The block I live on has been grieving a beloved neighbor.
Journalist and author Priscilla Johnson McMillan died on July 7, 2021, just before her 93rd birthday. McMillan spoke in hushed tones but was a powerful voice on local matters like zoning or global issues like nuclear disarmament.
In the late 1950s, she and her husband had a front row seat in the civil rights movement. Both white, he taught at historically Black colleges. She befriended a young John Lewis and threw him his engagement party.
Before that, as a young reporter in Moscow, she hung out with novelist Truman Capote. He wrote about their friendship in his book, “The Muses Are Heard.”
Born into wealth, McMillan lived modestly in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a scholar at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Known for her generosity, she offered free rooms to budding intellectuals, the worker from the local hardware store or her by-then ex-husband’s second wife after he died. McMillan brought in his widow and young son and adored them both.
She also knew former President John F. Kennedy well — beginning from when he was a young senator. She also knew Lee Harvey Oswald, who she met when he tried to defect to the Soviet Union in 1959.
She was the only person in the world who knew both.
When McMillan received the news from a friend that JFK was assassinated in 1963, she became angry and couldn’t believe it. She ultimately dedicated 13 years to researching the assassination, living with Oswald's widow Marina Oswald Porter and discovering that Oswald once tried to shoot a racist segregationist but missed.
Although Oswald liked Kennedy, McMillan said “as he [Oswald] saw his historic duty was to strike a blow or to bring down American capitalism.”
Historians like Thomas Powers declared her subsequent book, “Marina and Lee,” as “the single best book ever written on the Kennedy assassination.” Bestselling fiction author Joseph Finder wrote a new foreword when it was rereleased in 2013.
“I write conspiracy thrillers, and while I was reading Priscilla's book, I realized there is no way that you can read this book and still, at the end, think that there was any kind of conspiracy,” Finder said. “She has given us a picture of Oswald that is so close up, so fine-grained that you realize he wouldn't work for anyone. He wouldn't be anyone's catspaw.”
Nevertheless, conspiracy theories sprung up and often included her.
Holly Katharine Johnson, one of McMillan’s many adoring nieces and nephews, recalls a time when she was about 7 years old and her beloved aunt came to visit. Johnson remembers McMillan talking on the phone with a look of seriousness across her face.
“She hung up and she said in her sweet little voice, ‘Oh, you have no idea how hard it is to get an error out of your FBI file’ — and I was just totally hooked,” Johnson says. “I thought she must be the coolest person in the whole world. And I just wanted to be her from then on. Decades later, I realized how hard it is to get an error out of your FBI file and all the repercussions it had on her, both personally and professionally.”
Johnson, a professor at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, is writing McMillan’s biography, including anecdotes about her aunt’s friendship with JFK.
“One of my favorite comments was that he invited her to go with him to the Mediterranean and she said, ‘I was about as likely to go as a fly. So instead, I was replaced by a model named Poo,’ ” Johnson said.
Every conversation about McMillan holds a new gem: Johnson says as a teenager, McMillan was onboard a plane that made an emergency landing that forced her to ride in a cargo hold of a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber. She attended former Republican nominee for U.S. president Wendell Willkie’s funeral. And when Nikita Khrushchev's son-in-law berated her in a Moscow bar, his mistress came to her aid. There's a portrait of her, bubble wrapped in a closet, created by artist John Koch.
She translated Svetlana Alliluyeva’s memoirs, “Twenty Letters to a Friend,” a condemnation of communism and Alliluyeva’s father — Joseph Stalin. Alliluyeva ended up living with McMillan on Long Island, Johnson says.
“The number of improbabilities in her life are so numerous,” Johnson says. Government Secrecy Project director Steven Aftergood once described McMillan’s home as “a kind of intellectual chemistry experiment,” she says.
“There could be everyone from the guy who mowed the lawn to an international head of state at the same time. She never thought any voice was irrelevant,” Johnson notes. “She'd throw out a question and let everyone have at it — and it was completely intellectually exhilarating.”
Seeking An Explanation For JFK's Assassination
McMillan’s door was always open to welcome friends, family and strangers alike. I visited McMillan in 2003, and over a cup of tea, we talked about her life, like her work as a speechwriter for Kennedy in the ‘50s and their well-documented “dating friendship.”
He pursued, she declined.
We also talked about her time as a reporter in Moscow in 1959 when she met 20-year-old American defector Lee Harvey Oswald in her hotel. Oswald refused to talk to anyone at the U.S. embassy but agreed to speak with McMillan.
“He carefully stood at the door of his room so I wouldn't be able to see inside,” McMillan recalled.
McMillan would come to learn that she and Oswald were both paying only $3 a day for their rooms: Oswald had attempted suicide and the Soviets didn't know what to do with him, and the Soviets wanted to recruit McMillan to be a spy.
There is a cottage industry in the U.S. of conspiracy theorists who believe McMillan was a spy for the U.S. because she knew both Kennedy and Oswald.
So I asked her directly: “Were you a spy?”
“No, I wasn't,” she replied. “But the thing that's so funny is that they think I was a spy for the U.S., but the U.S. never asked me. The Russians asked me.”
Any efforts to lure her in as a spy failed. “I wouldn't have spied for anybody,” she said.
When she met Oswald, she thought of him as a lonely and lost young man. He made a remark that stuck with her.
“At the end of our interview, he said to me, 'I want to give the people of the United States something to think about,’ ” she said. “Well, that's a little bit grandiose.”
Four years later, Oswald assassinated Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.
When she heard the news, she said “I almost knew. I don't know why, when I heard Lee Harvey, I knew the rest. … How many Lee Harveys do you know?”
McMillan said she was overcome with shock, followed by grief. She traveled to Texas where she befriended Marina Oswald Porter and her daughter June, and then wrote “Marina and Lee,” the definitive read on the JFK assassination.
She said she felt guilty because she had known Kennedy for many years and strung him on for a bit. She also knew that while Kennedy was serving his first term in Congress, he was diagnosed with a rare disorder called Addison’s disease.
At the time, she said she privately grieved as she tried cheering him up as he fought for his life in the hospital.
Her intense interest, long-term immersion on the topic and her testimony before the Warren Commission on the assassination were in large because of her desire to explain what happened.
“The thing that I remembered best about him was that he was curious about everything and he was always asking me questions. So naturally, I thought he'd want to know why somebody who didn't even know him hated him enough to shoot him,” she said. “And so that's what I was after. I wanted to find out for him — for his sake — why he was killed.”
She said she was struck by how Oswald, “somebody quite small and insignificant,” was able to murder Kennedy, a man “who had sacrificed and worked so hard to be president.”
"At the contingency of history, Marxism, which Oswald said he believed in, claimed that the individual didn't matter in history," she said, "and yet he proved that the individual does matter."
She wondered how U.S. history would have differed if it weren’t for Oswald, she said.
“I wish Kennedy had lived out his time because he surely would have done some good things,” she told me.
At McMillan’s funeral, Reverend Mark Fitzhugh marveled at the journalist, writer and kind neighbor’s open-door policy and her generosity of spirit.
If only, Fitzhugh said, Lee Harvey Oswald could have spent more time with Priscilla McMillan.
This segment aired on July 26, 2021.