3: First Meetings with Lee
I Am a Patsy! by George de Mohrenschildt
The Oswalds Visit the de Mohrenschildts
Lee called me a few days after our trip to Fort Worth. “Marina and I will come over to–night, if you don’t mind,” he said.
“Maybe I could drive to Fort Worth and drive you?” I asked.
“No, thank you, we will come by bus,” he answered laconically.
And here they were, Marina, Lee and the baby June. We lived at the time in a pleasant area called University Park, a few blocks from the Southern Methodist University, a conservative stronghold. Both my wife and I were fairly free at the time and welcomed our guests, so different from the local society. Jeanne liked Marina immediately and offered to help her with her English. “Yes, I have to know the language,” she agreed and then added inexpectedly, “People already asked me why I liked Lee,” and her eyes darted about the furniture and decoration of our rather modest home, “and I answer them, why did Lee like me?” Jeanne liked this humble remark and her sympathy for Marina increased.
In the meantime Lee and I sat on a comfortable sofa and talked all evening. Naturally I do not remember the sequence, although I recorded what I remembered a few years later, but mostly I asked questions and he answered them. Naturally I wanted to know what make him go the the Soviet Union and he answered me by telling me of his youth in New Orleans. Since his childhood he was keenly aware of social and racial injustices. Instead of playing basketball or baseball, like any other red–blooded American youth, he read voraciously. Among the books he read was Marx’s Capital, which made a deep impression on him. Ironically, he said, he borrowed this book from the Loyola University library.
Oswald Discusses the Soviet Political System
“What did you like in it?” I remember asking him.
“It made clear to me the intolerable fact of the exploitation of the poor by the rich.”
“But,” I said, “Lee, you must have seen it all over the world, the weak or the poor are exploited everywhere by the powerful and the rich. Listen to this: two dogs meet on the crosspoint between East and West Berlin. One dog is running away from the capitalism, the other from communism. The capitalist dog asks, ‘why do you run away!’ — ‘Because I can eat but I cannot bark. Why are you running away?’ ‘If I bark I cannot eat’ answered the capitalist dog.”
Lee laughed and answered by a joke he heard somewhere in Minsk. “As you know,” he said, “Russians grab all they can from the satellite countries. So one day at the meeting of the communist party in Rumania, one of the workers stood up and said. ‘Camrade Secretary, may I ask you 3 questions?’ — ’Go ahead.’ ‘I want to know what happened to our wheat, our petroleum and our wine?’ ‘Well’ said the Secretary, ‘it’s a very complex economic question I cannot answer it immediately.’
“Well, a few months later the workers are holding the same type of a meeting and another comrade raises his hand and says: ‘Comrade Secretary may I ask you four questions?’ — ‘Shoot’ says the secretary. ‘I want to ask you what happened to our petroleum, wine and wheat and also what happened to the comrade who had asked the three questions some time ago?’ — Silence.”
We both laughed. “At least here we are not being sent to a concentration camp,” I said.
“You are wrong,” answered Lee seriously, “most of the prisoners, convicts in American jails, are political prisoners, they are victims of the system.”
I read similar opinions recently in several liberal books and Lee was way ahead in thought of all of them. This was over fourteen years ago.
I remember concluding this conversation by telling Lee, “If you want to be a revolutionary, you have to be a fool or to have an inspiration. And your actions will be judged by the success or failure of your life.”
Lee agreed. What I liked about him was that he was a seeker for justice — that he had highly developed social instincts. And I was disappointed in my own children for lack of such instincts.
Incidentally I remember some details pretty well because I made notes of them later and also made tapes of my recollections fairly soon after the assassination.
That night Jeanne served a Russian dinner which Marina found delicious but Lee hardly touched. He was ascetic in his habits, was indifferent to foods and didn’t like deserts. In the meantime baby June slept quietly in bed all wrapped up. Lee looked tenderly at her. That night we learned a lot about him — he neither drank or smoked and objected if others, especially his wife did. Since neither my wife or I smoked and drank very little, he liked it and considered that we were on his side.
