Lee Harvey Oswald's lonely childhood: No one imagined he'd kill the president

Lee Harvey Oswald had an itinerant and father-less adolescence -- but at first, no interest in radical politics

Published October 13, 2013 2:00PM (EDT)

Lee Harvey Oswald    (AP/Ferd Kaufman)
Lee Harvey Oswald (AP/Ferd Kaufman)

Excerpted from "The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union"

Lee Harvey Oswald's childhood did not take place in any one town or city. He was always provided for, but he was also, in a way, homeless--without a stable backdrop of buildings or even people.

By the age of seventeen, he had moved twenty times. Almost all of these moves happened because of his mother, Marguerite. Often he shuttled between Dallas-Fort Worth and New Orleans, but he also lived in New York. His briefest stay, in Manhattan, lasted six weeks; his longest, in Fort Worth, four years. He averaged 10.2 months per address. (This did not include stints with family or friends who filled in when Marguerite was absent, or his three-week detainment at a home for troubled youths, in the spring of 1953.) Not surprisingly, nearly all of these homes were rentals or places owned by other people who let them live there for free.

Lee’s father, Robert Edward Lee Oswald, had been an insurance premium collector, and he died of a heart attack in August 1939, two months before his son was born. His death and absence from the boy’s life might be regarded as the defining trauma of Oswald’s entire life, setting in motion a youth of chaos and frenzy. Marguerite and Lee rarely changed addresses because of a new opportunity, but rather because of a failure or crisis that almost always crept up suddenly. (Nearly half of the moves that took place between addresses numbers 7 and 21, when Lee was of school age, took place during the school year.) Mostly their hopscotching was prompted by Marguerite’s run-ins with men, landlords, family, or employers. Often an infidelity or job termination was involved. In some cases, Lee’s older brother, Robert, or older half brother, John Pic, moved with him; in other cases, it was just Lee and Marguerite. Some moves were more traumatic than others: Lee spent 1943--the year he turned four--at the Bethlehem Children’s Home in New Orleans. But from late 1945 to mid-1946 he lived in a comfortable brick house in Benbrook, a Fort Worth suburb, with his mother and Edwin Ekdahl, her new husband. Ekdahl was well-off--this was probably why Marguerite married him--and he had an evident fondness for Lee. For a little less than a year, he was the closest anyone ever came to being a father figure to the little boy. Ultimately, this relationship, and the one between Marguerite and Ekdahl, was a failure, too.

Marguerite was hardly capable of playing the role of one parent, let alone two. She was unreliable, frantic, harried, hectoring, needy, and prone to irrational outbursts. Throughout Lee’s childhood, she vacillated between two poles--that of the self-involved, self-imagined victim in search of love and support, and that of the doting, controlling mother. She either paid very little attention to Lee’s wants and needs--yanking him out of school, moving him away from what friends he had--or fawned over him in an effort (obvious to all, including Lee) to compensate for her selfishness. That selfishness, and her inability to provide any semblance of stability and normalcy for her youngest son, is clearly reflected in Lee’s constant moving. Her compensatory “love” comes through in her letters to Lee.

This homeless youth cannot be stressed enough if we are to understand the unstable man Lee Harvey Oswald was to become. Over the years, the pinball-like movement generated not so much relationships or attachments but a murky tableau of schools, teachers, neighbors, accents, faces, and skylines. There was no single, overarching configuration of people and spaces that governed Oswald’s childhood universe. There was only a whir of disjointed impressions. When someone asked him where he came from, he couldn’t say, so he said whatever he felt like. Nor could he recall or explain how, exactly, he and his mother had proceeded from address number 1 to 2 to 9 to 20. Most everything about his childhood felt arbitrary and fleeting.

Address number 14, while especially short-lived, marked an important juncture and revealed the first glimpse of the emotionally volatile young man Lee Harvey Oswald was to become. In August 1952, Marguerite and Lee moved out of address number 13, in Fort Worth, to live with John Pic and his wife, Margy, in New York. The Pics didn’t know why Marguerite and Lee had come or when they planned to leave. Still, they were happy to see them. Margy’s mother, who lived with her daughter and son-in-law in the railroad apartment on the Upper East Side, was in Norfolk, Virginia, visiting her other daughter for the month, and the Pics said Marguerite and Lee could stay in her room. The last time John had seen his half brother had been in October 1950, when Lee was not yet eleven. At that time, Lee had been more attached to his mother. (Until he was ten, the two slept in the same bed.) Now, he was going on thirteen and appeared less bound to her. Pic, who had a strained relationship with Marguerite, sensed an opening.

