Ruth Paine, Kennedy witness, speaks in Sonoma

Ruth Paine’s speech, “The JFK Assassination: My Window on the Oswalds,” was a sellout last Friday, with people being turned away at the door almost a half an hour before it began.

Paine, 81, spoke about her friendship with Marina Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife, and recalled the moment when police officers found an empty blanket in her garage, where Oswald had hidden the rifle he used to kill President John F. Kennedy.

“It’s always hard. It’s hard to talk about,” she said about recalling the assassination, later adding, “It brings forth a lot of grief for me.” Invited to speak by the Sonoma Valley Historical Society, Paine shared her belief that Oswald acted alone, and that there was no conspiracy. “I’m in a different position because I was there,” she said.

Standing, holding a microphone and speaking without a single note, Paine explained that in April 1963, Oswald had attempted to kill Edwin A. Walker, a former U.S. Army general and anti-communist, and thought he would either be killed or arrested had he succeeded. He left Marina a note, written in Russian, with 11 numbered instructions, including that she was to call the Soviet Embassy for assistance and get rid of his clothing, and letting her know the rent and utilities were paid.

“This was a man who was willing to murder, and perhaps to do it for notoriety,” Paine said.

A Quaker, Paine had studied Russian, and was introduced to Marina through friends who knew she would enjoy meeting someone who could speak Russian, giving her a chance to strengthen her language skills. Oswald, a former Marine and a self-proclaimed communist, had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, where he met and married Marina, and later brought her back with him to Texas in 1962. Marina spoke almost no English, and welcomed making a friend who spoke Russian.

In 1963 Paine was living in Irving, outside Dallas, with her two young children and was separated from her husband. Marina had a young child and was expecting when Paine invited her and the child to live with her.

Oswald had had trouble staying employed and was not working, and they were struggling. Marina moved in, storing their belongings in the garage, including the mail-order rifle, while Oswald lived in a boarding house. Marina knew the rifle was there, but Paine did not.

The two young mothers became good friends, although Paine never particularly liked Oswald. “This was not a nice man,” she said. “Marina was already worried that the marriage wouldn’t last.”

Oswald visited Marina on the weekends, and Paine had mentioned to neighbors that Oswald was looking for work. Eventually, she learned that they were hiring at the Texas School Book Depository. Paine called there and was told Oswald should come in for an interview. That was how he came to be in the building, within clear sight of the President’s motorcade, on the day of the assassination.

On November 21, 1963, Oswald unexpectedly spent the night with Marina during the middle of the week, and retrieved the rifle he used to kill the president.

With the exception of one college student and a C-SPAN camerawoman, everyone in the Sonoma audience of roughly 125 appeared to be old enough to answer the iconic question, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” They listened with rapt attention as Paine told of the events of that day and those to follow. Police officers searched her home, Marina and her children were taken by police two days later to an unnamed hotel, and Paine, along with the nation, was devastated.

Paine did not see Marina again until March of 1964, after they had both testified before the Warren Commission. It was a difficult visit. “Clearly, the biggest thing we had in common was the thing that had been the most painful thing in our lives.” They never saw each other again.

Thomas Mallon later wrote a book about Paine’s experience, “Mrs. Paine’s Garage,” which Readers’ Books was selling at the event.

A long line formed of people holding copies of the book and awaiting her autograph, and Paine was gracious and accommodating.