BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Norman Mailer, author of Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery, did you ever know Jack Kennedy?
NORMAN MAILER, AUTHOR, "OSWALD'S TALE: AN AMERICAN MYSTER": Oh, yeah. Not well, but I met him a few times; in fact, I was covering him before the 1960 election for Esquire. I had covered the convention, and then someone got me an interview with him at Hyannis Port. So it was funny because I came in with two prepared pieces I was going to throw at him, and I did. One of them was that the Village Voice had a poll on who would you vote for. One fellow had said, "Well, as between Kennedy and Nixon, Kennedy is a zero and Nixon is a minus, so I'll vote for Kennedy."
The other went in for something on the order of, the Democrats were running an ad that showed Richard Nixon with a very heavy beard, and they said underneath it, "Would you buy a used car from this man?" Then it went on to say, "However, if you bought the car from Jack Kennedy, you would trust him and you would buy the car, and then after you bought the car, he'd drop by to visit to see how it was working, and he'd seduce your wife." So Kennedy was absolutely shocked by that one, because, after all, this was 1960; you didn't approach presidents that way. So he said, "The first one's kind of absurd, you know. After all the difference between a zero and a minus -- I really don't think of myself as a zero, and I'm sure Richard Nixon doesn't think of himself as a minus," and he went on a little. He said, "And the second one, I really don't know what that means."
It was one of the few times he had ever been rattled, I think. It was sort of cheeky what I was doing, after all. As we were going outside, he did something, looking back on it, that was so clever, because I had thrown him. He said, Who is this guy? What is he up to? He made another mistake. He said, "What kind of car do you drive? Let me guess. It's a Volkswagen, right?" I said, "No, it's a Triumph TR-3." So now I had him twice, I thought. The last thing he said is, "Come back tomorrow. We'll do another interview, and bring anyone you want."
So I made the mistake of inviting my wife. The moment I did he knew more about me than I knew about him, which is this poor fellow has got to bring his wife along to impress her, whereas if I'd brought Arthur Schlesinger or someone of that ilk he would have known he was dealing with a formidable character. So the second interview was all his. He controlled it. He was very skillful; he was charming; he was perfect. But those are the two times I met him, but I did know a lot of people who knew him, so I kept hearing stories about him. Like all presidents who know you very slightly they make a political point of passing messages on like, "Liked your last piece very much," or stuff of that sort.
LAMB: You would have been younger than him?
MAILER: Yes, I was about three, four years younger. I'm 72 now. We have to reconstruct it. That was 35 years ago, so I was 37 and he was 41.
LAMB: What did you think of him? Did you vote for him?
MAILER: Oh, yeah. I was very impressed with him. For one thing, I realized that he was a man of many faces because I saw him over these two days, and I saw these four or five faces on him. By the way, that's not uncommon for politicians. I once covered Maggie Thatcher, and she had three or four faces. They were all remarkable. She could look like Queen Elizabeth of the 16th century at one moment. If she was passing through a mill with a lot of British housewives doing mill work, she would tie a scarf around her head and look like one of them. If she spoke to some Edinburgh gentry, she'd look like a woman of that country just off her horse. She really had a lot of faces, and he had the same quality, Kennedy. At one point he looked like a professor -- he was comfortable; he looked like a man of 45, even of 50; he was gray at the edges; he had a gentle, intellectual face. Ten minutes later he could look like a movie star under the sun speaking to a press conference. His face kept changing. He could be like an older brother, kind of riding you, jiving you. The moment we were outside looking at the car was kind of remarkable to me because he was saying, "What kind of car are you driving? I bet I can guess." He was kind of like a big guy kidding a little guy. So he had these sides.
LAMB: Where were you the day he was shot?
MAILER: Funny, that's the one question I've been asked three or four times on this tour, and I guess it's natural. It's an organic question, but it's an embarrassing question for me because it's one of my least commendatory moments. I was in a restaurant with Norm Podhoretz, who used to be a great friend in the old days, on the middle East Side, East 50s in Manhattan. There was someone else there -- I forget who. Jack Thompson was his name; that's who. The news came in, and I was very cynical. I was bitter at Kennedy at that point for whatever reason. I said, "That shot just singed his scalp. He's not really hurt. He's just letting us all wait for an hour or two so we realize we love him and need him, but in fact there's nothing going on." Of course, an hour later he was dead, and I realized that I had a great deal to learn about a great many things. You learn that over and over and over again, but that day I learned it dramatically.
LAMB: Do you remember why you were mad at him at that time?
MAILER: Again, I have to reconstruct it. Who knows? It was some little thing probably, because after all the Bay of Pigs was two years before that. It could have been for a variety of reasons, including petty reasons. Maybe it was because he never invited me to the White House. I don't pretend to be any better than the next fellow.
LAMB: If somebody buys Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery, what do they get?
MAILER: I like to give a lot of value for the dollar, so they're going to get a good bit; but if you ask me to sell my own book, all right, I'll try to do that. First of all, they're going to get an informal biography of Lee Harvey Oswald which starts in the middle. The first half is about him at the age of 19, going into Russia and leaving Russia at the age of 22. That's the first half of the book.
It's got a lot of new material about Oswald in Russia living in Minsk, getting married, having children there, trying to get along in the Soviet system, becoming disillusioned. A lot of detail on how he got out, because he used his wits. He was very resourceful in getting out of the Soviet Union. He had to fight the Russian bureaucracy and the American State Department bureaucracy, and he finally he ended up making it so uncomfortable and so unpleasant for each bureaucracy that each one said, "Let's get rid of this problem." Finally, the only way to solve certain impasses with a bureaucracy is that you become so intolerable that the people of the bureaucracy say, "Isn't there some way we can pass this indigestible morsel through our system?" He succeeded in doing that in both places. People always think that it was very mysterious that he got out and came back, but in fact it wasn't. He just wore out two bureaucracies.
