The assassination of JFK and the conspiracy theories that followed have proved irresistible to writers and artists, from Oliver Stone to Stephen King
The grassy knoll. The book depository. Any further description of the location is superfluous. We know where we are, and when. Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963: the scene of the assassination of President John F Kennedy. History assumes mythic proportions when its very familiarity requires no further explanation or scene-setting; when it provides instead a well-signposted point of departure for artistic creativity. The matter of Dallas has been as resonant in the fiction and film of the past half century as the story of the Trojan war was in the literature of classical antiquity. Only Hitler and the Nazis rival its influence on the modern imagination.
Yet the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination will not be marked by consensus. Two contrasting versions of these mythic events remain in circulation, as hotly disputed on the web today as they were in radical magazines during the 1960s. Are we commemorating the meaningless assassination of Kennedy by a lone dysfunctional misfit, Lee Harvey Oswald, who fired on the presidential motorcade from behind, from a window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository? Or are we marking a much more sinister incident, the shooting of Kennedy by more than one gunman, including, perhaps, a sniper on the grassy knoll firing at the president from the front? If the latter, was this a conspiracy so successful that the authorities still, for whatever reason, don't – or won't, or can't – acknowledge it?
For most of us, the two myths are blurred and conjoined. Whether or not we accept the official interpretation of the assassination, set out in the report of the Warren commission, established by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B Johnson, its central finding, that Oswald acted as a lone assassin, is weakened by various suspicious features of the case. Oswald shouted out to pressmen after his arrest that he was merely a "patsy", set up, presumably, to distract attention from the real killer.
Oswald, to be sure, had led a rum life, including a mysterious spell in the Soviet Union, to which he had been able to emigrate mid-cold war, before returning – seemingly just as easily – to the United States, with his Russian wife, Marina. Within two days of the assassination, moreover, Oswald was himself murdered in the custody of the Dallas police live on television by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner. Ruby's motive, or so he claimed, was that he wished to spare the president's widow,Jacqueline Kennedy, the agony of a trial.
More controversial still was the so-called "magic bullet". The commission was able to make sense of the ballistic evidence only by positing a trajectory for one of Oswald's three shots that went through Kennedy's neck and then through the ribs, wrist and thigh of Governor John Connally of Texas, who was sitting alongside the president in the limousine.
The fog of anomaly and doubt provided dank, but fertile, conditions in which a Kennedy assassination genre would eventually flourish. The emblematic character of Don DeLillo's 1988 novel Libra is the CIA archivist Nicholas Branch, encumbered with the task of cataloguing and chronicling the mountains of disparate evidence surfacing about Kennedy's assassination. Novels and screenplays depended not only on audience familiarity with the happenings of November 1963 and the Warren commission, but also on nagging concerns that the whole story had not been told, that there was something vital missing from the standard account of the assassination.
Spookily, such anxieties had been anticipated the day before the assassination, 21 November 1963, when the distinguished American historian Richard Hofstadter delivered the Herbert Spencer lecture at Oxford University on "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". The lecture, which was later published, examined the dark, distended underbelly of conspiracy theory and scapegoating in American political culture.
More eerily, fiction had, it transpired, anticipated fact. In his 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, Richard Condon told the story of a brainwashed prisoner from the Korean war who was programmed to assassinate the president. Hollywood filmed The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. Its star, Frank Sinatra, coincidentally, was not only a crony of President Kennedy, but had also starred in a 1954 film Suddenly, which dealt with a presidential assassination attempt.
In the aftermath of the real assassination, Condon tried to puncture any attempt to conflate the murder of Kennedy with his fictional account, but performed this public service in a magazine article unhelpfully headlined "Manchurian candidate in Dallas". A decade later, he was more deliberate in his mischief. His 1974 novel Winter Kills, which became a Hollywood film in 1979, mocked speculative theories about Dallas. It also presented a bizarre scenario in which a president committed to a campaign against organised crime was assassinated on the reluctant orders of his mobster father – a scarcely veiled allusion to Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan.
The reverberating hum of small ironies provides the mood music of 11.22.63 by Stephen King, published in 2011. King's compelling assassination novel – begun in the 1970s, but put down until he had the time for the exhaustive research it required – explores the counterfactual possibility of preventing Kennedy's murder. A teacher from present-day Maine slips through a portal in time which takes him back to the late 1950s. If he stays around long enough in the past, can he take out Oswald and prevent the murder of Kennedy? What if all those conspiracy nuts were right, and there was another gunman on hand to finish off the job? The overlapping legends of 22 November 1963 permit the teasing interplay of myth and counter-myth.
