The night after President Kennedy died 40 years ago, an amazing telex arrived at my office. It read, "Pack $100,000 into your suitcase at once, fly to Dallas and find the real killer." The message was signed by the editor-in-chief of continental Europe's largest mass circulation newspaper belonging to the Hamburg publishing house in whose New York bureau I served as a very young political correspondent.
This cryptic note was the fool's cap on an extraordinarily charged day. Actually, I was off on that Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. But when a tearful Walter Cronkite announced on Channel 2 that Kennedy had just been shot, I rushed outside to capture the atmosphere in Manhattan, knowing that my colleagues in the office were already on top of the running story.
I asked a cabbie to drive me about Harlem. I wanted to see how blacks reacted to the news; this was was, after all, the Civil Rights period, and Kennedy was very much "their" man. On the way uptown, we raced past clusters of seemingly petrified people -- tens of thousands of them holding portable radios to their ears.
In Harlem, I went from church to church; all were filled to capacity with worshipers singing and crying their hearts out. This made marvelous copy of the kind I had never written before. Back in my office at Rockefeller Center, my four colleagues and I produced more than 250 typewritten pages that night. Then came the $100,000 telex, and I was off to Dallas by way of Washington.
I arrived just after Jack Ruby had shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the underground garage of the sheriff's Department. In this numbed city substantial cultural differences between American and European journalists emerged almost at once.
My American colleagues were covering this story as it developed. Sure, they found it also bizarre that the owner of a strip joint should kill Kennedy's alleged assassin right under the eyes of the law. But the Europeans, especially the French and the Italians, immediately assumed a conspiracy and proceeded with their work along this assumption.
This was logical, given our Continent's history, which is filled with conspiracies. In Europe, we don't just have one crackpot killing a ruler, only to be killed by another crackpot. In Europe, we have ideological zealots. Now, as Dallas was reported to be "arch-conservative" and geographically close to the epicenter of the Civil Rights activities, surely the "real killers" -- the ones I was supposed to find with a $100,000 bribe -- must have been some racist fiends (by the way, neither I nor my colleagues ever bothered to pick up the $100,000 from the bank, which was closed on that Saturday after the assassination, anyway).
In truth, though, Dallas did not strike us as a hotbed of right-wing extremism, but rather as a sophisticated city. And if there occurred a conspiracy at all, would it not have made much more sense to assume a left-wing scheme, considering that Oswald was a communist with Cuban connections and had lived in the Soviet Union -- and considering that Kennedy had just stared down Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro in the Cuban missile crisis?
I am still not sure that this wasn't the case but I guess we'll never find out in our lifetime. It's amazing, though, how off the mark researchers and even law officers with a lively imagination can be. A few years later, I sat in a New Orleans courtroom where district attorney Jim Garrison cooked up an even wackier scenario, trying to prove that the Kennedy assassination had been a plot of local sadomasochistic businessmen.
At any rate, though very much a European myself, I had little time for demented theories based on ideological assumptions. After listening to some of these hair-brained schemes I headed for a more tangible, though seedy source of information -- Jack Ruby's modest strip joint called Carousel Burlesque.
Before paying my $2 admission, I was told that I had to brownbag my booze because this club happened to be in a dry part of Dallas, another exotic feature of this story. The joint provided glasses, ice and seltzer -- against a modest charge, of course. Strippers with stage names such as Marilyn Moone, Little Lynn, Shari Angel and Rose Cheramie poured the whiskey or gin from the brown bags into the glass -- and chatted about their incarcerated boss whom they seemed to be very fond of.
The one looking after me was a homely 28-year-old mother of five from Baton Rouge. She described Ruby as a bit of a poor soul from the outskirts of Chicago, no beauty, but a balding, pudgy type - quite small compared with those tall, swaggering Texans carrying guns, men he admired very much and enjoyed hanging out with, especially cops.
For what it's worth, the image these kindly strippers in the Carousel Lounge conjured up of their boss did not measure up to the personality profile of a co-conspirator. But it seemed reasonable: Jack Ruby was evidently a nice enough guy, though not one you'd want to be with too often. He was -- and that came across later at his trial as well -- the type who'd sit at the bar next to the tall Texans talking tall: "Somebody ought to killthat S.O.B. (meaning Oswald)."
"Well, they just talked, but he acted," mused the half-clad mother of five next to me. I was in court when Jack Ruby, defended by the flamboyant Melvin Belli clad in a pink-lined Savile Row suit, was sentenced to death. Ruby never made it to the electric chair. Cancer got him first.