When he recalled this brief period, during his testimony before the Warren Commission, Pic sounded remorseful. It was as if he had never really known Lee but had wanted to. His father, Edward John Pic Jr., had married Marguerite in 1929; John Pic had been born in 1932; sometime around then, Edward Pic and Marguerite had divorced; and soon after, Marguerite had married Robert Oswald Sr. John Pic told the commission that the week Marguerite and Lee arrived in New York, he took time off from work to show his half brother the city--the Museum of Natural History, the Staten Island Ferry, and Polk’s Hobby Shop. But from the start of the Oswalds’ visit, the Pics were uneasy, and they had reason to be. Marguerite and Lee showed up at their place with several suitcases and a television set. John and Margy expected they would visit for a week or two--John told the Warren Commission that he thought it made sense that they should come in August so Lee wouldn’t miss the beginning of the school year in Fort Worth. But after a few days it became clear that Marguerite planned that they would stay for good.

Margy was nineteen. She had recently given birth and, presumably, was still nursing. Marguerite didn’t pay for any of their groceries even though John made only $150 per month in the Coast Guard--he was on the security detail at Ellis Island. When he mentioned the groceries to his mother, she became livid. There was also the not unimportant question of space. Mrs. Fuhrman, Margy’s mother, would be home from Norfolk soon. It would have been one thing if it had been their apartment, but it was Mrs. Fuhrman’s. John was angry. Why hadn’t Marguerite said anything before she and Lee came all the way from Texas? John and Margy wouldn’t have minded if it were only Lee, even with the baby and Mrs. Fuhrman. They later said they liked having Lee around, although he could be quiet, and it could be hard to know what he was thinking. The truth was, Pic said, this behavior was very much typical of his mother. It was deceptive and manipulative, and it made Margy upset and infuriated him.

Then an incident took place that was, perhaps, an early indication of Lee’s capacity for violence. All of the anger in the small apartment made for a combustible atmosphere at a time of year, late summer, when it was already hot and humid, and tempers were more prone to flare up. The apartment, which had probably been built in the 1880s, was on Ninety-Second Street, between Second and Third Avenues. It was north of the old money and south of East Harlem. The ventilation was anemie, and it was shadowy and cluttered, without private spaces.

For reasons that they could not agree on, Lee apparently hit his mother and pulled a knife on Margy. This took place during an argument between Marguerite and Margy, which Pic called “the big trouble,” and it was the first in a stream of violent outbursts over the next eleven years. The argument started with a disagreement about the television set, but, naturally, it wasn’t really about that. Pic indicated to the Warren Commission that the argument was about who mattered more to Pic: his wife or his mother. Marguerite enlisted Lee, and suddenly Lee pulled out a pocketknife. The order of events is unclear: either Lee threatened Margy, and then he hit his mother, or vice versa. It is also unknown how much time elapsed between these events, although it’s believed that they took place within a few moments of each other. This would explain why John remembered them as a single incident.

Marguerite blamed the whole blow-up on her daughter-in-law. In her testimony before the Warren Commission, Marguerite told I. Lee Rankin, the commissions general counsel, that Margy “didn’t like me, and she didn’t like Lee. So she--what is the word to say--not picked on the child, but she showed her displeasure. And she is a very--not, I would say so much an emotional person--but this girl is a New Yorker who was brought up in this particular neighborhood, which I believe is a poor section of New York. . . .And this girl cursed like a trooper. She is--you cannot express it, Mr. Rankin--but not of a character of a high caliber.”

Marguerite said the argument had to do with John and Lee carving little ships out of blocks of wood. Margy, she said, was upset that there were wood chips on the floor. “So there was, I think now--it was not a kitchen knife--it was a little pocket knife, a child’s knife, that Lee had,” Marguerite said. “So she hit Lee. So Lee had the knife--now, I remember this distinctly, because I remember how awful I thought Marjory was about this. Lee had the knife in his hand. He was whittling.’ After Margy slapped Lee, he apparently threatened Margy. “He did not use the knife,” Marguerite recalled. “He had an opportunity to use the knife.” She did not mention the television set, nor did she say anything about Lee hitting her. John Pic said, in his testimony before the Warren Commission, that he was not, in fact, home when the “big trouble” occurred. And he stressed that, before everything happened, his wife had liked Lee very much.

After the fireworks had subsided, it seemed --to John Pic and Margy, at least--that something had changed permanently. It was as if the aloofness they had sometimes perceived in Lee had coalesced into a jumble of furies. Now, more than before, he seemed to be in a state of continuous conflict. John and Margy couldn’t have him or Marguerite living with them any longer. After that, Lee never really talked to his brother again, even though he would sometimes ask about him. A schism had been opened: Lee was no longer just angry but dangerous, and it was impossible to go back to the way things had been.

The Warren Commission Report indicates that it was at about this time, toward the end of 1952, that Lee was confronted by an intense and bitter loneliness. He and Marguerite were now living on East 179th Street, in Manhattan, and he was enrolled at Public School 117. He hated it. Of the sixty-four days he was enrolled there, he showed up for just fifteen and received mostly failing grades. Marguerite then enrolled him at Public School 44, but he refused to go. In February 1953, the Pics visited Marguerite and Lee, and Marguerite asked her older son how she might persuade her youngest son to accept psychiatric care, but nothing was done. Soon after, Lee was declared a truant, and a judge sent him to Youth House. He was evaluated by a psychiatrist, a social worker, and a probation officer.

