Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald's Assassination of John F. Kennedyby Priscilla Johnson McMillan, Joseph Finder
The inside story of Lee Harvey Oswald's path to killing John. F. Kennedy. Reissued to mark the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, Marina and Lee is an indispensable account of one of America's most traumatic events, and a classic work of narrative history. In her meticulous, at times even moment by moment, account of Oswald's progress toward the assassination, Priscilla Johnson McMillan takes us inside Oswald's fevered mind and his manic marriage. When Marina, only a few weeks after giving birth to their second child, hears of Kennedy's death and discovers that Lee's rifle is missing from the garage where it was stored, she knows that her husband has killed the President.
McMillan came to the story with a unique knowledge of the two main characters. In the 1950s she had worked for Kennedy and had known him well for a time. Later, working in Moscow as a journalist, she interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald during his attempt to defect to the Soviet Union. When she heard his name again on November 22, 1963, she said, "My God! I know that boy!" Marina and Lee was written with the complete and exclusive cooperation of Oswald's Russian-born wife, Marina Prusakova, whom McMillan debriefed for seven months in the immediate aftermath of the President's assassination and her husband's nationally televised execution at the hands of Jack Ruby.
The truth is far more compelling, and unsettling, than the most imaginative conspiracy theory. Marina and Lee is a human drama that is outrageous, heartbreaking, tragic, fascinating. . . and real.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
"More than three decades after its initial publication, Marina and Lee remains the single best book ever written about the Kennedy assassination. No one has managed to weave the psychological, political and fateful strands of this crime with the power and perspicacity displayed here by Priscilla McMillan. This is a book that will leave you deeply shaken and continually haunted." — Thomas Mallon, author of Mrs. Paine's Garage and A Book of One's Own
"McMillan achieves with art what the Warren Commission failed to do with its report. She makes us see . . . It is not at all easy to describe the power of Marina and Lee . . . It is far better than any other book about Kennedy . . . Other books about the Kennedy assassination are all smoke and no fire. Marina and Lee burns." — New York Times Book Review
"Because Priscilla McMillan is a superb narrator and a superior scholar, her book has all the power of a first-class novel, and all the austerity of excellent scholarship. It is even more than that. It answers . . . the questions: Did Lee Harvey Oswald murder John Kennedy, was he alone in the act, and why did he do it? . . . The answers are all there, and they all make sense." — Chicago Tribune
"McMillan has done us the service of pointing out just how deeply the enemy lives within us. One closes her book pondering the odds that America has a sociological victim like Oswald on every block. Compared to this, the conspiracy question looks incidental. The question is not how many assassins can dance on the head of a pin, but what makes one dance, given a particularly ugly set of human circumstances at birth?" — The New Republic
“Fully as persuasive as the conspiracy lore that has preceded it…[McMillan] has a novelist’s sense of when to dramatize, through dialogue and the use of exact detail, the crucial twists and turns of domestic life . . . Priscilla McMillan’s extraordinary book makes the necessary and subtle connection between private frailties and their power to change the history of the world.” — The Atlantic Monthly
“Richly detailed and absorbing….Marina and Lee may be the closest we will ever get to understanding the mind of John F. Kennedy’s assassin.” — Newsday
“A fascinating and richly detailed portrait of the man involved in one of the most terrible moments in American history.” — The Springfield News-Leader
“A woman of intelligence, compassion and understanding, McMillan has written a magnificent book about a man, who, as the world views such things, deserves to be hated. Yet, without shifting anything from the tragedy or placing blame anywhere, she brings insights to the Oswalds and others involved . . . this book on Oswald may be the best of all . . . There’s a lot of heart —Lee’s, Marina’s and Priscilla’s — in it.” — The Charlotte Observer
“Pulls at the emotions in such a way as to leave the intellect in turmoil.” — Asbury Park Evening Press
“McMillan has skillfully and vividly captured Lee Harvey Oswald, the man.” — The Sacramento Bee
“The first comprehensive work of its type that attempts to deal with the life and thoughts of the alleged assassin . . . a fascinating book, highly readable, and very frankly hard to put down . . . entertaining, informative, well written and well documented.” — The State (Columbia, SC)
“The finest, most insightful, and most carefully researched study of Oswald to date . . . To read Marina and Lee is to be awash in alternate waves of depression and fascination while recognizing that powerful intelligence has reconstructed one of the truly sad and terrible stories of our time.” — The Providence Journal