From the outset, Kennedy's assassination invited interplay with other bodies of mythic material: Arthurian, Homeric and Shakespearean. Only a week after the assassination, the president's widow, Jacqueline, arranged for the journalist Theodore White to interview her at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. She told him that the late president liked to relax in the evenings by listening on his record player to Alan Jay Lerner's lines from his recent musical Camelot: "Don't let it be forgot,/That once there was a spot,/For one brief shining moment,/That was known as Camelot". Notwithstanding some editorial qualms about the excessive focus on the Camelot theme in White's article, Life magazine chivalrously complied with the wishes of an insistent widow, but at the long-run cost of distorting the significance of the assassination.
A year later, the mock-heroic review of the Warren report in Esquire by Dwight Macdonald, one of America's leading public intellectuals, described it as "an anti-Iliad", and compared Kennedy to an Achilles incompetently protected by the sluggish Myrmidons of his secret service. Macdonald's conclusion, that "the Warren commission did not undertake its enormous labours … to provide material for novelists or detective-story addicts", was unfortunate. The Warren report became a vast quarry for imaginative writers of all kinds, from those knowingly composing fictions to those operating in a less certain genre.
Among the transparently polemical fictions was Barbara Garson's 1966 play MacBird!, which presented the Kennedy assassination by way of a series of interlinked parodies of scenes and speeches from Shakespeare's Macbeth, Hamlet and Richard III. President Johnson, whose wife was Lady Bird Johnson, was the MacBird of its title; Kennedy became the usurped king, John Ken O'Dunc; and the chief justice of the US supreme court, who chaired the Warren commission and whose name, conveniently for Garson's purposes, was Earl Warren, was neatly transformed into the Earl of Warren. Garson's anti-Johnson animus derived from her experiences in the Berkeley anti-Vietnam war movement. The play's cynical wit proved popular in countercultural circles and, in 1967, MacBird! found its way into paperback and on to the New York stage.
Yet, notwithstanding the creaking joints of the Warren report, the first years after the assassination marked a period of quiet consensus. Although niche leftwing magazines such as Minority of One and Ramparts ran anti‑Warren pieces, the leading men of letters on the American left such as Macdonald and IF Stone were staunch in their support of the commission's version of events. Suspicious as they were of the establishment, they were conscious, too, of the "paranoid style" identified by Hofstadter that they associated with the extreme right. Stone proclaimed his allegiance to "a sane politics, against conspiracy theories of history".
The first sign of a major fissure within the left began with the publication in 1966 of Rush to Judgment, an attack on the Warren commission by Mark Lane, a radical Democrat. The left began to fragment. The trajectory of Carl Oglesby, who moved from presidency of Students for a Democratic Society to prolific JFK conspiracy buff, epitomised the flowering of a "paranoid" style on the new left. In 1972, Oglesby founded the Assassination Information Bureau "to politicise the question of John F Kennedy's assassination".
However, for the broader public, 1968 was a more significant turning point. The killing of the late president's brother, Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, by Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian Christian, a couple of months after James Earl Ray's assassination of Martin Luther King, raised doubts – and in the most complacent quarters – about links between the assassinations. Were these various assassinations connected, possibly part of a larger plot? President Johnson set up a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence in June 1968.
The 1972 presidential election campaign, which was marred by another attempted assassination and by a burglary at the Democratic HQ in the Watergate building, seemed to confirm rather than quell public anxiety. In 1973, Richard Popkin, an eminent philosopher and leading critic of the Warren commission, publicised the plausibly outrageous complaint that the three previous US presidential elections had been influenced by the assassin's bullet. Without the events of Dallas, John F Kennedy, not Johnson, would have headed the Democratic ticket in 1964. The killing of Robert Kennedy in 1968 came moments after his victory in the California primary, at a point where he appeared a strong contender for the Democratic nomination. In May 1972, Arthur Bremer's shooting of Governor George Wallace of Alabama when he was campaigning at a shopping centre in Maryland left the governor paralysed from the waist down and effectively finished his campaign for the Democratic nomination. In 1968, Wallace had run in the presidential election as a third-party independent, taking five states and 46 electoral votes, and in 1972 had already won the Florida primary.
