On Fighting the Temptation to Fictionalize Marina Oswald
Certain lives, the arcs of those lives, are wildly attractive to storytellers.
The cowardly, deformed historian who survived nephew Caligula's purges to rule Rome until poisoned by his fourth wife fascinated Robert Graves. The cultural icon who started life as love needy/greedy Norma Jeane Baker entranced Joyce Carol Oates (among others).
The list is long. Fiction finessed from reality—and why not?
In the case of Emperor Claudius, Graves had at his creative disposal one of fiction's favorite darlings: the scorned and underrated. Also: the setting of corrupt, decadent Rome. Also: the rise and fall of the mighty. In Marilyn Monroe, Oates possessed a protagonist whose story of abuse, beauty and beauty abused lent itself to nifty applications of illusion subbing for reality, illusion overtaking reality, and worlds (Hollywood/Washington) colliding via sex.
For a tale that trucks in issues of identity, alienation, generational damage, spousal complicity and the political landscape of our planet, 1950 to 1965, a fiction writer could scarcely do better than steal the real-life specifics of the wife of the accused assassin of the President with whom Marilyn reportedly romped.
But even before becoming the focus of a grieving nation, Marina Oswald clocks in as:
- A Russian bride stranded in Texas
- A dependent wife who speaks minimal English
- The too-young mother of two
- The unfortunate forced to bunk with a mother-in-law ogres would shun.
Which is to say even before Marina Oswald’s first husband ascends to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas in search of his own story’s climax, Marina Oswald represents, on her own, fiction with potential.
"Marina Oswald Sells Out"
—A title I toy with after reading William Manchester's The Death of a President and its inventory of the assassination artifacts the widow puts up for quick sale. Before the U.S. Justice Department intervenes, she does quite nicely: $20,000 for her husband's Russian diary, another $5,000 for the Neely Street photo of Lee Harvey, holding the 6.5 Mannlicker-Carcano carbine.
In my notebook, I diddle with a chart.
The cashing in could function as starting point or culmination, narrative jolt or plot fulfillment (depending on the writer's inclination). Marina’s personality could be tipped toward pathetic, scheming, or utterly clueless (depending on overall intent). Push aside the very considerable prohibition that Don DeLillo has already laid mitts on Marina in Libra and there are definite angles to be worked, ample material to appropriate.
In the published photo archive, she comes across as—what? Somehow not entirely like other girls of her time and place. Blonder? Less Slavic? More delicately featured? In photo after photo of the Oswald couple, he smiles; she does not. Leaving Minsk, en route to America, our heroine/victim clutches three daffodils, head tied in a scarf, eyes telegraphing both bewilderment and fright.
What those eyes saw.
What they saw and understood/misunderstood.
What they saw and denied.
A story fashioned around the eyes alone.
The warp of childhood, et cetera
The child of a weak mother and otherwise married father, young Marina grows up tolerated (not loved) by her stepfather. She trains in pharmaceutics, flees Leningrad for Minsk, where she smokes, drinks, parties and partakes in White Night revelries and other small but escalating rebellions. She develops a taste for non-Russian, jealous men. Indulges in or refrains from premarital sex, depending on whom you believe. A virginal bride, say Marina and her biographer, Priscilla McMillan, in Marina and Lee. The source Norman Mailer quotes in Oswald's Tale calls her a woman "always with her legs spread."
Conflict, contractions, a self at war with self: fiction’s playground.
And then, and then:
This semi-vulnerable, semi-virginal, semi-adventurous Russian girl attends a Palace of Culture dance, where she meets an American who calls himself Alik. He’s a bit thin, this Alik. He brags nonstop, this Alik. But he waltzes very, very well.
The marriage contract
"I married Alik,” Marina tells Priscilla McMillan, “because he was American … (and) had an apartment.” Also because she was "more in love with him than anyone else at the time."
At the time.
As in: subject to change.
As in: likely to change.
A post-marital liaison with a former boyfriend ends, despite the lubricant of French wine, in further sexual frustration. The former boyfriend turns out to be as disappointingly quick on the draw as her new husband. In their cramped apartment, the Oswalds bicker and come to blows, every syllable and sulk recorded by the KGB.
From the August 3, 1961 transcript:
WIFE: You're always finding fault; nothing's enough, everything's bad!
LHO: You're ridiculous. Lazy and crude.
WIFE: Don't you see I dust every morning?
LHO: You don't clean up over there on our table.
WIFE: …I washed it twice and you never even washed it once.
WIFE: …Alka, do you hate me when you yell at me?
It was a marriage on the skids long before the American voyage, Fort Worth vagabondism, émigré infighting and the couple's disastrous decision to cohabitate with Marguerite Oswald, a real-life stereotype fiction would have to “round.”