“Not only admirable as a piece of writing but a valuable historical document . . . The fruit of all [McMillan’s] devoted labor reads almost like a Dostoyevsky novel which treads the threshold of insanity . . . a deeply impressive book, penetrating the smokescreen of argument and speculation . . . the writing is stamped on every page with the sense of truth.” — The Age
“An eminently human book” — The Cleveland Press
“A painstakingly detailed piece of work, a marvel of research” — SoHo Weekly News
“Marina and Lee, one of the finest books yet written about a still painful subject, stands as a tragic account of a relationship ultimately destroyed by politics. It is required reading for anyone interested in what went on in the mind of the man accused of murdering a president.” — The Milwaukee Journal
“Not likely to be surpassed . . . a compelling story told with a mature authority. Without detracting from the horror of the act, it forces us to confront the human face of the assassin.” — New York Post
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Marina and Lee
The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald's Assassination of John F. Kennedy
By Priscilla Johnson McMillan
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2013 Priscilla Johnson McMillan
All rights reserved.
In the predawn hours of Sunday, June 22, 1941, the dive bombers of Adolf Hitler swept down savagely on the sleepy, utterly unprepared Soviet fortress at Brest, on the border between Russia and Poland. So, abruptly, the war began, and for millions of men and women living in Russia at that time, as well as for millions yet unborn, life was destined to become the sprawling panorama of tragic suffering that is the shape of the country itself. Countless thousands were swallowed up as Hitler's greedy divisions pounded across the plains and marshlands of western Russia. In the four cold, hungry, disease-wracked years that followed, thousands more were caught at random, seized and spun in the cyclone of war. For those who survived, life was never to be the same again.
A few months before the war began, Klavdia Prusakova, a twenty-three-year-old laboratory worker in Leningrad, found herself in a classic predicament. She was pregnant and unable, for reasons that are obscure to this day, to marry the father of her child. She packed up her bags that spring, said goodbye to the uncle whose apartment had sheltered her, and hurried home to her mother in Archangel. She found work in the nearby village of Molotovsk (now Severodvinsk) on the White Sea, and there, on July 17, 1941, two months prematurely and less than a month after the outbreak of the war, Klavdia gave birth to a girl weighing little over 2 pounds. Miraculously, the child survived, and when the doctors pronounced her strong enough, Klavdia bundled the baby up and took her the 30 miles to her mother's apartment in Archangel. That apartment was to be the child's home until she was almost six years old.
The mistress of the apartment was the baby's grandmother, Tatyana Yakovlevna Prusakova, a member of the former landowning class and a straitlaced woman of the old school who was steeped in the religious values of the Russian provinces. The child herself never learned exactly the circumstances in which she happened to be conceived. Perhaps it was an age-old story of seduction. But perhaps, as the child herself hopes, it was one of the innumerable sad stories of Russian life in the 1930s and early 1940s — purges, the Finnish war, the conflict with Germany, a time when men frequently vanished into the night as victims of political disfavor. Whatever the circumstances of Klavdia's pregnancy may have been, Tatyana Yakovlevna found it in her heart to forgive her favorite daughter. She took the baby and consented to bring it up. But first, she insisted on a christening. Religious observances of any kind were frowned on, if not actually forbidden, by Stalin himself. But Tatyana Yakovlevna, as usual, had her way. At the age of two months the child was christened in the living room of her apartment by a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church. She was immersed in warm water in the family's most treasured ornament, a bowl of green porcelain and mother-of-pearl. The child was named Marina.
Tatyana Yakovlevna was apparently glad to have a child to take care of. The war had scattered her large family to the four winds. Her husband Vasily Prusakov, a lanky, mustachioed man, had worked for a British shipping company before 1917. So valued were his services that his employers had offered to move the whole family to London to escape the Revolution. But Tatyana had flatly refused to leave Russia, and Vasily was now the captain of a Soviet commercial vessel plying the northern seas and was seldom home. One of their seven children, the youngest son Nikolai, had gone straight to the army from school and had been killed on the Leningrad front soon after the war broke out. For years Tatyana refused to admit that he was dead and expected him to return at any moment.
