Unredacted Episode 10: Transcript of Interview with John Kelin
John Kelin is the creator of the internet journal Fair Play, and is the author of the new book Praise from a Future Generation, which tells the story of the early critics of the Warren Commission: Sylvia Meagher, Vincent Salandria, Mark Lane, Harold Weisberg, Ray Marcus, and several others. Based on interviews, letters between researchers, and other sources, Kelin's book is the first to tell the story of those who dug for the truth that federal investigators left buried.
This interview was conducted on 4 Dec 2007.
REX: Alright, welcome back to Unredacted. My name is Rex Bradford, and we’re here today with John Kelin, who is the author of a new book entitled Praise from a Future Generation, which is a history of the early critics of the Warren Commission. John was also the creator of an early electronic journal on the Kennedy assassination entitled Fair Play. Welcome, John.
JOHN: Hi, it’s nice to be here, Rex.
REX: I’m very pleased you wrote this book because, while I think at last count there must be roughly eleven zillion books on the Kennedy assassination, and on the failures of the Warren Commission, there’s really been very little information in print about how the ball got rolling, uh, as it were. I wonder if you could set the stage here. The Warren Commission was formed in the aftermath of the confusion in Dallas, but it decided to proceed in secret while the world waited. But not everyone just sat around and waited, right?
JOHN: That’s right. I... I think that, the curious thing about this is that public opinion polls from that era do seem to bear out that... that there was a wide degree of skepticism about what had happened in Dallas. Uh...and yet we still had the government investigation determining that in spite of any doubts the assassination was committed by one person, and it seems that that did quell public doubt to a degree, but it always was rather high... higher than... than I think I thought when I first began looking into the history of Warren Commission criticism.
REX: Sure, sure...
JOHN: That said, it seems that while suspicion or doubt was high, most people were at the same time not willing to support any kind of re-opening of the case. And that is where these earliest critics really step in.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
REX: Well even a few of them that you write about got their start even prior to the Warren Report, which you know, for the media at least, and for many people in the country had sort of sealed the deal as to... you know... and explained the assassination, for... you know.. for historians and for the public at large. But some of the people like Mark Lane, Leo Sauvage, were actually active in this even before the Warren Commission had completed its work.
JOHN: Right, and that is... that’s kind of the... uh... narrow definition that I used in deciding who I was going to write about was - it seems that most of those people that we remember today as the first generation critics did start almost immediately, and in some cases the very day of assassination - their skepticism was just as... about as high as it could get, and most of them immediately began tracking the story, uh, in the media, and... I... I think that one thing that most - not all of them, but most of them - had in common was actually clipping and collating, and in some cases putting into a scrapbook, articles that were published on the case, and comparing what was told over the first weeks and months, and beginning to notice discrepancies.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: I... I think one of the - probably the main one is the early question that I guess you could say hasn’t really ever gone away, and that is the direction of the shots, and the nature of… of the wounds to the President.
REX: Mmm, hmm. I know there was a newspaper article from Dallas from the 22nd which talked about the shooting from the grassy knoll, and there was certainly - the Dallas doctors talking about an entrance wound in the throat that afternoon. Um...
JOHN: Right! And there was - there was actually a report in the New York Times that specifically said that - according to Dallas doctor that - uh... that Kennedy had an entrance wound in the throat.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: And that gradually evolved into a wound from behind, from the back - it eventually turned into a neck wound.
REX: So... so who were some of the critics, then?
JOHN: Uh... the early critics would include a New York attorney and former state lawmaker named Mark Lane. They would - it would include Vince Salandria, his brother-in-law Harold Feldman, Harold Weisberg, who was a poultry farmer at the time of the assassination, a poultry farmer in Maryland. Uh... It would include a businessman in Los Angeles named Ray Marcus, another one in - also in Los Angeles - named Maggie Field. There was a housewife in Oklahoma named Shirley Martin. And in Texas there were several others, a newspaper owner and publisher and editor named Penn Jones Jr., and a legal secretary in Dallas named Mary Ferrell.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: I’m probably forgetting somebody.
REX: Um, sure. Did these people know each other? Did they have anything in common?
JOHN: Most of them did not know each other. Feldman and Salandria knew each other: they were brothers-in-law. I think that’s about it. Uh... after about a year Ray Marcus and Maggie Field met each other and ended up becoming life-long friends, but at the time of the assassination they didn’t know each other either.
REX: Hmm. Interesting… How did they get to know each other? I mean, this is in the Stone Age before email and the internet. And... uh... I think you tell an interesting story where, I’m not sure if it was Vince Salandria or someone, had calculated that there must be something like a hundred thousand people doing what they were doing and found out later that it was a much smaller number.
JOHN: Right. Yeah. That was Ray Marcus.
REX: Oh, Ray Marcus.