All right, then he came back to the United States, and the second half of the book is all about Oswald in America starting with him as a child and carrying him through to the day of the assassination. What the book became as I wrote it was a portrait of the Cold War as seen by somebody who's living at the bottom in both countries, and the Cold War then becomes a tragicomedy because there was no war necessary, not even a Cold War necessary in that the Russians that you meet in this book are about like Americans. They're different in very specific ways, but they're very much the same and maybe a little warmer because one thing that does characterize the Russians because their history has been so God-awful is that possibly the first virtue for Russians is compassion, because of everything in the scheme of Russian life over the last century -- one catastrophe after another -- tends to tighten people up, tends to chill them, tends to close them down so that they become impervious to feeling.
So for Russians someone who can respond sympathetically to your troubles is a person of inestimable value. Over and over and over again what you find when people are talking about Oswald -- people would say, "I pity him. He was so lonely. He was here without a family." What came through also was the extraordinary Russian sense of family, which is very powerful.
LAMB: Go back to when this book was even a possibility for you. Who started it?
MAILER: This book started with Lawrence Schiller as The Executioner's Song did, the book I wrote about Gary Gilmore.
MAILER: Lawrence Schiller. Larry had worked in the Soviet Union off and on from about 1983 on because he was directing the movie Peter the Great that was put on television in a miniseries with Maximilian Schell a couple years later.
So he had contacts in the Soviet Union, and he had learned how to work with the bureaucracy there. At a given moment the Soviet Union started to fall apart and everything began to open up, and it looked like some of the KGB files were going to indeed open up. He called me one day and said, "Listen, would you be interested in doing a book about Oswald in Russia because I think I'm going to have access to the Oswald file." It came at a perfect time for me. I had finished Harlot's Ghost which some people may remember that at the end of Page 1,300 I'd said, "To be continued."
So the second half had to do with the narrator being in Russia. I was wondering, How am I going to deal with the KGB; I don't know enough about the KGB; I've got to learn more. This was the perfect opportunity. Also I'd been obsessed with Oswald for more than 30 years -- had he done it? hadn't he done it? was he part of a conspiracy? So I said yes without any great palaver back and forth, and in September . . .
LAMB: What year, now?
MAILER: This will be September of 92, moved over to Minsk, and Larry and I worked together with a young lady, a translator named Ludmila, whom he in the period of time married and divorced -- divorced after we left Russia.
LAMB: Who did?
LAMB: Met and divorced?
MAILER: No, he didn't meet her. He had known her for years, but he married her while we were still in Russia, in Minsk, Byelorussia. Then they got divorced later. The point of that is not that they got married and divorced but that the three of us were there all the time working in Minsk, where there's nothing to do except eat an indifferent meal in an unhappy restaurant every night because Minsk will never be famous for its cuisine, or at least not in the next decade or two.
We worked. We worked constantly. We interviewed people. We had the great good fortune that the KGB had shut down all talk about Oswald after the assassination because they were horrified by it; they got paranoid. They felt that the United States had a master plan to start a war with them and that Oswald was the point of this war, and so in Minsk they immediately went around to everyone who had known Oswald and said, "Don't say a word about him," and nobody did. So for 30 years no one had talked about Oswald. You can imagine what a time capsule we entered when we started interviewing people who had known him and were his friends.
LAMB: Where did you live in Minsk?
MAILER: I lived in an apartment house that was like every other apartment house in Minsk. There's no differentiation as such; in other words, you can be a worker, you can be a doctor, you can be a professor, you can be a manicurist -- everyone lives at the same level, which is a fairly low level.
I had a small three-room apartment which was pretty good in a dreary quarter which was like all the other dreary quarters in Minsk. The difference is that in Minsk if you were an intellectual or if you were a doctor or scientist you lived no better, unless you were very, very high, than a worker. In fact, you may have even earned less money a month. But what you did have is you had your superiority, which is you had your essential class superiority which is you were cultured and they were not. I found this out because, one day -- I was living in a worker's quarter, and the only way I knew I was living in a worker's quarter was that every Friday and Saturday night there'd be a bunch of kids 17 and 18 years old who'd be getting drunk on the entrance to this dingy apartment house. When I'd come back -- I was always driven up in a little car with a driver -- I'd get out, and they'd offer me home-brew vodka. I happened to be on the wagon at that time because I thought, If I start drinking in Minsk I'll never stop. So I was on the wagon for those six months. So I'd go, "No, no, no," and I'd point to my stomach or make some joke, and then I'd say, "Ia Amerikanskii." They'd all go, "Ha, ha, ha, ha." I'd go, "Ha, ha, ha, ha," and then I'd walk into my apartment.
They were toughs, but they were kind of jovial in a funny way, and I was just a curiosity -- "Who's this old gink who's an American who's living among us?" Since I couldn't speak more than about 10 or 20 words of Russian -- I couldn't learn it; I tried. If I were the sort to cry with frustration, I would have cried over the way I couldn't learn Russian. But I couldn't. So that was all of it, and then one day a woman that we were interviewing came by in the same car -- she was picked up first, and then the driver picked me up. We were going to the hotel where she'd be interviewed. I said to her, "Tell me about the neighborhood I live in." She said, "It's a workers quarter. I was very shocked when I found you there." The reason she was shocked is I was a writer, and Larry Schiller had done his best to indicate to everyone there that I was an immensely, incredibly esteemed writer from America come to live among them, which I must say it was a boon because I certainly couldn't do that for myself. The woman had heard that, and so here's this esteemed writer living in low quarter. I can tell you, my apartment house was just as good as any other apartment house in town, but you didn't live with workers, so you had this incredible snobbery, this incredible class system but equal economic life. It was very odd. It was the way people had to find social superiority no matter how. The only reason it was a workers quarter was that this apartment house was near a factory where all those people worked, so they would get an apartment in this apartment house since it was near the factory.