Klavdia went back to her job in Molotovsk, and Marina was left in her grandmother's care. The only other member of the household was Klavdia's sister Lyuba, a flirtatious young woman who worked for a restaurant trust. Tatyana Yakovlevna disapproved of Lyuba, whom she considered too easily deceived by men. With a shake of her head, she sometimes called her "my wayward daughter" or "my bad girl." Free to devote her formidable energies to bringing up her granddaughter, Tatyana Yakovlevna was determined that Marina would be a good girl.
In spite of the war, it was a peaceful, even privileged home. Marina, her grandmother, and her Aunt Lyuba shared a three-room apartment with a kitchen and a bath. Marina remembers it, even during Archangel's endless Artic winter, as a place filled with warmth andsunshine, with rubber plants, geraniums, flowering tearoses, and mimosa. There was a row of copper pots in the kitchen and a heavy brass samovar, polished to shine like gold.
Then there was Tatyana Yakovlevna herself, an altogether commanding presence. Tall and dark-haired still, clad in a long dress with flowers embroidered on the front, she moved unhurriedly through the day's tasks, propelled by some invisible list of chores in her head. Every morning, no matter how cold it was outside, she threw open the windows to air out the apartment. Each day she scrubbed the floors, did the washing, and polished the copper, brass, and silver. She pressed clothes the old-fashioned way, with hot coals inside a heavy iron. She made clothing and bed linen on an old Singer sewing machine purchased before the 1917 Revolution when the company had a factory in Leningrad.
If Tatyana Yakovlevna was scrupulous keeping the apartment clean, she was no less scrupulous about her grandchild. Every night she heated water on the stove, bathed her, and then tucked her into the bed the two of them shared in the living room. Marina said her prayers, and the last sight she saw as she dropped off to sleep was her grandmother sitting by the samovar, stirring jam into her evening tea.
In spite of unyielding ways that made her a figure of awe to nearly everyone, Tatyana Yakovlevna bent a little when it came to Marina, whom she called "little daughter" or "little granddaughter." Marina was said to be her favorite. Marina, for her part, admired her grandmother's pale skin and her unvarying fragrance of kindling and soap and perfume. She loved nestling next to her in bed at night. "Grandma," she would say, "you smell so sweet. May I kiss you?" Her grandmother never turned her away.
Their apartment building, a sprawling L-shaped structure of whitewashed stucco close to the heart of Archangel, had a courtyard to play in. Marina was also allowed to play in a little park across the street where there was a merry-go-round and a zoo with seals cavorting in a fountain, rabbits, foxes, a wolf, and a big brown bear. As she grew older, she got to know more of Archangel. She became aware of cobblestone streets and of sidewalks paved, after the fashion of the cities of the Russian north, with wood. She became familiar with the smell of birches — the birches of the park, the birches of the woods outside the city, and, above all, the birch smell the sidewalks gave off whenever they were wet with rain. On the outskirts of the town there were wooden houses so close to the edge of the sea that they had to be set on stilts. Beyond the town lay frozen Arctic tundra and thick virgin forest where wolves and bears had their lairs.
Archangel was a busy port in wartime, one of the principal cities in Russia where the Allies could land supplies. Unlike almost any other provincial Soviet city at the time, Archangel was filled with sailors and foreigners from every nation. There were Englishmen, Chinese, and Americans, even Negroes, whom few Russians had ever seen. With so many foreigners, with foreign music and foreign cloth and foreign canned goods to buy and sell, Archangel had a muffled wartime lilt and, in its own gray, Soviet way, a little of the feel of an icebound honky-tonk town.
All of this spelled privilege. One of Marina's early recollections, for example, is of eating American Spam. Another is of the green-and-red-striped peppermint sticks that arrived in a tin box at intervals from her Aunt Taisya, an accountant who traveled back and forth on a Soviet ship between Russia and America. Each time a new box came, Marina thought: "What a lucky country!" To her, America was like a big box of candies. Or a gingerbread house in the forest, filled with good things to eat while Russia had almost nothing.
