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.”
You met Marina in 1964, but your book wasn’t published until 1977. What took so long?
Well, it’s just the way I work. I guess I’m lazy. I was living in different places because I got married. I was very much into civil rights in Atlanta and the South. But mostly I just work slowly.
The original reviews that appeared when your book was published in 1977 are outstanding. One critic in The Age wrote, “The fruit of all McMillan’s devoted labor reads like a Dostoyevsky novel.” Author Thomas Mallon has praised what he calls your “propulsive storytelling skills” and says you’ve written the best book on the Kennedy assassination. When you started out, did you imagine this would be the result?