Tonight I ran into the Babushka Lady. She’s the unknown woman who points a camera directly at President Kennedy when he gets shot in the head. Standing behind a father and son, she wears a headscarf and films the murder. Everybody scatters when the shots ring yet she keeps rolling tape before packing up and heading towards the grassy knoll. Then she disappeared. Nobody could find her. The tape never surfaced. She became a spectral American figure, the stuff of national ghost stories.
In 1970, a woman named Beverly Oliver announced that she was the Babushka Lady. She claimed the FBI confiscated her assassination movie and told her to keep quiet. Most people said she was lying they said she was too young, that she was an exotic dancer and could not be trusted. But Oliver persisted, saying she hung out at Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club where she was introduced to Lee Harvey Oswald and a handful of mob and CIA figures. These connections fueled the lights of Oliver Stone’s JFK, Don Delillo’s Libra, and James Ellroy’s American Tabloid.
I encountered the Babushka Lady while researching American sheriffs. Here’s a strange quirk in American history: Beverly Oliver’s husband was George McGann, a Dixie Mafia hit man involved in the murder of Sheriff Buford Pusser’s wife. Pusser was a badass sheriff and professional wrestler who was stabbed and shot fifteen times while fighting the State Line Mob, a Mafia outfit that ran gambling rings, prostitutes, and guns along the border of Tennessee and Mississippi. He survived. One night two cars pulled alongside Pusser’s patrol car and opened fire, killing his wife and disfiguring Pusser. He survived that too.
Pusser swore revenge. Three years later, Oliver’s husband turned up dead in Texas. In 1974, Pusser drove his Corvette into an embankment and died. I’ve driven the Buford Pusser Memorial Highway across Tennessee several times.
Back to that image, to frame #285. A shattering moment before my time yet fifty years later we continue to reel from its effects. Today the media is impressed when a president steps outside of his motorcade or breaks away from his security detail. They’ll say he is brave.
The Babushka Lady is little more than a purplish smear against vivid green, a mysterious woman filming a dying president. It’s a blurry image that links so many strange threads of American history, the mythologies that surface as colorful names and capsule obituaries hyperlinked across the internet. Perhaps Beverly Oliver wasn’t the Babushka Lady, but we know a woman stood on the grass that day filming the murder of a president and nobody has seen her movie.
As I write this, news is breaking that WikiLeaks posted 91,000 classified documents about the Afghan War. Strange symmetry between today’s endless crush of accessible information and the frustration of staring into a grainy frame of mysterious film from fifty years back, looking for clues.