JOHN: He said... I think his reasoning was there must be at least one out of a thousand adults in this country who are as interested about this as I am. And from that he came to a number of... I think about a hundred thousand, and... I don’t know how long it took him, but he gradually figured he was way, way off and it was really closer to fifteen or twenty.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: Which is pretty astonishing.
REX: Did these people share anything in common - their politics or prior investigative history, or that sort of thing?
JOHN: Um... I mention Mark Lane, he got involved very early on, by publishing, well first writing a defense brief for Oswald that he based on the public statements of Henry Wade, the Dallas D.A. Uh... he felt that Wade’s case was pretty weak and that there wasn’t a single point of evidence that Wade had that couldn’t be challenged. And so he took Wade’s published remarks, and based on them wrote a defense brief for Oswald, that he managed to get published in a national magazine called The National Guardian. That was on December 19th, 1963. And he simultaneously sent that defense brief to... uh... the just-formed Warren Commission, actually sent it to J. Lee Rankin, the, uh... his title was Chief... uh...
REX: Chief Counsel.
JOHN: ...something like that. Yeah, Chief Counsel. And, uh... that netted Lane a little publicity. He was actually contacted in a round-about way by Marguerite Oswald, the mother of the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. In Oklahoma Shirley Martin, the woman I mentioned a few minutes ago, saw the article - not the article that Lane had written, but an article about the article that was published in the New York Times - and she clipped that article, the Times article, and mailed it to Marguerite Oswald in Fort Worth. And Marguerite in turn then was able to contact Lane, and asked if he could represent her son before the Warren Commission. The Warren Commission I don’t think ever really seriously considered it, but they eventually turned him down, they said, "No you can’t, because it’s not a trial." And they were not taking an adversarial approach to their review of the evidence. Um... but the effect of that was to draw Lane further into the case. By January he was lecturing almost daily in New York. And, uh... over the next few months embarked on a - was crisscrossing the United States speaking pretty much wherever he could, often on college campuses doing his best to publicize the weaknesses that he had identified in the Commission’s case against Oswald. And in the spring... uh... established an organization called the Citizens’ Committee of Inquiry, which had a small office in New York. And since Lane was so high-profile at that time a number of people did write to Lane’s office and were able to come in contact each other... with each other through... through that office.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
REX: Lane, I know at least later on, actually got some help in preparing for debates, um... but prior to that he actually appeared before the Commission on a couple of occasions, right?
JOHN: Yes, he did. His... his appearances were really... uh... probably not that necessary. He was - he had gone to Dallas in early January as part of his initial investigations into the case after Marguerite Oswald asked him to represent her dead son before the Commission, and had done some preliminary investigating. And, uh... I think he turned up a few witnesses that the Commission was not aware of... and, uh, for that reason was called to testify.
REX: He was also...
JOHN: ...and then was…
REX: I’m... I’m sorry. He was also alleging a meeting between Oswald, Ruby, and Tippit, and... was he not?
JOHN: Yes, he was. And, uh... You know I don’t really know whatever became of that. It appears that there was nothing to it, but he did allege that - I think about a week, maybe ten days before the assassination that, in the Carousel Club, the nightclub that Jack Ruby owned, Ruby had met with Tippit and Lee Oswald and, you know, after what transpired, if it indeed happened is not known, but...
REX: Okay. So, who... who were some of the other contemporaries that were not quite as prominent as Lane, but were actually doing work within that same time period?
JOHN: Ahhh... Well, uh, Salandria and Feldman did a lot of work. They were also clipping their articles and they were actually beginning to suspect that Oswald had… may have had some kind of connection with the FBI, and I think there was in fact a leak out of the uh... was it the Dallas Sheriff’s Department? Out of one of the - one of the law enforcement agencies in Texas, a leak to the effect that Oswald was in fact on the FBI payroll as an informant. And they, uh... jointly researched and Harold Feldman wrote an article that was published in The Nation in January of 1964 called "Oswald and the FBI." The article didn’t really reach any conclusions, but it did summarize what they felt was the evidence indicating that Oswald may have had these connections. That article was actually rather unusual because one of the difficulties that all of the early critics face, all of those who are writing, uh... and trying to get their views in print, um... one of the difficulties they faced was just accessing the media. And they did get this article, Feldman got this article in The Nation in January of ’64, just about two months after the assassination. But it was - it was curious because it was really published at - The Nation kept themselves at arms length. They printed almost a disclaimer to it. And simultaneously professing their full confidence in the Warren Commission and saying that they’re publishing this article just as a matter of public service and and airing all views.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: That’s the curiosity...
REX: Well that’s one area that you present some interesting stories about, and I think it’s always been a puzzle to many people that the so-called establishment left - Nation Magazine, I.F. Stone, later, people like Noam Chomsky - all resoundingly support the Warren Report. Was this something that was surprising to the critics that you write about?