Marguerite, the caricature
Vain, thin-skinned Marguerite in black-rim glasses and nurse's uniform. The relative once fired from a sales job because of "intractable body odor" (Oswald’s Tale), living with a couple fanatical to the point of hysteria about hygiene.
Stop there and you have the seed of a comedy.
Continue and risk venturing into less amusing territory.
Marguerite endorsing a husband's right to blacken his wife's eye (Oswald’s Tale). Marguerite crowing to Jean Stafford about her inclusion in "twenty-six volumes of the Warren Report" (A Mother in History). Marguerite out-money grubbing her daughter-in-law in the wake of her murdering son's murder. Her outrage when actor Richard Burton pockets five grand for a guest spot on the same TV show for which she, the accused assassin’s birth agent, earns a measly hundred. Her miffed insistence and continuous complaint that: "Moneywise, I got took" (The Death of a President).
One could build an opera on Marguerite's grievances and still have grudges to spare.
The Good Samaritan complication
A thirty-one-year-old Quaker, living apart from her husband, pursues, in the name of friendship, a fair-haired Slavic girl, ten years her junior. Ruth Paine offers Marina the shelter of her home at 2515 West Fifth Street in Irving, a house "almost barren of feminine charm" (The Death of a President) with an attached garage so cluttered no one notices the addition of a semi-concealed Italian firearm.
In their self-contained world, the two women work to improve, respectively, their English and Russian language skills, share laundry, housecleaning and childrearing chores. One husband could care less about such fierce bonding. The other, Lee Harvey, sniffs a threat to his manhood, reclaims his family and conjugal rights, packs up wife and offspring and relocates to New Orleans.
But will life prove easy in the Big Easy for the Oswalds?
Will this be the husband/wife reconciliation that sticks?
Rescue me! Marina all but pleads in her letters to Ruth Paine, who obligingly drives through the night to reach New Orleans. Together the women and children return to Texas, leaving a humiliated Lee Harvey to follow.
Thereafter: a Russian/Quaker united front. Lee Harvey is no longer welcome at 2515 West Fifth Street. Welcome or no, he sneaks in one last time to retrieve the weapon his entrepreneurial widow, a capitalism convert, will try to sell on the open market to the highest bidder after his demise.
A Texas bride twice over
Resist every invention, incorporate only the reported "facts," and still from this point forward the narrative bulges toward surreal.
Marina and children, in protective custody in a Dallas hotel, chatting about Jack and Jackie with Secret Service agents. Soft-hearted Americans sending envelopes stuffed with cash, a $70,000 slush fund, for the accused assassin’s non-native widow and children. In a nightmare worthy of Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov, Marina dreams repeatedly of running from a mob, screaming: "Lee did it, not me" (Marina and Lee).
Russian in dream, Russian still at heart perhaps, but scarcely a year after notoriety comes calling very little visual trace of Russian Marina remains. New bouffant hairdo, new Neiman-Marcus wardrobe, a business manager to handle her affairs.
A survivor who starts (or reverts to) chain-smoking.
Who starts (or reverts to) drinking her vodka straight.
Who starts (or reverts to) sleeping around.
In 1965, three months after she weds a six-foot, twice-divorced drag racer in Fate, Texas, her second husband is jailed for spousal abuse because, as he quips to the press: "It's just time for her to have some more publicity" (The Death of a President). Once he is released, the brawlers reunite, conceive a child, file for divorce, but continue to live as a couple on a 17-acre farm outside of Dallas (Oswald’s Tale).
A list of denouement incidentals that so begs the question: Of what now does Marina Oswald dream?
In The Art of the Novel, Henry James discusses the value of the dinner party anecdote in sparking a novelist’s imagination. Ten words, James writes, are sufficient to suggest the outlines of a fiction. More than ten ruins "the possibilities of the little drama” and serves only to reveal "life … at her stupid work."
In the case of a four-pack-a-day smoker who still objects to the harshness of the Texas sun after more than forty years beneath its glare, the stupid work of life dishes up, on all fronts, mind-numbing abundance. An excess of viewpoints. A plethora of details. Saturation levels of both grand tragedy and craven pettiness. Wherever invention might attempt to pitch a tent, reality has already set up house.
Yet a house under continuous renovation.
Immediately after her husband's televised murder, the widow appears on Channel 4/Fort Worth TV to confirm the dead’s guilt (Oswald’s Tale). Then she recants the claim and substitutes another: Lee Harvey was not "the man who fired the gun" (Oswald’s Tale). He was a) innocent or b) one of many conspirators. Maybe a martyr, maybe a dupe, but definitely not the gunman and most definitely not the lone assassin.
A loyalist defense the second go-around, but will that revision stand?
To find out, the factualists will have to bide their time. Fictioneers can close out the chapter whenever and however we choose. Regardless, for those of a certain age in America turning a deaf ear to the next installment of Marina Oswald’s publicly reported private life is not an option. She is part of our darkest collective fairytale. She is the story continued.