The War Between the States registered a profound impact on the city of New Orleans. On April 25, 1862, after a massive bombardment of both Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson, the city was forced to surrender. Following the war during the period of reconstruction, the city would continue to experience many difficulties. General Benjamin F. Butler, the commander of the federal troops occupying the city, often made life especially difficult on his white subjects. Carpetbaggers, northern republicans who southern conservatives believed would gain influence through the ex-slave vote, swept southward into the area, their policies frequently inciting violent resistance from the vanquished citizenry.
The recovery of the economy, initially slow, was aided in 1879 when the mouth of the Mississippi was deepened by the construction of jetties, which allowed oceangoing vessels to proceed up the river. Railroads carried freight from Chicago and the Midwest to wharves, which were at last expanding in conjunction with the economy. Teddy Roosevelt ushered in the progressive era in America just after the turn of the century with its trust busting and railroad legislation reform. It was against this backdrop that one New Orleans family would begin an unbidden journey toward infamy.
John Claverie did not stand out from the crowd of nearly 300,000 souls that manned the city at the beginning of the 20th century. He was one of the first streetcar conductors in New Orleans, having graduated from the old mule cars that preceded them. His ancestry was French and he and his siblings learned to speak the language from their parents. His wife Dora, whom he married on July 8, 1897, was of German descent, her maiden name being Stucke and her religious faith Lutheran, while John was a Catholic. Respecting her wishes, their six children would be baptized as Lutheran. (1) Their eldest son, Charles, was born just before the turn of the century, his brother John, shortly after. Ultimately, they would both serve in World War I and die prematurely of tuberculosis. Lillian was born in 1900 followed by Pearl, Marguerite in 1907 and Aminthe. The young family lived on Phillips Street in a poor neighborhood and their early years together were naturally filled with hardship but much happiness as well. Fate, however, dealt a severe blow when Dora died at the age of thirty-three in 1911. John would never remarry but he kept the family together with an assortment of assistants that included housekeepers, neighbors and aunts. As the elder children matured they would be called upon to help with the younger siblings, especially Lillian, who was the oldest girl. The family was happy during these years despite money troubles and the absence of an abiding mother figure. (2) In her testimony before the Warren Commission years later, Lillian, by then using her married name, remembered this period:
Mrs. Murret. …We did pretty well. We were a happy family. We were singing all the time, and I often say that we were much happier than the children are today, even though we were very poor. My father was a very good man. He didn’t drink, and he was all for his family. He didn’t make much salary, but we got along all right. (3)
Marguerite, now Oswald, would recall their childhood in a similar vein:
Mrs. Oswald. …At my grammar school graduation I had the honor of wearing a pink dress instead of a white dress and sang the song "Little Pink Roses." So I had a very happy childhood and a very full childhood. …I was one of the most popular young ladies in school. (4)
Mrs. Murret. …I have no bitterness (about being poor) toward my life as a child. In fact, I like to talk about it because we were so happy. We went skating…and when we were teenagers, we would go skating around Jackson Square and the French Quarter, and so forth, and my aunt would let us take up her rug any time we wanted to dance, … we would go over there and play the piano, and I might say that Marguerite… was very entertaining. She could sing very well, not you know, to be a professional singer, but she had a good voice, and then when we had a piano that my father bought for $5 she learned to play by ear on the piano, so we really had a lot of fun. (5)
After their childhood, Lillian and Marguerite would pursue different paths for a time. Lillian married young, which was not uncommon in those days. She and Charles "Dutz" Murret, would have a long and happy marriage and life together, producing five children. Marguerite, for her part, decided to drop out of McDonogh High School just before her 17th birthday and look for employment. She found it at the New Orleans law firm of Defour, Rosen, Wolff and Kammer. Marguerite enjoyed her job as a receptionist in the firm’s outer office and during the course of her duties she met many local dignitaries including the mayor who nicknamed her "the boss." (6) It was while working at the law firm that she met Edward John Pic Jr., the man who would become her first husband.
