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Priscilla and Lee:
Before and After the Assassination

by Peter R. Whitmey

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Given the fact that Priscilla Johnson McMillan interviewed both Lee Harvey Oswald and later Marina Oswald - as well as having worked for John Kennedy when he was a senator - it is not surprising that she has continued to be interviewed periodically, and referred to by various authors.

On May 30 and 31, 1991, Priscilla appeared on a two-part "Donahue" program, along with authors Michael Beschloss (1) (The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-63) and Thomas Reeves (A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy), as well as Richard Helms, the former director of the CIA. Partway through the May 30 program, Priscilla was introduced as a translator and the "only living person to know both Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald." She promptly emphasized that, after working for both the New York Times and Reuter's in Moscow as a translator, she became a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance, with no reference madeto having been employed by the State Department at any time. She also described herself as a "feature writer" which in part had prompted her to arrange an interview with Oswald after being told about him by a "consul in the American Embassy." Mrs. McMillan briefly summarized her lengthy discussion with Lee, which took place in his hotel room, and indicated having sent a report off to NANA (which I learned from Priscilla herself was indeed published, in the New Haven Evening Register on Dec. 3, 1959, contrary to what I had been told by her former managing editor; she did not receive a byline, however). (2)

At this point in the interview, Donahue moved the story forward four years (mistakenly saying three), referring to Oswald as having "assassinated the President of the United States" (not "allegedly") - to which Mrs. McMillan replied, "Uh huh." Before she could possibly elaborate or maybe even indicate any doubt she might have had in regard to Oswald's guilt, Richard Helms momentarily took over as host (on a satellite hook-up), asking Mrs. McMillan if she had learned what had drawn Oswald to Marxism at the young age of 16. In reply, brief reference was made to the Rosenberg literature that Oswald had read while living in New York.

Donahue interrupted promptly in order to shift the focus of the discussion to the character of Kennedy, announcing to the audience that Mrs. McMillan had never publicly discussed the fact that, in her younger days, Kennedy "came on to her." Being his most polite, Donahue quickly added: "And we are not surprised, are we? A very, very talented, talented young woman - you were 24?"

Backing up after a commercial break, Donahue briefly returned to Mrs. McMillan's interview with Oswald, referring to what the Soviet Union's reaction might have been to his defection ("Are they a little afraid of this guy?") to which she replied: "Oh, he said he'd come to give them radar secrets. I don't know what they thought." She also mentioned that Oswald was sent to a radio factory in Minsk, and, contrary to her statement in the Nov. 24, 1963 revised report, indicated that Oswald could speak some Russian when she met him. Donahue admitted his ignorance on the subject, but they both agreed that Oswald "...winds up in the Book Depository building ... on Nov. 22, 1963," lest the audience forget or doubt that dramatic turn of events in the life of the accused assassin.

Returning once again to Kennedy, Mrs. McMillan agreed that she was not surprised at Kennedy's "womanizing," although she was surprised that "...there were so many." As to her own involvement with Kennedy, she recalled that he was a "...very insistent person" but with a "...good sense of humor." She doubted or was uncertain whether Kennedy wanted to have sexual relations with her, revealing that after she wrote a note to "Jack" to remind him that she had not been paid for the time she spent working in his office, he'd phone when he was in New York. At this point, Donahue turned his attention to his other guests, leaving us all to wonder: Did she or didn't she? (Only her hairdresser knows for sure.)

Later in the program, Mrs. McMillan was asked about her impressions of Oswald, and whether she considered him unstable and hostile to Kennedy. In response, she pointed out that "...he had animosity towards the United States in general," but that Kennedy's name never came up (JFK was a senator at the time of the interview, but a candidate for the presidency not long after.) She also indicated having both liked and felt sorry for Lee, whom she described as "...rather gentle and very, very young..." Surprisingly, she made no effort to explain the apparent deterioration of Oswald's psyche as she had been quick to do back in 1963-64, and later in her 1977 book. Possibly this was due to the fact that neither Donahue nor the audience seemed too interested in Oswald anyway. At the close of the May 30 telecast, a journalist named Doris Newman Pearsell called in to reveal that she had dated Kennedy "six or eight times," describing him as a "bloody bore, cheap," with the "...tact and diplomacy of a buffalo in heat." As though to confirm that Mrs. McMillan did go to bed with Kennedy, she also stated that she was "...probably the only woman he didn't get in the sack with." Before Mrs. McMillan could respond, Donahue cut to yet another commercial.