LAMB: What months and year were you living there?
MAILER: I was there from September of 92 to February of 93, not constantly. I'd come back to America. I have a family here, after all. So about every three or four weeks I'd come back for a few days. I lived with jet lag. It's eight hours difference, so it's quite a jet lag.
LAMB: Why did you begin the book with Marina Oswald?
MAILER: I began with her aunt actually who had had an extraordinary experience during the war, and I felt that would set the stage. Her Aunt Valya's a wonderful woman, sort of salt of the earth, who recounts these incredible experiences and had this odd, sweet, positive attitude, and Marina was more complex than her aunt and more -- I wouldn't say disturbed -- I don't like that word; it's unfair, it's pejorative -- but she had been twisted by life more. She was angrier; she was more complicated; she had many more things bothering her.
The book begins with Aunt Valya, who grows up, has a husband, loves him, lives in Minsk, and then comes this niece from Leningrad who's troubled. So that's how the book begins, and then at the end of this first long chapter, about 30 pages, Marina comes home one night and turns to the aunt and says, "Valya, get up. Get dressed. I've brought an American home. Make some coffee. Show some culture." So Valya gets up and learns that this nice young American who's very neat has come, and his name is Lee Harvey Oswald. So that's how the book begins.
LAMB: Is the aunt still alive?
MAILER: Oh, yeah, very much.
LAMB: Did you interview all these folks?
LAMB: You and Larry Schiller together?
MAILER: Oh, yes. Always. I've told this before, but it's worth telling again. We had great frustration because Larry and I, having done The Executioner's Song, used to be able to interview four or five people in a day. We really got an awful lot done.
LAMB: Let me interrupt. For those who have not read it, what's The Executioner's Song?
MAILER: It's a book I wrote about Gary Gilmore. It was the same sort of book very roughly in that it consisted of interviewing a great many people and then writing a book based on the interviews.
LAMB: Gary Gilmore was . . .
MAILER: He was the man who killed two people in Utah and was given the death penalty and he demanded that he be executed.
LAMB: What year was this?
MAILER: You have me there. It was 1977, 78, right in there.
LAMB: And your book was a best seller back then.
LAMB: Now, let's go to this one.
MAILER: The problem was we'd be interviewing a Russian, so we needed one hour for the English, one hour for the Russian and one hour for arguing with out translator, because she had a very definite idea of how you spoke. I learned a lot about Soviet society, which was just ending at that point, by her attitudes. For instance, we might ask a question on the order of, "What year was it that your father was in the Gulag?" since this had come up earlier in the conversation in a roundabout way. She said, "I will not ask that question. It will wreck the interview. You will insult them by such a question. They will not be able to go on." So we said, "Ask the question the way you want to ask it." So she'd ask the question; she'd get an answer. Then we'd turn to her and say, "What did you ask them?" She'd say, "I said to them, Was there a year that was worse for your family than other years?'"
Through that you began to get a sense of how roundabout everything was in the old Soviet Union, that people became not evasive, but they phrased questions in such a way that there were no sharp edges. There was no handle to the conversation so that could not be repeated definitively afterward in such a way as to incriminate you. It opened a great deal because you had that contrast between the essential brusque approach of Russians. I don't know the finesse in Russia -- there's a great deal of it apparently -- but immediately in the little bit you can learn there's a great deal of brusque approach. There are no definite articles.
LAMB: You wrote that way a lot in the beginning of this.
MAILER: To get the quality of it, yes.
LAMB: How may people, would you say, down and talked to in Minsk?
MAILER: Well, also in Moscow because we interviewed a good many people in Moscow as well. Altogether I think we must have interviewed 50 or 60 people, but they were in depth. It was different. The Executioner's Song we must have interviewed 300 people, but here, first of all, number of people were limited. Not everyone had known Oswald well enough to bear an interview. The other was, it took so long. You really had to work very slowly and carefully. But we interviewed in depth. There were certain people we saw 10 times, 10 interviews.
LAMB: By the way, how had he gotten to Minsk?
MAILER: The way he got to Minsk was by way of Moscow. He had arrived in Moscow as a tourist on a Deluxe ticket. There was always a great mystery made about how he got there, but I think that mystery was over-exaggerated, because, in fact, in those days if you landed in Finland and you were willing to buy a Deluxe ticket to get into Moscow, the Russian embassy in Finland would send you on quickly. They liked the idea of tourists coming in and giving dollars and moving in. So he landed in Moscow.
He announced on the first or second day he was there to his tourist guide whose name was Rimma that he wished to become a Soviet citizen. He wanted to give up his American citizenship to become a Soviet citizen, and she was very taken with this. She was intensely patriotic, as most young tourist girls were in those days, and she loved the idea. She said she would help him. Of course, they quickly got nowhere. On the fifth day when he was told he'd have to go home and nobody was going to take him because to the Russians this was extremely odd and unpleasant -- the KGB was immediately brought in, of course, and they were asking, "Who is this man? Why is he coming? He's an ex-Marine, and he wants to live among us. There's something wrong here."
