- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, $22, 212 pages, $22

Thomas Mallon often picks up stray characters who somehow have muddled into history's spotlight and he gives them a reason for being. He is in the first place a fine novelist. But now, in his current production, "Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy," Mr. Mallon offers a nonfiction account of a woman whose kindness and largess helped an assassin prepare for his date with destiny.
It is a poignant, often sad story about Ruth Paine a Quaker woman caught up in the Kennedy assassination trauma who still wonders, almost 39 years later, why she was unceremoniously dumped, shoved aside by Lee Harvey Oswald's widow, Marina. The book provides far more triviality (and what ifs?) than the average reader would ever expect or want but gives absolutely no new insights into anything other than Mr. and Mrs. Paine.
In fact, to a reporter who knew and interviewed most of the main characters of this book more than a generation ago, the most stunning "new" allegation erupted as Mr. Mallon was trying to explain why he thought Marina had refused to see Mrs. Paine for months after the assassination and then only for a couple of almost perfunctory visits in late 1964.
The author says he agreed with Mrs. Paine that Oswald's brother Robert probably influenced Marina to stay away from her.
"The influence of Lee's brother," he writes, "was stronger than Ruth ever knew. In the period after the assassination, Marina had a brief affair with Robert Oswald." Then he adds: "Their involvement may have provided the chance for almost mythic mutual revenge against a brother and husband; surely it made the new gap between Marina and Ruth even less bridgeable."
One naturally wonders from whence Mr. Mallon uncovers this never-before-disclosed information? Both Robert Oswald and Marina refused to be interviewed for his book. He got it, he said, from Priscilla Johnson McMillan, who wrote a book, "Marina and Lee" in 1977, a bestseller done after several years of close association with the widow Oswald.
Mrs. McMillan, who wrote about most everything in Marina's life, did not mention the alleged affair with Robert Oswald in her book. And Mr. Mallon admits Mrs. McMillan told him that Mrs. Oswald suffered from a serious lack of self-esteem, adding at one point, "Marina was very quick to impute sexual interest in her to everybody." Mr. Mallon said he "confirmed" the affair with a friend of Marina's but did not name her. Ruth Paine, a selfless woman who took Oswald's family into her small suburban home in the weeks before the president's death, deserved better.
Partly out of kindness, partly because she wanted to improve her Russian with Marina's help, Mrs. Paine drove Marina and her daughter June from New Orleans to Dallas in late October of 1963 and assured Marina she was welcome to live there as long as she needed to. They talked in terms of when "Lee found work and got on his feet."
Ruth bought all the groceries, made arrangements for Marina to have her second child (born about a month before the assassination) at a Dallas hospital, even bought the kids clothing and diapers. To help pay for Marina's hospital bill, she donated blood twice. And she made it comfortable for Oswald to visit on weekends. He had made his now well documented trek to Mexico City to try to obtain a visa to Cuba and, unsuccessful, had returned in early October to live in a rented room near downtown Dallas. And it was Ruth Paine who telephoned officials at the Texas School Book Depository and set up an interview for him.
Then came Nov. 22 and suddenly Mrs. Paine was caught up in a vortex far beyond her understanding. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and local cops converged upon the small house on No. 5th St., in Irving that afternoon. As she shuddered in disbelief totally unaware that Oswald had hidden his Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in her garage - Marina showed the cops where it had been. In the weeks following, Mrs. Paine tried desperately to meet with Marina.
"I know she is scared and I just want her to know I am there if she needs me," Mrs. Paine told this reporter shortly after the assassination. In the spring of 1964 I was interviewing Marina at her home when Mrs. Paine came by unannounced, bearing gifts for the tiny Oswald girls.
"Don't go to the door," Marina said, as she peeped out the curtains. We didn't.
"I just don't trust her," was all the explanation Marina would provide that day.
It would be nice to comment that this book was well researched, but his arbitrary handling of the alleged "affair" leaves one wondering. Why would an author include a secondhand allegation like that when the originator of the tale didn't even think it worthy to include in her biography of the subject in question?
Of course, fiction writers make things up all the time. It's their craft and much, much easier (and more fun)than digging for true facts, but one has to believe it clutters up an already bizarre panorama of life when it is labeled nonfiction.

Hugh Aynesworth is Dallas bureau chief for The Washington Times.

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