A couple months ago I began the tour for my book about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination with a lecture at Southern Methodist University in Dallas—a talk I was told would be attended by four members of the Oswald family. Also at the lecture were three men who knew a lot about Nov. 22, 1963: Darwin Payne, an amiable, retired reporter for the Dallas Times Herald who covered the tragedy 50 years ago; Sam Childers, a historian who had worked for five years at the Sixth Floor Museum in the old Texas School Book Depository on Dealey Plaza; and Michael Hazel, another historian who taught for many years at SMU and is a Dallas native. At a dinner after the talk, they offered to take me on a tour of Lee Harvey Oswald sites in Dallas. I leapt at the chance.
Our first stop was 1026 N. Beckley Ave. in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, where Oswald was living alone on Nov. 22, one of 17 boarders in the house. To his fellow roomers, the reclusive Oswald was dubbed the “butt twister” for the strange way he walked as he came into the living room to watch TV or talked on the communal telephone to someone in Russian. The current owner, the granddaughter of the 1963 owner, is trying to sell the place, a low-slung ramshackle of a house in what is still a fairly rough neighborhood. Darwin and Sam thought the place might fetch about $200,000, but the owner is asking $400,000. She suggests that the house should become a public museum where you could see the closet of a room where Oswald slept or the downstairs dining room where he ate his meals. So far, no one is biting.
Oswald had slipped out of the book depository unchallenged after the shooting, walked several blocks, caught a city bus, and then hailed a taxi that took him to his boarding house. There he picked up a pistol and a coat and began to walk aimlessly. Did he expect to be apprehended soon? Did he have an escape plan? Or was he in some sort of daze that prompted the aimless walk? If he was trying to escape, how would he do it with no money for a train or airline ticket? Or was he pondering what he would tell the police once they caught him? Darwin thought this question was relevant to the assassin’s interrogations at the police station after the arrest. His interrogators were amazed at how tough and unfazed Oswald had been during his grilling as if he had steeled himself mentally for the confrontation.
From Oswald’s rooming house, we proceeded to 214 W. Neely St., still in Oak Cliff. It was there that Oswald and his wife, Marina, had lived with their small child after they returned from Russia, and where in the garden Marina Oswald had taken the famous photograph of the assassin with his new mail-order rifle on his hip. The current owners of the house might ask you for several dollars to see their upstairs apartment. (We saved our money.)
Oswald apparently was quite proud of that photograph, for he would later send a copy of it to his political confidante, an elegant dandy of Polish extraction named George de Mohrenschildt. On the back of the photograph, Oswald has inscribed it to his friend and added the line in Russian, “Hunter of Fascists. Ha. Ha. Ha.” When de Mohrenschildt discovered the photograph in his papers years later, he would call it Oswald’s gift from the grave. De Mohrenschildt committed suicide on the day before he was to be interviewed by an investigator from the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1977.
From there we proceeded to the neighborhood of W.H. Adamson High School. (Oswald had dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to volunteer for the Marine Corps.) As the crow flies, the school is about a mile from 1026 N. Beckley Ave. Oswald had wandered there, for reasons no one can know. And no one can know why a Dallas policeman named J.D. Tippit had come to this spot and parked his car, for he was out of his assigned district. Of course, the Dallas police were on their highest alert for the president’s assassin. Police radios crackled with the news and deployments.
But we can know what happened on the corner of 10th Street and Patton Avenue. As the loner walked by the police car, Tippit hailed him down, angry words were exchanged, and as Tippit got out of his car, Oswald shot him dead. At least a dozen people witnessed Tippit’s murder. By the evening of Nov. 22, five of them had identified Oswald in police lineups.
As Darwin, Mike, Sam, and I stood by the historical plaque marking the spot of Tippit’s murder, we pondered yet another of these strange twists of history. Had Oswald had the presence of mind to be polite rather than cantankerous in his encounter with Tippit, he might have moved on, free of suspicion for some time.
From the corner where Tippit was murdered, we drove a few blocks to the nearby commercial street of Jefferson Boulevard. Oswald ran there, discarding his coat and ducking in and out of the recessed doorways of storefronts as police cars whizzed by with their sirens wailing. The neighborhood is largely Hispanic now, but its basic configuration remains the same. Johnny Calvin Brewer, the manager of a modest shoe store, had noticed Oswald’s suspicious behavior and began following him for several blocks. He saw Oswald duck into a vintage movie theater called the Texas Theatre, built in the 1930s and owned for a time by Howard Hughes. Oswald slipped by a distracted ticket taker who was listening to the radio and disappeared into the darkness.
Brewer hailed a police officer, Nick McDonald, who entered the theater accompanied by another officer. The black-and-white movie War Is Hell, set in the Korean War and narrated by Audie Murphy, was playing. Soon enough the movie was stopped, and the lights came up. As McDonald came up the aisle, the manager of theater pointed out Oswald from the stage.
When the officers approached him, Oswald stood up and shouted, “This is it!” and pulled out his revolver. But McDonald leapt on him, getting his finger between the pistol’s hammer and the bullet, and the gun did not go off. A scuffle ensued. Oswald punched one of the officers, and the officer punched him back, giving Oswald a black eye and a cut. (Later in the Dallas police headquarters, Oswald would allege police brutality.) Outside the theater, word of Oswald’s arrest had spread through the neighborhood, and a crowd gathered. When Oswald was brought out, people shouted, “Kill him! Kill him!”
Darwin did not witness Oswald’s arrest. He was still downtown, working another angle. He had learned about a businessman from the building that adjoined the book depository, a dress manufacturer by the name of Abraham Zapruder who had apparently filmed the presidential motorcade coming down Elm Street with his home movie camera. Zapruder, it turned out, had a diligent secretary who berated him that morning for not bringing in his little Super 8 camera, a Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series. She made him go home to get it.
“How many times does the president drive by your office?” she had asked.