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Stephen King and My Dad (Part 2)

February 13, 2012

In researching his alternate history of JFK’s assassination, 11/22/63, Stephen King did his homework – reading “a stack of books and articles on the subject almost as tall as I am.” In researching his non-fiction work on the same subject, Death of a President, my father conducted over 1000 interviews, many made possible by Jackie Kennedy’s approval of the project. The only person who refused to talk to him was Oswald’s widow, Marina. My father told me that she sued him for 10 million dollars – a lot of scratch back in the 60s.

My father and King came to the same conclusion: that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed Kennedy in Dallas. It’s an unpopular conclusion. A majority of Americans believe otherwise. My father sympathized with people’s need to pin this monumental historic event on something greater than a lone and little man. King mentions my father saying this, but I think it’s best in his own words:

Those who desperately want to believe that President Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy have my sympathy. I share their yearning. To employ what may seem an odd metaphor, there is an esthetic principle here. If you put six million dead Jews on one side of a scale and on the other side put the Nazi regime — the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state — you have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals.
But if you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President’s death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something.
A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely. Unfortunately, there is no evidence whatever that there was one. (New York Times, February 5, 1992)

So where do I stand on the assassination? Truth is, I’ve never paid it much attention. Perhaps that’s because it’s too painful. It’s an event that came close to tearing my family apart. I haven’t studied the volumes of evidence, and supposed evidence supporting one theory or another. So I don’t have much grounds for an informed opinion.

And in venturing one, I’m sticking my neck out. For all the reasonable people who believe in conspiracy theories – and with that many believers, there must be some – there is a wide fringe that is less than reasonable. Their very obsession with the subject suggests that it might be a lot more about them personally than whatever happened in Dallas so long ago. Some of them are plain nuts, and hounded my father to the day he died.

So I should just leave it there. And yet… There are a couple of things that cause me to tend to agree with my dad and Stephen King.

Back in the seventies I went to a party of fellow Wesleyan Alums at an apartment in Cambridge. It was the home of the AIB –Assassination Inquiry Bureau. A center for the kind of fevered discussion I witnessed that evening – Did you hear the latest on Jack Ruby? The Grassy Knoll? The missing bullet? Those little green men?

An acquaintance came up to me and said, “So, is it true, what Paul Krassner wrote?” Krassner had written a satirical (?) piece in his magazine, The Realist, about the parts my father supposedly left out of his account of the assassination. They include a scene of Lyndon Johnson on the plane back to Washington from Texas copulating with the wound in JFK’s neck.
I said, ‘No!” frankly, a little pissed off – on behalf of my dad. He never understood counterculture humor (not sure I understood this bit of it either) and had been very upset by Krassner’s piece.
Now the guy from Wesleyan gave me a long look. “Tell me the truth. Was your father in on it too?” Of the conspiracy. Which part? The CIA, Castro, the green men? The assumption being that he’d been bought off to whitewash the truth.

I mumbled something, then left the party. I thought of all the acid those guys at the AIB had imbibed back at Wesleyan – hey, I ran with the same crowd, took some of the same acid. It’s a drug which certainly lends itself to conspiracy theories. I thought about them sitting in that apartment, dreaming up stuff. I wondered if they’d even been to Dallas.

I was certain they hadn’t conducted 1000 interviews, some of them with people who would speak to no one else about the assassination. They hadn’t worked 15 hours a day for 2 ½ years studying that dark day in Texas.

I knew my father well enough to know that his honor would have made it impossible for him to be bought off as part of any conspiracy. Given the choice on this between trusting him and a bunch of acidheads, I’m going with him and Stephen King.

  1. Mark Paul permalink

    Hey, I miss the days when a friend would come up to you at a party and casually ask (a) if your father might have been a conspirator in one of the great unsolved crimes of the century, (b) do you know it to be true, and (c) just between us, can you confirm it!

    That kind of behavior was rampant then and there aren’t nearly enough comedies of manners — novels or movies — about that period. And there are still vestiges of it lying around.

    • Yes, it was a different time. I agree, not nearly enough works about that period. I’m doing my best to remedy that – one way or another, my memoir and a novel in which the early 70s play their part will be published soon.

  2. A good set of posts here. Thanks. As to King, I’ve enjoyed almost everything he’s written. (The major exceptions were “Cujo,” “Pet Sematary” and “Duma Key.”) I loved “11/22/63” and read it pretty much nonstop once it fell into my hands from the library; I think it’s one of King’s three or four best. (I’d put “The Stand” and “It” in there, and I have an odd affection for “Rose Madder.”) I have read some of the conspiracy stuff and found a lot of it utter hogwash, though there are some questions that can never be answered. In the absence of those answers, I agree with your (and your dad’s and King’s) conclusion. I also agree that the idea that we want things to balance makes a lot of sense, and Oswald was such a nebbish. I do need to go find your dad’s book. That’s one I’ve meant to read for years. (I have read a couple of his others.) It must be odd to run into your father’s name like that.

  3. I’d only read King’s The Tommyknockers, Desperation, and The Regulators (one of his Bachman books) with mixed feelings before picking up 11/22/63 on the advice of a friend who shares my enthusiasm for British author, Nick Hornby. After I finished it she asked me what I thought of it. I told her, “That bitch ruined me for any other book I could possibly try to read after it. Nothing else can compare after reading that.”

    Needless to say, I absolutely loved it. The funny thing is, the bits about Oswald and the Kennedy assassination were the slowest and least entertaining bits of the book. The concept of a man being forced to live in the past for 5 years, making a life for himself, falling in love. That’s what hooked me and held my interest. I know King was inspired by Jack Finney’s books and I too enjoyed those but I thought King’s take on time travel was much better executed and realized than Finney’s.

    Great posts! I’ll be sure to start checking out your other blogs going forward.

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