The unfolding Watergate scandal merely reinforced suspicions about the integrity of the electoral process. What, after all, was the central offence of the Watergate affair but the series of dirty tricks that allowed Richard Nixon to play a sinister and unhelpful part in choosing his Democratic opponent in 1972, the unelectable liberal senator George McGovern? But in the aftermath of the Watergate revelations Nixon – having already lost his original vice-president Spiro Agnew to a scandal – was forced to resign. As the bizarre outcome of this chain of circumstance, the United States had by the autumn of 1974 an unelected president: Gerald Ford, who a decade earlier – coincidentally? – had been one of the seven members of the Warren commission. Could a novelist or director plausibly explain the real mechanics of the American political system without reference to the invisible coup d'etat? For Oglesby, Dallas and Watergate were "intrinsically linked conspiracies in a drama of coup and counter-coup".
The anxieties of this era are captured in the films that comprise Alan J Pakula's "paranoia trilogy". Klute (1971) deals with eavesdropping, and All the President's Men (1976) with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's exposure of the Watergate affair. However, between these films was The Parallax View (1974), which is framed by two assassinations. In the opening scene Senator Charles Carroll is shot on the Seattle Space Needle – apparently by one lone gunman, or could there be two assassins? At the conclusion, another politician, George Hammond, is shot at a political convention. Warren Beatty plays a radical journalist who witnessed the first assassination, without quite knowing what he saw, but becomes alarmed when he realises how many of his fellow witnesses on the Space Needle that day have met violent, if seemingly accidental, deaths since then. The vivid evocation of estrangement in The Parallax View owed much not only to the vision of Pakula – who exploited to the full in his film-making the brutalising emptiness of modern commercial architecture and its unsettling aesthetic possibilities – but also to the cinematography of Gordon Willis, who helped to realise Pakula's dark vision. Long-distance shots of scenes in giant hangar-like spaces that become only gradually meaningful to the viewer create an ambience of alienation, abstraction and obfuscation. Peering into an atmosphere heavy with portent, the viewer knows something significant is going to happen, but doesn't know where in Pakula's vast, yet often virtually empty canvases.
In 1975, the Zapruder film – taken on a cine-camera by Abraham Zapruder, a Dallas clothing manufacturer, a bystander at Kennedy's assassination – was shown for the first time on network TV. The film had been bought by Life for $150,000 the day after the assassination, and many of its still frames had been published in the magazine, but these did not have the same impact as the moving image. It appears from the movement of the president's head in the Zapruder film that he must have been shot from the front – from the grassy knoll – rather than from the book depository. There were immediate calls for further investigation, and the House of Representatives' select committee on assassinations was set up. Informed, or misinformed by acoustic evidence from a Dallas police dictabelt, it concluded that there had been four, rather than three shots, in Dealey Plaza, and that more than one gunman was involved.
The Zapruder footage inspired a clever, self-referential film about film-making by the pasticheur Brian De Palma. Blow Out (1981) tells the story of a B-movie sound recordist (played by John Travolta) who, in the course of a night-time scouting expedition in the suburbs of Philadelphia for sound effects – such as an owl hooting – to be used in a forthcoming slasher movie entitled "Co-ed Frenzy", accidentally records the assassination of Governor George McRyan, a presidential contender. The film also alludes to the Chappaquiddick incident of 1969 involving the surviving Kennedy brother, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. During the shooting, McRyan's car veers into a river with a young female escort on board.
A distinct phase of controversy began in 1991 with the appearance of Oliver Stone's film JFK. This told the story of the only prosecution thus far for Kennedy's assassination, the unsuccessful case brought in 1967 by the New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) against a local businessman, Clay Shaw. Stone also made the grandiose claim that Kennedy was assassinated at the behest of the "military-industrial complex" in order to prolong the war in Vietnam. The significance of the film lies in its political impact. The Assassination Materials Disclosure Act of 1992 was passed to reassure a sceptical public that the government was not withholding material evidence. Tensions on the left reached bursting point. The philosopher and polemicist Noam Chomsky published Rethinking Camelot in 1993 to counter Stone's misleading, but influential, myth of how an innocent Kennedy would promptly have exited the war in Vietnam.
The very familiarity of myth and counter-myth has made it possible for writers and film-makers to experiment with surprising permutations on the assassination theme. While James Ellroy's American Tabloid (1995) explores the murky tangle of interconnections between the mob and the security state, it seems all too straightforward by comparison withCharles McCarry's 1974 novel The Tears of Autumn. In the most complex resolution of the Kennedy whodunnit, McCarry presents an ironic case that the South Vietnamese – the assassination of whose leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, in the autumn of 1963 Kennedy could perhaps have prevented – were responsible, with Ruby's killing of Oswald explained by a further delicious twist. Warren Beatty's satirical film Bulworth (1998) relates the picaresque voyaging around Los Angeles of a corrupt and world-weary Democrat. Contemplating suicide, but wishing to make provision for his daughter, Senator Bulworth arranges for his own assassination and cooks up a deal with the life insurance industry to pay out. However, liberated from short-term political calculation, Bulworth changes his mind about his death wish, and tries to cancel his assassination.
