Monday, January 17, 2011

JFK: Mrs. Paine's Mirage (Or, How I Learned to Hate Mrs. Paine's Garage)

Mrs. Paine's Garage, published back in 2002, is an unfortunate little book. I have a distant connection to it, one that I regret.

In July 2001 its author, Thomas Mallon, sent me an email introducing himself. He briefly described his project – a sympathetic look at Ruth Paine, a figure in the JFK assassination – and asked if I could put him in touch with Mrs. Shirley Martin, who had known Mrs. Paine many years before.

Mallon had apparently Googled Mrs. Martin and found no contact information. But the Internet, in its infinite thoroughness, linked my name to hers, presumably due to some research I was then conducting. So I wrote to Mrs. Martin about Thomas Mallon, and she agreed to talk to him.

Thomas Mallon's motives for undertaking a book about Ruth Paine are unknown to me, and I won't speculate on them. But I find it hard to understand how he could write Mrs. Paine's Garage without playing at least a gentle form of devil's advocate with his subject. Such a role, which some would consider the writer's duty, might have elicited valuable information that would have greatly enhanced the resulting narrative, even if he stuck to what I am convinced was a preconceived conclusion.

As it developed, there was no devil's advocacy, and consequently no real depth to Mrs. Paine's Garage. Mr. Mallon accepts the official story of the JFK assassination and, it follows, the official story of Ruth Paine and her role in that cataclysmic event.

That role, in sum, is that Ruth Paine was, in 1963, a good-hearted Quaker woman who happened to befriend Lee and Marina Oswald at a critical juncture in their lives. She allowed the pregnant Marina and one daughter (soon two) to live with her in suburban Dallas while misfit Lee dreamed the dreams of the perpetual loser, finally exacting a psycho-sicko revenge on society by murdering President Kennedy.

Thomas Mallon refers to Ruth Paine as "a vessel of disinterested kindness." Others see Mrs. Paine in a different light.

Ruth and her husband Michael "maintain a delicate balance between intimacy and distance as concerns Lee Harvey Oswald," wrote researcher Barbara LaMonica in 1995. "They exploit their role as intimate when they want to condemn Lee, and take on the mantle of being expert witnesses as to his character, and how violence-prone he was, and how capable he was [for committing] the assassination. But they conveniently distance themselves from him when they want to avoid scrutiny."

After his arrest, a desperate Lee Oswald telephoned Mrs. Paine from jail and asked her help in contacting a lawyer named John Abt. "I was quite stunned that he called at all or that he thought he could ask anything of me – appalled, really," Ruth testified to the Warren Commission.

Yet she did, in fact, try to reach John Abt on Oswald's behalf. Asked by the Warren Commission whether she informed Oswald she had been unable to contact him, this vessel of disinterested kindness replied, "I made no effort to call the police station."

Sylvia Meagher was herself appalled, really, by this admission. "Her failure to notify Oswald that she had been unable to reach Abt, so that he would realize the urgency of obtaining legal assistance elsewhere, is unforgivable," she wrote in Accessories After the Fact.

There is more about Ruth and Michael Paine, a lot more – but I want to keep this short.

There are portions of Mrs. Paine's Garage which I find downright deceptive. In a footnote on page 57, Thomas Mallon cites an "assassinaton legend" that on November 22, 1963, Ruth Paine greeted Dallas Police officers with the words, "Come in, I've been expecting you." These officers had come to search Mrs. Paine's home several hours after the assassination, and the Paine garage yielded a trove of evidence damning Lee Oswald.

As Jerry Rose noted in a 1990 article in The Third Decade, the arrival of the cops at the Paine house was not, in and of itself, suspicious; Oswald listed the Paine address on his employment application to the Texas School Book Depository. It's her greeting that seemed so odd, even to the police. When they arrived at the Paine home, Lee Oswald had not yet been publicly identified as an assassination suspect.

In any case, Ruth Paine firmly denies the greeting attributed to her, telling Thomas Mallon, "I was not expecting them and I did not say that."

Maybe she didn't. But the allegation is not a "legend," which my dictionary says is an unverifiable story handed down by tradition. No, it comes from the testimony of one of the cops, Dallas Police Detective Guy F. Rose, who before he made it raised his right hand and swore that what he was about to say was the truth and nothing but, so help him God. Maybe Detective Rose made the story up. But this is not a legend, it is sworn testimony. And maybe it is true.

It is worth mentioning that Shirley Martin, who is now deceased, later told me that after making contact with her, Thomas Mallon said some things to her that may not be true. Shirley said he told her that he would be able to quote her letters to Ruth Paine in his book, whether Shirley gave him permission or not.

This is almost certainly false. Writers are strictly governed by what they can quote without permission. It is a matter of intellectual property. From what Shirley told me, Mallon at very least exaggerated how much he would be able to quote, and he probably knew better. This is a big reason why his smelly little book is on my list of the worst ever published on the JFK case.

"I hope," Shirley Martin said, "he is not another Posner."

He wasn't, but not for lack of trying. Mrs. Paine's Garage was duly published, and excerpted in The New Yorker, and lauded by the usual media sluts. It appears, finally, to have sunk into a well-deserved oblivion.

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