The Great Riddle

Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald

by Edward Jay Epstein
Reader’s Digest Press/McGraw-Hill, 382 pp., $12.95

Who killed Kennedy?” is a riddle that won’t go away. Most Americans still doubt the official explanation, that Lee Harvey Oswald did it all unaided. Nor have criticisms come only from eccentrics. John Connally, for example, contradicted the Warren Commission in insisting that he and the president were hit by different bullets.

Indeed, details of that sort make up the assassination writ. The 888-page Report is only the beginning. After that come the fifteen volumes of hearings (7,907 pages) and eleven volumes of exhibits (another 9,832 pages). A further store of materials can now be viewed at the National Archives. There is a mass of interpretative literature, with authors ranging from Dick Gregory and Gerald Ford to the Coroner of Allegheny County. To follow the debate requires familiarity with an endless litany of names (Billy Lovelady, Candy Barr, Carlos Bringuier); places (Oak Cliff, Stemmons Freeway, the Texas Theater); and theories (“Single Bullet,” “Grassy Knoll,” “Two Oswalds”). Speculations have included Cuban connections, a Mafia involvement, and—now—a mission beginning in Moscow.

What we need is someone we can trust, to guide us through this overgrown trail. Edward Jay Epstein would seem ideally suited for this job. He is one of our best national reporters, whose work has always been based on solid factual grounds. His book Inquest, still the best single study of the assassination, focused on the Warren Commission and the constraints under which it operated. His Agency of Fear, on Nixon’s attempt to create a personal police force, again showed Epstein’s mastery at discovering important material and inducing people to talk. That he was devoting his next book to Oswald was welcome news. Moreover, with an abundant advance from his publisher he and a staff of helpers conducted over 400 interviews, many with people never approached by the Warren Commission. For example, they tracked down sixty-two men who had served with Oswald in the Marines almost twenty years ago.

Legend is a very curious book. This said, let me add that it is utterly absorbing. It is a saga of fits and starts, essentially the life of a loner. Yet under Epstein’s rendering this morose young man becomes increasingly interesting. Epstein tells of an adolescent year in the Bronx, where Oswald was picked up for truancy at the Zoo. (“Tense, withdrawn, and evasive,” wrote Dr. Renatus Hartogs, then a staff psychiatrist.) Of his discovery of sex in Minsk. And of a talk to Jesuit seminarians in Mobile, who thought he was “at least” a college graduate. At the end we feel we know Oswald better, yet remain as perplexed as ever. Perhaps this was Epstein’s intention.

It is a fascinating book. There were times when I felt like hurling it across the room, yet knew I would immediately rush to retrieve it. Perhaps that, too, was Epstein’s plan. One way to describe the sensation is to say that reading Legend is like laboring over a jigsaw puzzle and then discovering …

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