Amtraks Across America: Oswald’s New Orleans

This is the sixth part in a series about Amtrak travels during summer 2022.

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One of the many bungalow residences in which Lee Harvey Oswald lived with his mother and brothers while growing up in New Orleans. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Early in the morning, on my way to a breakfast diner, I loved riding my beach cruiser bicycle through the French Quarter, which, despite the evening onslaught of the tourist brigades, come sunrise retained its European sensibility.

I warmed to the wrought-iron balconies (many are actually Spanish) above the sidewalks, and I enjoyed window shopping over my handlebars, despite the voodoo-themed gifts in many galleries.

Farther from the tourist haunts, I spent one of my days in New Orleans tracking down many of the houses and addresses associated with Lee Harvey Oswald (President John F. Kennedy’s alleged assassin).

Lee Harvey Oswald: New Orleans’ Native Son

Oswald was born in the city in 1939, at 2109 Alvar Street, and during his short and unhappy life he spent many years living in a string of bungalow houses around New Orleans, mostly in the wards east of downtown.

Although JFK was shot in Dallas when Oswald was working at the Texas School Depository along the route of the presidential motorcade, Oswald had spent the summer before the assassination living in New Orleans at 4905 Magazine Street, where he worked hard to establish his street cred as either a Fidel Castro front man (passing out leaflets for something called the Fair Play for Cuba Committee) or as a foot soldier in the guerrilla war that wanted to restore American hegemony over Cuba.

From the internet I had downloaded maps entitled “Lee Harvey Oswald’s New Orleans Residences” and “Theories on Oswald in New Orleans”, and over the course of a hot and humid day I cruised my bicycle around contours of the conspiracy theories that would indicate that at the very least Oswald was swimming in the waters of assassination politics—and was in way over his head.

The Assassination Comes Calling at 544 Camp Street

There’s only a vacant lot on Alvar Street where Oswald was born; the floods of Hurricane Katrina swept away the wooden, bungalow-style house. But nearby on Bartholomew, Pauline, and Congress streets there are other modest residences where briefly in the early 1940s Oswald’s mother moved her three boys (her husband died before Lee was born).

Lee’s itinerant childhood in New Orleans also included some time in the French Quarter on Exchange Place and several apartments in the Garden District. All suggest that Oswald grew up on the run.

Later, the Oswald family lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and New York City, but I sense that for Lee, New Orleans was his emotional home, where he felt most comfortable.

This association may explain why in summer 1963—with his marriage and life unraveling—he decided to return to Louisiana and try his hand at the Great Game of Cold War politics and perhaps audition for a cameo role in the off-Broadway production of To Kill a President.

Whether or not you think Oswald was the lone gunman up there in the Dallas School Book Depository with his cheap mail-order rifle blasting away at history, there is no denying that his footprints around New Orleans, in summer 1963, left some troubling associations for which the Warren Commission had no explanation, other than to deny their importance.

The Warren Report (which I read upon my return) is remarkable for ignoring Oswald’s time in New Orleans. To Earl Warren and his whitewashing cohort, it mattered less than the lost city of Atlantis.

Of Kennedy and Cuba

For one thing, at 544 Camp Street (the building has since been torn down and replaced by a modern office building), Oswald shared an office and an address with Guy Banister, a former FBI agent who was then active in the movement to remove Castro from power.

What makes no sense in assassination iconography is the question of why Oswald was passing out “Hands Off Cuba” leaflets on nearby Canal Street while at the same time sharing an office with a former FBI agent active in running guns and training insurgents to overthrow Castro.

Nor does it make sense that when Oswald was arrested in New Orleans during his leafleting, one of the calls that he made from the jail house was to the local office of the FBI or that during summer 1963 he met with various anti-Castro Cubans around the French Quarter to volunteer his services (as an ex-Marine) in the struggle to overthrow Castro.

Another shadow on the walls at 544 Camp Street was David Ferrie, who worked closely with Banister in anti-Castro circles and who knew Oswald as a teenager when he served in Ferrie’s Civilian Air Patrol scout troop. (Some have suggested, although there is no proof, that Ferrie might well have sexually abused Cadet Oswald, which isn’t a far-fetched a notion, as Ferrie was a predator and Oswald a young drifter.)

After the Kennedy assassination, a Banister associate, Jack Martin, accused Ferrie of complicity in the president’s killing, and pointed out that on November 22, 1963, Ferrie had bolted in his car and driven for unexplained reasons from New Orleans to Houston. Ferrie said it was to go ice skating (not something most Americans thought about when they heard that the president had been shot).

Low-Life New Orleans

It was the alleged sightings in summer 1963 around New Orleans of Oswald in the company of Banister, Ferrie, and local businessman Clay Shaw that prompted District Attorney Jim Garrison (about whom the Oliver Stone movie JFK was made) to bring conspiracy charges in 1967 against Shaw for the murder of President Kennedy.

Shaw was a wealthy businessman in New Orleans, with CIA connections and anti-Castro sympathies, who managed the Trade Mart (down the street from 544 Camp Street) and who lived regally at 1313 Dauphine Street in the French Quarter. (I found the house behind high Spanish walls.)

Shaw was acquitted at the trial, at which he never had to testify about his alleged Oswald ties, but there were many.

The most tantalizing link was the report that following the assassination and the arrest of Oswald in Dallas, Clay Shaw (using the alias Clay Bertrand) asked a New Orleans attorney, Dean Andrews, to represent Oswald—although in time Andrews recanted part of his story.

In the Company of Clay Shaw

There were also other links between Shaw and Ferrie (who died either of murder or suicide at the time Garrison’s investigation became public), and during the summer of 1963 numerous witnesses (all discounted or ignored by the Warren Commission) put Oswald in the company of Ferrie, Banister, and Shaw.

When Oswald was handing out his pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans, one of the places where he stood was in front of Shaw’s Trade Mart at Camp and Common streets. That leafleting scene, which attracted the police, startled a secretary in Guy Banister’s office, who passed by and thought it was shocking that a Banister associate (Oswald) was pro-Castro. But then she was quietly told that “he’s one of us.”

There was another strange, tangential link between Shaw and Oswald: when Oswald left the United States in 1959 to defect to the Soviet Union, he was an ex-Marine with little money who had told his mother he was planning to enroll at a college in Switzerland.

Instead he traveled at considerable expense (for an ex-Marine with no job) from New Orleans to France, the U.K, Finland (by air), and finally the Soviet Union (where he loudly announced his plans to renounce his citizenship and turn over military secrets to the Russians). And the travel agency that sold Oswald his steamer ticket from New Orleans to Le Havre was located inside Clay Shaw’s Trade Mart.

Dostoevsky’s Children

Except for the houses of Oswald’s itinerant childhood, most of the New Orleans associations with the JFK assassination are gone, swept up in the urban renewal projects of the 1970s and 80s. Often on my bicycle, I would ride for forty-five minutes in the summer heat, only to find what I was searching for had vanished.

But because Oswald’s time in New Orleans reminded me of a Dostoyevsky short story, I thought often about the line from Don DeLillo’s novel, Libra: “Who arranged the life of Lee Harvey Oswald?”

Enough remains in New Orleans to raise the questions that so engrossed Garrison and later the filmmaker Oliver Stone, among many others: how many coincidences does it take to become a pattern? And when does a pattern become a conspiracy?

Next: More about Lee Harvey Oswald’s New Orleans. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.