Executive editor Mimi Swartz discusses this month's cover story, "The Witness."
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texasmonthly.com: Obviously, there were many ways the magazine could have approached the fortieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Why Nellie Connally?
Mimi Swartz: Evan Smith, our editor, met with Nellie about eighteen months ago and was fascinated with her firsthand account of the assassination, which he realized most people have never heard. He thought that would make a great story.
texasmonthly.com: Was Nellie Connally anything like you were expecting her to be like? If so, how so? If not, why not?
MS: Nellie was what I thought she would be—funny, feisty, unwilling to suffer fools. Forty years ago, she wasn’t like that, though. She was much more reserved. I think she’s learned a lot from her life, and I admire that. A lot of people would have become embittered by the things she’s had to go through.
texasmonthly.com: How much research was involved with this story? How long did you work on this story?
MS: I worked on the story for a few months. The problem I encountered was this: Mrs. Connally had been interviewed countless times and had stock answers to most questions. The trick was finding a fresh way to talk about her; I didn’t want to write a story that just went over what was in her book, but to talk about her life instead. Again, she’s a wonderful model for people—she has an incredible spirit.
texasmonthly.com: In your story, you say that you were taken aback by your first visit to Nellie’s condominium. What was the first thought going through your mind when you walked in the door?
MS: My first thought going through the door of her condo was a reminder that she had been through bankruptcy. The Connallys once lived on River Oaks Boulevard and enjoyed a lifestyle that practically all but the top one percent of the population would envy. Now Nellie lives graciously, but not extravagantly.
texasmonthly.com: In your story, you allude to the fact that many people living in Texas today weren’t born when JFK was assassinated. Did that have any impact on your story? If so, how? If not, why not?
MS: I realized that there were many people under the age of forty for whom the story was entirely new. While I think of it as crucial to my history, it just isn’t to a lot of people younger than I am. It’s obvious even in the way kids’ history books treat it—my son’s Texas history book describes the assassination almost casually, in less than a paragraph. This was shocking to me, because of the repercussions it had for Dallas and all of Texas for many years to come.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this piece?
MS: My favorite story didn’t make it in, because it wasn’t germane to Nellie. It involved her daughter Sharon. Grieving over her father’s death, she took a sculpture class on advice from friends. While the teacher encouraged her to begin small, Sharon insisted she wanted to make a bust of her father, which she did, basing it on the photograph of her father featured on the cover of the August 1993 issue of Texas Monthly. That piece led to a whole new life for her as a sculptor.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
MS: The most difficult thing was making the story fresh for people my age—most of whom have read a great deal about the assassination.
texasmonthly.com: Were you surprised by anything while working on this story? If so, what?
MS: I was surprised by how fascinated younger people still are by the assassination—I thought everyone knew these stories, and they don’t.
texasmonthly.com: Was there anything you wish you would have asked Nellie that you didn’t?
MS: I can’t think of anything . . .
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
MS: Again, I’d like to say that there is much to admire in Nellie Connally’s life. She has grown into a very strong person, but she has a great sense of humor, and a great zest for life. We should all be so lucky!