In the beginning I didn't believe that they'd be that indifferent and that cautious, but as I got to know them what you came to understand is that in Russia the key thing was not to make a mistake. If you were going to do your job do it in such a way that you make no serious mistakes, and slowly you'll get promoted over the years. Don't do anything bold because it can get you in terrible trouble; it can boomerang. They had the memory of all the Stalin years, after all. You just never wanted to be someone who could be noticed, and so the idea that someone is going to give him permission to stay in the country or give him citizenship, that had to go up to the very top.
There wasn't time to get it up to the very top in the first five days, so they kind of ignored him, and then they decided, "We'll send him back. Let him start in America and get admission here and all that, do it properly from the Russian embassy in Washington." So at that point he made a suicide attempt.
The suicide attempt we discovered as we interviewed the doctors, it was a superficial attempt; it was a phony suicide attempt. He slashed one wrist, but he didn't slash it very deeply, not deeply enough to kill himself. So they're not going to send back somebody who had just tried to commit suicide; it would have been a scandal in the international press since America already had been full of notices about how this Marine had defected. So what were they going to do? They put him in a hotel in Moscow -- the Metropole, I believe -- and they waited to decide what to do with him.
Months went by, and before long, in the first week or two after they sent him back, he went over to the American embassy and he turned in his passport or said he wanted to and that he wanted to take up Russian citizenship, and that made them even more suspicious, because they had bugs planted in all the walls and there he was yelling at the consul Richard Snyder, "I want to turn in my passport. I want to become a Russian citizen." Their attitude was, "Why is he yelling? If he knows anything at all, particularly if he's a CIA man, he knows that we have bugs in the wall, and so why is he doing all this to get our attention? It makes no sense at all." A man who seriously wanted to become a Russian citizen would speak quietly at this point; he wouldn't yell. Yelling is a way of indicating he's false. So given these permutations for the KGB, they just debated and debated, "What do we do with him? It's possible he's sincere. If he's sincere . . ." -- and don't forget, this is still 1959, early 1960. In those days they had much more optimism about what was going to happen to their system.
They felt that things would improve and they'd end up with a fine system, and eventually the whole world might be communist. In those days they didn't see themselves as a hopeless, dwindling empire. So they thought it would be terrible if they don't accept him, if he's sincere; but if he's not sincere, what do they do with him? What do they do with him? What do they do with him? It became an obsessive question because what sort of CIA man is it that commits suicide on his fourth, fifth day in the country. This is ridiculous unless maybe he's a new kind of CIA animal.
Maybe they sent over an oddball to see how we'll react, so they can study our processes. Well, in that case -- you know the old saying, "Hit me,' said the masochist. I won't,' said the sadist." So what do they do? They decide to observe him. By that point we started arguing with them. We started saying, "Weren't you interested in his military information? He was a Marine who had all this radar information. Weren't you interested in that?" They said, "No, our sources in Japan where he served were excellent. We knew everything he knew." I said, "No, no, that's not good enough. I know enough about espionage to know that any little bit of new information you get can always be of possibly great value. Why didn't you debrief him? It is very hard to believe you didn't debrief him." With the KGB if your question was good enough they'd give you a fair reply.
They said, "It's possible we might have lost a little bit of information here or there and it might even have been valuable, but we had to weigh the possibilities and probabilities, and from our point of view we didn't want to take any overt action. We were tempted to, but we wouldn't, and so we just observed him. The next question is where did we observe him. Moscow's a dangerous city, but also some foreigners there. He can get into trouble. We can have a scandal. He can commit suicide again, this or that. Let's send him to Minsk. That's a quiet city where the level of living is pretty good for us . . ."
LAMB: How far from Moscow?
MAILER: It's about 400 miles, 450 miles, a little south of Moscow and east, near the Polish border. ". . . And we have very good KGB there because they're used to doing all sorts of border investigations with English spies coming in, American spies coming in, people crossing the border in various ways, so they've gotten very good at detecting foreign spies, so we'll send him there and we'll observe him in Minsk." And they did; for the next two years and four years they observed him and very often were bored with him because he led a very quiet life but occasionally they had great shocks because at one point he married a young girl, Marina, who was the niece not only of Valya but was the niece of a colonel in the MVD, which is to the KGB roughly as the FBI is to the CIA.
LAMB: How old were Lee Harvey Oswald and Marina when they got married?
MAILER: She was a year younger than him, and at that point when they got married he was 21 going on 22. They were married in April of 61. His birthday was in October so he was not yet 22.
LAMB: He allegedly assassinated President Kennedy when he was 24 years old, correct?
LAMB: By the way, what was your conclusion about all this?
MAILER: There are two halves to the conclusion. Originally I was going to do a book about Oswald in Minsk -- in fact, that was the working title -- but by the time I finished that -- that's half the book -- I felt that I'd learned a lot about him. I had some sense of what he was like in a room. He was like a character in a novel to me, but I had no ideal at all about whether he was innocent or guilty. I remember at my house which published Case Closed by Gerald Posner, the feeling was they were all very pro-Posner at that point. Then they read this and they said, "Golly, it seems like he didn't do it." He seems innocent because most of the Russians saw him as rather passive and gentle, particularly the ones in Minsk, and not a fellow to really do big things.