Those who knew him generally remember "Eddie" Pic as a quiet individual. Clem Sehrt, a New Orleans attorney who was his boyhood friend, recalled that they played basketball together as members of the New Orleans Athletic Club. A loose lace on one of the balls resulted in an eye injury that ended his interest in sports. (7) Eddie worked on the waterfront at the T. Smith & Son Company as a clerk when he met and began dating Marguerite. The couple was married on August 8, 1929 in Gulfport, Mississippi. (8) The union did not prove to be a happy one, however, as the couple began to quarrel almost immediately. The trouble centered on a subject that would revisit many of Marguerite’s later relationships in life - money. As Lillian recalled to Warren Commission attorney Albert Jenner:
Mrs. Murret. Well, at the beginning when she married Eddie, she said he wasn’t fair. He told Marguerite that he was making more money than he was over there…He went out and rented a house in the City Park section, which was very high rent,…so she had to ask for her job back again…(9)
Matters did not improve when Marguerite delivered some news to Eddie:
Mrs. Murret. …she became pregnant, and I remember she came over to my house…and asked what she was to do, that Eddie refused to support her…
Mr. Jenner. He didn’t want any children?
Mrs. Murret. He didn’t want any children, that’s right. (10)
When Mr. Pic appeared before the commission himself, Jenner was inclined to let him off the hook this way:
Mr. Jenner. You just figure you were two persons who couldn’t jell; is that just about a fair statement of your situation at that time?
Mr. Pic. That’s right. We couldn’t make it. We just couldn’t get along…so we finally decided to …call the whole thing off; which we did…I couldn’t say anything about Marguerite at all. It was just one of those things… In his Warren Commission affidavit, however, Pic states that Marguerite’s allegations that he didn’t want children are untrue and that the marriage was irrevocably damaged by the time she became pregnant. (12)
As is the case in most failed relationships, the truth was probably somewhere in the middle. They were young and apparently had divergent ideas about the responsibilities that accompany marriage. In any event, the marriage was indeed over and Pic would pay alimony and child support, never missing a payment. (13)
While Marguerite tried to get on with her life, it is obvious she harbored some resentment.
Mr. Jenner. …did she complain or did she show any reaction from the divorce…
Mrs. Murret. …I remember one time when John was sick, when he was a baby, he had this ear infection and she sent for Eddie. She said she was getting tired of staying up all night long, and for him to come and stay awhile, and he did…I think that was about the only time Eddie saw John…when he was an infant. She wouldn’t let John see Eddie. For myself, I thought that was cruel, because I don’t believe in that. (14)
Fortunes would improve for Marguerite however, as she met a young man who helped her forget her worries. Robert Edward Lee Oswald, named for the great southern general, was also separated and looking to fill a void in his life. The pair quickly became an item; and, after both obtained a divorce, they were married on July 20, 1933. (15) Robert, who worked as an insurance premium collector, was a good husband to Marguerite and stepfather to John. In fact, Robert was more than willing to adopt John and raise him as his own son, but as Marguerite told Warren Commission chief counsel Lee J. Rankin:
Mrs. Oswald. …because his father was supporting him which I think was only $18 a month, (16) I explained to Lee (Robert Oswald) that I thought we should save this money for the boys’ education and let his own father support him and naturally we would educate (him) and do all we could do but that was no more than right.
Things couldn’t have been better for Marguerite during this period; in fact she often referred to it as "the only happy part" of her life. (17) In 1934, Marguerite would give Robert a son of his own, Robert Jr.; and in 1938 they purchased a home on Alvar Street in a better neighborhood. In the early part of 1939, Marguerite informed Robert that he would become a father again later in the year. (18) She enjoyed being a housewife, and it seemed she had the kind of life that she had always wanted. Fate, however, was to intercede as it would so many times in her life.
On August 19th, 1939, Robert took the opportunity provided by a day off work to mow the grass. When he felt a sudden pain in his left arm, he called for Marguerite who gave him some aspirin and advised him to rest for a moment while she called for a doctor. (19) He did as he was told but it was too late for a doctor or anyone else to help him, and Robert Oswald was suddenly quite dead. A small insurance policy was all that was left for Marguerite and her sons to live on as they struggled to cope with the tragedy.Almost two months to the day after Robert had died, Marguerite delivered his second child, whose birth she probably now saw as a hardship for herself. She named the boy for the father that he would never know and his paternal grandmother. (20) She could not guess that one day her new son would denounce his American citizenship and travel to the Soviet Union in search of a better way of life. Nor could she envision that this same son would make history as the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy. Her new son's name was, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald. Notes