Jeanne was appalled finding out that baby June hadn’t had any injections usually given to a child. Also Marina would pick up a pacifier from the floor — then tried it herself before putting it in June’s mouth. Unfortunately she had infected teeth at the time, so the baby was exposed also.
My wife had high ideas on Russian hygiene and generally on the high standards of the Soviet youth, so she was outspokenly critical. “Your infected teeth have to be removed as soon as possible,” she told Marina. When Marina objected that she didn’t have any money and couldn’t speak English, Jeanne promised to help her.
Lee Harvey Oswald and the Marines
After dinner Lee and I went back on the sofa and renewed our conversation.
“I served in the Marine Corps not because I was a patriot but I wanted to get away from the drudgery and to see the world,” admitted Lee.
“Did you like the service?”
“Not particularly. But I had time to study, to read and indeed we traveled a lot.”
“You told me you lived in Japan. How did you land there?”
“Just an accident of the Marine Corps duty. The military duty was boring and stupid. But fortunately I moved around, began visiting places where youngsters meet, and established contacts with some more progressive and thinking Japanese. And this,” said Lee thoughtfully, “is what led me to Russia eventually. I also learned there of other, Japanese, ways of exploitation of the poor by the rich. Semi–feudal, industrial giants which act paternalistically yet exploiting the workers — proletarians. The wages in Japan were ridiculously low,” Lee added.
“Well, it’s changing now,” said I. “Say, Lee, it’s in Japan that you got your discharge from the marine corps?”
Lee did not like to elaborate on this touchy subject. “I had to work to support my mother.”
Oswald’s Defection to the Soviet Union
But it developed later, as we all know, that he did not go back to USA to support his mother but changed his mind and instead went to Russia. He obviously used the money obtained at his discharge for this trip. He first went to Western Europe then drifted to USSR via Finland if I remember well. Later on, Lee’s honorable discharge was changed to undesirable discharge and he hated to talk about it and considered it unfair to him. This explains his hatred of [John] Connally, who was Secretary of the Navy at the time of this change of Lee’s discharge.
But that day he did not discuss this subject and went on talking about Russia. “I got to Moscow and stayed there until the Russians had confidence in me and gave me a permit to work.” He did not mention that he tried to commit suicide in desperation and cut his wrists.
Marina took part in the conversation. “Lee, you threw your passport in the face of the American consul and you said that you renounced your citizenship,” she said.
Oswald in Minsk
Later Lee talked to me about his ordeal in Moscow, but not this time. He went talking about his impressions of Minsk because he knew I was interested in this subject. He gave me a general description of the city I know from my early childhood. “I was assigned to work there without any particular reason, in a TV factory, possibly because I had a little electronic training in the Marines,” he said candidly.
“Tell me more about the countryside,” I asked him.
“Swisloch river is pretty clean, we used to go by row–boats to the forest nearby to picnic on weekends. The forests are beautiful there, huge pine trees, clean grass, full of berries of all kinds.”
I remembered the cathedral, several other picturesque churches and the main building — GPU, NKVD, KGB — police headquarters, where my father spent several months and where he almost died of starvation and was finally sentenced to life exile in Siberia. But these were childhood memories and resentment on my part had disappeared. Lee gave me a perfect description of all these landmarks, they were still there, unchanged. But there were many new factories built, one of them where he worked.
“Did you like your job?”
“Not particularly, but the pay was sufficient, about a hundred rubles a month, an average for the Soviet Union. I could live on it. My apartment and all utilities were furnished by the factory for a nominal fee, as well as medical insurance, etc.”
He gave me the prices of bread, produce, milk etc., which were reasonable and of clothing, which were outrageously high. “Sometimes I used to run short of meat, but you know I am not a big eater, it was of no importance to me.”
Marina listened in and gave more precise information, especially complaining about clothing and shoes. She was a practical one.