After the assassination very few of the Russians believed he'd done it, maybe a third of them at most. Most of them felt it was an American plot and that they used him because he had lived in the Soviet Union, so I felt not satisfied with what I'd learned and I thought I'd write a hundred-page epilogue about coming back to America, and that hundred-page epilogue became a 400-page second volume as I got into it because I discovered the Warren Commission report had endless uses, but they weren't the ones for which people had originally discarded the Warren Commission report. It's really no good at all considering the effort that was put in as an investigation because what accumulated, a huge amount of material -- there's very little interpretation; very few leads were followed up. I speak of its value as an investigative force was equal to a dead whale decomposing on a beach. But there was wonderful material in the Warren report. You could go through and find all kinds of short stories and extraordinary little moments, and you get a picture of the time in the Warren report that really historians in 200 years will be going through that to get an idea of what life was like in America in that period.
LAMB: You say there were 26 volumes. How big were the volumes?
MAILER: You're dealing with very small print and a great many lines to a page, maybe 60 lines to a page and 500-page volumes. The first 13 or 14, as I recall, are testimonies and then the remaining volumes are evidence of various sorts, documents.
LAMB: How much of that have you read?
MAILER: I'm familiar with just about all of it, but I've probably read more than half of it. I had time to, but I had to get the pages enlarged to read it. The type was so small. It's not a comfortable book to read, which is why so few have ever looked at it.
LAMB: Where is it available?
MAILER: I think you can get it from the government or in a library.
LAMB: In this book there are some KGB transcripts. Where do they come from? And what is it about?
MAILER: They promised us a file, and we got a quick look at the entire Oswald file the way that "Nightline" got a quick look at the file. Then they promised to deliver it all to us, and we had a team that had to work with it and translate these 600 pages of the file, but troubles began in Belarus, which is the Stasi in East Germany got into a great deal of trouble with their sources who'd been exposed, and so people that you thought were good friend had been informing on you for 10 years, 15 years. All hell broke loose in East Germany over that, so in Belarus people who worked for the KGB began saying, "What are you doing giving away these files? You've got to stop that or we'll have trouble here."
So then we got into a back and forth with the KGB where they'd give us something or wouldn't give us something. We never knew and we'd work from day to day, and spent the spare time interviewing other people and after a while could figure out who a lot of the sources were. Finally, what they did generally was they restricted most of the material to stuff that involved Oswald alone like surveillance of Oswald or Oswald and Marina. We had pretty thorough files on Oswald and Marina, their conversations at home.
LAMB: You spent five days with Marina?
MAILER: Yes, in Texas.
LAMB: Where is she now?
MAILER: In Texas. She lives in Texas with her former husband.
LAMB: With her former husband?
MAILER: Yes, well, they have a child. They were married for about 10 years, got divorced and then decided they wanted to live together again but for whatever reason decided they did not necessarily want to get married again.
LAMB: What town does she live in?
MAILER: I don't know if she wants it revealed. It's within the Dallas area, a hundred miles of Dallas.
LAMB: Why did she talk to you?
MAILER: Once again, the ubiquitous Mr. Schiller, he gets things done. If I had to go out and get her for an interview, I wouldn't have succeeded. He had worked with her earlier. She knew him, and I think she trusted him to a degree.
LAMB: She's a little frustrated in the interview, isn't she?
MAILER: One of the things that was fascinating with Marina is I came in expecting to meet a woman who was fairly devious. What I discovered is the truth is terribly important to her. She had the reputation for years after the assassination that she was a liar, but nobody ever attempted to put it in context.
There she was, a young woman unhappily married whose husband's been accused of killing the president. She's a Russian. She lives with this great terror that some wagon's going to scoop her up overnight and liquidate her. If it happened in Russia, my God, what would have happened to her. These powerful people from the Secret Service and the FBI were all talking to her so she feels now that she was brainwashed then. She was just eager to serve them at that point. She was terrified, and she was doing her best to tell them what she felt they wanted to hear, so her story kept changing and changing and changing in its details. The general attitude was, we are dealing with a total liar, but in fact I found her very truthful. Her memory is almost shattered by the media bombardments of 30 years and the shock of living with it and so forth, so her recollection of details is not that good.
LAMB: How old is she now?
MAILER: Maybe she was 52.
LAMB: What does she look like?
MAILER: She has extraordinary blue eyes, absolutely beautiful, looked like diamonds. That was always her feature. She was a very good-looking young girl, quite attractive. Now she's 52 years old, she's had a tough life, so you might say some of that shows. She's very small, thin, suffused with big guilt as Russians.
Russians are great at two things, compassion and guilt, if you are going to generalize about a people. They live with guilt. That Russian Orthodox church, if you ever go into one you can see the intense guilt and devotion of people who are in it, and she had a very religious grandmother. She's not religious herself, but she grew up in the deep grip of spiritual responsibility. Very interesting woman that Marina.
LAMB: How is her English?
MAILER: It's very fast, very fluent and grammatically nothing remarkable. Her mind works very quickly -- she's quite bright -- but her syntax leaves quite a bit . . .
LAMB: How old are her children?
MAILER: I don't know. She wouldn't want us to meet her children, but I could reconstruct that. The first child was born in 62, so the oldest child was 31 at that point, 33 today.
LAMB: Does she go by the name Oswald?
MAILER: No, it's her husband's name, Porter -- Marina Oswald Porter.
LAMB: I remember her saying in the book that you wouldn't ask Jacqueline Kennedy these kinds of questions. What was that about?
MAILER: One of the things that happened to her was that in Minsk there was a tremendous amount of gossip about her life in Leningrad, so we were following on the trail of it, so to speak, and to us it was very important whether she'd had a wild life in Leningrad that was truly wild because there was very ugly talk about her life there or whether it had been exaggerated, because we felt that would have an enormous effect upon the marriage since unconsciously Oswald would be reacting to that in a most intense fashion.
