtown.
The suspect was calm. Again he declared, "I know my rights," and then asked, "What is this all about?" He was told he was under arrest for killing J. D. Tippit. He didn't look surprised. "Police officer been killed?" he asked. He was silent for a moment, and then he said, "I hear they burn for murder." Officer C. T. Walker, sitting on his right side, tried to control his temper: "You may find out." Again, the suspect smirked. "Well, they say it just takes a second to die," he said.
One of the police asked him his name. He refused to answer. They asked where he lived. Again just silence. Detective Paul Bentley reached over and pulled a wallet from the suspect's left hip pocket. "I don't know why you are treating me like this," he said. "The only thing I have done is carry a pistol into a movie."
Bentley looked inside the wallet. He called out the name: "Lee Oswald." There was no reaction. Then he found another identification with the name Alek Hidell. Again no acknowledgment. Bentley said, "I guess we are going to have to wait until we get to the station to find out who he actually is."
Shortly after 2:00 P.M., the squad car pulled into the basement of the city hall. The police told the suspect he could hide his face from the press as they entered the building. He shrugged his shoulders. "Why should I hide my face? I haven't done anything to be ashamed of."
The police ran him into an elevator and took him to a third-floor office. He was put into a small interrogation room, with several men standing guard, as they waited for the chief of homicide, Captain Will Fritz. Suddenly, another homicide detective, Gus Rose, entered the room. He had the suspect's billfold in his hand, and he pushed two plastic cards forward. "One says Lee Harvey Oswald and one says Alek Hidell. Which one are you?"
A smirk again crossed his face. "You figure it out," he said.
For the past thirty years historians, researchers, and government investigators have tried to deal with Oswald's simple challenge. Although the identity of the suspect remained in doubt for only a few more minutes at that Dallas police station, the search has continued for the answer to the broader question of who Lee Harvey Oswald was. Understanding him is the key to finding out what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Oswald was born on October 18, 1939, into a lower-middle-class family in a downtrodden New Orleans neighborhood. His father, Robert Edward Lee Oswald, died two months before his birth. His mother, Marguerite, was a domineering woman, consumed with self-pity both over the death of her husband and because she had to return to work to support Lee, his brother, Robert, and a halfbrother, John Pic, from the first of her three marriages. Marguerite played an important role in Oswald's development, and conspiracy critics cast her in a positive light. Jim Marrs, author of Crossfire, one of two books upon which the movie JFK was based, downplays Oswald's formative years: "Despite much conjecture, there is little evidence that Lee's childhood was any better or any worse than others." Anthony Summers, in his best-selling Conspiracy, quotes a relative describing Marguerite as "a woman with a lot of character and good morals, and I'm sure that what she was doing for her boys she thought was the best at the time."
The truth is quite different. Robert described his mother as "rather quarrelsome" and "not easy to get along with when she didn't get her own way." According to Robert, Marguerite tried to "dominate" and "control" the entire family, and the boys found it "difficult . . . to put up with her." John Pic developed a "hostility" toward her and felt "no motherly love." Although she wanted to rule her sons' lives, she was unable to cope with them following the death of her husband. High-strung, and failing to keep any job very long,* she committed Robert and John Pic to an orphanage. She wanted also to send Lee but he was too young to be accepted. Instead, she shuffled him between her sister and an assortment of housekeepers and baby-sitters. The temporary arrangement did not work. Marguerite had let a couple move into her home to help care for Lee, but had to fire them when she discovered they had been whipping him to control his "unmanageable" disposition. She admitted it "was difficult with Lee," juggling different jobs and homes (they moved five times before Lee was three). The instability had its effect on Oswald. Years later, in an introductory note to a manuscript, he wrote: "Lee Harvey Oswald was born in Oct 1939 in New Orleans, La. the son of a Insuraen [sic] Salesman whose early death left a far mean streak of indepence [sic] brought on by negleck [sic]."
The day after Christmas 1942, Marguerite finally placed three-year-old Lee into the orphanage, where he joined his two brothers. Nearly one hundred youngsters lived at the Bethlehem Children's Home. The atmosphere was relaxed, and Lee's older brothers watched out for him during his stay there, which was quite uneventful. In early 1944, Marguerite unexpectedly checked her sons out of the Bethlehem Home and moved to Dallas. She relocated there because of her personal interest in a local businessman, Edwin Ekdahl, whom she had met six months earlier in New Orleans. They married in May of the following year. Lee's new stepfather worked for a utility company and extensive travel was part of his job. Robert and John Pic were placed in a military boarding school and Marguerite and Lee traveled with Ekdahl. The business trips and short relocations were so extensive that Lee missed most of his first year of school, but by late October, they settled in Benbrook Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth. Just after his sixth birthday, Lee was admitted to Benbrook Common Elementary.
*She admitted in her Warren Commission testimony to holding more than a dozen jobs and being fired from half of them.