“You must have been somewhat privileged,” I said, “being a foreigner, but how did the other workers live in Minsk, the Russians?”
“Not too well. Usually one roof for a couple, community kitchens and lavatories,” he admitted. “This led to quarrels, gossip, jealousy a rather dismal situation. But what does it matter if everyone is in the same boat, if everyone suffers. No rich exploiters like here, not great contrasts between the rich and the poor.”
“Butter and meat were out of my reach,” said Marina bitterly, “but you foreigners could afford these luxuries.”
She was ready to continue talking more but since she was from Smolensk, a town I was not familiar with, I asked Lee to talk more about Minsk, and he did. To me his descriptions were most touching.
That night Marina announced that Lee was going to be laid off from his job in Fort Worth at Leslie Welding Company, if I remember correctly. It was a poor job anyway, minimal wages, long hours, unhealthy conditions, but Lee did not complain, he never complained, it was Marina who was constantly dissatisfied. The air of American prosperity bothered her, she was envious of other people’s wealth or wellbeing. Lee’s mind was of a stoical, philosophical type, that’s why, I guessed, he had gotten along so well with the other Russians he met in the Soviet Union. Russians do not mind to suffer and even go hungry if they can spend entire nights talking and speculating on some esoteric matters.
Next time the Oswalds came to visit us, we began speaking of Minsk again. I reminisced that when I was five years old, my father used to take me to the forest and I helped him as well as I could in his awkward efforts to cut down a big pine tree. It was a tough job for my father, who had never been a physically able man, and he constantly hurt himself. Once he jammed his finger to badly that the bone broke and the finger remained useless for the rest of his life. Surprisingly I grew adept at that sort of thing and quite able with an ax.
“Is that lovely forest north of town still in existence?” I asked Lee and explained exactly where it was.
“Yes, we used to go there frequently by bus with my fellow workers. We took food along and spent the whole day talking freely. I explained the United States to them and they informed me on life in Russia.”
Lee generally did not complain about his life in Russia but Marina did very frequently, sincerely or not, I do not know. She considered me a capitalist and tried to please me.
I promised Lee that night to give him introductions to a few influential people, since I wanted him and his family to move away from the gruesome [sic] of Fort Worth slum. I hoped that the other members of the Russian community would help him also and told him so.
“Thanks a lot, I can take care of myself, I don’t need those creeps, I shall find something,” he answered gruffly. This was an example of Lee’s independence, he refused help, objected even to my help. Rather than to be indebted to someone, he would rather starve on his own.
Telling Political Jokes
While Marina was usually a lot of fun, laughed easily but did not say anything that would make you think — Lee was serious and did not take life as a joke. But if he happened to be in a good mood, he became an excellent companion, remembered political jokes, told them well and laughed at yours.
“Do you know this one about an American tourist carrying a small transistor radio in Moscow?” Lee asked me.
“No, I don’t know the story.”
“Well, the Moscovite stopped the American and said: ‘we make them much better than you do. What is it?’”
We both laughed. Then I countered and asked Lee.
“What is the difference between capitalism and socialism?”
Lee did not know.
“Capitalism makes social mistakes and socialism makes CAPITAL mistakes.”
“A Russian Commissar is asked at the holy gates where he would like to go — to a capitalist hell or to a communist hell,” said Lee.
“ The Commissar answers: ‘I would like to go to a capitalist hell, I am so tired of a communist hell.”
Then I told Lee a few foolish jokes about Kennedy, they were very po– [sic]
“President Kennedy tells a group of businessmen: ‘the economic situation is so good that if I weren’t your president I would invest in the stock market right now! And the businessmen answer in unison: ‘so would we if you were not our president.’”
We both laughed.
“Kennedy had a terrible nightmare. He wakes up Jacquie: ‘honey what a terrible thing, I dreamed I was spending my own money, not the government’s.’”