So we did pursue her on that, and it was very painful and difficult and ugly for her, the question. But what I finally arrived at is that she'd had a mildly wild life in Leningrad the way any average American girl of 17 who's very good looking and doesn't have a happy home life is going to have. There was nothing extraordinary about it. I remember she said at one point, "All right, I'm going to give you the key to my life." She told us how she was raped once when she was 17, and I looked at her in amazement and I said, "That's the key; it's a wax key," because it was a story that 100,000 American girls could have told. I was expecting some incredible revelation, incredibly sordid life, and this was much smaller.
But I realized that her guilt is so enormous because she was brought up very properly by a grandmother -- her guilt was so intense that she saw the few small things she'd done in Leningrad as incredibly evil and bad, and she felt she'd gotten married on false pretenses because she hadn't told Oswald that. So, in effect, what we were looking for were the psychological realities of that marriage, which was an unstable, unhappy marriage where they were half in love with one another and half absolutely at odds all the time.
LAMB: A lot of these transcripts from Minsk show them arguing constantly in their bedroom and all that.
LAMB: One interesting thing that I remember is that the KGB shut down at 11 o'clock at night.
MAILER: Oh, yes.
LAMB: The transcription service.
MAILER: Good cops, they wanted to get to sleep; they wanted to go home, see their family, eat, get a little sleep. It's a tough job. You've got to sit in a small room, look through a peephole. The Russians were proud that in 1960 they had discovered fiber optics, and they used to have a hole they'd put in a wall -- it was about the size of a pinpoint -- and they insert a fiber optic -- I suppose they had a lens on the other side -- so they could see what was going on it the other room. I suppose they heard through various bugs.
LAMB: They could see what was going on between those two people in that room?
MAILER: Yes. If they were going to sleep, why should the transcriber stay up all night? We used to ask them about that. We used to say, "If you thought it was that important, why did you quit at 11 o'clock?" The KGB fellow that we were talking to the most on this; he was called the developer -- he was the analyst in charge of the entire situation. He said here were various reasons. One was the budget. The budget couldn't pay for 24-hour surveillance. The FBI runs into the same problem all the time -- how important is the case? How many funds are you willing to allocate to that because you're not going to have it for something else.
LAMB: We didn't get to the conclusion of the second part of this. You reach a conclusion after Minsk about Lee Harvey Oswald. What did you reach at the end?
MAILER: The conclusion I reach is that he probably did it. I felt there was a 75 percent certainty that it was a lone gunman, but I hedge it about with a great many qualifications, the first of which was that if I'd been a lawyer I could have gotten him off, or any good lawyer could have gotten him off because there was so much confusion in the evidence and it's so very hard to be able to state definitively that he did it.
There's an awful lot of evidence that would have him doing it, but there's an awful lot that wouldn't. There's always the great questions -- how did he get from the sixth floor to the second floor without breathing heavily in 60 seconds? How could he, who was a bad shot, have shot so successfully and skillfully? There are all these questions. How could that magic bullet have done what it did? And so forth. These questions, I don't pretend to answer them. If I'd been a lawyer, as I say, I could have used those questions to win over a jury. I felt finally that he did it because it was the logic of his life, but you have to read the book to know what I'm talking about.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
MAILER: I don't know -- 25, 26, 27. It depends what you call books. A couple of them were put together out of other books, so let's call it 25.
LAMB: What was the best seller of all those?
MAILER: Of all of them? I don't know. Maybe The Naked and the Dead, maybe The Executioner's Song.
LAMB: Where does this book go on your list as experiences in your life? How important is this one?
MAILER: A book like Harlot's Ghost, which is the one before this, is more important to me because it was an imaginative work where I had to make it all up myself practically.
Ancient Evenings is an example like that where I really had to make it up. The writing of this was less exciting and less scary than when you were making it up from day to day, because when you're making it up each day, and let's say you're going to go on a given morning and you're going to start writing about the Battle of Kadesh in Egypt in 1000 BC and you want to write the greatest battle scene since Tolstoy, you're scared that morning when you walk in. You're not comfortable at all. But in this a lot of the writing was done in the interviews. In the interviews it's almost as if you're shaping the book in your mind and as it proceeds it changes. It's analogous to what you feel when you're talking to me. As I talk you were going to go in one direction but now you're going to go in another because something came up that's interesting. In a certain sense that's the way this book got written. By the time we'd done all the interviews, you might say the book was half written for me.
LAMB: Larry Schiller is your partner in this. There's a Howard Schiller that designed this cover.
MAILER: His son did the jacket. Nice jacket.
LAMB: What house is this?
MAILER: That house is the house that Oswald lived in on Neely Street in Dallas in early 63, 10 months before the assassination of President Kennedy. It was in that house that he set out to kill, in my belief, Gen. Walker. He took the shot at Gen. Walker.
LAMB: Who was Gen. Walker?
MAILER: Gen. Walker was an extreme right-winger, virtually a fascist, who was one of the heads of the John Birch Society, and Oswald believed that he was going to be a future Hitler, and he thought it would be a virtuous act to shoot him.
LAMB: When had you gathered all the information you needed to begin writing?
MAILER: It doesn't work that way. What happens is I get into a book before I've accumulated all the information. I had all the information about Russia that I needed, 95 percent of it. When I came home I started writing Oswald in Minsk, but by the time I finished that, as I say, I thought I was going to add a hundred pages about Oswald in America. That hundred pages became 4- or 500 pages because I began doing new research, and as I did I'd stop writing for long periods and do the new research, and so the second half of the book took as long as the first half, easily.
