Sunday, 18 September 2022 22:42

A Mother In History: The Stafford Archive

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In this article John Kelin examines evidence that author Jean Stafford falsified at least one quote attributed to Marguerite Oswald, in her profile A Mother in History.


Jean Stafford (1915-1979) is best remembered for writing novels and short stories; she won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1970. But in 1966 she ventured into nonfiction with a profile of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, Marguerite. This made her a person of interest to me as I researched my book, Praise from a Future Generation (Wings Press, 2007).

Stafford grew up in Boulder, CO, not too far from where I live, and where she later attended the University of Colorado. Today her papers are housed in CU’s Norlin Library. She was only peripheral to my project, and there was already plenty of available data about her. So even though it’s in my back yard, and even though I made regular use of Norlin resources, I never went to the Stafford archive during my own book’s research phase.

Her profile of Marguerite Oswald appeared first as an article in McCall’s magazine, and later as a book, both called A Mother In History. I devoted a few pages to it in Praise From, but a vexing question remained. “[Lee] never did tell me why he went to Russia,” Stafford quoted Marguerite as saying. “I have my own opinion. He spoke Russian, he wrote Russian, and he read Russian. Why? Because my boy was being trained as an agent, that’s why.”

This is a compelling statement. Does it not demand a follow-up question? It seems inconceivable that Stafford would not ask something: if nothing else, “Oh? Tell me more.” Yet her next question, in the published text, is about what Lee might have done with his life had he lived.

A friend recently told me that CU’s archive includes audio recordings of Stafford’s interviews with Mrs. Oswald. They might clarify the matter; they might reveal a follow-up question that, for some reason, had been deleted. So I contacted the archive and scheduled a visit.

Before going to the archive I set myself the onerous task of re-reading A Mother In History. The book is short, and mercifully so: short, unpleasant, and mean-spirited. Even one of Stafford’s biographers (there are several) faulted its tone, calling it “profoundly unsympathetic” and “a cruel portrait, executed pitilessly.”

The book is divided into three sections: one for each of the days Stafford spent talking to Marguerite. The opening thirty-odd pages describe the first day, and it is here that Marguerite made the comment about her son being trained as an agent. Also in these early pages, Stafford indicates that the first day was not tape recorded. She wrote that as she got up to leave, “I asked [Marguerite] if she would object to my bringing a tape recorder the following day; she said that on the contrary, she would be glad if I did…”

Throughout A Mother In History, Stafford’s support for the lone nut scenario is never in doubt. Later she characterized her role as a “stenographer” – by implication, an impartial participant. But her point of view is clear, as is her lack of sympathy for Marguerite. Mrs. Oswald spent most of her time “researching the case,” she reported on page five, “studying theories of conspiracy (right-wing, left-wing, wingless, Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Black Muslim, anarchist, fascist, federalist, masterminded by the cops, masterminded by the robbers.)”

This is, of course, an absurd exaggeration. Stafford never seemed to consider that, in the aftermath of the assassination and Lee Harvey’s sensational murder, Marguerite Oswald must have been under enormous emotional strain, especially since the evidence against her son was so flimsy.

At the Stafford archive, materials relating to A Mother In History are stored in a single modest container. In it are several typed manuscript drafts, galleys, some of Stafford’s handwritten notes, and the article version from McCall’s. Not included are the audio recordings I’d been told about, though they’re listed on the Finding Aid I consulted. The original tapes have been digitized, the archivist informed me. To hear the audio I must fill out a form, then wait for CU’s Digital Reproductions people to contact me.

Yet I got lucky. I came across a fifty-seven-page interview transcript not listed on the Finding Aid. It appeared to be the original, with the look and feel of a 1960s-era typescript: faded onionskin paper, double spaced with wide margins, and page numbers typed in each upper left corner. The numeral 2 was handwritten at the top right of each page, possibly indicating it’s a second copy. The whole thing was fastened with a plastic-coated, archivally correct paperclip.

What I could not determine was its origin. There was no indication who made the transcript. It was undated; and though the words “A Mother in History” were handwritten in pencil at the top, it was otherwise untitled.

As I waited impatiently to hear the audio, I obtained a PDF of the transcript and relied on it as I drafted this article. After I got it I noticed a missing page. The archivist told me it was missing from the original, too. I did not hear the audio until September, two months after I went to the archive. I compared the two; the transcript is a faithful rendering. (For convenience I’m using the word “transcript” more often than “audio,” but the two align perfectly.)

It has all proven to be quite illuminating. The bottom line? Marguerite Oswald never made the provocative statement Stafford attributed to her: “He never did tell me why he went to Russia. I have my own opinion. He spoke Russian, he wrote Russian, and he read Russian. Why? Because my boy was being trained as an agent, that’s why.”