Again we laughed, but without resentment, we both liked President Kennedy. So I finished my foolish jokes by this one:
“John Kennedy runs to his mother at night. ‘Mama! Mama! Help! Bobby tries to run MY country.’”
I think it was at that time that I told Lee that I had known Jacqueline Kennedy as a young girl, as well as her mother, father and all her relatives and how charming the whole family was, I especially like “Black Jack” Bouvier, Jacquie’s father, a delightful Casanova of Wall Street.
Lee was not jealous of Kennedy’s and Bouviers’ wealth and did not envy their social positions, of that I was sure. To him wealth and society were big jokes, but he did not resent them.
Lee Oswald and the de Mohrenschildts’ Dogs
Now I want to tell something which my seem foolish to people who are not dog lovers. At the time we had two lovely black Manchester Terriers, Nero and his faithful wife Poppea. Nero had followed us on a long trip over the mountains of Mexico and Central America and saved our lives on several occasions; Poppea was bought for him upon our return to USA and was a wonderful wife for him. I cannot tell how much intuition Nero developed during our trip and how easily he recognized friends from enemies. Well, on the first evening our dogs did not express any interest in Marina or in baby June but they were fascinated by Lee. Nero especially showed his complete confidence and affection for him. He seldom did it to anyone even to our close friends. He snugged up to Lee and looked at him with affection. He sensed that he was an utterly sincere person and was deprived of hatred. Poppea also licked his hand in a rare display of affection.
Incidentally, many of our friends and even our own children complained that our dogs were either unfriendly or totally indifferent to them.
Lee Oswald’s Photographic Job at Taggart’s
And so Lee finally found a job at Taggart’s Reproduction Company through the Texas Employment Agency without help from anyone. I was a good job for him as he had been interested in photography for a long time. I guessed that he took a course at the Marine Corps. Anyway he brought a good camera from the Soviet Union and took excellent pictures. Later he showed me excellent enlargements he made himself. These were in black and white he was not advanced enough to develop and enlarge colored photographs.
But Lee’s job did not pay well and as he began to trust me more, he accepted an introduction to a successful businessman–banker, Sam Ballen, who owned, among other companies, a large reproduction outfit, for maps, electric logs, and records. It was not a successful meeting. Lee and my friend did not like each other. To the businessman Lee was a radical and a maverick, and Lee considered Sam an ordinary bourgeois with no redeeming features to his credit. Actually, both were interesting people, they just did not appeal to each other.
Oswald’s Treatment in Minsk
Another conversation comes to my mind. One evening Lee was in a blue mood and confided that he was not particularly pleased with his reception in Minsk. Somewhat naively, he had expected to be treated as a special person, a prominent refugee, and nothing happened, there was little difference between his condition in Minsk and that of an ordinary Soviet worker. And do he had become depressed. That evening Lee expressed an opinion that he did not appreciate the Soviet type of government.
“Why?” I asked.
“It is somewhat too regimented for me,” he said. “We were obliged to go to the meeting at the factory after work, dead tired and listened to inflammatory speeches. I was lucky if I was able to to to sleep. Indoctrination of any kind is not to my taste.”
I saw his point.
Our first evenings with the Oswalds were spent in conversations and discussions and we got to know each other very well. Now something else happened in our relationship. Before Lee got his job at Taggart’s, I asked my daughter Alex and my son–in–law Gary Taylor to help the Oswalds in moving to Dallas. The Taylors went to visit the Oswalds in Fort Worth and right there they offered Marina to stay with them and to keep the baby. Whatever furniture they had would be stored in her garage. This generous proposition was accepted; Marina moved to Dallas. Lee stayed for a short time in the apartment in Fort Worth and then moved to a small room at YMCA in Dallas, close to his work at Taggart’s. During Marina’s stay at my daughter’s place, my wife helped her, drove her to the Baylor Hospital where they pulled out her rotten teeth. Thus baby June was kept healthy and well fed. But this short separation did not prevent Lee from coming to see us, even alone.