While there is nothing particularly groundbreaking in her conclusions, the strength of her work lies in its systematic and powerful refutation of any attempts by naysayers or the mainstream media to explain away the numerous discrepancies between the ballistic, forensic, eyewitness and historical evidence of the case and the “official” story we're spoon fed every anniversary of the tragedy by paid MSM actors standing in Dealey Plaza. While the book focuses heavily on the events surrounding the unsolved case of the alleged attempt on General Walker's life in his home in Dallas, it also includes the author's lengthy interview and subsequent correspondences with one key witness who heretofore had remained silent. Overall, while not a book for those not already deeply invested in the case--given how much research it presumes readers are already bringing to the table--it should appeal to those who are still interested in some of the finer details of the assassination, despite the hundreds of theories, allegations and mysteries that still are so much a part of this, the crime of the century.
Pieces of the Puzzle is written mostly by the author, Gayle Nix Jackson, whose grandfather's (Orville Nix) grainy 8mm home video of the motorcade stands beside the Zapruder film as one of at most three total films of the incident captured that day. Four contributing members of the JFK research community also weigh in with individual chapters on their respective experiences or research findings: James Wagenvoord, Steve Roe, Doug Campbell, and Chris Scally all do a fine job in adding their unique perspectives to the book. The chapters dovetail together neatly, and more than anything, they paint a vivid and compelling picture of the bizarre tapestry that was early 1960s Dallas. From disgruntled Cuban exiles shuttled across the Gulf of Mexico and placed in strange intelligence-gathering asset roles through organization's like the Cuban Catholic Committee, to Jack Ruby's frantic dealings with underworld contacts and the CIA, to homegrown American Nazi factions seeking political recognition in this turbulent time of desegregation; more than anything, Pieces of the Puzzle presents a fascinating and often disturbing window into the dark side of the United States at mid-century. What readers will probably take away from this extensively researched work is the sense that the United States--far from ever being a stable nation with a strong identity based around a unified populace that somehow came “unhinged” during the 1960s--has really never found peace with itself. From the horrible legacy of a failed Reconstruction, to the lackluster federal civil rights initiatives prior to Kennedy, to the seemingly intrinsic destructive nature of the intelligence communities which have, since their inception in the postwar period, sought to undermine what limited democracy we already had, Nix and her colleagues leave readers with a painful reminder of why America was never “great,” in any fair sense of the word. That it could have been, had JFK, his brother, Dr. King and Malcolm X lived, is another story; but by this point, I don't think I have to convince readers why they did not.
The book opens with a fascinating first hand account by James Wagenvoord, who worked for LIFE Magazine at the time of the assassination. He details in thrilling fashion how he came to learn of the events that fateful day and how only eighteen hours later, the Zapruder film came into his company's headquarters in New York. Delving into the whirlwind of activity at the office that day, he makes an important point about how events seemed oddly pre-planned to implicate Oswald despite less than a day having elapsed from his already strange arrest, his identification in the window by a still-unknown caller tipping off Dallas police, and no serious investigation into his past. An FBI agent visiting Wagenvoord that day presented him a manila envelope. “ 'This is Oswald material', he said.” Wagenvoord continues, “The film was footage, shot weeks earlier by a New Orleans television station news cameraman, of Oswald handing out Pro-Castro flyers on Canal Street near the World Trader Center in New Orleans. An hour later The Fat Lady sang an encore. Jack Ruby shot Oswald.” (p. 23)
As researcher John Allen Stern noted in his excellent book C.D. Jackson: Cold Warrior for Peace, Time-LIFE, owned by Henry Luce, a dear friend of CIA Director Allen Dulles, and headed by C.D. Jackson, a CIA asset and one-time special adviser of war propaganda to President Eisenhower, was fully in bed with the intelligence community as part of Operation Mockingbird, the CIA's wildly successful disinformation and propaganda initiative that sought to compromise the, thousands of local, and the handful of major newspapers in America from the early 1950s onward. That LIFE was immediately in possession of the “facts” surrounding Oswald's alleged Communist and pro-Castro ties only hours before he was murdered in a police headquarters parking garage should not be surprising. Wagenvoord was allowed to view the Zapruder film in a brief screening, and watched in disgust and shock as the now-infamous kill shot struck home. As he recalls, “I had seen it, an unspeakable piece of pornography.” (p.25) He notes:
“An avalanche of images was already rolling in to the Time-LIFE building. Oswald standing next to a clapboard house holding a rifle, a folded newspaper in his right hand. Pictures of his Russian wife, Marina, were in transit. The magazine's entertainment editor, Tommy Thompson, had rushed to Forth Worth, located her, and put her up in a motel the night of the assassination.” (p.25)
Wagenvoord was also present when Orville Nix, whose own 8mm home movie of the events in Dallas was of interest to LIFE, found his way into his office.
