Chapter 2:
The Scent of a Woman, Part I

Between the Signal and the Noise
by Roger Feinman

Sylvia Meagher was the most perceptive and articulate critic of her time, yet susceptible to anyone who seemed to share her goal of achieving justice for both the accused assassin and the Warren Commission. There is a delicious story about Sylvia and the researcher Ted Gandolfo. Gandolfo has specialized in the collection of audio tape and other research materials relating to the assassination since the early days of the case. He was (and, from what I have heard recently, remains) an ardent supporter of Jim Garrison, in whom Sylvia had no faith, as she did not hesitate to assert during the late–Sixties. Their relations were accordingly quite strained, although Sylvia did consent to appear on Gandolfo’s public access cable television program in New York City in 1977 to help him along.

During the mid–Eighties, Gandolfo was working on a book that he eventually published privately. For over a year, he frequently called Sylvia using the alias, “Bob Foster,” disguising his voice and pretending to be calling from out–of–state. As “Foster,” he asked for her advice as he worked on his book. His knowledge of the case impressed her, and she was eager to see the results of his work. They spoke frequently about how wonderful it would be to get together for dinner in New York whenever he was in town.

When she eventually caught onto the ruse, Sylvia was furious. I empathized with her feelings, but encouraged her to think of Gandolfo’s actions as a backhanded compliment; he needed her guidance so badly — knowing that she would have nothing to do with him if he used his real identity — that he saw a need to go to such extraordinary lengths to solicit it. This seemed to assuage her anger. For a variety of reasons that will appear, there would be no similar reconciliation in the offing between Sylvia and David Lifton.

Sylvia Meagher and David Lifton

Between late 1965 and the end of 1970, Sylvia Meagher and David Lifton had frequent contacts by mail and telephone. In a working relationship that ran the gamut from hot–to–frigid, Mrs. Meagher during that period nevertheless generously gave Mr. Lifton of her time, advice and expertise. Among other materials, her files contain a thick collection of their correspondence and her notes of their telephone conversations.

Lifton has repaid Sylvia by portraying her as either a shrike or a dummy or both. He describes her in his essays as “extremely domineering,” having “steely suspicious eyes,” and “boiling over” with envy, as well as “confused” about the Warren Commission, in that she believed them guilty of a cover–up (how foolish she was to entertain such thoughts). He whines about what he perceived as her “viscous abuse” [sic], implying that it related to his failure to produce a book. He knows otherwise, although he is not telling. Writing twenty–three years after she discarded him, and over four years after her death, Lifton still demonstrates that conviction of righteousness, coupled with the feeling of being misunderstood, which pervaded the letters he wrote to her a quarter–century ago.

As Sylvia extended to him the help and encouragement that he solicited from her, and attempted with piercing logic couched in the most gentle and collegial reprimands to dissuade him from theories that are charitably described as untenable, (see Chapter 12), Lifton lied to her repeatedly; appropriated material from her unpublished manuscript for his own Ramparts piece; sought unsuccessfully to elicit her sanction of — perhaps even her participation in — a shady intrigue to obtain a bootleg copy of the Zapruder film; and sought to rupture her friendship with at least one other major critic. At every point in their relationship, he abused her, until she would tolerate no more.

The Liebeler Controversy

In the prologue and first chapter of his book, Lifton establishes the close working relationship he formed with former Assistant Counsel to the Warren Commission, Wesley J. Liebeler, whom he first met on October 12, 1965. He paints the critics as unreasonably suspicious of this liaison, perhaps even paranoid. He portrays Sylvia Meagher as a screaming, shrieking woman whose primary concern was the protection of her unpublished manuscript for Accessories After The Fact, worried that Lifton would be “co–opted” by Liebeler, whose reticence to publicly renounce the Report that he privately conceded was defective rendered him morally indistinguishable in her eyes from those other Commission lawyers who towed the party line.