In the May 31 part of the program, Donahue spent most of the time interviewing Helms, Beschloss, and Reeves, along with inserting excerpts from earlier interviews conducted with Robert Maheu and Judith Campbell Exner. When he finally returned to Mrs. McMillan halfway through the discussion, he once again described Oswald as "...the man who was to assassinate our President..." as though he had actually been convicted before his death. Beschloss made a point of stating that Kennedy had shown "...very good taste, I might say" in presumably adding Mrs. McMillan to his list of conquests to which Reeves interjected: "Not always." Donahue surmised that possibly "...members of our audience might find that patronizing" before asking Mrs. McMillan if Kennedy's personality was "compartmentalized." She indicated having worried that if he became President, "...the glue that held all those compartments ('...the women in his life, his family life, his health problems ... and his political life') together might dissolve ... he managed to do so many things simultaneously that I just felt ambition is what held him together and I wondered what would happen when his ambitions were fulfilled." As for the possibility of Kennedy becoming "exposed" by the media, she felt it "...wasn't an open secret" and that the press "...didn't know and the press didn't go into these things then," including her own coverage during the 1960 campaign.

As to whether she would vote for Kennedy again as she had then, Mrs. McMillan stated that it would depend "...who his opponent was ... I think he's a great improvement over a lot of the people we've been voting for lately." Of course, that was before the emergence of Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

Given the fact that Mrs. McMillan had been accused of working for the CIA and/or the State Department, it was surprising to see her appear alongside Richard Helms, who must have been quite delighted at the friendly atmosphere that permeated the proceedings; Mrs. McMillan undoubtedly felt the same way.

Later that year, she appeared on the Nov. 22, 1991 edition of "Nightline," which featured the KGB's file on Oswald, which, for the first time, was opened to American news reporters for a limited time period. Mrs. McMillan was introduced as "a young journalist in Moscow" in 1959, who described herself and other "reporters" as being "...like a virus that would poison every Russian citizen we came in contact with, and we should be screened off, walled off, from contact with Russians. And just about anybody we did talk to was called in and asked about us." (3)

In recalling her conversation with Oswald for reporter Forrest Sawyer, "Ms. Johnson" mentioned having spoken to him about his "...ideas of Communism, and he didn't seem really to know anything about it." She also emphasized that he liked to use large words, but had trouble pronouncing "asked" correctly which came out as "axed." Overall, she felt "he seemed to make about as much sense of Marx as he did of the English language." She also considered Oswald's suicide attempt as "...a kind of blackmail, and it persuaded them that he would do whatever it took to get what he wanted, which at that time was to stay in the Soviet Union." There was absolutely no suggestion (nor by Richard Snyder, who was also interviewed) that Oswald possibly was faking his defection, in an attempt to infiltrate the KGB on behalf of the CIA or military intelligence. There was no further discussion with Mrs. McMillan during the remainder of the program, but clearly her impression of Oswald was much more negative that it had been on "Donahue."

On May 25, 1993, a two-hour documentary entitled "The KGB" was broadcast on NBC, which naturally included a segment on Oswald's life in Russia, and, again, Mrs. McMillan was called upon to describe her impressions of the famous or infamous defector. She remarked at the outset that she "...did not know anything about his life in Moscow, up until that time. Least of all did I know that he had attempted to commit suicide." The moderator described Mrs. McMillan as "...a newspaper reporter at the time (who) was one of the few Americans to meet Oswald in Russia, and later wrote a book with his wife, Marina." She recalled her conversation with Lee, although this time indicated that it took place in her hotel room on a Friday evening, as Lee "...talked about why he hated the United States and why he wanted to leave it forever, give its secrets to the Soviet Union and become a Soviet citizen." Again, her remarks were very negative compared to her original 1959 report. Mrs. McMillan felt that Lee was attracted to living in Russia in that it would make him feel important and "somebody," citing his diary entries (which were clearly written well after the fact) as evidence for such an assessment. (At this point, the moderator emphasized that this was the first time that the "historic diary" had ever been shown on television, not pointing out that it was published in Life in early 1964 and elsewhere since.) Mrs. McMillan also felt that Oswald's time spent in Minsk was "...the happiest period of his life" in that he had lots of friends, an easy job, went on numerous outings such as fishing, had lots of girlfriends, and was treated I ike a celebrity. However, she went on to point out that he later became homesick, and told Marina that "...he was tired of the life in the USSR; he was very critical of it, he was bored with his work, and so he said he wanted to go home." No explanation was given for this sudden change of heart.