The social worker, Evelyn D. Siegel, observed “a rather pleasant, appealing quality about this emotionally starved, affectionless youngster which grows as one speaks to him.”

There was little, if anything, in Lee’s childhood that suggested he might one day embrace radical politics. But by the time he reached early adolescence, there was an obvious emptiness in his life, a desire for something real and deeply felt to compensate for the home that was sorely missing. Of course, this desire was never fulfilled, and a conflict seems to have emerged pitting Lee against the world--not just New York but the world in a more general and ill-defined sense. He was angry and alone, he was becoming more violent, and he was in dire need of a community or surrogate father who could teach him self-respect and self-discipline.

We can, perhaps, better understand Lee’s early embrace of Marxism, however superficial, if we view it through the lens of his childhood and early adolescence. Marxism, and especially Marxist revolution, offered discipline and purpose, and it was shot through with a vocabulary and mood that comported with Lee’s mounting rage. Marxism would do for him, or so he seems to have intuited, what his parents should have done: it offered a home. Because this particular “home” was a place that no one else in his life--family, neighbors, and classmates, to say nothing of tens of millions of other Americans--wanted to live in, it was probably even more appealing. It was something that he alone could possess. Up until Lee left for the Soviet Union, almost everyone who met him (social workers, teachers, fellow Marines) called him “withdrawn” or “quiet.” They thought he didn’t want to spend time with them. A likelier explanation is that he simply wanted to be with his “family,” which amounted to people with whom he thought he shared something. These were the revolutionaries he imagined living far away, in Russia or Cuba--the same people he would one day move halfway around the world to be with.

Lee’s interest in Marxism started to develop within a year of returning to New Orleans from New York, in January 1954. By then, the gulf separating Oswald from his mother was probably unbridgeable, he had very little extended family to speak of, and he had no friends or place that he thought of as home. According to the Warren Commission Report, Lee started to teach himself about Marxist theory when he was fifteen. In Moscow Oswald told a reporter from United Press International, Aline Mosby, without much in the way of context, that he ran into or encountered an “old lady” who “handed me a pamphlet about saving the Rosenbergs,” suggesting that this was a catalyzing moment. Oswald did not say where or when this encounter took place. He only said that it stuck with him, implying that it was this momentary interaction with a stranger, presumably in a public place, that sparked his interest in radical politics and ultimately led him to travel to the Soviet Union. He repeated this claim, about studying Marx, in a letter to his brother written at about the same time that he met with Mosby.

It should be noted that the chronology of events, as related by Oswald, is a tad confusing. Demonstrations on behalf of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were members of the Communist Party and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, started in earnest in early April 1951, after they were sentenced to die, and continued through mid-June 1953, when they were executed. Oswald’s comment suggests that, at some point between the ages of eleven and thirteen, he happened on a pro-Rosenberg demonstrator or volunteer--presumably, in New York, where the couple enjoyed more support than in Fort Worth--and that it was this brochure that prompted him to start thinking about Marxism. He then, apparently, pondered its meaning or forgot about it for two years and, at fifteen, started reading Marx’s Capital.

There was nothing in Lee’s record to suggest that he could have made sense of Marx. His student records from Beauregard Junior High School, in New Orleans, where he spent the 1954-1955 school year, show that he was a mediocre student, and his only friend at the time, Edward Voebel, never said anything to the Warren Commission about Oswald being a particularly voracious reader. His highest grades at Beauregard were in Civics (he received an 85 and a 90) and Art (85 and 90). In English, he received a 68 and 72; General Math, 70 and 70; and General Science, 73 and 85. He missed nine days of school, and when he was there, he was often in trouble. John Neumeyer, who was a year behind Oswald at Beauregard, recalled getting into a fight with Lee. By then, the violent impulse that had led Lee to hit his mother and pull a knife on his sister-in-law in New York had begun to manifest itself more often, and Lee had become more withdrawn. Neumeyer, in an interview with the FBI after the assassination, noted that Lee “went by the nickname ‘Yankee’ and did not seem to get along with other students.” Neumeyer said that he “had heard Oswald often became involved in fights.’ ’

A few months after leaving Beauregard, Oswald started the tenth grade at Warren Easton High School. A few weeks later, just before his sixteenth birthday, he dropped out. It was at this time, at Beauregard and Warren Easton, that Oswald apparently was struggling to make sense of the labor theory of value, the rise of the proletariat, and other complex Marxist concepts. He was on a journey that would lead him away from his country, his past, and his mother.

Excerpted from "The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union" by Peter Savodnik. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.

By Peter Savodnik

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