But young Oswald was no longer concerned about the frequent moves or his absence from school because he had found a friend in his stepfather. Lee's halfbrother, John Pic, recalled, "I think Lee found in him the father he never had. He had treated him real good and I am sure that Lee felt the same way. I know he did." Soon after the marriage, however, Marguerite and Ekdahl began arguing. "She wanted more money out of him," recalls Pic. "That was the basis of all arguments."* The fights increased steadily in vituperation and intensity. Ekdahl often walked out, staying at a hotel, and in the summer of 1946, Marguerite moved with Lee to Covington, Louisiana. But Ekdahl and Marguerite soon reunited. Lee was ecstatic when his stepfather moved back in, but he hated the fighting and separations. "I think Lee was a lot more sensitive than any of us realized at the time," recalled his brother, Robert.
*Marguerite was always concerned about money. After the assassination, she almost always refused to give an interview or sit for photographs unless paid. Marina, Lee's wife, said, "She has a maniaonly money, money, money." Her son John Pic said in 1964 that money was "her god."
The uncertainty in the marriage prevented Lee from ever settling into a single neighborhood and school. In September 1946, he enrolled in a new school, Covington Elementary, but was again in the first grade, because he had not completed the required work at Benbrook. After five months, Marguerite withdrew him from Covington and they moved back to Fort Worth, where Lee enrolled in his third school, the Clayton Public Elementary. He finally finished the first grade, but soon after he was registered for the second grade in the fall, they moved again. A schoolmate at Clayton, Philip Vinson, recalled that while Oswald was not a bully, he was a leader of one of three or four schoolyard gangs. Since he was a year older than his classmates, "they seemed to look up to him because he was so well built and husky . . . he was considered sort of a tough-guy type." Vinson also noted, however, that none of the boys in Oswald's gang ever played with him after school or went to his home. "I never went to his house, and I never knew anybody who did," said Vinson.
In January 1948, Ekdahl moved out permanently, and he started divorce proceedings in March. Soon after, Marguerite moved to a run-down house in a poor Fort Worth, neighborhood, adjoining railroad tracks. Lee was enrolled in another school, the Clark Elementary, his fourth. Unable to afford the tuition at military boarding school for her other two sons, Marguerite moved them in with her and Lee. Robert Oswald and John Pic described the new home as "lower-class" and "prisonlike," and they found Lee even less communicative than when they had previously left the household, often "brooding for hours" at a time. Lee had always been a quiet child. But with the constant moving, he did not easily fit in with his schoolmates and seldom made friends.
In June 1948, the bitter divorce proceedings came to trial. Lee was brought to court to testify, but refused, saying he would not know the truth from a lie. While the divorce dragged along, he stayed home alone with a pet dog, a gift from a neighbor. His brother noticed that he seemed to withdraw further into himself.
That summer, Marguerite and her sons moved once again to Benbrook, Texas. By the autumn they returned to Fort Worth, the thirteenth move since Lee's birth. He was enrolled in the third grade at Arlington Heights Elementary. With her marriage over, Marguerite now gave Lee all her attention, spoiling and protecting him. "She always wanted to let Lee have his way about everything," recalled her sister, Lillian Murret. Afraid he could be hurt in physical activities like sports, she instead encouraged gentler pursuits like tap dancing, but he preferred to stay home by himself or with her. Until he was almost eleven years of age, Lee often slept in the same bed with his mother.
According to Pic, who admittedly resented his mother more than Robert did, Marguerite's attitudes made the home atmosphere depressing. She was jealous of others, resented what they had, and constantly complained about how unfairly life treated her. "She didn't have many friends and usually the new friends she made she didn't keep very long," recalled Pic. "I remember every time we moved she always had fights with the neighbors or something or another." Pic felt so strongly about her that after the assassination he said that if Lee was guilty, then he "was aided with a little extra push from his mother in the living conditions that she presented to him." Even Lee's wife, Marina, later said that "part of the guilt" was with Marguerite, because she did not provide him the correct education, leadership, or guidance.
She did not encourage him to attend school when Lee whined that he did not like it. Instead, his mother told him he was brighter and better than other children, and reinforced his feeling that he learned more at home by reading books than from listening to his teachers. "She told me that she had trained Lee to stay in the house," Marguerite's sister, Lillian, recalled, "to stay close to home when she wasn't there; and even to run home from school and remain in the house or near the house. . . . He just got in the habit of staying alone like that." Oswald's cousin Marilyn Murret said that Marguerite thought it was better for him to stay at home alone than to "get in with other boys and do things they shouldn't do."
When Lee visited the Murrets during this period, Lillian found "he wouldn't go out and play. He would rather just stay in the house and read or something." She did not think it was healthy for him to be inside all the time, so the Murrets took him out, but immediately noticed "he didn't seem to enjoy himself." "He was obviously very unhappy," his aunt concluded.
Neighbors noticed the odd relationship between the overbearing mother and the introverted youngster. Mrs. W. H. Bell, a neighbor in Benbrook, remembered Lee as a loner who did not like to be disciplined. Myrtle Evans, a good friend of Marguerite, said she "was too close to Lee all the time." Evans said Lee was "a bookworm" even at seven years of age, and that his mother "spoiled him to death." "The way he kept to himself just wasn't normal," Evans recalled.