She didn’t say it! But I must clarify: Marguerite sort of said it. Although the troublesome quote is in A Mother In History’s first section, the day Jean Stafford indicated she did not record, most of the words are, in fact, in the transcript and audio. But they are scattered over four transcript pages, and nearly four minutes in the recording. So Stafford recorded this after all – but seems to have cherry-picked choice selections and stitched them together, without alerting the reader.

Still with me? In the middle of transcript page 25 is this phrase: “He ever did tell me why he went to Russia. I have my own opinion.” (This is not a typo: the transcript says ever, not never.)

Three pages later (and after several more questions from Stafford), at the top of transcript page 28, is another portion of the published quote: “He spoke Russian, he wrote Russian and he read Russian.”

At the top of page 29: “…because my boy was being trained as a agent that’s why.”

These are the elements, with a few missing words, that constitute the quote on page 32 of A Mother In History. In the book it is presented without ellipses or any other editorial device to indicate omitted content. Such editorial devices are, of course, accepted conventions; they imply that what you are reading is edited but trustworthy. Not using them, especially on a subject like this, is unethical and misleading.

How do we interpret this? The quote is compelling by any measure, but Marguerite Oswald didn’t quite say it. Yet it runs contrary to the lone nut myth, which Jean Stafford supports. Why would she cobble it together?

In an early draft of this article I offered up a possible explanation, one that let Stafford off the hook. It was a misguided effort, so I deleted it. I can’t explain the inexplicable. Certainly, the idea of a connection between Lee Harvey Oswald and the U.S. government was not new. Marguerite even told a dismissive Warren Commission her son was an agent when she testified in February 1964. But in 1966, when Staffords book was published, it had none of the credibility it has now. I think she introduced it, but failed to explore it, in order to make Marguerite look mentally unstable.

In contrast to Jean Stafford’s covert hostility, Marguerite was gracious and friendly. A greeting card in the archive illustrates this. “Please make a schedule to suit your needs,” she wrote Stafford, shortly before their three days together. “I am happy to oblige.”

In addition to the quote that first drew my attention, other sections of A Mother In History are, when compared to the source transcript and audio, demonstrably false. While Jean Stafford’s motives are unknown, it had to have been deliberate. Even allowing for the occasional honest error, the book contains manufactured quotes, and the false implication that the first day of interviews, where a manufactured quote appears, was not recorded. As we have seen, it was recorded. By implying there was no documentation for this part of her interviews, did Stafford mean to deter anyone from checking that quotes accuracy?

You know how it is with liars: once you know they’ve lied to you, everything else they say is suspect.

The pitiless tone of A Mother In History might best be understood (if not excused) when viewed in the context of the times: reassuring anxious readers that there was not a conspiracy, and that the alleged assassin’s mother is a kook you can safely ignore. Still, why did Stafford even bother? A big paycheck might be enough to explain it. But interviewing and writing about Marguerite Oswald should have excited her. The assassination was the biggest story of the era.

Jean Stafford was a bestselling author, widely acclaimed during her lifetime. As far as the Kennedy assassination goes, she is a fringe dweller. A Mother In History is an unimportant book that is best forgotten. It felt dishonest when I first read it years ago, and my recent visit to the CU archive reinforces that view. The book may represent Stafford’s professional nadir, but to be fair it is only a tiny portion of her overall output – as indeed, materials relating to it are but a fraction of the University of Colorado’s Jean Stafford archive.

I regret that, in Praise From a Future Generation, I took so much of A Mother In History at face value. I assumed Jean Stafford’s dishonesty was a matter of spin control. How very naïve of me to not even consider the possibility of calculated distortion.

A far more balanced and sympathetic portrait of Marguerite Oswald may be found in “The Unsinkable Marguerite Oswald,” by Harold Feldman. It appeared in Paul Krassner’s The Realist in September 1964. Circulation of The Realist, of course, was vastly eclipsed by McCall’s, to say nothing of Stafford’s book publisher Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. But “The Unsinkable Marguerite Oswald” is highly recommended. A Mother In History is not.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 September 2022 21:46
John Kelin

A former public radio announcer and technical writer for Sun Microsystems, John Kelin co-founded Fair Play magazine in 1994, where he presented the work of many Kennedy assassination researchers and writers.  Along with a number of important articles on the case, Kelin is author of Praise from a Future Generation (2007), the untold story of the "first generation critics", based in part on correspondence from the 60s to which he was granted full access by Vincent Salandria.  Read more here.

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