Here again, however, Mr. Lifton fails abysmally to own up to the truth, including the central thrust of Sylvia’s objections, and his serious misrepresentation to her of the nature and extent of his contacts with Liebeler. He essentially repeats his misrepresentations in his Compuserve essays: “She was deeply angered by Liebeler’s law seminar and by my attending that class…”

It was not the mere fact of Lifton’s association with Wesley Liebeler that aroused Sylvia Meagher’s concerns and elicited her objections. It was the fraternizing nature of that association. Was he merely auditing Liebeler’s law school classes and discussing matters with him in a corridor, as he assured her verbally and in writing in downplaying the extent of their dealings? (Meagher, Sylvia. Letter to David Lifton, November 4, 1966) Or, was he conferring privately with Liebeler, disclosing the insights, stratagems, disagreements, weaknesses, conversations, correspondence, works–in–progress and raw research that the critics had shared with Lifton and/or among themselves in private counsel? In the highly adversarial atmosphere of the day, and the fear that they were being watched (which turned out to be justified), Mrs. Meagher and other critics were concerned that Mr. Lifton’s apparent fascination with Liebeler could lead, even inadvertently, to potentially damaging, or at least embarrassing, disclosures.

In Best Evidence, Lifton implicitly admits that he provided Liebeler with ammunition to use against the critics; that Liebeler intended to defend the Warren Report at any cost; and that ultimately Lifton ceased to trust him and began to withhold information from him.

[Note: By early November 1966, Liebeler apparently realized that nothing could ever satisfy Lifton. Lifton reports him as saying, "You’ve got a commitment to this (head surgery theory) that goes way beyond rationality, and you’re never going to change your mind no matter what happens." (BE, Chap. 11)]

Does Lifton, in chronicling his progressive disenchantment with Liebeler, demonstrate the grace, dignity and intellectual honesty to admit that Sylvia’s fears were warranted? On the contrary, he portrays her as a shrewish, shrill–sounding ideologue.

Looking at the available facts and circumstances of Lifton’s controversy with the critics over his lovefest with Liebeler a quarter–century later, I find some degree of fault on both sides, with the balance of equities leaning heavily in favor of the critics. The critics appeared all too eager to assume the worst about Lifton’s relationship with Liebeler, and Best Evidence strongly implies that their assumptions were not wholly incorrect. On the other hand, Mr. Lifton displayed a stunning naïveté‚ in thinking that he could successfully walk the tightrope and maintain his good standing with the critics. The critics saw the problem in terms of a political struggle; Mr. Lifton saw it in terms of academic freedom. They could not counter his logic; he could not fully understand their fears. But they did not need his help; he needed theirs, and this imbalance of power (which Mr. Lifton seems to resent as “domination”), coupled with his apparent desire to have it both ways, most likely tempted him to mount the pretense of “the big secret” that he could not reveal — as I shall presently document — a secret that turned out to be nothing more than a strained interpretation of a clause within a sentence within a document that everyone had read, but a secret that intrigued the critics just enough to stop short of “cutting the bait.”

The Earthshaking Secret

Lifton gave Sylvia Meagher and other critics another reason to mistrust him for, by early November 1966, he was beginning to tell them that he had made some kind of discovery of great and conclusive significance that he was unwilling to reveal to them, unwilling to submit for their consultation, information, advice, help and friendship, even as he did not hesitate to seek information from them — an “earthshaking discovery” that he was unwilling to share with the critics, but willing to share only with his “partners of first choice,” Wesley Liebeler and Arlen Specter.

The breach of faith that Sylvia Meagher had only feared before, now unfolded. She pointedly remarked to him: “The time has come for you to ask yourself some searching questions about the alleged hostility of the other researchers and their reluctance to have dealings with you. Who is out of step with whom?” (Meagher, Sylvia. Letter to David Lifton, November 4, 1966) She was “shocked and outraged” at Lifton’s conduct, and broke off all contact with him for a long time. (Meagher, Sylvia. Letter to Harold Weisberg, January 28, 1981)

Lifton attempted to see Meagher while she was visiting Los Angeles in mid–January 1967. While she refused to see him, she accepted his phone call on her last day in L.A., January 15. She noted, “Admits his great big discovery, the one he took to WJL, is flash in pan.” (Meagher, Sylvia. Note for record re phone call from Lifton, January 15, 1967) Meagher also recalled this phone conversation in a memorandum she wrote after resolving finally to break off contacts with Lifton. (Meagher, Sylvia. Note for the record, August 25, 1970; Lifton told her the sensational discovery he had taken to Liebeler was “mistaken”.)

