“Would you like a cup of coffee?,” from A Mother in History, by Jean Stafford (1966)

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'A Mother in History'

“I want the truth known,” she said, sitting upright on a sofa, her hands crossed at the wrists, palm upward. “I believe the American people are entitled to the truth and I believe they want to know. Now I will agree that immediately after the assassination, and while President Johnson was taking the place of President Kennedy, let me say in all respect that this was not the time to bring these truths before the public. But after his time in office most people think — I don’t agree, but that’s beside the point — that he is a very powerful President, and the assassination itself has subsided. I think the truth should be leaked now, and if in the leaking they can prove to me that my son was the assassin of President Kennedy, I won’t commit suicide or drop dead. I will accept the facts as a good straight human being. But up until this day they have not shown me any proof and I have things in my possession to disprove many things they say. I understand all the testimony off the cuff is in Washington and will be locked up for seventy-five years. Well, I’ve got news for you. It will not be for seventy-five years, because if today or tomorrow I am dead or killed, what I have in my possession will be known. And I in my lifetime have got to continue what I have been doing, using my emotional stability and speaking out whenever I can. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

Because there was no hiatus between the proclamation of unwavering purpose and the hospitable, colloquial question, and because both were delivered in the same tone and at the same pace, I did not immediately take it in, but in a moment, I did and said I would. (The drinking of coffee in Texas is almost as involuntary as respiration.)

A Mother in History centers on three visits made by Jean Stafford to Marguerite Oswald, mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, in her little Fort Worth duplex in 1965. Stafford, who was better known as a fiction writer, may have taken the assignment for a piece originally published in McCall’s magazine out of a morbid fascination. Marguerite Oswald was quickly typecast as an eccentric in the media frenzy that followed her son’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the job was very much out of Stafford’s line. She had little prior experience as a journalist: it was only after the first day with Marguerite that she thought to rent a tape recorder and even then it took the combined efforts of both women to get it working.

In many ways, A Mother in History is an early and overlooked example of New Journalism. Stafford writes in first person, puts herself into the middle of the story, and makes no effort to hide her opinions:

“And as we all know, President Kennedy was a dying man. So I say it is possible that my son was chosen to shoot him in a mercy killing for the security of the country. And if this is true, it was a fine thing to do and my son is a hero.”

“I had not heard that President Kennedy was dying,” I said, staggered by this cluster of fictions stated as irrefutable fact. Some mercy killing! The methods used in this instance must surely be unique in the annals of euthanasia.

Neither does she disguise the sense of awe and absurdity with which she views Marguerite Oswald. Although Marguerite pronounces her family as “basic and normal” to Stafford, the course of her adult life had been pretty erratic. She had three sons by two different husbands, changed jobs and moved frequently, and dragged Lee Harvey through a dozen schools and over twenty residences before he enlisted in the Marines at 17. As folks in the South might put it, she was about a half bubble off plumb.

And she was a talker. Stafford resorted to the tape recorder after being overwhelmed by Marguerite’s non-stop recitation on the first day, which swerved in and out of past and present, fact and fiction, down-home truths and wildest fantasy. Marguerite keeps a simple but immaculate house, plays the gracious hostess with great Southern charm:

Terms of endearment came naturally to her lips, as they do to those of many Southern women; she could have been the stand-in and the off-stage voice for the woman from who I had bought a rain cape in Neiman-Marcus that morning, who rejected the first one I tried on, saying, “No, honey, that just won’t do. You little dress shows.” A Northerner is at first taken aback, then is seduced, then realizes — sometimes too late — that these blandishments are unconscious and wholly noncommittal and one need not feel obliged to reciprocate by buying the next rain cape. (In this case I did, and it comes nicely below the hems of all my little dresses.)

Despite Lee Harvey’s crimes — which Marguerite variously denies or acknowledges but never recognizes as deliberate — she is proud of Lee and his brothers. “None of them ever entered my home stinko,” she boasts to Stafford. The product of a dysfunctional family herself, Stafford treats Marguerite’s cluelessness with a certain (if there is such a thing) kind sarcasm: “Relatives are often (perhaps more often than not) the last people on earth to know anything about each other.”

Had the term been around in her day, Marguerite would have proclaimed herself an advocate of “truthiness.” Facts were less important than gut feelings. Of Lee Harvey’s Russian wife, Marina, she declares, “Marina seems French to me.” In calling Kennedy a dying man, she declares that he was suffering from Atkinson’s disease, “a disease of the kidneys,” for which there was no cure. (In fact, it was Addison’s disease, which affects the adrenal glands and is — and was in 1963 — treatable.

Marguerite delights in an audience, and considers herself the star of her show, “A Mother in History,” her self-description that gives Stafford the title for the book. Lee Harvey’s act was merely the accident that shoved her into the spotlight. And as Stafford notes, in Marguerite’s “recitative,” “President Kennedy was little more than a deus ex machina, essential but never on stage.”

Stafford quickly realizes that Marguerite needs little prodding to get started, after which she can keep going like an Energizer bunny. After she makes a remark about the difficulty of finding housing in New York City, Stafford quips to her reader, “I agreed, even though by now I knew that she was not interested in any response of any sort to anything.” Still, Marguerite does have a few secrets she prefers to keep to herself:

“My theory is a little different, because I know who framed my son and he knows I know who framed my son”

“Is ‘he’ in Texas now?”

“I can divulge nothing on that score,” she said brusquely, but screwed up her eyes in a cordial grimace to show that she forgave my intrusion into something that was none of my beeswax.

A Mother in History is not a good — in the sense of virtuous — book. Stafford does not go out of her way to protect Marguerite Oswald from herself and clearly build this book around the spectacle of a woman blithely unaware of the possibility that others might consider her ridiculous. A harsh critic could easily dismiss it as both shameless and shameful, an upscale version of Florence Aadland’s The Big Love.

But it is a good — in the sense of absorbing — read. Foreshadowing Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the combination of Marguerite’s mania and Stafford’s sarcasm result in a book that is both fascinating and funny, in a manner worthy of the best black humor of the Sixties.

A Mother in History, by Jean Stafford
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966

2 thoughts on ““Would you like a cup of coffee?,” from A Mother in History, by Jean Stafford (1966)

  1. I consider this slim book to be Stafford’s best. I tried her novels — The Mountain Lion, Boston Adventure — and got bogged down in circuitous prose. This is written with a beautiful simplicity. And the character of Mrs. Oswald comes alive.
    You’re right to make the comparison with The Big Love. But Stafford’s book also reminds me of Lillian Ross’s New Yorker piece on Hemingway (“How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?”). Ross claimed (vehemently) that it wasn’t hatchet job, that she liked and admired the Man. But I dunno (and so didn’t others). I think she let him talk and hang himself with his own words.

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