JOHN: Absolutely. Lane commented in late 1964 that it had been over a year since the assassination and there had not been a single – he was specifically addressing broadcast media, but – there had not been a single program that in any way challenged the official lone-gunman story. So, and of course the real powerhouses, like Time-Life and CBS News were behind the Warren Commission one hundred per cent.
REX: Mmm, hmm. Well, what’s your sense for why some of the less-mainstream media were basically on the same page with the national media?
JOHN: Yeah. you know that’s... that’s a hard one to answer, and I’m not a media-analyst, but I think that some have concluded that they as a group feared the unleashing of some sort of pogrom against the Left if they were to take up any dissenting cause.
REX: Mmm, hmm. I mean I guess this was less - a decade or less after the Joe McCarthy era, so...
JOHN: Right. This is... yeah... this is fresh out of an intense period of Red hysteria, so I guess that... that could explain it. At least one...
REX: Seems like another thing that might be hard for people in our modern, cynical age is to put yourselves into a mid-1960’s frame of reference where doubting the integrity of men like the Warren Commissioners was unthinkable to a lot of people.
JOHN: Right. Yeah. That’s... that’s absolutely... It’s something that we... uh - I think find hard to understand today, that advocating any kind of view that was completely out of step with, um the status quo and that, uh... to question the integrity of any government body on even a little issue, was really almost unthinkable, and something of this magnitude suggests that the government was either dishonest or incorrect was... was hard to wrap your head around.
REX: Mmm, hmm. Okay. Let’s talk about a couple of other people you write about, ‘cause there’s many, many fascinating characters, some of whom are fairly well-known to those of us who follow the story, some less so. Um... What about Harold Weisberg? How did he get involved in the case?
JOHN: Harold Weisberg was a poultry farmer in Maryland at the time, was actually liquidating his poultry business that he operated for, I think, ten or twelve years. His background prior to that had been as a newspaper writer, journalist, and later as an intelligence analyst... uh... and in both the OSS and later in the State Department. From which he was fired. He always believed the firing had to do with anti-Semitism, which may or may not be true. Anyway... uh... he was - he was at the time of the assassination thinking about resuming his writing career and, uh, actually got himself an agent and was developing a few book and article ideas, and was totally captivated by the assassination when it happened. He had the of course... the usual reaction of horror as a person, but then the journalist instincts I think kicked in, he wanted to track the work of the Commission and write about it, which he did, he, uh, he - like all of the early critics immediately obtained a set of the twenty-six volumes and of course the Warren Report, the Warren Report itself, the single-volume Warren Report. What was popularly called the Warren Report was published in September of 1964, and then the twenty-six volumes of supporting evidence were published two months later. And so he got all those and began comparing the conclusions in the single-volume report with the... uh... supporting evidence in the twenty-six volumes, which is supposedly the raw material that the single-volume Report was based on, and, he... Weisberg very rapidly wrote... uh... his own analysis, his critique, which he called Whitewash. And he finished that I think in early 1965. He wrote it amazingly fast. He told me that he was able to work on it almost around the clock, and he was able to at that - I think he was about fifty, fifty-one, I think at the time... but he was still able to get by on just a few hours of sleep at night. He was really very focused, I guess, on what he was doing. Um...
REX: Mmm, hmm. Then Weisberg was something more of a loner compared to some of the other people, was he not? He seems to have not had a good relationship with some of the other critics.
JOHN: Yeah, he was, uh... he definitely was a lone-wolf who, I mean he, uh... there was some... there was some sharing of material with... that he, uh... that he did. He was in contact with all the others, but he definitely worked by himself, I think, and he liked it that way, it was a basic to his personality I think.
REX: Um, okay. Another person, who I think many people consider to have written the definitive dissection of the Warren Report is Sylvia Meagher. And...
JOHN: Yeah, I...
REX: And she was another person who smelled a rat basically immediately, right?
JOHN: Yes, she did. She, uh... Sylvia Meagher was a researcher at the World Health Organization at the time of the assassination. That’s of course an agency of the United Nations, so she was - an international public servant I guess would be her short, one-line job description, and, uh, like the others she tracked the story faithfully in the media, and was as skeptical as they all were. Um... she actually - I mentioned that Mark Lane was speaking publicly in New York almost daily. She went to a couple of his early lectures and, uh, contributed to his cause; he was often soliciting donations to keep his work afloat at that time. And, uh, she, like the others, got her set of the twenty-six volumes, and began her analysis of it. Actually before that she... based on the Warren Report - she first got that - she wrote a short article, and the title of that is escaping me at the moment, but it was a short, maybe ten, fifteen page article, that she shopped around for a little while, collected some rejection slips, couldn’t get it placed anywhere, and then set that aside after the twenty-six volumes were published, and began working on what she called a critical or comparative study of the Report versus the twenty-six volumes. Although as it turned out she ended up shelving that, she got a pretty good start on her comparative study but she ended up shelving that because she found that the twenty-six volumes of supporting evidence was so poorly organized and lacking in a subject index that she set about the task of creating a subject index of her own, which she did over a period of about a year, and managed to get published in, I think, the spring of 1966. Um... and that’s... that’s really, I think an under - underappreciated contribution of hers, was her subject index.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: Which is pretty much impossible to find today. And...