In spite of the terrible wartime shortages, Marina never went hungry, for her grandmother was an ingenious cook in the old Russian style, skilled at making the most of fresh fish, and mushrooms and berries from the outlying forests. Nor did Marina have to wear the shabby, somber ready-made clothes that were all the stores of Archangel had to offer. Her grandmother sewed her full smock dresses and a dark blue coat with a white fur collar and cap. She also had a half-dozen bright, flowered dresses bought by her Aunt Taisya in America.
Marina's clothes nearly brought her to grief. One day she was playing alone in the park when a strange woman promised her a mechanical toy if she would come with her. Marina trotted after her, but on the street she became frightened and burst into tears. A passerby noticed her, managed to get her away from the woman, and took her home by the hand. When Tatyana Yakovlevna heard what had happened, she told Marina that she must never listen to the stories strangers told. So difficult were conditions during the war that there were people who roamed the streets kidnapping children for their clothes. They would sell the clothing and leave the children to starve in the woods.
As World War II came to an end in 1945, Marina's life began to change. It is difficult to fix with precision the sequence in which hitherto unknown relatives appeared in the Archangel apartment. But the sheltered life Marina had known with her grandmother became less tranquil, and the cast of characters whose lives touched her own grew larger.
One of those who appeared was Alexander Medvedev, the man whom Marina's mother had married during the war. So far as is known, they had met in Leningrad before the war. But the romance occurred afterward, when Marina was a baby, in a hospital somewhere in western Russia where Alexander was a wounded soldier and Klavdia a laboratory worker. They were married in September 1942, when Marina was fourteen months old. Alexander Medvedev, then, was Marina's stepfather. She was told, however, that he was her real father, who had been away at the front.
She met him for the first time in the early spring when she was not yet four years old. She remembers it as if it were a fairy tale. Early one morning she was on her way to the park to ride on the merry-go-round. But when she got there the gate was still locked, and she reached up as far as she could, trying to undo the latch from inside. Suddenly a stranger appeared. He had on civilian clothes and was carrying a suitcase. "Will you open the gate for me, please?" Marina asked.
"Do you want to get in very much?" the man said.
"Yes!" she replied.
"And what will you do there?" he asked.
"I want to ride on the merry-go-round," Marina said.
"Where do you live?"
"In that house," Marina said, pointing to the apartment building.
"What is your name?"
"And is your mother called Klava?"
"Where is your papa?" the man said.
"Papa's at the front," Marina replied. "He's coming home soon."
"Do you want him to come very much?"
"Very much," Marina said.
"Well," the man said, "he's here."
Marina buried herself in his arms and kissed him. Then she raced across the street to the courtyard of her building shouting: "Papa's here! Papa's here!" She was overjoyed to see her father at last. He had dark hair and blue eyes, and she thought he was wonderfully handsome. He had been wounded in the leg by a bullet, and he showed Marina the scar and the place where his toe was missing. She lifted her dress and showed him her scar that had been left by a childhood infection.
Alexander Medvedev did not stay in Archangel long. About a month later, he vanished to Murmansk, taking Marina's mother with him. Marina was left behind, but a short time later her grandfather, Vasily Prusakov, came home from sea for the last time, fatally ill with cancer of the throat, and Marina went to stay in Murmansk.
Her recollection of this first visit alone with her mother and stepfather is a happy one. Marina thought that her mother, with her soft, brown hair and huge, sad green eyes, was the most beautiful person alive. She remembers the leather smell of Alexander Medvedev's windbreaker as he took her, perched on his shoulders, coasting downhill on a toboggan. She remembers that he warmed her cot with an electric heater before she went to bed at night and wrapped her up in a scarf whenever she went outdoors to shield her face from the wind.
On September 3, 1945, Klavdia gave birth to a son, Pyotr (called Petya) Medvedev. While her husband remained in Murmansk, Klavdia returned to her mother's apartment in Archangel, bringing Marina and the new baby with her. Pyotr was christened, as Marina had been, in Tatyana Yakovlevna's green porcelain bowl. Marina no longer had her grandmother all to herself.
