It was a happy moment when twelve-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald and his half-brother, John Edward Pic, met up in the streets of New York in 1952. Born in New Orleans two months after his father died, Lee hadn't seen John in the two years since the latter left to join the Coast Guard. "I was real glad to see him and he was real glad to see me," recalled John, who was seven years older. "We were real good friends."
This was August, tourist season, and John took a week's leave so he could show his little brother around the city. They visited the New York Museum of Natural History and Polk's Hobby Shop. They rode the Staten Island Ferry, from where Lee could see the Statue of Liberty. They made a few other excursions, two brothers spending time together.
But the good feeling was not to last—not when their mother got involved. Combative, domineering, and convinced that the world owed her better, Marguerite Oswald was quick to find trouble and push back against even the smallest of slights. After she and Lee moved into a small apartment on East 92nd Street with John, his wife Margy, and their little baby, the arguments quickly escalated. In one fight over the TV when John was at work, an aggravated Lee threatened Margy with his pocketknife and hit his mother.
Later, Marguerite would brush off the violent behavior, just as she always did, saying that "it was just a little knife," but Margy was determined to make them leave. "She didn't like me, and she didn't like Lee," Marguerite claimed. Within a few days, she and an angry Lee packed their bags and moved to the Bronx, causing a split between the brothers that never healed. "I was never able to get to the kid again after that," John said.
In the coming months, the rift and the constant moving was clearly taking a toll. By January 1953, after the restless Marguerite moved them to another Bronx apartment, Lee had skipped 48 of 64 school days at P.S.117 and was failing nearly all his classes.
He didn't like school. He didn't like the other kids, these New York kids, especially when they mocked him for wearing Levi jeans or speaking with a strange Southern accent. He didn't like rules or anyone, especially authority figures, telling him what to do. He'd rather be by himself, do what he wanted, and not be bothered about it. What did they have to teach him in that school anyway? His mother reinforced this attitude: "Lee seemed to know the answers to things without schooling."
In the mornings after Marguerite left for work, Lee would often stay in bed until eleven or twelve, then fix something to eat, watch TV, listen to the radio, read magazines. He preferred this easy isolation to the difficulties of school. Some days he would head to the subway, riding from the Bronx to Queens and Brooklyn, back and forth, all day long. He almost never talked to anyone, just like his mother taught him, leaving him to drift and fantasize about the big life he would have one day. On other days he would go to the library, maybe an art museum, or, best of all—he loved to see the animals—the Bronx Zoo.
But in April, after Lee was picked up by a truant officer and refused to attend a court hearing, he was taken into custody and sent to Youth House in Manhattan for evaluation. In the days after he arrived, Lee Oswald was interviewed by a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a social worker, and a probation officer. When he wasn't meeting the professionals, he was reading and trying to avoid the other children. He had "detached himself completely, and repulsed any efforts at friendship by others," reported social worker Evelyn Strickman. When asked questions, Lee would give terse replies. While usually quiet and withdrawn, "if he did become involved in any minor altercation, he was very hostile and belligerent and somewhat defiant of supervision."
It wasn’t until Marguerite came to visit Youth House on the Lower East Side that it finally dawned on her that Lee could be in real trouble. Notably, she recalled standing in a line more than a block long outside the main building, joined by, as she put it, "Puerto Ricans and Negroes and everything, and people of my class." After entering the gated structure, Marguerite was made to empty her purse and take the wrappers off the candy and gum she had brought with her to ensure she wasn't smuggling in cigarettes or narcotics.
She was escorted to a large room where other parents were talking to their kids. When Lee came out, he began to cry, she said, telling her, "Mother, I want to get out of here. There are children in here who have killed people, and smoke. I want to get out."
In her mind, Lee had just skipped a little school, played a little hooky—boys will be boys, after all. But now she “realized what a serious thing this was." Not so much the truancy, but the place in which they put him, with its barred windows, locked doors, and delinquent children. "We don’t have those kinds of places in Texas or New Orleans,” Marguerite said.
Dr. Renatus Hartogs, the German-born chief psychiatrist at Youth House, interviewed Lee for about an hour. Hartogs found him a bright boy, possessing "superior mental resources" with a well-developed vocabulary and capacity for abstract thinking. He also described his "intense anxiety, shyness, feelings of awkwardness, and insecurity," as well as his "vivid fantasy life turning around the topics of omnipotence and power." When asked whether he preferred the company of boys over girls, Lee told Hartogs, "I dislike everybody."
While Hartogs saw no signs of psychosis, he identified schizoid personality features and passive-aggressive tendencies. In a sentence, "Lee has to be seen as an emotionally quite-disturbed youngster who suffers under the impact of really existing emotional isolation and deprivation, lack of affection, absence of family life, and rejection by a self-involved and conflicted mother."
On May 7, three weeks after Lee had arrived at Youth House, he was back before Judge McClancy. The judge advised Marguerite that her son must attend school regularly or he would be brought again before the court. He was put on probation and a plan was put in motion to get him therapeutic treatment. Lee and Marguerite both promised to cooperate.
But despite the assurances, the coming months were shaped by Marguerite's continuing conviction that the court was making a big deal out of nothing, that this was just a simple case of a boy playing hooky. Marguerite blamed her son’s troubles on New York laws and how the Bureau of Attendance was making a "criminal out of him." She didn't want any probation officer or social worker to interfere. She likened this to Lee "talking to a stranger."
But Marguerite had no intention of getting Lee help, making her best efforts to sabotage any chance to turn things around. As probation officer John Carro noted later, "She may have been just as disturbed as the boy."
While the court officials continued their efforts to arrange a treatment plan, Marguerite planned a getaway. In early January 1954, despite the court's demands, she moved Lee back to New Orleans and out of New York's jurisdiction. Marguerite sent the attendance officer a letter explaining that she had left with her son, but she did not provide any address or other contact information. At this point, there was nothing the New York officials could do to help Lee or his mother.
For Marguerite, this was the end of an unpleasant period of harassment where strangers were meddling in her business. Lee would not get the help he desperately needed, and his mother could continue managing things the way she saw fit.
Looking back, Marguerite would say that "Mr. Carro pestered me and Lee," and that "he was indignant at my attitude, because he was an official." Carro would say that Marguerite “didn't want to cooperate," and as much as removing a child from a family home was the last resort because "there is no substitute for love and parents," this was a boy who was on his own, who had "nothing going for him on the outside."
Once Lee left New York, that chance for change was likely lost forever.
This piece was adapted from the just-released The Gunman and His Mother: Lee Harvey Oswald, Marguerite Oswald, and The Making of an Assassin. Steven Beschloss is a writer and filmmaker, whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Parade magazine and many other outlets.