REX: Um... So, yeah, you’ve touched upon and have a lot more in the book about the problems some of these people had getting their work published. One person you wrote about who I knew very little about is M.S. Arnoni, who took it upon himself to... uh... put some of the writings of these authors in his Minority of One, and he had a fascinating background; I wonder if you could tell us a bit about him.
JOHN: You know, I... I never really learned a whole lot about M.S. Arnoni and he was kind of a peripheral figure. He was... he was important... a very important figure during that early period. But strictly speaking wasn’t really, uh, one of the critics. However he was the - not the publisher, but the editor of this...
REX: I see.
JOHN: This journal that you mentioned, the Minority of One. And, uh... and he made his doors - made it available to, uh... to regularly publish the works of people like Sylvia Meagher and Mark Lane, Vince Salandria, and, uh, Harold Feldman – all had important early articles in that journal. And prior to that he actually was a very politically insightful person, I’m still speaking of Arnoni.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: Um... it’s a pretty well - pretty well-known story in the annals of the early assassination of the comment by Earl Warren, I think in early January of 1964 as he emerged from a session of that day's commission activity he was asked by a New York Times reporter, I think, about their evidence and... and when they would be publishing it and Warren said something to the effect of, you know, “There’ll come a time when all the evidence will be published and be made available, but, it might not be in our lifetime.”
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: And that... that caused a considerable stir for a couple of days, a little longer. And, uh, the next day Warren actually backed off and said he was being facetious, which is pretty odd statement to make, it’s, uh... Anyway, not long after that Arnoni published an editorial that said, “That’s unacceptable, you know. We need to know all the information in our lifetime.” And he ended the editorial by calling for Warren’s resignation from the Commission; of course that never happened. But, uh, it’s still an interesting... interesting, very courageous thing to write at that time.
REX: Well, Arnoni had been in Nazi camps in World War II, is that right?
JOHN: He was a... he was a survivor of Nazi death camps. I don’t know a whole lot about that other than a remark of Sylvia Meagher’s in some of the correspondence of hers that I was able to access: her observation that his arms still bore the, uh - probably all survivors bore the death camp tattoos, the identifying tattoos that were put on all prisoners then. In later speaking appearances Arnoni was apparently known to appear and speak while wearing a... I’m sure not an original, but a death camp uniform.
REX: Mmm, hmm. Okay. In the period around 1965, uh, some of the critics started to have interactions with former Warren Commission staffers, right? The - I guess their writings had received enough prominence that there was a bit of reaction and a few debates even happened. Could you tell a story or two about that?
JOHN: Yeah. They... there was intermittent contact, attempts at contacts with, uh, commission members, uh, almost from the beginning. Sylvia Meagher wrote, I think in her frontmatter to Accessories After the Fact - her... what her comparative study eventually was published as - she wrote that in her view it was one of the most reprehensible things that the Commission did was that it left no standing body after publishing its work, that was... that was answerable to what they had published... published the twenty-six volumes and the Report and ceased to exist. Um, so there was no one there to, uh, to answer for it. She began writing to former Commission members, staff attorneys, uh, by 1965 and she, she really got very little response, there were a few token, “Thank you for your views…” kind of letters, almost form letters, but never anything, any satisfactory answers to some of the questions that she posed and for, just basic, questions about basic evidence and anomalies she was finding in her analysis. Uh, Mark Lane was also trying to engage, uh, Commission members, former attorneys, and, and was actually - did manage to appear on a public platform with former staff attorney Joseph Ball in December of 1964. I know this interview is going - this is... I probably shouldn’t mention... this interview is going to be heard who knows when, but it actually, we’re talking on December 4th - it was actually on December 4th, 1964 that Lane took part in, uh, not a debate, but an appearance with Joseph Ball...
REX: It was something of a cross-examination of Lane, right?
JOHN: Yeah, it really - for the purposes of this conversation I’ll call it a debate but it was billed as a cross-examination of Mark Lane by uh, by three prominent attorneys; those being Ball, of course, the former - Joseph Ball, the former commission staff attorney, a man named A.L. Wiren, who was formerly associated with - was it California or was it the national - ACLU?
REX: ACLU, I believe.
JOHN: And then a man named Herman… Herman, uh, Selvin, who was a prominent Los Angeles attorney, not really known outside of the...