Also of note in this engaging first chapter is the payola racket Wagenvoord witnessed in his four years at LIFE. Recalling how company checks for minor, even inconsequential work found their way into the hands of active Warren Commission members Allen Dulles and Gerald Ford, he remembers the curious way they were justified:
The check for Congressman Ford was ordered by Arthur Keylor, General Manager of the LIFE magazine division. I was called into his office and introduced to the Congressman's senior aide. Keylor wanted a check for $5,000 from the department made out to Gerald Ford. My job? Rush the request through the corporate accounting office, turn it into a check payment 're: editorial services', and have it back to his office within an hour. Sure. Got it. A frantic hour and I was back in the Keylor office with the check and a release for Ford's man to sign, or at least initial, giving the money a reason to be transferred, e.g. translation publishing and licensing world rights to the Ford signed text and any upcoming work as a writer or signature. Actually, there had been no overseas action on the already published staff-written Ford-signed Warren Commission Results essay. (p.36)
Upon being asked to deliver a visiting Allen Dulles a $1,500 check for rights to a 1500-word excerpt of his own book about spy craft that had been published in LIFE, Wagenvoord recalls, “I thought, 'Holy shit!' It was another of those 'within an hour' check runs. I handed a $1,500 check in an envelope to a Master Spy and said, 'Great to meet you.' He did not offer a hand to shake.” (p.38)
The following few chapters spend considerable amount of time looking through the bizarre kaleidoscope of Dallas at the time of the assassination, and touch on many of the odds and ends surrounding the alleged attempt on ultra-right wing US Army General Edwin Walker's life. As contributing author Steve Roe observes:
If Dallas was a bowl of gumbo, here's what went into that recipe in the early 1960s: part old antebellum southern tradition, part western cowboy, part jet-set businessman, part old time religion, part military patriotism and a big dash of 'grab the bull by the horns' mentality. (p.48)
Roe traces the rise and reach of the John Birch Society, and exhaustively details its connections to figures like Walker and other prominent members of Dallas society. A small group of staunch anti-communist, largely racist and retrograde white men who sought in part a return to the pre-Reconstruction halcyon days when life was simpler:
Dallas Birchers preferred a low profile with small gatherings or meetings held in homes or local civic clubs. An informal network was set up through personal contacts or friends. Occasionally an avowed Bircher would invite the general public to a talk. (p.52)
Allied with these folks were the Cuban exiles driven from their land by Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution and eventual takeover of the island from Fulgencio Batista. As Roe estimates:
119,922 Cuban exiles entered the U.S. Legally from 1959-1962. After 1961, Castro still allowed Cubans to leave, but with only $5 cash and surrendering (sic) all their property to the new communist government. In the Dallas area, various churches provided assistance to the new emigres; however the most notable with the Cuban Catholic Committee. (p.54)
I think this is an important fact to consider, as I feel too often we forget just how large in scope the Cuban exile population really was in Dallas. From these disenfranchised many, it would not be difficult to pull together a team with the full cover and backing of both the intelligence communities that had been training them for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the various religious congregations that facilitated their ingress and egress from the area.
The presence of prominent White Russians like George DeMohrenschildt and others further complicated the picture, given their own avowed hatred for communism in the wake of the Russian Civil War and the rise of totalitarian terror under Lenin and Stalin. Neo-Nazi groups were also found passing out anti-Semitic pamphlets in Dallas in 1963, and at one point, plastered a series of Jewish-owned businesses on Elm Street and Commerce Street with swastika-ridden decals which read, “We Are Back!” (p.117) I think some of the cryptic remarks Jack Ruby made about the assassination before his death which alluded to Nazis are a direct result of his personally seeing these stickers near the shops be frequented and his own Carousel Club, located on Commerce Street. The Holocaust was, after all, only eighteen years in the past at this point, and Jews like Ruby were no stranger to anti-semitism. Indeed, whether these fringe groups played a direct role, we cannot say for sure, and one of the strongest points of Nix's book is just that: her and her co-contributors’ refusal to jump to conclusions without substantial evidence to support them. Yes, there were a lot of strange players in town that weekend. No, we are not attempting to tell you who killed Kennedy, all these years later. As the title aptly denotes, these are all “pieces of the puzzle” as it were.
