Is It a Conspiracy?
Writer Thomas Mallon talks about his new book and his fascination with presidential assassinations.
THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS LATER, the Kennedy assassination continues to garner continual interest both in Texas and beyond. One of the newest offerings to shed light on the events of November 1963 is Thomas Mallon’s book, Mrs. Paine’s Garage (Pantheon Books, 2002).
Published this month, the book chronicles the intertwined life and activities of the Oswald family and their well-meaning friend Ruth Paine. The book follows Mrs. Paine before the assassination as she helped the Oswald’s, specifically Marina and the children, and beyond—through the years following the killing as she testifies before the Warren Commission regarding her relationship with the Oswald family and as she gradually distances herself from the infamous event throughout her life.
Mallon also spends time exploring the current trend, fueled largely by the Internet, of conspiracy theories regarding Kennedy’s death. The author is not new to the assassination genre as his first major work focused on President Lincoln’s killing.
texasmonthly.com: Of the various characters in the grand scope of the Kennedy assassination, why Ruth Paine?
Thomas Mallon: I’ve long been interested in the role of “minor characters” in major events. This has been the focus of a lot of the fiction and nonfiction I’ve written. The first article of any size that I published, more than twenty years ago, traced the life of an office boy who testified at the trials of Oscar Wilde. My best-known book remains Henry and Clara, a novel about the couple who were with the Lincolns at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Seeing great events from the perspective of non-famous, accidental participants gives you a very different view of those events—oblique, but intimate. And one that inevitably leads you to consider the role of fate. Ruth Paine’s position seemed uniquely sad to me. She had tried, honestly and hard, to be helpful to Lee and Marina Oswald. Then his villainy pushed her into the glare of this terrible catastrophe. She endured a level of media attention, investigation, and suspicion that could have crippled a weaker person. How she survived the experience interested me as much as anything else.
texasmonthly.com: You have now written two works regarding presidential assassinations. Has the subject always interested you? And will you do a future project focusing on another assassination or attempt?
TM: I promise you that Mrs. Paine’s Garage is my last word on this subject. But the Kennedy and Lincoln killings have always been linked, not just in my mind. Lists of coincidences have been drawn up almost since November 22, 1963. (Both shot on a Friday, both succeeded by men named Johnson, etc.) Kennedy’s murder occurred in the middle of the Civil War centenary commemorations, when I was twelve years old. I remember that on the closet door in my bedroom I had some little pictures of the war’s epic moments. The last one showed the box at Ford’s Theatre. I’m sure I looked at it on the night John Kennedy was murdered.
texasmonthly.com: Some of Mrs. Paine’s loneliness and possible unhappiness seems to have come from being in Texas. Do you think Texas shaped or changed Ruth at all? For better or worse?
TM: Ruth Paine’s first years in Texas were very lonely and, I think, emotionally taxing. (Her ex-husband, Michael, told me, “I don’t think I ever adjusted,” when he and I spoke about his time in the state.) But I would have to say, apart from geography, that even the trauma of the assassination, which divided Ruth’s life into a kind of before and after, did not alter the basic parts of her personality. I think there’s something irreducible about her.
texasmonthly.com: Do you feel the general Texas mind-set—socially, politically, and religiously—that was the opposite of Mrs. Paine’s caused her to instinctively want to assist the Oswalds and in many ways protect Marina?
TM: Quite possibly. Ruth Paine already had a well-developed inclination to assist the underdog and the outsider, but a sense of herself as an outsider would naturally enough have nourished a sense of solidarity with Marina, since this new friend was also struggling with a difficult marriage and was in even more alien territory than Ruth.
texasmonthly.com: Did this also cause her to maybe minimize some of the “warning” signs that she observed in Lee Harvey Oswald? Was she afraid of losing her friend Marina and the comfort and happiness it brought her?
TM: I think Ruth’s natural preference to concentrate on the good in somebody may have blunted her perception of Oswald’s dangerous side. Even so, she didn’t much like him, and one must remember that he took pains to hide his dark behavior and aspirations from her. In the last weeks before the assassination, she became more aware of his instability.
texasmonthly.com: Would Mrs. Paine—and her actions—been viewed differently had the assassination not occurred in Texas?
TM: Oh, yes. Dallas in 1963 was about as uncongenial a place for her, politically and spiritually, as any I can imagine. Ruth and Michael Paine’s behavior would have appeared far less unusual in places like Cambridge or Berkeley—or, for that matter, some parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Ruth had spent much of her life prior to Texas.
texasmonthly.com: In your interviews with her, so many years later, Mrs. Paine chooses to easily dismiss or gloss over circumstances and occurrences that seemed quite obvious at the time. For instance, she quickly denies any sort of romantic feelings for Marina Oswald that, to the reader seemed very likely, if not obvious, in her frantic correspondence. Is she re-constructing her feelings or emotions and hiding them behind a haze of benevolence to avoid the difficulty of such emotions? Given her background, her education and beliefs, the reader finds it hard to believe that she is either as simple or as naive as she herself suggests.
TM: I don’t think Ruth was ever duplicitous with the authorities, but I do believe there were elements of genuine naiveté—and perhaps denial—in her makeup and behavior. She would concede some of this herself. Readers can draw their own conclusions from her correspondence with Marina, which is quoted pretty extensively. But I would argue to them that people were more innocent and less sophisticated about some things—including themselves—in those long-ago days. The great anachronistic danger for anyone writing historical fiction—my normal genre—is that you’re more likely to make important mistakes not over, say, having somebody use a product that wasn’t available in the year the story is set, but in having them feel and think in ways not natural or normal for the times. A mistake of that sort will throw the story off in a much more fundamental way. It’s similar with actual history: We can misperceive it through our own, contemporary lenses.
texasmonthly.com: One of the most interesting aspects of the book was your investigation and discussion of the Lone Nutter versus the Conspiracy Theorists. After researching and writing this book, which side of the argument do you tend to find yourself on?
TM: I was a confirmed Lone Nutter when I started the project; I remain one today.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most enjoyable or rewarding part of the experience?
TM: There’s still, even almost forty years later, so much sorrow and craziness clinging to this subject. I’m not sure I enjoyed much of it at all. Probably the time I spent by myself in the National Archives was the most pleasant, if that doesn’t sound too macabre. I’m very aware that the book will anger or disappoint all sorts of people—there’s no way around that.
texasmonthly.com: Do you plan to write any more books centering on Texas?
TM: I’ve got no plans for another book set in Texas, though I sometimes still toy with writing a novel about the year I spent teaching in Lubbock back in the late seventies. That’s a time I now regard with great affection (I made several lifelong friends in the space of nine months), but this would have to be a comic novel with its hapless, fish-out-of-water hero. A few years ago I reread my diaries from that time (and published a little selection of them in The American Scholar). The chief local political excitement was a congressional campaign between a Texas Tech graduate named Kent Hance, and a young, unknown underdog named George W. Bush.
texasmonthly.com: What project are you working on next?
TM: I’m now at work on a novel called Bandbox, a comedy about the New York magazine industry in the twenties. I’m about a quarter of the way through it, and doubt it will have any Texas angle. But the specific setting is 1928, and the Democrats did have their convention in Houston that year, and since the magazine I’m writing about does cover politics as well as men’s fashions, well, you never know.