Lee Harvey’s Legacy

Rachel Oswald did not kill John F. Kennedy, but for more than three decades she has struggled to make peace with the darkest day in Texas history.

The Texas Chili Parlor is a neighborhood bar without a neighborhood. Stuck in the no-man’s-land between the state capitol and the University of Texas campus, the Chili Parlor is so steeped in Austin tradition that its decision several years ago to begin offering chili with beans got coverage on the local TV news. The bar’s decor consists chiefly of scuffed wooden tables and junkyard scraps nailed to the walls—rusted license plates, cow skulls, yellowed newspaper clippings, and a hand-scrawled sign above the cash register noting that “Tipping is not a city in China.” Old Life magazine photographs used to hang on the walls, including one of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. “I don’t think anybody I worked with ever thought twice about it,” Rachel Oswald said. “You see that image everywhere; it’s easy to take it for granted. But it was still depressing, seeing my father shot every time I came to work.”

For seven years Rachel was a waitress at the Chili Parlor while she put herself through nursing school. One night at the end of her shift, she and I shared a bowl of queso, chips, and $2 Bloody Marys. I asked Rachel how many people in the bar knew who she was.

“Who I am?” she asked. “Or who my father was?”

I nodded that I appreciated the distinction.

“The people I’ve worked with the longest know. A few of the regulars.”

The late-night air had become a distinctive Texas medley of cigarette smoke and day-old chili fumes. Stevie Ray Vaughan was turned up loud on the radio. In a bar filled with pretty women, Rachel was striking enough to turn heads. She wore a purple dress from a vintage clothing store, platform shoes, and a black string choker. Even at 29, she had a tomboyish quality, and when she laughed, she seemed to be all elbows and collarbones. In conversation, Rachel could be both reserved and outgoing, and though she speaks with a slow drawl, her dark eyes, high cheeks, and thick, heavy eyebrows make it clear she is of Slavic descent. She looks a bit like Helena Bonham Carter, who, coincidentally, played her mother, Marina, in a 1993 TV movie about the Oswald family.

It is difficult to imagine what life must be like for the child of a celebrity—having a recognizable last name, a childhood in the spotlight. But imagine the life of a child fathered by a villain, a child cursed with a name like Booth or Oswald. Especially Oswald. Even now, three decades after President Kennedy’s death, the name still stirs up strong emotions—particularly in Texas. To much of the world, Texas is Dallas, the place where JFK was shot. Most Texans resent this with a passion, and many of them blame Rachel’s father.

“You know, it’s interesting if you think about it,” Rachel said, lighting a cigarette. “Probably the only other people in America who have to routinely see film images of their father being killed are the children of President Kennedy.” She blew a long stream of smoke toward the ceiling. “Kinda strange, huh?”

Audrey Marina Rachel Oswald was 33 days old when President Kennedy was killed, 35 days old when Jack Ruby killed her father. She was born in Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital, the same hospital where both Kennedy and her father were transported after being shot.

Rachel’s mother, Marina, then barely in her twenties, had arrived from Minsk, Russia, only a year earlier and spoke very little English. According to Rachel, in the months immediately after Lee’s murder, Marina, Rachel, and her two-year-old sister survived chiefly on the charity of churches in the Dallas suburb of Richardson.

I asked what it was like being named Oswald and growing up so close to Dallas.

Rachel thought for a moment. “I didn’t know my family was any different until I was about seven. One day, my mother sat my sister and me down on our big green couch and told us that the man who had raised us as our father—our stepfather, Kenneth—was not, you know, our real father, and that our real father’s name was Lee Oswald and that he had, well, that he had been accused of killing the president of the United States.” Rachel smiled. “This helped explain why our school bus was sometimes followed by news teams, why our mailbox got shot at, why kids at school would ask, ‘Did your daddy shoot the president?’ At home we rarely discussed Lee. We were just trying to be a normal family. Every once in a while my mother would say that I looked like him, that I ate like him, that my legs looked like his legs, but for the most part we just didn’t talk about it.”

I asked her what else she remembered about growing up.

“I remember that my mother was very beautiful, that she had been written up in Life magazine. When we moved to Rockwall, which was much smaller than Richardson—people there lived on farming and football—everyone in town knew my mother. She was this delicate Russian beauty, widowed by a man who shot the president. We were of interest to people. For the most part, folks were nice, but they were always whispering things. I remember that helicopters flew over my mother’s wedding to my stepfather, that it was sort of a big deal in the news.”

In 1982 a national tabloid newspaper ran an unauthorized cover story on Rachel and her sister claiming, OSWALD KIDS DON’T HAVE DOGS OR DATES. The word “Oswald” was stamped in red ink over photographs of the two girls. According to the story, Rachel was a miserable, lonely child—her dogs had been poisoned, she had never been asked out on a date, she had no friends, her family couldn’t even afford to buy albums for her record player. In truth, Rachel was a healthy, active teenager. She studied gymnastics and ballet, made good grades, was a varsity cheerleader, and was even voted most popular

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week