REX: How did the debate turn out?
JOHN: Most who were present, and people like me who have heard recordings of those debates. Lane won hands down, it was, I felt, embarrassing on the - for some of the participants that were there supporting the... the Commission, because they were so poorly prepared and so poorly informed. I mean they, they really I think had an indefensible position, but it was just... it was... to hear parts of the tape it’s embarrassing to hear. One of the most amazing things to come out of that I think that... that whole confrontation which lasted over a period of a couple of hours was an exchange between, uh, Lane and Joseph Ball at which Joseph Ball referred to Helen Markham as an utter screwball that’s quote unquote "an utter screwball." Helen Markham of course was the Commission’s star witness in its, uh... that part of its case against Oswald for killing Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit about an hour after the... or forty-five minutes after the assassination itself took place.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: She really was an unreliable witness for more than one reason and nevertheless to, to have Joseph Ball on a public platform refer to her, this important witness, as an utter screwball is a pretty amazing thing.
REX: Mmm, hmm. Mmm, hmm. So, by 1966 it seems like, um, some of the major media were starting to take an interest in the case. Was this the result of the critics - questions they’d raised about the single-bullet theory and other aspects of the case?
JOHN: Yeah, I think it was. I mean, any, anybody who follows... I mean you look at the media, there’s always something that’s a flavor-of-the-week and I, I think you could say that it was just time for the, for uh... the case of the critics, uh, get their, their public airing. 1966 was an interesting year, that was, a number of the critics did get into print in a bigger way, I think, that was the year that Whitewash - Harold Weisberg had published a, a private edition of Whitewash in 1965, but he - and he self-published again a privately published, somewhat enlarged version of Whitewash in 1966, and that got a fair amount of media attention. And also, um, a book called Inquest by Edward Epstein.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: ...was published that year, uh, along with Rush to Judgment, Mark Lane’s book, The Oswald Affair, which was the English translation of a, of a book by the French journalist Leo Sauvage was published in ‘66, the first volume of Penn Jones' Forgive My Grief.
REX: Right, and Vince Salandria’s...
JOHN: So there’s a lot of, a lot of published work and there were a few others too that got a lot of - that were pretty high profile books that were published that year, so it seemed that, that after two or three years of, of trying to get their case before the public that it, it was just... it was their time. I don’t know, you know, if it was meant to happen at that time or what, but it, it did and...
REX: Yeah, but, and then I think in around the anniversary in ’66, the third anniversary of the assassination there were even, what - the Saturday Evening Post, Life Magazine were essentially beginning to call for new investigations.
JOHN: Editorially calling for new investigations, which was, was really an amazing development. Life in particular, they all backed off after awhile, um, but for a brief time it seemed like some of the media was beginning to come around and, uh...
REX: Well, what happened in the immediate aftermath of that of course was the Garrison investigation. I’m wondering to what extent you think that that basically, um, took the center stage and ended up derailing the media interest in the case, because of everything that happened.
JOHN: Yeah, Garrison acknowledged that his, his, u;h, his earliest work was influenced by the, by the early commission critics in particular he in a Playboy interview he specifically mentioned Harold Weisberg, Epstein, and probably Lane, Mark Lane I think was the third. He mentioned three of them specifically in this pretty high-profile interview, as influencing his earliest...
REX: Well some of these people even participated in the Grand Jury that he had convened in ’67, right? Harold Weisberg was there, Ray Marcus...
JOHN: Yes, I think just three that actually testified for the Grand Jury in early, or late winter and early spring of 1967, um, the first few months of the Garrison investigation - of course it was, uh, it was secret, not a real closely guarded secret as it turned out because a growing number of people it appears did know about it, um, but it really, it really exploded all over the media in February, mid-February of ’67, and the Grand Jury got under way shortly after that, and as you mentioned, Weisberg, Ray Marcus, and Mark Lane all spoke before the Grand Jury, which went on to indict Clay Shaw.
REX: I mean the Garrison investigation has been fairly divisive, even among, uh, you know, critics of the Warren Commission and it was - it was for the early critics too, at least, particularly in the case of Sylvia Meagher, right?
JOHN: Yeah. She was initially very supportive of Jim Garrison. I came across a letter that she wrote to - I can’t remember who it was to now - but she said something to the effect of, “I had to restrain myself from jumping on the first plane and flying down to New Orleans to lend a hand.” But that, that soured. She, I think, she very early on concluded that Garrison didn’t really have a case against Clay Shaw. And, uh, and, uh, really suspected his motives you know whether he was out for political gain, was drunk with power or what, but she, she was a, she was a very vocal critic of, of Garrison’s investigation and as you noted it did become a very divisive issue, um, among these critics. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground: you were either for him or against him. And, you know it was very, it was very unfortunate I think.
