An Unwritten Love Letter to Ruth Paine

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Scott Garbe is the writer of The Kennedy Suite. He will be posting a series of blogs about the writing of the Suite, it is a fascinating journey and definitely worth following along…make sure that you check back in every now and then.

Ruth Paine and CHildren

Human beings are funny creatures. Beautiful and appalling. Vengeful and forgiving. Self-serving and self-sacrificing. Violent and merciful. Paradox after paradox. They are all present in the assassination story. One persistent human riddle found in the confounding folds of November 22nd, 1963 is this:

What lies behind our deep-seeded mistrust of goodness?

It would be difficult for me to relate how desperately I wanted to write a song from the perspective of Ruth Paine, the woman whose unconditional selflessness gave shelter to Lee Oswald’s wife Marina and her two children, Rachel and June, in the weeks before and days immediately after the assassination.

Ruth encountered Marina Oswald shortly after the former pharmacy student from Minsk and her husband Lee had arrived in Dallas after his botched attempt to defect to the USSR. Ruth had wanted to learn Russian, and she struck up a friendship with Marina when they met at a social gathering of Russian émigrés in Fort Worth. The group would quickly tire of Lee’s abrasive manner and political sullenness, and would cut ties with the couple in short order.

Ruth alone would remain actively involved in their lives. She became an emotional lifeline for Marina, whose isolation was further exacerbated by Lee’s refusal to allow her to learn English, stranding her in an anxious state of dependence. Through the lens of her own disintegrating marriage to her husband Michael, Ruth saw potential comfort for herself in easing Marina’s loneliness. In this circumstance, Ruth and Marina’s friendship deepened.

Their relationship was interrupted when Lee took his family with him to New Orleans as he struggled to find work. The Oswald’s marriage strained until Lee began threatening to send Marina back to Russia – pregnant with their second child, it was a prospect she dreaded. Emotional letters were traded until it was decided that Ruth would drive from Texas to pick up Marina and her daughter Rachel in New Orleans and bring them back to share her home in Irving, a Dallas suburb. Lee would take advantage of the situation to travel to Mexico City in an attempt to secure a visa to live in Cuba. He had no intention of reuniting with his family. Lee’s plan, like many other of his schemes fueled by political fantasy and self-importance, came to nothing when his application was denied. Laid end to end, years of persistent false starts, rejections and humiliations had taken Lee around the world and back to nowhere. At 24, his life was a staggering achievement in failure.

A disillusioned Lee soon followed his family back to Dallas. Now estranged from Marina, Lee would find lodging at a rooming house on North Beckley Avenue in Oak Cliff with visits to his family in Irving strictly kept to the weekends. Seeing his tenderness as a father during those visits stirred feelings of compassion. Wishing to ease his discontent buy illustrating that life could also contain acts of generosity, Ruth helped Lee find a job at the Texas School Book Depository. She could not have foreseen that her thoughtfulness was unwittingly laying the opportunity to make history at Lee’s feet as the President would soon pass below his warehouse window.

Less than 24 hours before that fateful moment, however, Lee, breaking his routine, made his way to Ruth’s home on a Thursday in an attempt to reconcile with his wife. But Marina had found a safe haven from his abuse and the squalor of his anemic provision, so once again, he was rejected. Early the next morning, November 22nd, 1963, Lee placed his wedding ring in a tea cup on Marina’s dresser, along with all the cash he had managed to save. He had a cup of coffee over the kitchen sink and left for work with a carefully wrapped package under his arm.

Later that afternoon, authorities would arrive at Ruth Paine’s home with a question for Marina – Did her husband own a weapon? To Ruth’s shock, Marina’s answer was yes. Reeling, Ruth led police officers to her garage where, unbeknownst to her, the rifle that would be traced to the President’s murder had been stored. Marina pointed to the plaid wool blanket in which the weapon had been wrapped. When the officer picked it up, it hung limp in his arms. Devastation. As a Quaker and, thus, a staunch pacifist, it would be a terrible betrayal of trust from which Ruth would never fully recover.

Despite this deeply personal violation perpetrated by a couple that she had supported with unwavering charity, Ruth would stand by Marina after the assassination of President Kennedy when her husband became the most infamous and hated man on earth. Ruth would also not speak to the press about the alleged assassin as she endeavoured to protect Lee’s right to a fair and impartial trail, a right she felt obligated out of conscience to defend, even if that guarantee was not being respected by the system sworn to protect it. Only after Lee’s death would she grant an interview because, in effect, he had been “judged quickly and hanged” and her only remaining obligation after Jack Ruby’s act of vengeance was to the historical record. You can watch her 1963 interview here:

And what was the result of Ruth’s extraordinary display of friendship?

For fear of her safety, Marina would be taken into protective custody a few days after the assassination. Cut off from Ruth, it was not long before those around Marina convinced her that Ruth was exploiting their friendship to feed her vanity. Ruth, they argued, was using Marina, the newly famous widow of the alleged assassin, to secure her own place in history and to satisfy a narcissistic craving for media attention. The fact that Ruth, for many trying months and through the birth of Marina’s second child, had been Marina’s sole and unwavering supporter when no one was watching carried no weight. Marina abruptly and coldly severed the friendship that had so often sustained her. She has not spoken to Ruth in the decades since. In her imagination Ruth remains a villain when in actual fact, Ruth may have been one of the only people in Marina’s tumultuous life who truly loved her.

In addition to this deep personal hurt and her painful place at the center of a historical catastrophe, Ruth Paine has suffered the inflammatory slings and accusatory arrows of many an enterprising conspiracy theorist. Unrelentingly defiled and defamed, she has been labeled a CIA operative, a vain spotlight seeker, a shadowy plotter, when her only true crime was kindness.

Despite all this, against a current of pain which does not subside, she remains loving, steadfast, open, principled, resolute.

Is that not a life worthy of song?

And yet, I could not find a way in. Try as I might. It is a love letter that seems fated to lie tantalizingly beyond my ability and desire to bring it into being. I remain caught between inspiration and destination within the paradox of human love and calculating indifference, within the question that asks:

What lies behind our deep-seeded mistrust of goodness?

And so, finding Mrs. Paine’s front door locked, the drapes of her bungalow’s front floor-to-ceiling window drawn, my imagination would turn to canvass her neighbors for their stories. I found three willing to speak with me: a young paper boy, a disconsolate police officer and a vivacious young girl who told me she had two sisters, one of whom went by the name of Ruth.

I knew I had knocked at the right door.

Scottie in front of Ruth Paine House


Source: The Kennedy Suite