The Jack Ruby File

Jack Ruby: the Many Faces of Oswald’s Assassin. By Danny Fingeroth. Chicago, 2023: Chicago Review Press, 301pp. 

We have passed the sixty year mark on the first of the four assasinations that reshaped US political history. JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, RFK: the list reads like the better hopes (in Malcolm and Martin, the radical best hopes), of a couple of generations. Not a single one has been solved to the satisfacation of the serious scholar or the non-credulous observer. That, alone, should tell us something about the nature of our political system.

At the root, or at the beginning in any case, is Jack Kennedy, Dallas, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. What connects the last 3 names? There is, or may be, the heart of the puzzle.

Author Danny Fingeroth is himself an interesting case, mostly a scholar of mainstream comics history and biographer of Marvel Comic founder, genius and/or pop culture huckster Stan Lee. Not to mention a sort of impresario of public comic events himself. Fingeroth may be best qualified to write about Jack Ruby from a fresh angle: the Yiddish-speaking, Chicago Jewish home boy, ringleader of strip clubs and related venues in Dallas, inevitably in close contact with the mob.

None of this is exactly new, to put it mildly. But Fingeroth has a keen sense for the types who came out of lower-class, semi-assimilated Jewish families in the first half of the twentieth century. The kind that spoke Yiddish when they wanted to keep secrets among themselves, maybe went to religioius services now and then, especially if they had pious parents or sought respectability for themselves. But also the kind that could feel victimized, at the drop of the hat, even when wheeling and dealing as pimps or gamblers, checked regularly for venereal disease thanks to their relentless exploitation of women generations younger than themselves.They were, in their own minds, still Jews in an anti-Semitic world.

The first interesting thing about Jack Ruby (nee Rubenstein) is that his best friend from youth happened to be Barney Ross, the Jewish boxer champ who insisted on being anti-racist even when fighting Blacks, and who won battles in the Pacific Theater through his extreme bravery. The two of them came from the same milieu, with personal opportunities shaped by their distinctly second-generation Jewish conceptions of themselves. Too bad John Garfield never got to make that biopic of Barney Ross that he envisioned. A fictional Jack Ruby could have been played by one of those leftwing actor-friends of Garfield in Method Actor glory before the Blacklist. Garfield’s real-life secretary, another blacklist victim (and television writer, under a pseudonym) could have chosen Ruby’s film-fictional pal, and with Garfield’s Hollywood cred, even gotten the supporting actor accepted by the studio.

The second interesting thing plunges us right into Dallas in the years before the Kennedy Assassination. Having bounced around on the fringes of sleazy entertainment and organized crime, Ruby found a way to make a good living and make himself his own kind of bigshot, even tough guy. He played cards and played the ponies while “dating” (in the Donald Trump fashion) a long succession of women, hardly ever one at a time, drinking heavily, sometimes getting into fist fights over personal insults.

He wanted to be recognized, even famous. This is biographer Fingeroth’s strongest argument for Ruby having no deep attachments to politics, liberalism or anything else that would cause him to plot against Lee Harvey Oswald. Or, according to Fingeroth, even to “plot.” Psychologically agitated by events, Ruby apparently sauntered through the most heavily guarded hallway in the US, at the crucial moment, and plugged Oswald before the eyes of the cameras.

It didn’t wash at the time and it doesn’t wash now. Speaking to the Warren Commission, Ruby insisted “I am being used as a scapegoat…I have been used for a purpose and there will be a certain tragic happening if you don’t take my testimony and somehow vindicate me.” He then added, cryptically, “there was no conspiracy,” although he repeatedly and improbably suggested that LBJ, by this time the president, was somehow involved in Kennedy’s death. (p.233)

The Warren Commission, stacked with notables like CIA chief Allen Dulles, was not about to go further down this or any related road. By sticking to the depoliticized, individualistic version of events, it successfully set the standard for federal investigators of the MLK and RFK assassinations to follow. Malcolm’s purported killers, arrested shortly after his death, were released decades later, vindicated: the evidence had never been convincing, except to those who wanted to close the case.

True, Jack Ruby had a brief (or was it brief?) link to anti-Castro conspirators. The failed Bay of Pigs crowd, with its CIA links, appears only as a passing mention in these pages, and the author may well be right, even if as he notes, Ruby wanted to help them somehow. Jack Ruby was, more than anything else, an unstable seeker after fame or infamy, a Jew seeing conspiracies against Jews but also against the high-placed friends of Jews, practically everywhere.

Successfully defending Ruby from a guilty verdict and the death penalty, civil liberties lawyer William Kunstler explored and exploited the notion that Ruby was just crazy. Somehow, in Ruby’s mind, the assassination would have transformed Oswald and other Jewish members of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee into imagined agents of a grand Jewish conspiracy, prompting a vast pogrom in the US. Thus, he had heroically halted a pogrom-to-be and besides, and had spared Jackie Kennedy the agony of coming back to Texas to testify against Oswald. Or was it that Ruby had only proved personally, as he sometimes suggested after the shooting, that Jews could be tough?

Danny Fingeroth closes with the thought that conspiracies abound but almost no one has come up with a single, convincing cause. National Archives releases of documents, decades later, seem to have added nothing important. The strip club district of Dallas is gone (Ruby’s own sleazy club became, for a time, a Dallas police gym). Bob Dylan seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy ruminating the case in general and Ruby in particular, to no particular end. For that matter, who remembers the Dead Kennedys’ music anymore?

Perhaps Dylan was actually thinking about Ruby as an emblematic American Jew. It makes as much sense as any theory, if the Jewishness is placed in its proper context of lower-class hustlers of the 1920s-50s on the other side of the law. That some Jewish families had relatives in both the Communist Party and the mob also makes sense: outsiders figuring what to do, and making plans to do it for themselves and, presumably, to others, for their own benefit. If the leg-breakers have been replaced by their grandsons, the hedge-fund managers, is the world a better place? Some of us, anyway, still miss the Jewish American Communists badly.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.