REX: One of the things you write about is Vince Salandria, I think in particular, but also some of the other critics being worried about - that the work they were doing was something that might be subject to infiltration by people that would want to keep them from finding or communicating the truth...
REX: ...can I say if you reached any judgment about the extent whether they may be a little bit paranoid or justified in that belief, first of all.
JOHN: I, I think they were very justified. Um, I think that there were a couple, there were a couple of instance - incidents, that... that I write about in the book at least, at least three people who sort of made themselves known to the critics, that seemed to be dangling bait almost in front of them, that had they gone for it they could have ended up publicly embarrassed, and publicly discredited.
REX: Mmm, hmm. One of those stories that you write about...
JOHN: Yeah, well there were a couple of different people in particular that, that are most interesting. One was a guy named Jules Striso, and he began contacting some of the critics, I think starting about late 1966 - almost parallels the Garrison case although I don’t think there’s necessarily a connection. Um, but this guy Jules Striso, uh, began contacting - he contacted Sylvia Meagher, Shirley Martin, uh, Weisberg, and Vince Salandria also. And he would contact them and hint to them that he had some kind of info that could blow the lid off the case. Um... and you know nobody really knew who he was, just this character who started contacting them. Um, at one point Striso did set up a meeting with Sylvia Meagher, I think that was probably in January of ’67, and then he, uh, just abruptly cancelled it. And then, after canceling it, he ends up showing up at her apartment in New York just unexpectedly. And it turned out he’s a really big guy, physically imposing, and when he showed up at her place he appeared to be really drunk and he completely unnerved Sylvia Meagher, really a very intimidating presence. And according to the written record that she left behind he indicated that he had some kind of answers that she and other critics were looking for. Um, but he, I guess he wasn’t real specific about what he had, but he also was hinting that some of them could be in danger, um, and then as suddenly as he showed up, he I guess left rather abruptly also. And she was actually a little suspicious after he left whether he was actually drunk or whether he was putting on a performance with the purpose of just scaring her off.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: Um, and that happened right around the same time uh, as a in some ways more interesting incident, you’ll find if I explain… if I describe this at all.
JOHN: Um, this incident involving a woman named, or calling herself anyway, Rita Rollins. Rita Rollins contacted Salandria first on I think it was the very last day of January 1967. And she said that she was a nurse and that her life was in danger because at the time of the assassination she’d been working for this wealthy family in Texas and she thought some of the people she’d been working for were in some way involved in the assassination. Um, she didn’t know exactly how she, how she was involved or how she was involved, but she was pretty sure that one, one of the family members of this family that she was working for had connections to intelligence agencies and had been in some way involved in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the former prime minister of the Republic of Congo in 1961. So she told Salandria that she thought this guy had been part of an assassination team in Dealey Plaza also, and that now she knew too much and someone was trying to kill her. So she went to Salandria because Salandria had recently been profiled in a, in a newspaper article in Philadelphia by Joe McGinnis who was at the time a columnist for the Philadelphia Enquirer. Um, and she rather quickly had Salandria pretty convinced that she was legitimate. And Vince in turn contacted Sylvia Meagher in New York who was at her office at the World Health Organization, and she actually left work and caught the first train down to Philadelphia where Vince was living ,and she wanted to hear Rollins story herself first hand. And Rollins had, very quickly had Sylvia convinced as well. And M.S. Arnoni, the Minority of One editor, was also there but he was not convinced, he just wasn’t buying it, he was pretty sure that Rollins was making up some story. Uh, uh, in the end they ended up not believing her, they started questioning her about nursing, which she said she was a nurse, and, and I guess that was... that tripped her up that was the one thing she wasn’t prepared for I guess to have stories about. And Vince later learned that Rita Rollins, her real name actually was Lula Belle Holmes and she was indeed an FBI informant, and I also found some references to Lula Belle Holmes in a book The Great Fear, um, which is a, this book I can’t remember the author’s name, but it’s about anti-Communist hysteria in the ‘50s, and according to that Lula Belle Holmes aka Rita Rollins was a - she testified against a man name Claude Lightfoot, who was secretary to the Communist Party in Illinois and, and Lightfoot was arrested and charged under the Smith Act which made it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the United States government. Um, I also found a reference to her in, to, uh, Lula Belle Holmes in Newsweek Magazine from 1968, this is a really odd one, she, she was, uh, speaking publicly of a threat to the Roman Catholic church, they were opposed by the Communist Party, she also offered her support for George Wallace, who was I think in one of his several presidential bids that year, you know, the former governor of Alabama, I think it was, he was usually associated with racist views, that’s kind of weird because Lula Belle Holmes was black and here she was endorsing George Wallace. She was also, uh, later was an itinerant speaker for the John Birch Society. So this is a woman who, she tried to lure two or three critics into, into publicly endorsing this, this story that had they done so I think it would have had the effect of discrediting...