The One Researcher Who Knew the Answer

Besides Meagher’s contemporary accounts, there is abundant corroborating evidence for Mr. Lifton’s self–imposed isolation. As his book came to light, The Washington Post reported that Mr. Lifton “was forever tantalizing his contacts in the research community with the claim that he was the only one on the right track. ‘He always claimed he was the one researcher among us who knew the answer,’” The Post quoted one unnamed source as saying (“David Lifton’s Startling Study of JFK’s Murder,” The Washington Post, September 5, 1980, p. C1) Ordinarily, I would not rely solely upon even a well–respected newspaper’s quote from an unnamed source, neither is there any need to do so. The Post’s report not only conforms to my recollection of limited personal contacts with Mr. Lifton during the mid–to–late–Seventies, but to his own admissions.

At various times in the past two years, I may have mentioned to various people that I am ‘working on a manuscript’ for publication. None of them know what area [of the case] it is, or any specifics …

(Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, February 12, 1969)

I am not dealing with any of the Warren Report critics in regard to my new work. This has been my policy since I started to work full time on this case, in the fall of 1966. There are people with whom I have perfectly cordial relationships (such as Fred Newcomb, or Bill O’Connell) yet with whom I do not discuss even the existence of such matters.


I don’t want new ideas, research materials etc. to be stolen by someone who hears about it on the grapevine.


He also exhibited worry for his personal welfare. (ibid.)

Specifically, he said he had “lowered a wall of silence” between himself and anyone who was sympathetic in any way towards Jim Garrison. That included a large number of critics, but not Sylvia Meagher, who was vocal in her distaste for Garrison’s evidence and methods. “Even knowledge of the area in which I am working is absolutely taboo.” (ibid.) Contrary to the apparent implications of this quote, however, Mr. Lifton did not disclose his alleged “head surgery insight” to Meagher.

The Development of the Theory

One must approach Lifton’s correspondence with Sylvia Meagher with ever–present caution. Although hindsight might lull readers into concluding that the foundation of Best Evidence was indeed the big secret, the Lifton–Meagher correspondence tends to indicate on closer inspection that, within the period encompassing their relationship, he was studying and either writing or attempting to write on unrelated areas of the assassination (in which case much of the semi–autobiographical account of his researches in Best Evidence falls under suspicion), or else that he was deliberately misleading her into believing that he had taken her into his confidence while actually throwing her off the track. Based upon the article “His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End” (Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Magazine, p. 20), previously cited in this work, which establishes through personal interviews that by 1975 Mr. Lifton had no manuscript at all; his January 1967 article for Ramparts Magazine entitled, “The Case For Three Assassins” (discussed in the next chapter of this manuscript); and inferences reasonably drawn from the record of Mr. Lifton’s correspondence with Meagher, I have concluded that the semi–autobiographical account contained in Best Evidence for the development of Mr. Lifton’s theory during the years up to late 1970 is, at best, grossly exaggerated and, at worst, a literary deceit.

For example, as late as January 1970, Lifton called the following matters that he and Meagher had discussed “integral” to his work and subject to confidentiality:

  • the alleged interception of the Zapruder film before it went to Life Magazine, and the eradication of the alleged car stop that was reported by a handful of eyewitnesses to the assassination (the film alteration theory is briefly discussed in a footnote in the book);
  • the administrative relationship between Gemberling, Shanklin, and the Dallas Field Office investigation, including Shanklin’s transfer to Dallas before the assassination (not covered in the book);
  • the alleged substitution of windshields before one was sent to the FBI laboratory for analysis (another footnote in the book);
  • the shooting of Governor Connally as an “accident” (ignored in the book);
  • the accidental happenstance of Zapruder’s film (not explained in the book);
  • the manner in which Jack Ruby got into the Dallas Police Department’s basement to shoot Oswald (not covered in the book) (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, January 23, 1970); and
  • the paraffin tests of Oswald’s hands after his arrest in the Texas Theater on the afternoon of the assassination (this, too, is not covered in Best Evidence).

The Meaning of the “Head Surgery” Remark

It seemed evident to many when his book was published that Lifton’s “earthshaking discovery” was the alleged “head surgery” reference in the Sibert and O’Neill report, something about which both Harold Weisberg and the team of Fred Newcomb and Perry Adams had already written.

There is no doubt that, as early as 1966, Mr. Lifton raised a question about the meaning of the “head surgery” remark in the Sibert and O’Neill report. This is documented in FBI file materials that I have examined. The questions are, “Where and when did he get The How?” and, “When will he tell us The Who?”

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