Widespread awareness of the mythic storyline also permits writers and directors to approach the assassination from oblique angles. In the Line of Fire (1993), which stars Clint Eastwood as an ageing secret service agent who had been on duty nearest to the president in Dallas, sees the assassination through the eyes of Kennedy's bodyguards, and their sense of having failed in their primary role. Eastwood's character, Frank Horrigan, is faced with the taunts of a new assassin who threatens to leave Horrigan with the responsibility for a second presidential corpse. In a similar vein of perversity, Stephen Sondheim's 1990 musical Assassinslooks at the sorry lives of American presidential assassins, from Oswald and Lincoln's killer John Wilkes Booth, to less canonical figures such as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and John Hinckley, who made assassination attempts, respectively, on presidents Ford and Reagan. More conventionally, the new movie Parkland, released this month, explores the day of the assassination from the perspective of the staff of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas where the president and Governor Connally were treated. Parkland is a deliberate attempt to distance the assassination from the looking-glass mythologies of conspiracy buffs; instead, the drama of the casualty room revisits the tragedy on a human scale.
Bizarrely, perhaps, the branch of the performing arts whose exponents became most besotted with the matter of Dallas was stand-up comedy. The patent absurdities of the Warren commission tantalised comedians. Two of America's leading stand-up comedians in the 1960s – Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory – participated in the district attorney Jim Garrison's investigations. Gregory ran for the Freedom and Peace Party, with the outspoken Warren commission critic Mark Lane as his running-mate, in the presidential election of 1968. In the 1970s, Gregory supported the researches of Richard Popkin, and co-presented the first screening of the Zapruder film on network television. Whereas political activism did nothing to dent the popularity of the versatile Gregory, a fixation with the Kennedy assassination helped almost to finish off the high-flying career of the Jewish comedian Sahl.
Sahl's keen political satire had been a bracing sensation in the 1950s. Indeed, he was hired to write jokes for Kennedy's campaign in 1960, but maintained his independence after the election with anti-Kennedy quips, much to the irritation of Kennedy's father and backer, Joseph, who allegedly put pressure on venues to drop Sahl. By a further irony, Sahl's later preoccupation with the Warren report, chunks of which he read out as part of his act, led to a perhaps understandable fall in his bookings.
Faint echoes of Sahl's predicament can be detected in the obsession of Alvy Singer, the left-liberal New York Jewish comedian, played by Woody Allen in his 1971 film Annie Hall. The assassination comes gradually into focus when Singer reflects on the failure of his first marriage, to another Jewish leftist, Allison Porchnik. In a memorable bedroom scene, Allison tries to tempt a distracted Alvy into having sex. The moment we hear Singer, as he gets up from the bed, mention "the book depository", we know the precise nature of his distraction. Allison tries to make sense of Singer's alternative to the official version: "Then everybody's in on the conspiracy? … The FBI, and the CIA, and J Edgar Hoover and oil companies and the Pentagon and the men's room attendant at the White House?" Although Singer thinks she's gone too far – "I would leave out the men's room attendant" – Allison has his measure: "You're using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid sex with me."
The emergence of alternative comedy pushed back the boundaries of decorum. The radical comic Bill Hicks (1961-94), who described himself as Chomsky with dirty jokes, happily slayed all manner of pieties, religious as well as political, relishing the way conspiracy theories made awkward, gaping tears in the fabric of conventional wisdom. Hicks included in one of his most famous routines an account of his visit as a tourist to the supposed sniper's nest on the sixth floor of the book depository: "Anyway, they have the window set up to look exactly like it did on the day. And it's really accurate you know … because Oswald's not in it."
The most accurate barometer of taste – and its obverse – in the post-assassination arts was Jacqueline Kennedy. After the death of her second husband, the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, Jackie Kennedy Onassis returned to New York and began working for Viking, the publisher. However, she moved to Doubleday when Viking published a novel about an assassination attempt on a putative president Edward Kennedy. The 1977-78 novel was Shall We Tell the President? – its author one Jeffrey Archer...