REX: Yup, yup, interesting. You write in the book that in the end Sylvia called Rollins and told her to go back to her employers whoever they were and say that we weren’t fooled.
REX: And I guess they never learned anything more about who, who was behind sending her.
JOHN: Who had actually sent her?
JOHN: Yeah, I don’t, I don’t think so, I think that you can draw some conclusions, you can’t really know I guess for sure. But she was definitely a, a character that, that - and she had pretty well confirmed that she was working as an undercover FBI agent and, uh, infiltrating in the 50s, infiltrating different uh, United States - Communist Party USA organizations and involved in, in prosecuting them. And then later speaking on behalf of the Birch Society so...
REX: Uh-huh. Okay. Um, well, in a, in a few more minutes before we wrap up I guess I’d like to ask a few questions about where, uh, where this all took us. I’m curious your reaction to what we’ve learned since then, I mean, it seems like in some ways we know a lot more than the early critics were able to find out in the '60s about the CIA-Mafia plots to kill Castro, other abuses of the intelligence agencies, about Oswald’s Mexico City trip, about the medical evidence, and much more, but it seems like in some ways the national debate really hasn’t moved on from the issues that Vince Salandria raised about the single bullet theory and some of the other work of the critics. Um, to what extent do you think the issues they raised are still unresolved?
JOHN: Well, I think that, that the issues that the first generation critics identified and to the best that they could publicized, I think that, I think that they pretty well had solved the case by the end of the '60s. Um, and, uh, as a, my own interest, uh... you know I really think that you know the case was pretty well solved by the... I think Garrison was really onto the right - on the right track. Um, as to the way his case ended up playing out, well, I can’t really speak to that, but I think he was, I think that he - now cliché: he had something.
REX: By solved you mean that, that it was a conspiracy and that the origins were in the area of the CIA and Cuban exiles and that area...or, or something else.
JOHN: Yes. Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Um, as to Clay Shaw’s role in any of that, I don’t know. Um, there does seem to be pretty, pretty compelling evidence that, that he was not the simple businessman that he, uh, presented himself as. Um, you know and I think it’s, you know the current state of, uh, of, of, of - I don’t know how even to characterize the - I write about the first generation critics, we’re up to the I don’t know what generation we are now. The issue is still alive, there’s still a lot of people interested in it. Ahhh... the things that we’re learning today probably are filling in a lot of voids but I don’t know how far they advance any - the case in any meaningful way. I think they, they might be answering some questions, but, um, I really don’t know where it’s all headed.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: And if I sound like I’m hemming and hawing I guess I’m not sure how to answer your question.
REX: Well, okay, well that’s fair enough. Um, ah, how did you, uh, get involved in this by the way? How long have you been, uh, actively studying the Kennedy assassination, and particularly also I’m curious about Fair Play, the electronic magazine that you started up?
JOHN: I got interested in it in, ah... when was it? 1976, I think, um, when Mark Lane came to speak at the campus of the school I was attending. And I really wasn’t interested in it up - prior to that. And I don’t remember why, for some reason my roommate and I decided to go see him speak. And he showed the Zapruder film and it was the first time I’d ever seen it, and it was just stunning to me to see that film. I didn’t... I didn’t see there was any other way to interpret that film other than he was shot from the front. It seemed so obvious from the way his head and upper body react to the head shot. It, it just... I didn’t see any other way to interpret that. And, uh, that really turned me around completely, and got me thinking about the assassination as an issue, but after reading what was, you know, some of the stuff that was available at that time, I came to the conclusion that it was basically was an unsolvable mystery. And, you know, my interest kind of waxed and waned over the next, uh, ten years or so, ten, twelve years, and, uh, got reenergized when Oliver Stone’s movie came out.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: And, uh, within a few years of that, was - started going to conferences and things like that, and.... That sort of paralleled the rise of the internet as we know it today, uh, of course the internet’s been around much longer than that, but its commercialization was starting about that time, early- to mid-90s. And I, by email, I don’t remember how now, but I came in contact with this guy in L.A. and we talked about starting up some kind of magazine, we were thinking of it as an e-zine at the time. It was actually my wife who suggested we do it as a, as a internet page.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: Mosaic was the big browser at that time. Uh... And so we did that, started ... got a couple of issues together, and put the first one out on November 22, 1994. And this other guy actually dropped out after a number of - two or three issues, and it kind of became my thing, and I ended up doing it for, I guess about five years.
REX: Did, did you know a lot of the writers, or did they just come to you once you had a platform up?
