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December 11, 2017

A Footnote to History


On November 22, 1963, I was in elementary school when our teacher was called out of the classroom. A few minutes later, he returned and said that President Kennedy had been shot, and that we should go home to our parents. When I arrived home, I learned the president had died.

That Sunday, I was watching television coverage at my grandmother’s when Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered before our eyes. Like many Americans, that image ripped into my memory. I would see it in my dreams. I remember my grandmother said, “I don’t care whether he lives or dies.” That moment is in Act Two of Mama’s Boy.

I thought of her remark a lot over the years, as it so clearly presumed Oswald’s guilt. Fifty-four years after the assassination, we are still gripped by what happened that day I was called out of class. The recent release by the National Archives of previously withheld documents related to the assassination stirred up interest and debate among historians, investigators, and of course, conspiracy theorists.

I’ve read many of the books written about the assassination, starting with the Warren Commission Report which, despite its shortcomings, is an absorbing social document about the United States in the 1960s. Some of the conspiracy theory books make reasoned arguments. Some are incomprehensible. In most books that include biographies of Oswald, his mother, Marguerite, is referenced, usually in passing, often unkindly, occasionally in a footnote. The more I learned about her, the more I became intrigued by this woman who Norman Mailer calls “a character worthy of Dickens.”

Marguerite Oswald was married three times. She moved from job to job, home to home, and city to city with three sons in tow. Domineering, grasping, and eccentric, Marguerite had few friends. But she raised three boys, mostly on her own. She wanted a family, but drove her sons away one by one. She was devoted to Lee, but when he defected to Russia, he didn’t tell her where he was going. In her words, which sparked the play:

“A month later, I hear on the radio, ‘Fort Worth Man Lee Oswald Defects to Russia.’ I got the newspaper, but the article didn’t say where in Russia Lee was. I had to find out, so I wrote a letter to Khrushchev. I said, ‘Dear Mr. Khrushchev, I would be forever grateful if you would let me know Lee’s possible whereabouts. I am very much concerned as a Mother naturally would be.’ Khrushchev did not answer. So I made a trip to Washington D.C. I arrived early in the morning and called the White House. I told the man on the switchboard that I had to speak to President Kennedy. He said the president was in a conference, was there anything he could do for me, and I said, ‘Yes, I’ve come to town about a son of mine who is lost in Russia.’ I told him I was convinced Lee was an agent, working for our government. And I said, ‘I want to know where he is. I don’t care if he’s on an important mission — the boy needs to come home and be with his Mother.’”

This is a woman worthy of dramatic treatment!

Mama’s Boy is not a historical play — it’s a domestic work that takes place in the shadow of history. It’s about a woman who desires family, desperately. It begins in Fort Worth, in 1962, when Lee returns from Russia. Marguerite is overjoyed to have her son back home. Lee’s brother, Robert, struggles to help Lee and his new family get on their feet, and to keep them out of their mother’s clutches. But Marguerite insinuates herself into Lee’s life, as that life spirals out of control. When Lee moves to Dallas, once again, he doesn’t tell his mother where he’s going. Marguerite hears about the assassination on the radio, and seizing the opportunity, rushes to Dallas. When Lee is killed, she devotes her life to his defense, making increasingly bizarre claims:

“Maybe Lee was acting under orders. We all know that President Kennedy was a dying man. I say it’s possible that Lee was chosen as part of a conspiracy to shoot the president in a mercy killing for the security of the country. And if this is true, it was a fine thing to do.”

The four characters in Mama’s Boy are based on their real-life counter-parts, but they are my interpretations of Marguerite, Lee, Robert, and Marina, shaped for dramatic and thematic purposes. I borrowed what I needed from the research, invented a little, and left everything else out. Before I wrote a word, I knew that Mama’s Boy would not consider Lee’s guilt or innocence. If you think he’s guilty or innocent walking into the play, you will feel that way walking out. So none of the conspiracy books were of any use. The only conspiracies in the play are those Marguerite advances, and hers are peculiar, and often character-driven.

I found the Warren Commission testimony extremely useful (not to be confused with the Warren Commission Report, which is a summary of conclusions drawn from all the testimony). The many volumes of testimony are online, including the full testimonies of Marguerite, Robert, Marina, Marguerite’s husbands, Lee’s Russian friends, and other people referenced in Mama’s Boy. This material forms the basis of the play.

I drew from Jean Stafford’s A Mother in History, the only book with Marguerite as its sole subject. It’s a bit snarky, but well-written and insightful. A lot of the juicy quotes in the play are adapted from this book:

“If you research the life of Jesus Christ, you’ll find that you never heard anything more about the mother, Mary, after He was crucified. And since Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered, nobody has worried about my welfare either.”

Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale covers Lee’s time in Russia in detail, and he’s enchanted by Marguerite. Mailer is more confused about whether Lee is guilty or not at the end of the 800-page book than at the beginning.

Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s Marina and Lee is a vivid portrait of their complex relationship, but Priscilla is no fan of Marguerite’s.

Marguerite recorded a CD (!), “Marguerite Oswald Reads Lee Harvey Oswald’s Letters from Russia.” She not only reads his letters, but comments on them, as a doting mother.

Recently, a Kindle-only book, The Gunman and His Mother by Steven Beschloss, focused on the warped mother/son relationship that is at the center of Mama’s Boy. It’s incisive, and generous-spirited. I had coffee and a good chat with Mr. Beschloss about our mutual interest in Marguerite, the historical footnote.

The fairest treatment of Marguerite, surprisingly, is in Gerald Ford’s Portrait of the Assassin, a narrative summary of the Warren Commission testimony. Ford served on the Commission, and his perspective on Marguerite informed Mama’s Boy more than any other work.

And that is the full extent of the attention given to Marguerite Oswald in Kennedy assassination literature. Which is a good thing, or I never would have written the play!

To purchase a copy of Mama’s Boy, click here, and to learn more about licensing a production, click here.