Soon other members of the family began to appear. In December 1945, Tatyana Yakovlevna's oldest son, Ilya, came back from the war, his tour of duty with the Soviet army in Germany at an end. Tall, slender, about thirty-seven years old, with a tired smile and a face like a kindly eagle, he brought candy and toys and dresses from Germany. He also brought his wife Valya, a jolly, good-looking woman in her early twenties.
Marina's grandmother did not approve of Valya. Tatyana Yakovlevna considered her son a paragon, and pretty and kindhearted as Valya was, Tatyana thought she was too simple, too poorly educated — in short, not good enough for Ilya. And so she was treated as an inferior member of the household. She scrubbed floors and polished copper and did as she was told. But she always found time to sing to Marina, tell her stories, and help her draw pictures. Despite his mother's attitude, Ilya was devoted to his wife, and they were destined to play an important role in Marina's life later on.
With so many of the family at home, the three-room apartment was very crowded. Marina still slept with her grandmother in the living room, Aunt Lyuba was alone in the second room, while the third was jammed with Klavdia and Petya in one bed, and Ilya and Valya in the other. Privacy was impossible, and disagreements inevitable. But there was no question of who had the final say. When Valya read aloud to the family in the evenings, the only writers Tatyana Yakovlevna consented to hear were pre-Revolutionary writers such as Pushkin, Lermontov, and Leo Tolstoy. What she really wanted was to have the same passages in War and Peace read aloud to her again and again. She refused to have the names of Soviet writers even mentioned in her presence.
Tatyana Yakovlevna hated everything modern and called airplanes "the devil's own handiwork." She had a lofty contempt for her country's Communist overlords and nursed a certain nostalgia for the czar and his family. "Poor souls," she said. "The brutes killed them all. For nothing. They turned everything upside down. What for? It's all for the worse! It was better under the czar." With a majestic disdain for the all-powerful Stalin, she called him a "demon let loose on earth" and could never hear his name without giving a little spit of derision.
She often lost patience with her son Ilya, a rising member of the Communist Party. Still, she respected his convictions and his party membership, remarking that Ilya alone knew what was best for him. But when it came to her own old-fashioned ideas and religious beliefs, she would yield no quarter, not even to her favorite son. "I'm an old woman," she would say. "It's too late to make me over. You young people may live any way you please. But leave me in peace." She would not give up her Bible, her visits from the black-bearded Orthodox priests, nor her icons and the holy lamp that burned night and day in a special corner of the apartment where they were only too likely to be noticed by Ilya's Communist Party friends.
Tatyana Yakovlevna always had time for her granddaughter. She was a stern disciplinarian, but she called Marina a "genius" and a "marvel of intelligence." She took her to church and, like so many Russian grandmothers, kept her at home long past the age when most children were in kindergarten. She did not want her granddaughter subjected to the influence of the Soviet system a single moment before the age of seven, when it became legally imperative that she go to school.
Many years later, her Aunt Valya told Marina that she had been "spoiled" by her grandmother. It was true. As early as Marina can remember, her grandmother had made her feel special. And as long as she, her grandmother, and her Aunt Lyuba were the only ones who lived there, she felt that she was the center of affection in the household and had no sense of deprivation at its incompleteness.
Excerpted from Marina and Lee by Priscilla Johnson McMillan. Copyright © 2013 Priscilla Johnson McMillan. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Priscilla Johnson McMillan graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1950 and received a master's degree in Russian Studies from Harvard-Radcliffe. In 1953 she went to work for Senator John. F. Kennedy. In late 1959, she was working as a reporter in Moscow when she interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald, who was trying to defect to the Soviet Union. When JFK was assassinated in Dallas and it was reported that Oswald had been arrested, her first thought was, "My God, I know that boy." In 1964 she befriended Marina Oswald and spent many months at her side, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, in order to gather the primary source material that would become the foundation for her magisterial book. She would spend another 13 years researching and writing before first publishing Marina and Lee in 1977. She received a MacArthur grant in research and writing for work on her next book, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (Viking, 2005).
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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I have read just about every conspiracy book re JFK assassination book out there, and was convinced The Warren Commission was wrong. After reading Marina and Lee, I now believe LHO was the lone shooter. It is a must read if you want to know more about this hugh event.