JOHN: A lot of themm=, most - I didn’t really know any of them. They, they kind of came to me. And, you know, I kind of had mixed feelings about that whole period because I look back on - some of it was pretty good, there’s some stuff I put up that’s kind of embarrassing to me now. But, uh, I’m not going to mention any of that specifically.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: But there’s some pretty good stuff that, that I think was, uh, in that - especially over the last couple of years. In 1998 at a COPA conference in Dallas, I met Vince Salandria, and he graciously gave me permission to put the text of a speech that he delivered to that, that conference, uh... onto the site, and over the next couple of years, uh, with the help of a, uh, Seton Hall professor named Christopher Sharrett I got some of other, Vince’s other early articles and started putting a lot of his early stuff onto that site. And that was really kind of a turning point. That was, I think, one of the best things that I did was make some of his early material available, because I felt that really, uh, said a lot of important stuff that, that wasn’t really - that had been kind of lost over the years. And, uh...
REX: Is that what turned into the book False Mys - I’m sorry. Is that the book False Mystery?
JOHN: Yeah. Yeah. The... the title came from that, that COPA speech that Vince gave in 1998, and that was, that was included in there, but most of that booklet, uh, was, was his early writings on the assassination. He published an article in, uh, just a few weeks after the Warren Report, um, in the Philadelphia Legal Intelligencer which was... or still is the, the law journal of the legal community in Philadelphia, and, uh, republished that, and a few similar articles that he wrote during that early period, and... And so, uh, that is some similar early material that, that I got into Fair Play, not just Vince’s stuff but by other people also. Um, I’d, I’d actually been interested in the critics all along, but not in the sense of researching - I was sort of researching, but not really understanding that I was researching them, if you follow.
REX: Mmm, hmm. Mmm, hmm.
JOHN: Um, and, uh, so I think that was some of the best stuff that I ended up putting in that magazine.
REX: Okay. So, did, did you end up meeting many of the researchers for this book, or corresponding with them by email or phone, or to-?
JOHN: Well, I, I met them all at, at very least by telephone if you can call that meeting somebody, meeting them once removed. I only met a few of them in person. I... I only met Vince that one time. I met him in ’98 when he delivered that speech at the COPA conference. He also, I, I think I’m pretty sure he spoke at the Lancer Conference that year too, although I did not see that. Um, there, there are as I’m sure everyone listening to this interview may be aware, there are, are usually two conferences held annually, uh, in Dallas, the Coalition on Political Assassinations and the JFK Lancer Conference, and I think he spoke at both of them that year. Anyway, uh, I fin - I met him that one time, and, uh, never, never met Harold Weisberg, in person. Talked on the telephone a number of times and, and one of my regrets is that, that our last few interviews were - he was clearly in failing health, and he died without my being able to ask him about some things I... that I had hoped to ask him. I, I met Ray Marcus, it was at his home a couple years ago - I think about five or six years ago now. Uh, I met him in person, interviewed him a number of times by telephone also. Uh, and, I’ll say actually in, in person, I did meet Mary Ferrell in person. We never really established a good relationship unfortunately and I, I will acknowledge here that one of the, one of the weaknesses I think, I probably shouldn’t mention this, but one of the weakness in my book I think is she unfortunately is under-represented in that, not for any lack of effort on my part, it just apparently was not meant to be. I - in spite of my best efforts I never did learn a whole lot about her.
REX: Mmm, hmm.
REX: With, with...
JOHN: And, uh... Pardon me?
REX: Well you certainly have a great deal of information about a lot of people. Are, are there folks that for one reason or another, you were unable to tell their story?
JOHN: Well, yeah, the only other one that, that I knew I might be criticized for, for overlooking was, is Mae Brussell, who, is not mentioned at all. And, um, I don’t feel any compelling need to defend myself over that. I guess I will say that she was, she appeared to be - she was definitely outside of the, the orbit of most of the critics, including the, uh, mostly lone wolf Harold Weisberg were. Most of them were in contact with each other on a pretty regular basis. And, if, uh, Harold Weisberg was the lone wolf, Mae Brussell was very much alone. I mean she - I, I think that I found one reference to her in - I, I looked at an enormous amount of, of correspondence among the, the critics that I did write about over the years and I think there is a single reference in the context I mentioned earlier, a short time ago, Jules Striso, this guy, he was contacting, uh, all the early critics… there is a reference in a letter written by Sylvia Meagher and I don’t remember who it was written to, um, but she said that - she was saying that we all need to be on high alert and be suspicious of anybody who is contacting us, who we don’t know. And someone should - she said something to the effect of, “Someone should let Mae Brussell know this.” Or something like that.
JOHN: And that’s the sole reference in all of this, all of the material that I’ve looked at over the years to Mae Brussell, so she was really outside of the, the orbit. And I guess for that reason she just proved to be one person too many. I... I do regret that, but that’s just sort of the way the chips fell.
REX: Sure. Well it’s a, I think a - certainly a book well worth reading. I hope that you have success with it. Um… And it’s been great talking with you today.