Richard Snyder also appeared on the program, recalling Oswald's appearance at the Embassy when he announced his intention to become a Soviet citizen; he later remarked that when Oswald reappeared at the Embassy a year or so later, "he was a different Oswald, I must say. He seemed quite contrite; whether this was entirely for my sake or what I don't know. He said 'I've learned a hard lesson, a hard way, and I want to go home.'"

The narrator later commented that just two months after Oswald's failed attempt to obtain a Soviet visa in Mexico City, "...the public saw Lee Harvey Oswald; he was the accused assassin of the President of the United States. Now the world would know his name." Mrs. McMillan repeated her story about learning from a friend named Rose on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, that someone had been arrested in connection with the assassination. When told that the man's name was "Lee Harvey something," she replied in an ominous- sounding voice: "Oh, I know that boy."

The same program also included a detailed account of the U-2 incident following the segment on Oswald, but amazingly, no mention was madeof Oswald's training related to the U-2, his posting at the Atsugi base in Japan where U-2 flights over Asia were monitored, and Gary Powers' own suspicion that Oswald had assisted the Russians in shooting down his U-2 plane in the spring of 1960.

In addition to her television appearances, Mrs. McMillan has also been referred to in two recent books, namely Plausible Denial by Mark Lane (who summarized his comments about her at the 1991 Dallas conference, although somewhat inaccurately), and Who Killed Martin Luther King?, by James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin himself. Although no reference is made to her in Anthony Summers' book, Conspiracy, he does make reference to the North American Newspaper Alliance (4) in a 1989 slightly updated edition, in the course of discussing a right-wing reporter named Virginia Prewett, who was strongly anti-Castro. She had attended a conference on Cuba in the summer of 1963, cosponsored by Freedom House and the Citizen's Committee For a Free Cuba, which called for the overthrow of Castro and removal of the Soviet presence. Summers indicated that Ms. Prewett had written for NANA for years, which was founded by her friend, Ernest Cuneo, formerly of the OSS, who had hired her. Both Veciana and David Phillips indicated having known Prewett (which she denied in 1980), although she did admit that Alpha 66, which she supported, was backed by the CIA. She had attacked Kennedy for criticizing their raids. According to Summers, NANA had also been "...severely criticized in a Senate Committee report in 1965 for syndicating pro-Chiang Kai-Shek propaganda written by a paid American lobbyist." Given the description of both Prewett and NANA (which also ran in the column by Victor Lasky, the author of JFK: The Man And The Myth), it is surprising that Mrs. McMillan would even want to admit any association with such a right-wing organization, in stark contrast with the several liberal publications which featured her articles on the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In August of 1993, 1 had the opportunity to speak to both Marina and Ken Porter at the JFK conference held in Sudbury, Ontario at Laurentian University, and learned that the Porters are now convinced that Mrs. McMillan was working for "intelligence" when she interviewed Marina in 1964 for a book that was to be published in 1965, but which was delayed until 1977. With the release of the movie "JFK," a large number of older books have been reissued, and Mrs. McMillan was apparently interested in Marina and Lee being republished. However, the Porters refused to cooperate, given their obvious disillusionment with Mrs. McMillan. I also understand that no reference is made to her in the forthcoming television movie, "The Marina Oswald Story," to be broadcast in the fall of 1993.

Finally, I sent a large number of questions to Mrs. McMillan in March of 1992, and after not receiving a reply, phoned her. She declined to answer any of my questions, feeling I might "misinterpret" her answers.

Peter Whitmey, November 1993

Read Priscilla and the CIA


1. In the acknowledgment section of his book, Beschloss thanks Mrs. McMillan for allowing him to stay at her home in Cambridge, Mass. while doing some of his research at Harvard University.

2. "Unhappy With Worker 'Exploitation' Here, Young American Awaits Soviet Citizenship." New Haven Evening Register, Dec. 3, 1959, p. 46; reference to Oswald's "slightly Southern drawl" is deleted.

3. Journal Graphics (transcript #2740), Nov. 22, 1991 - "Nightline."

4. Anthony Summers, Conspiracy (New York: Paragon House, 1981), p. 515.

5. Priscilla also appeared on the "Frontline" documentary about LHO's life in November, 1993, as an accepted "expert" - along with Gerald Posner, Volkmar Schmidt, Ruth Paine, and even Robert Oswald.

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