The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination has drawn all manner of retrospectives. But for one woman, the memory of tuning in to the news coverage is particularly poignant. Priscilla Johnson McMillan is the only person who knew both President Kennedy and his killer.
McMillan worked for Kennedy on Capitol Hill in the mid-1950s, when he was a U.S. Senator, advising him on foreign policy matters. She then moved into journalism and in 1959 was stationed in the Soviet Union, reporting for The Progressive and the North American Newspaper Alliance. It was there that she met a 20-year-old American called Lee Harvey Oswald. He was staying in her hotel while trying to defect to the Soviet Union.
McMillan interviewed him. Oswald proceeded to critique the American system and informed her that he was a follower of Karl Marx. “I saw,” he said, explaining why he left the U.S., “that I would become either a worker exploited for capitalist profit or an exploiter or, since there are many in this category, I’d be one of the unemployed.” On that night in Moscow, Oswald also told McMillan that he had a life mission: “I want to give the people of the United States something to think about.”
Four years later, on the night of November 22, as McMillan followed news coverage of the assassination in Dallas from Cambridge, Massaschusetts, charges began to emerge that Oswald was responsible for shooting Kennedy. McMillan was astonished. “My God,” she said, “I know that boy!”
McMillan was a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Russian Research Center, but she quickly decided to write a book about Oswald and his young Russian wife, Marina. The work consumed her life. The research, reporting, and writing took more than a decade. The result, Marina and Lee, published in 1977, is a classic achievement in narrative reporting. The Atlantic praised the book as “extraordinary” and said that it “makes the necessary and subtle connection between private frailties and their power to change the history of the world.” The New York Times Book Review said it achieved what “the Warren Commission failed to do with its report.” Earlier this fall, Steerforth Press reissued Marina and Lee.
McMillan is now 85. I visited with her in recent weeks to discuss the individuals and atrocious incident that have animated so much of her life.
In Marina and Lee you write about recognizing Oswald when the press began to name him as the killer. That must have been the most shocking moment of your entire life.
It was. The night before the assassination, I mailed a letter to President Kennedy, in care of Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s woman-of-all-work. I asked him to get Olga Ivinskaya, novelist Boris Pasternak’s lady friend, out of a labor camp in the Soviet Union. Later, I heard from Evelyn Lincoln saying that she’d never gotten the letter to him.
The film that Abraham Zapruder took of the Kennedy assassination has been running on TV as part of the retrospectives. What goes through your mind when you see it?
The first time I ever saw the shot that blew up Kennedy’s head was last week on the CNN documentary, The Assassination of President Kennedy. I’d seen the shot where Kennedy slumps, but never the other one where the explosion happens.
Did you think about the fact that you knew the man who fired that shot?
No. I thought more about the fact that I knew the man whose head was blown off.
How did you get a job working for Senator John F. Kennedy?
I graduated with a master’s degree in Russian studies from Harvard in 1953 and wanted to work on Capitol Hill. I went from office to office to see if there were any openings. I had a friend who worked for a Senator who informed me that Kennedy’s office was looking for someone new. But every time I went to Kennedy’s office the people there told me no. I kept looking. Finally, when I was at a party in New York, I got a phone call from his office. The person from his office asked, “Can you come to work on Monday?” So I said yes. But it was only for a very brief time. The subject I focused on was Indochina, for which I was in no way qualified.
Later, you visited Senator Kennedy in the hospital.
Yes, he was at the Hospital for Special Surgery, and he was having his back operated on. My brother-in-law worked there and he told me that the doctors found Kennedy to be most unusual. He’d be lying on his stomach while the doctors examined his back, and he was talking on the phone to people in New Hampshire asking about the latest political news. I had a roommate whose boyfriend also worked at that hospital and what I heard both indirectly from him and directly from my brother-in-law was that the real problem was that Kennedy had Addison’s Disease. The doctors didn’t think he could survive major surgery. They were trying to get his blood balanced so he could withstand the trauma.
Did you visit him more than once?
Yes, I went from time to time. I met his mother. I met Jackie. I met Jackie’s stepbrother, Hugh. Kennedy was very humorous. He was curious. He was always peppering me with questions – what I thought about politics, my personal life, anything.
You write, “One Saturday I found him with a Howdy Doody doll as tall as he was lying under the covers beside him.”
That’s right. At the foot of his bed there was a fish tank, too. There was a pile of books—many, many rows of them behind the head of his bed. And there was a Marilyn Monroe cutout upside down on the door of his hospital room. She was wearing white shorts and a blue mesh shirt. I don’t think he knew Marilyn Monroe at that point.
Were you in the Soviet Union when he was nominated?
I’d been kicked out in July 1960. I was in Bonn when he was nominated, listening on the radio.
Why did the Soviets kick you out?
They kicked out some tourists and diplomats—just a little bit of everybody—to show their displeasure at the U.S. sending over the U-2 aircraft to spy.
What was your biggest challenge in writing Marina and Lee?
Oswald did something that we all abhorred. I tried to explain it and be fair.
How soon after the assassination did you realize that you wanted to write a book about the Oswalds?
Maybe two or three months.
Marina Oswald was besieged with requests for interviews. How did you get her to cooperate with you?
My editor at Harper & Row, John Leggett, contacted Bill McKenzie, a Dallas attorney who was representing Marina. Mr. Leggett told Marina that I wished to write this book. Several months later Mr. Leggett heard back from Bill McKenzie saying, “Tell her to come down here.”