Then you finish it and then you go over it and then you start to shape it more and more and more. Once you know what you have, you shape it more. So the writing of this book I'd say was easier than the writing of other books I've done. On the other hand, I got more out of it. I'm fond of the book because I had this extraordinary experience of living in Minsk. I just felt, well, hell, I'm in my late 60s -- I had my 70th birthday in Moscow a couple years ago -- and I just felt, I'm not dead yet. This is not so bad. I can live in a strange place and get a lot out of it, and I'm working hard. All that was fun.
LAMB: Where do you write?
MAILER: I've got a little studio in Brooklyn a couple blocks from my house -- no telephone, nothing there. When I go there the only thing I ever do there is work, so it's wonderful. I'm like a dog with a conditioned reflex.
LAMB: No television.
MAILER: No television, no telephone, nothing. My wife wants me to get a portable telephone. I refuse.
LAMB: Because . . .
MAILER: She says, "What if you get sick over there?"
LAMB: What's the reason you have no telephone?
MAILER: I don't want to be tempted. There's an old Jewish belief that you build a fence around an impulse. That's not good enough, you build a fence around the fence, so no telephone.
LAMB: How do you write?
MAILER: I write longhand with a pencil, and I've got a marvelous assistant named Judith McNally, and she will type it up the next day, and then I go over it. Since at my age you begin to forget things very easily, it's marvelous because I hardly remember what I wrote the day before. Now it's typed as if someone else wrote it. I'll go through it and I'll say, "Who is the idiot who wrote that stupid sentence?" And I'll fix it up and I'll edit it, and as I edit it I give it back to her, and she sends it back each day. I don't work with a word processor, but I do have the benefits of one.
LAMB: How long have you worked in this office in Brooklyn?
MAILER: I have to think now. This particular place I've worked in for about 10 years now, maybe 12. I used to work at home. I used to have a little aerie up at the top of our apartment. We've got an odd apartment. There was a little cubby hole up in the top with a wonderful view of the harbor. So I used to work up there.
LAMB: What time of day do you write.
MAILER: Generally I'll start late in the morning. If we're not going out that evening, I won't finish till 9 o'clock at night, so it plays hell with our social life.
LAMB: Do you ever have writer's block?
MAILER: No, but I think I may have had a certain sense of how to avoid it. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. It's a foolish author who'll brag they never had writer's block.
LAMB: How do you avoid it?
MAILER: Let me amend what I'm saying. When I was younger I had years when I used to wonder whether I'd ever write another book, and I wouldn't write for six months at a time, but since I wasn't on anything I didn't see it as writer's block. Or I had a couple books I started and didn't know how to go on with and I dropped, but I never called it writer's block because it didn't feel that way. I think what happens is, there's something deep in the unconscious that says to you, "You can go ahead with this. This book can be written."
There's certain books you can't write. If you're writing about a terribly charged, emotional material and you're not ready to live with, I think you're not writing anymore. You're engaged in a transaction with yourself that probably is analogous to a patient with a psychoanalyst, where psychoanalysts are always talking about how they can't get patients to deliver certain sorts of obvious material because they won't face it. So I think a writer's block probably is related to that, but all writers have certain strengths and weaknesses. I think one of my strengths has been that I've been able to avoid writer's block; it isn't a preoccupation of mine. What I'm concerned with is, how good is it going to be?
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
MAILER: In Brooklyn. I was born in New Jersey, but I grew up in Brooklyn. Then I went to Harvard. Talk about questions of identity. I didn't even know that problem existed, that you had to search for your own identity. But going from Brooklyn to Harvard in those years, back in the late 30s, early 40s was quite a change.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in politics?
MAILER: Probably in 1948 after The Naked and the Dead came out, because I was for Henry Wallace, and so I used to speak for him a little back.
LAMB: What did being for Henry Wallace mean?
MAILER: He had the Progressive Party. Yeah, we have to talk to people who were born long after that. In 1948 Henry Wallace ran for president; he was a left-wing candidate, very, very analogous, let's say, if Jesse Jackson were to run as a third-party candidate. It was called the Progressive Party. In those days it was about as far to the left as Jesse Jackson would be. Wallace was, of course, white; he had been a former secretary of agriculture. He couldn't be more different from Jesse Jackson in any way -- poles apart. The only parallel would be that the political positions would be about the same in terms of geography, topography. But that got me interested, and I've always been interested more or less one way or another all these years.
LAMB: Where are you on the political spectrum today?
MAILER: I'm what I call a "left conservative." I can find it in a variety of ways. Maybe if we talk about politics, if we're going to, it'll come out.
LAMB: Is there anyone in politics running for office that you admire?
MAILER: No, no, not at the moment. I wish Mario Cuomo would run. I'd be excited by that. Wish he'd run for president, at least in the New Hampshire primary, because I think, if nothing else -- I'm a Democrat, but I think Bill Clinton needs a shock or two. He's wobbling in the center. If I had a word for him now -- Gore Vidal used to call Eisenhower "the golfer" -- so I would call Bill Clinton "the dauphin." We need a nice 17-year-old peasant girl named Joan of Arc to come to him and say, "President Clinton, you must save the nation." He's not going to save it doing what he's doing now.
LAMB: Earlier you mentioned Norman Podhoretz . . .
MAILER: We used to be great friends.
LAMB: He's just retired as editor of Commentary magazine -- the magazine of the American Jewish Committee?
LAMB: Why did you say "used to be" friends? He's a neoconservative.
