ON NOVEMBER 22, 1963—THE FATEFUL DAY that shook the world, the day that caused Walter Cronkite to shed a tear on national television, the day that belied Nellie Connally’s encouraging words, “You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr. President,” the day that gave Oliver Stone an idea for a screenplay—I was a freshman at the University of Texas, sleeping off a beer party from the night before. Indeed, I slept through the assassination of John F. Kennedy like a bad dream and, upon waking, retained one seemingly nonsensical phrase: “Texas Cookbook Suppository.”
It was only later, once I’d sobered up, that I realized I’d been sleeping not only through history class but history itself. I’d also slept through anthropology class, where I’d received some rather caustic remarks from my red-bearded professor for a humorous monograph I’d written on the Flathead Indians of Montana. I’d gotten an A on the paper, along with the comment, “Your style has got to go.” But I realized that he was wrong. Style is everything in this world. JFK’s style made him who he was. Even dead, he had a lingering charisma that caused me to join the Peace Corps. Yet it was the style of another man in Dallas that was to change my life, I now believe, even more profoundly. I’m referring, of course, to that patriot, that hero, that villain, that famously flamboyant scoundrel, Jack Ruby.
Like the first real cowboy spotted by a child, Ruby made an indelible impression upon my youthful consciousness. He was the first Texas Jewboy I ever saw. There he stood, like a good cowboy, like a good Jew, wearing his hat indoors, shooting the bad guy who’d killed the president and doing it right there on live TV. Never mind that the bad guy had yet to be indicted or convicted; never mind that he was a captive in handcuffs carefully “guarded” by the Dallas cops. Those are mere details relegated to the footnotes and footprints of history. Ruby had done what every good God-fearing, red-blooded American had wished he could do. And he was one of our boys!
Ten years later, in 1973, with Ruby still in mind as a spiritual role model, I formed the band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, which would traverse the width and breadth of the land, celebrated, castigated, and one night nearly castrated after a show in Nacogdoches. None of it would have happened, I feel sure, without the influence of Jack Ruby, that bastard child of twin cultures, death-bound and desperately determined to leave his mark on the world. While many saw Ruby as a caricature or a buffoon, I saw in him the perfect blending of East and West—the Jew, forever seeking the freedom to be who he was, and the cowboy, forever craving that same metaphysical elbow room. I, perhaps naively, perceived him as a member of two lost tribes, each a vanishing breed, each blessed, cursed, and chosen to wander.
In the days and months that followed the assassination, as Ruby languished in jail, the world learned more about this vigilante visionary, this angst-ridden avenging angel. Ruby, it emerged, was indubitably an interesting customer. He owned a strip club in which the girls adored him and in which he would periodically punch out unruly patrons. This cowboy exuberance was invariably followed by Jewish guilt. Josh Alan Friedman, a guitar virtuoso who is as close to a biographer as Ruby probably has, notes that Jack was known to pay medical and dental bills for his punch-out victims and offer them free patronage at his strip club. With Lee Harvey Oswald, however, this beneficence was not in evidence. According to Friedman, Ruby was utterly without remorse over Oswald’s death, delighting in the bags of fan mail he received in his prison cell.
In time the mail petered out and, not long after that, so did Ruby. He died a bitter man, possibly the last living piece in a puzzle only God or Agatha Christie could have created. I didn’t really blame Ruby for being somewhat bitter. The way I saw it, he had actually accomplished something in killing Oswald. He’d helped one neurotic Jew, namely myself, come up with a pretty good name for his band.
Years after Ruby had gone to that grassy knoll in the sky, my friend Mickey Raphael, who plays blues harp with Willie Nelson, tried to get a gig at Jack’s old strip club. At the time, Mickey had a jug band, and though he found the place to be redolent of Ruby’s spirit, he didn’t get the gig. “I thought you guys liked jugs,” Mickey told the manager.
Thus is the legacy of one little man determined to take the law into his own little hand. And so they will go together into history, a pair of Jacks, one dealt a fatal blow in the prime of his life, the other dealt from the bottom of the deck; one remembered with the passion of an eternal flame, the other all but forgotten. Friedman notes that Ruby wept for Kennedy. Chet Flippo, in his definitive book Your Cheatin’ Heart, tells of Ruby’s friendship and loyalty a decade earlier toward another one of life’s great death-bound passengers, Hank Williams. Ruby, according to Flippo, was one of the last promoters to continue to book Hank as the legend drunkenly, tragically struggled to get out of this world alive. He was also one of the few human beings on the planet who knew Hank Williams and spoke Yiddish.
Was Ruby a slightly weather-beaten patriotic hero? Was he a sleazeball with a heart of gold? Was he, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, just another Joseph, following a star, trying to find a manger in Dallas? My old pal Vaughn Meader, who in the early sixties recorded the hugely successful The First Family album satirizing JFK, probably expressed it best. After flying for most of that tragic day, oblivious to the news, he got into a taxi at the airport in Milwaukee. The driver asked him, “Did you hear about the president getting shot?” “No,” said Vaughn. “How does it go?”