Every time I see a reference to FBI agent James Hosty and the burned Lee Harvey Oswald memo, I feel this twinge somewhere in the vicinity of my wallet. I guess I’ll go to my grave thinking I should have made at least a few bucks off that one.
Hosty died in 2011. In 1962, a year before Oswald murdered President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Hosty drew the black bean and had to ask Oswald’s new Russian wife, Marina, how she got into the country. The answer was that she had come with Oswald, her new American husband.
I saw Hosty’s name again last week in a story about the recent mass document dump from the Kennedy assassination files. Hosty was a figure in several of the chintzier conspiracy theories because he admitted he burned a note from Oswald. I think I know why he burned the note, and I also think I should be collecting royalties on it, which I am not.
But I’m bigger than that. It’s not just about those little royalties. For me, it’s about the whole country and the role of the Kennedy assassination in the national culture. So I should be collecting big royalties.
Soon after Hosty interviewed Marina Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald began bitching at him for persecuting his wife and sent him a note accusing him of harassment. Hosty is portrayed as a suspicious note burner in several films and books, including the Stephen King novel, 11/22/63, which I tried for months to read on my Kindle but erased when I visited the home of a person who had received the hardcover copy for Christmas. When I saw it and realized how thick it was, I told myself, “Maybe I’ll read it again in another life if I ever learn how to speed-read gobbledygook.”
In the early 1990s, I tried to write a book with Udo “Woody” Specht, who had recently retired from a long, distinguished career as an FBI agent, mainly in the Dallas field office. Specht is an attorney in his late 70s with an unstained lifelong reputation for honesty. Toward the end of his career, he became a municipal judge in Addison. This year, in recognition of his retirement from the bench, the town of Addison officially declared February 28, 2017, as “U.H. (Woody) Specht Day.” He’s that kind of guy.
In the period just after the assassination and before the convening of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, better known as the Warren Commission, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent orders to the Dallas FBI field office to collect every scrap, shred and morsel of evidence and send it all to Washington. When Hoover turned it all over to the Warren Commission, he wanted to be able to say it had everything.
Specht had the job of getting it all together. He told me the culture of the FBI at the time was clear and emphatic on anything to do with Hoover. If you were working on an assignment that came directly from Hoover and you screwed it up in even the most minute way, you needed to go get an ice-cream truck. Your G-man days were over.
Everybody in the bureau knew that. But, he told me, before he handed all of the evidence over to the special agent in charge, he reminded everyone that if, after this stuff all gets sent to Hoover, somebody finds a forgotten scrap of evidence, a note crumpled at the back of a desk drawer or something, then that person and Specht will be toast and maybe the special agent, as well.
By the way, this was not what our book was to be about. Specht had a fascinating assignment later on as the guy who was supposed to keep track of all the assassination theories.
Specht told me that after the evidence was sent to Washington, Hosty came to him and told him he had found a note crumpled in his desk drawer that was from Oswald in ’62, bitching at Hosty for picking on his wife. Specht basically said: Found a note from Lee Harey Oswald, did we? After the special agent sent the stuff to Hoover. After Hoover gave the stuff to the Warren Commission. So it’s ice cream truck time for you and me then, eh?
He told me Hosty left his office with the note and went into the men’s room across the hall. Specht waited a respectful interval, then peeked into the bathroom, where he sniffed the distinctive odor of recently burned paper.
From his later assignment as keeper of the conspiracy theories, which I think he did for several years, Specht had a trove of fascinating stories not unlike the note-burning anecdote. It wasn’t his job to shoot down the theories; he was simply to add them up and keep them on file, but inevitably he also gathered a deep archive of evidence contradicting the theories.
As a local daily newspaper columnist in Dallas in those days, I had encounters with the Kennedy assassination industry. In the newspaper business in Dallas, everybody did.
I don’t want to overpersonalize the matter or bog you down with sentimental detail, but the fact is that I had my first date with my wife, who was then a city desk reporter — well, it’s what we called dates in the newspaper business at the time — at the disinterment of Oswald’s remains.
A British conspiracy author had written a book saying Oswald wasn’t in his coffin but was running around loose, presumably. The author got his wife to agree to the digging up, which was supposed to be closed to the media by a court order or something. My soon-to-be bride and I sneaked in through a service entrance. And it has lasted 39 years.
Oh, and the guy in Oswald’s coffin turned out to be Oswald, so he's not out running around after all.
In the mid-'90s when I met Specht, I was between newspaper jobs. (We call that “freelancing” in our business.) I was writing nonfiction murder books for a living. I had a great agent in New York, the late Janet Manus. I told her I thought Specht would make a terrific book.
He was chatty, anecdotal, sincere and intelligent with highly socialized knowledge. With my help, he could spin an entire saga about the Kennedy assassination that might also even be important. Between the lines and just under the surface, Woody Specht’s story would expose the way the most mundane facts, the boring coincidences and the so-what questions could be woven into a tapestry of paranoia.
Manus, who knew the book business way better than I did, wasn’t sure. She said she wished I would spend my time instead on a good murder, but I insisted, and I spent a couple of months writing a proposal.
I sent it to her. She put it under her arm, trotted out into the streets of Manhattan and ran her traps. Usually, it took her two weeks to know if something would make. She called me back in two days, and she was a bit huffy.
She told me that the book business did not want, would not look at and did not want to even hear about a book saying there was no Kennedy assassination conspiracy. The market, she said, was for books saying there was a conspiracy, not that there wasn’t.
Soon after that, I learned that the lesson was a little smaller than I had thought. It was not that there could be no such book. There just wasn’t a market for such a book from the likes of me and Manus.
In 1993, journalist Gerald Posner published a definitive work, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, in which he took down the major conspiracy theories one by one. Two years later, novelist Norman Mailer published the nonfiction work Oswald’s Tale, making the same point: Oswald was a vicious, demented little man, and that’s really all it takes.
When I feel the twinge in my wallet, I am tempted to say that those books still were not what I had in mind for my work with Woody Specht. I guess I had my history a little out of joint. I was trying to jump ahead of the shooting down of theories and instead write a wry book about the way the conspiracy theories had come into being.
It’s exactly what I still see in some of the reaction to these recent document productions. There is so much obvious agency and deception in the way this so-called evidence is sifted and selected, I don’t know why we waste our time.
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After all, an almost infinite volume of meaningless bureaucratic drivel is stuffed away somewhere, about everything that has ever happened since Adam and Eve. It’s all crumpled and forgotten in the backs of the desk drawers of the universe.
If you start out with a specific narrative already in mind and then pick and choose from the information rubbish heap to support it, and if you utterly ignore the reliability of your sources, then, sure, you can weave any kind of crazy stuff.
Then imagine a kingdom of publishers, who at that time all had fat checkbooks, and imagine that they were all clamoring for conspiracies. Lo and behold, conspiracies emerge. It may be worth asking why the publishers sought that narrative, but the answer is pretty obvious. Because people would pay for it.
And so we come to the real question. Why? Why, as a nation, were we so hungry for the Kennedy conspiracy narrative? Why are some of us still? If you know the answer to that one, please call. We could make a few bucks.