MAILER: For a variety of reasons, and one of them is the most basic reason of friendship. We got along, we enjoyed each other's company and so forth and so on. Politically we were fairly close in those days, and then he moved way over to the right, which wouldn't have bothered me, in a funny way. I've always felt it's obscene if politics gets in the way of friendship. Friendship should be more important that politics. But, in fact, I'll lay the blame on Norman. He really didn't want anything to do with me. My vanity tells me he didn't want to have to argue with me night after night after night or his newfound security on the right might have been weakened just a touch, but that's my vanity. In any event, he pulled himself away from me.
LAMB: What issue today sparks you to talk politics?
MAILER: Almost anything. One pleasure about being on this program is that there's no commercial. When you start talking about the violence that television breeds, I don't think it's that much to do with the scenarios. I think what it has to do with much, much more is, if you have young, violent kids and they're watching something, they get interested in it, which is very hard for violent people to get interested in something outside themselves because most violent people are obsessed all the time with themselves and their inner state, but finally they're interested, let's say, in a little story they're watching on TV, and then -- boom -- comes the commercial. Now they're violent. They've been interrupted. Don't interrupt a violent man. So this goes on, and then you take 5-year-olds who just have sweet sensate little brains, and they're being interrupted all the time. They lose the sense of concentration. That gets me furious. My four kids, they grew up with me, and they hear me screaming at the television set when the commercial comes on.
LAMB: How many kids?
MAILER: I have nine. They're not all there at the same time.
LAMB: All from the same wife?
MAILER: No, I've been married a few times.
LAMB: How many times have you been married?
MAILER: Six times.
LAMB: Would you do that over again?
MAILER: No. I can't answer that question without getting in endless trouble all over the place. I think, finally, if you get married seriously, that's your life. There's certain people who've lived in six countries over their lifetime; that's their life. They can say, "My eight years in Turkey were fascinating. I loved the 15 years I had in Paris." I think a marriage is like that; it's a culture. I'd hate to say after 15 years living in Paris, "I hate France and everything about it." In other words, I think, when you've had a marriage, since you were living in a culture, because there is no such thing as a woman who is not a deep culture -- if anyone out there is married to a woman who is not a deep culture, you may be in the wrong marriage.
LAMB: How would you rate your life? Have you done what you wanted to do?
MAILER: Ups and down, in and out, lucky, unlucky, but finally I can't complain. I think if you can get to the point where you're not suffused with self-pity, then you've probably done 51 things right to every 49 things you did wrong. I think self-pity is the ultimate spiritual disease because it's anger against God, if you will. That means there's no respect for God, and the moment there's no respect for God we're in a lot of trouble. Now you see why I call myself a "left conservative."
On the one hand, I think everybody ought to have a bed at night and enough to eat and enough medical care. I think it's obscene if you have very wealthy people and very poor people. There's got to be a true safety net. The rich people would sleep a lot better if everybody who was poor was taken care of, and if they don't work that's their sin. That's their hard life. You can't sit in judgment on them.
I remember when I ran for mayor in 69. Jimmy Breslin and I ran; I was running for mayor; he was running for the president of City Council in New York in a primary. Our campaign was halfway interesting; we were one of five sets of candidates. Somebody said, "If you could come up with an interesting welfare program, you might get somewhere really. People would start to take you more seriously." So we decided we'd go up to pay some visits to some black people up in Harlem and talk about welfare.
Our people found somebody to talk to, a couple of women who headed up a very important black welfare program there. We went way up to Harlem to visit them. They were two big, strong black women sitting at a desk in a shabby little room, and we thought we'd say, "Now, see here, Madam, we can help each other. Let us discuss this." Instead, what happens, one of them started talking. She said, "Mrs. Richbucks over on Fifth Avenue, she says I got a Cadillac and I'm getting welfare and I'm riding around in a Cadillac and how dare I. And I say" -- and I cannot use the next word she used on television. She said, "Blank her. My Cadillac is eight years old, and it's in the garage all the time, and she drives around in a Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur." The other said, "Mrs. so-and-so over on Park Avenue, she says I got seven illegitimate children and I'm getting money for all of them, and I say blank her. I had those children. She had her seven abortions." One of them looked at us and said, "We want our share of the waste." I thought, It has to be said that there's something to their argument. We nodded and said, "Thank you, ladies," and we left. We had no welfare program.
The point behind it I think is that so long as there's a sense of huge waste at the top, there's no way the people at the bottom are going to say, "Thank you, thank you for taking care of us." Finally, the real tragedy is not that people at the top are infuriated the people at the bottom are not putting their shoulder to the wheel. The real tragedy is when people at the bottom can't work and don't work. They're in spiritual misery. It affects their children. It goes on generation after generation as it has in England. Being on the dole is no fun, so in that sense I'm a left-winger. I think we've got to have a safety net that's profound and let's stop worrying about the rich surviving. The rich always take care of themselves.
LAMB: What do you want the reader to conclude after finishing Oswald's Tale?
MAILER: I want them to think about the Cold War and what a tragicomedy it was as personified by the life of this one man who really attempted to deal with the Cold War. He went over to the Soviet Union because he was in protest of what was going on in America. He got dissatisfied with the Soviet Union. He came back to America. Now he was dissatisfied with both countries, but he lived at the bottom, and he really saw the ironies of both countries and the way that there was just no need for that Cold War. They were both horrible systems as far as he was concerned. So I want them just to ponder that. Ideally, if they find it interesting enough, what do I also want? I'd like those who've never read another book of mine to read another book.
LAMB: Is there a next book?
MAILER: There better be a next book.
LAMB: Fiction? Nonfiction?
MAILER: I think I'm going to try to do the second volume of Harlot's Ghost.
LAMB: Norman Mailer, author of Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery. Thank you very much for joining us.
MAILER: Thank you, Mr. Lamb.
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