What readers will not find in Swanson’s book is any new research or evidence, which distinguishes it from Sabato’s effort. At times Swanson also expresses a contempt for his subject that is unbecoming of the dispassionate chronicler. He describes Oswald as “a classic wife beater,” a “compulsive criminal,” “a fool who has no idea what he is talking about,” “[a man of] corrosive obsessions [and] long-simmering resentments, frustrations, and grievances” with a “murderous heart” — all before the Kennedys arrive at Love Field and, by Swanson’s own determination, Oswald has even decided to kill the president. Swanson also ridicules Oswald for mangling large words and dismisses his attempted assassination of retired general Edwin Walker, in April 1963, as “an absurd failure,” even though — having opened the book with the episode, to demonstrate early on Oswald’s capacity for political violence — he has already told us that Oswald “missed Walker’s head by less than an inch.” Even less engaging is Swanson’s snap summary of JFK’s presidency, so simply written as to resemble schoolbook prose: After quoting the famous “ask not” refrain, Swanson helpfully explains, “It was a patriotic call to the people of the United States to be civic-minded and politically active.”
The hero in End of Days is the first lady, whose Gothic suffering is touchingly evoked. Swanson captures Jacqueline Kennedy’s extraordinary stamina and savvy, showing how swiftly and surely she moved, amid intense shock and grief, to chart her husband’s funeral and then, immediately thereafter, to frame the historical view of the Kennedy presidency, with the aid of fawning journalists, in the noble and romantic vision of “Camelot.” Even here, however, Swanson (like Sabato) perpetuates the myth that after the tragic death of the Kennedys’ two-day-old son, Patrick, in August 1963, the first couple “might have been more in love with each other this November than they had been since the year they married. Once they returned from Texas, they could begin again.”
This account ignores the revelations of Once upon a Secret
(2012), the well-documented and well-received memoir of Mimi Alford (née Beardsley), the former White House intern whose lurid two-year affair with Kennedy had included his deflowering of the 19-year-old girl on Mrs. Kennedy’s White House bed and, in an even more grotesque scene, the president’s watching as Beardsley, at his instruction, performed oral sex on one of his Irish-mafia buddies in the White House swimming pool. The affair ended on November 15, 1963, in a rendezvous at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. There, JFK told her, in a final embrace: “I wish you were coming with me to Texas. I’ll call you when I get back.” When Beardsley noted that she was about to marry her college sweetheart, the president replied: “I know that. But I’ll call you anyway.”
Halfway through The Interloper, we find the American defector, a mostly unimpressive character whose unusual background makes him a novelty in the USSR, chatting up a young woman at a cello recital in his adopted city of Minsk in the fall of 1960. With the girl looking straight into Oswald’s eyes and “earnestly considering what Lee was saying,” a Russian friend of Oswald’s suddenly approaches to tell him something — but the American slyly wiggles his right foot, without the girl’s noticing, and the Russian friend, taking the hint, backs off.
That Oswald hit on girls, knew how to handle pesky wingmen, had friends in the USSR who cared to tell him things: The accumulation of quotidian detail in The Interloper
will startle even hard-core assassination buffs. The rendering of Oswald as a real man, a fathomable character with grandiose thoughts and primal urges, favorite books and private hurts, a tragic childhood and a diffident personality, is Peter Savodnik’s great accomplishment. If there existed between Oswald and the Belorussians he met during his nearly three years in Minsk what one of them described as “a strange film,” an impermeable layer of emotional distance, Savodnik’s exquisite prose and command of the evidence, including Oswald’s diaries, allow the reader to peer through it and see the doomed killer as he was: “fascinating,” as Savodnik writes, but also “grotesque, pitiful, and self-involved.”
It is untrue, as Savodnik claims, that writers have heretofore “avoided delving deeply into Oswald the man.” To Priscilla Johnson McMillan, the Moscow-based reporter who interviewed Oswald shortly after his arrival there, in October 1959, he confided that “he had never in all his life talked to anyone so long about himself.” In 1977, McMillan published the groundbreaking Marina and Lee, the paperback edition of which accurately stated: “For the first time, the assassin’s wife reveals the innermost secrets of her life with the man who shot JFK.” The following year brought Edward Jay Epstein’s meticulous Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, based on 10,000 classified documents and 400 original interviews. And Norman Mailer would eventually give us Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery (1995), a deeply researched nonfiction novel plumbing the assassin’s interior psychology (and dismissed here, by Savodnik, as “jarring” in its “veiled respect for the assassin as rebel and seeker”).
The particular prism employed by Savodnik, a magazine writer, is geography: We are reminded that Oswald, whose father died two months before he was born, moved with his disturbed mother 20 times before he turned 17, averaging 10.2 months per address. Indeed, the 32 months Oswald spent in the USSR — where, among other things, he tried to kill himself, worked at a factory, dated multiple women, proposed to a Jewish girl who turned him down, met and married the mysterious and beautiful Marina Prusakova, and fathered the first of his two daughters with her — marked his longest stretch of residency anywhere save for a four-year stint in Fort Worth, in his teens, that his diaries largely skip.
In the end, however, even Oswald, the self-taught Marxist, recognized the moral corrosion of the Soviet state. When the defector returned to the United States, his traitorous bid for selfhood having failed, he was more adrift than ever. “I was really the naïve American who believed in communism,” he wrote. “I shall never sell myself intentionally or unintentionally to anyone again.” The 17 months between Oswald’s return to U.S. soil, in June 1962, and JFK’s assassination saw the interloping reach a new frenzy: nine addresses, conservatively counted, less than two months per address.
Only late in the narrative, as an aside, does Savodnik note that Oswald “voiced no interest in religion [and] appeared to have no spiritual aspect.” Yet the author does not posit this as a contributing factor in Oswald’s rootlessness, nor see it as decisive in his ultimate turn to violence; he should have. The ultimate failing of The Interloper is its careful avoidance of the last stepping-stone between Oswald’s belated recognition of his problem — he wrote that his father’s premature death “left [in me] a mean streak of independence brought on by neglect” — and his targeting of JFK. It hardly connects the dots between a rootless and fractured existence and the killing of the president to say: “Something calamitous was almost inevitable.” Oswald’s only known reference to the man he killed was, as Oswald’s aunt told the FBI, “something in praise of President Kennedy”; so how could the assassination have been “inevitable”?
The Interloper will likely be the last large-scale, well-organized effort to conduct original interviews with people who knew Oswald personally. At all points, this book elicits admiration for the author’s global research effort and sadness for the subject’s personal misery. The most touching scene comes in April 1963, when Oswald, again fleeing his family, takes a Greyhound to New Orleans, city of his birth, to visit — for the first and only time — his father’s grave. Then he consults a phone book to dial any Oswalds he can find. Never has one man’s failed search for identity and community had such a profound impact on history, or plunged so many others into loneliness.
— James Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and the author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate. This article is reprinted from the November, 25, 2013, issue of National Review.