In Plain View

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / March / April 2002
July 1st, 2007

Mrs. Paine's Garage by Thomas Mallon '73 (Pantheon, 211 pages, $22).


During the fall of 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald stored a newly purchased rifle on the floor of Ruth Paine's garage in Irving, Texas. It was in plain view, wrapped in an old blanket roll, but, like Poe's purloined letter, the gun lay unnoticed - unseen amid the clutter of a suburban garage.

Ruth Paine was just an ordinary citizen - as invisible as the gun in its bedroll - until the afternoon of November 22, when Dallas police arrived at the door and her houseguest Marina Oswald told them that yes, her husband did own a gun. A housewife and mother of two small children, until that moment Ruth stood out from her neighbors only for her liberal politics (a northerner transplanted to Republican Texas, she'd voted for John F. Kennedy), her devout Quakerism (she was surrounded by Methodists), and a do-good streak that ultimately did her no good at all. Nine months earlier, recently separated from her own husband, Ruth had befriended the young, Russian Marina and then invited her and her daughter to move in while Marina's husband, Lee, looked for work. Lee Oswald discouraged Marina from learning English, preferring to keep her isolated, writes Mallon, and Ruth, who had studied Russian at Middlebury, welcomed the chance to practice the language at home. Besides, Ruth and her husband had only recently moved to Irving, and in the months after her husband moved out, Ruth felt lonely in a very conservative part of the world. The two women shared the responsibility for housekeeping and child rearing, and Ruth found Lee a job - at the Texas State Book Depository, in Dallas, which would place him right alongside the fateful presidential motorcade.

Thomas Mallon, who writes for both GQ and the New Yorker (which ran a portion of this book), is a veteran assassination buff; Oswald was one of the diarists Mallon excerpted in his 1984 collection A Book of One's Own. And his 1994 novel Henry and Clara imagined the private lives of the young couple sitting next to the Lincolns in Ford's Theatre the night John Wilkes Booth shot the president. He mentions in Mrs. Paine's Garage that his interest in her goes back thirty years. But more broadly, Mallon seems drawn to the intersections where ordinary lives collide with monumental events; he has a keen eye for the stuff of which history is made - the patterns that can be read in, or read into, the detritus of ordinary people's lives. In Ruth Paine's case, that detritus has been pretty well forced into place by the legions of Conspiracy Theorists (CTs, in Mallon's shorthand) and Lone Nutters (LNs) who have preceded him. Over the past forty years, CTs have judged the Paines to be shady characters. Why else would an American housewife invite a onetime defector and his Russian wife to live in her house? How could she not have known of Lee Oswald's politics or the gun he had purchased?

A painstaking researcher, Mallon interviewed Ruth Paine at length for the book and pored over her youthful diaries and essays in the Swarthmore College archives. He finds her to be an exceedingly decent woman who earnestly strove to be true to her Quaker principles and to please everyone around her: Lee and Marina Oswald, the Dallas police, the FBI, the members of the Warren Commission. In the end, Marina snubbed Ruth, hinting of a lesbian attraction and accusing her of trying to hog the limelight. Ruth had cooperated with Redbook magazine for a profile but she donated the $500 it paid her to the American Civil Liberties Union. (In a footnote, Mallon wryly speculates that in today's more media-savvy world, Marina would have been trading jokes with Howard Stern and entertaining offers from Playboy.) Ruth responded to Marina's sudden rejection with a series of letters that indeed sound much like a spurned lover's entreaties.

But Mallon avoids all that, taking Ruth at face value. Now in her sixties, she emerges in these pages as very nice, very earnest, and not terribly interesting woman, who lives in an old neighborhood in St. Petersburg, Florida, and works for a Nicaraguan relief group. Her address and phone number are listed in the phone book, in plain view.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM's managing editor.

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March / April 2002