But what a puzzle indeed. Dallas in the 1960s was a hotbed of both disgruntled exiles and homegrown “patriots” who largely conflated nationalist decolonization attempts and socialist reforms, both abroad and at home, with the looming specter of real totalitarian communism as practiced in China, the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent, Castro's Cuba. For many of them, John F. Kennedy, rather than a figure for peace, Third-World independence, social justice in the inner city, and reconciliation with the Soviet Union, was a communist traitor. Thus, in light of the assassination plots which were either aborted or thwarted at the last minute in places like Miami, Tampa, and Chicago, the successful one pulled off that November 22 in Dallas had a significant proportion of the city who did not mourn JFK's untimely end. That Dallas Mayor Earle Cabell, brother of CIA Deputy Director under Allen Dulles, Charles Cabell – who Kennedy fired, along with Dulles, after the Bay of Pigs disaster – was a CIA asset is also troubling, given that he was on the phone with Dallas Chief of Police, Jesse Curry, immediately following Oswald's arrest.
General Edwin Walker, a far-right former U.S. Army officer who lived off Turtle Creek Road in Dallas was sitting in his study one April evening, having returned from a coast to coast anti-communist speaking tour, when a single shot rang out from the darkness outside his home. Missing his head by only a few inches, the infamous Walker shooting, as it became known after the JFK assassination, was of course attributed to Lee Harvey Oswald, despite an extremely tenuous explanation of his whereabouts that night, contradictory eyewitness testimonies of the shooting, and as Gayle Nix Jackson explains, Walker's own bizarre back story.
While many have detailed the life and times of General Walker, including his role as a sort of agent provocateur at Ole Miss, where, in 1962, he helped incite a large race riot in his attempt to preserve the legacy of a segregated South, Pieces of the Puzzle presents a few more strange clues as to what may or may not have happened that fateful night of the shooting. Nix claims she was given a taped interview in 2013 of one David Surrey, son of Robert Surrey, General Walker's aide-de-camp during his time in Dallas as a rabble-rouser and right-wing public speaker and author. Robert, who flew the Nazi flag outside his Dallas home, and whose wife wrote under more than twenty aliases in her own propaganda efforts to prop up fellow American Nazi Party and John Birch Society initiatives, stated four separate times during his Warren Commission testimony that he arrived at Walker's house after the shooting. However his son clearly remembers the family being in General Walker's Turtle Creek residence when the shot rang out, since his father shouted for him and his brother to hit the floor. David also distinctly remembers he and his father driving off immediately after and pulling up behind a parked car about three blocks away shortly after circling the neighborhood. “My dad got out and went up to this car. A guy got out of this car. It was dark and I couldn't see at night. He (Surrey) says, 'Did you get him?' And he said, 'No I missed.' At the time I thought he meant he didn't see the guy who shot at him, they looked for him and just missed him.” (p.218)
Interestingly, a Dallas Police Department report of the night of the shooting states Robert Surrey was indeed present at the home when they arrived. Why Surrey would concoct a story for his Warren Commission testimony is strange; if there were not some alternative explanation of who was really responsible for the Walker shooting, or any of the events that transpired that night, why not just say you were there? Also of note is that during his Warren Commission testimony, he offhandedly mentioned that when he “arrived,” at Walker's house and saw police digging the bullet out of the wall, he facetiously asked if they'd found a bug:
Mr. Jenner: Would you explain your facetious remark? I don't get the fact that it is facetious.
Mr. Surrey: Well, actually, it may not be. It is a common joke around the General's house that there may be microphones. (p.220)
The Surreys, who also helped Walker run the American Eagle publishing company, which promulgated fascist literature around the Dallas area, were convinced that a looming Communist menace threatened the Western way of life, going so far as to construct a doomsday home deep in the Oklahoma wilderness, complete with rotating machine gun turrets high on the roof, with the compound accessible only by fording a shallow creek, complete with a military-grade field telephone and other survival systems. Robert Surrey's Dallas home was later found to contain an elaborate and hidden audio surveillance system which the FBI dismantled and confiscated decades later before a new homeowner was allowed to move in.
This is curious enough, but as Nix discovered, both of Surrey's surviving sons distinctly remembers their father, Robert, shooting rifles in the backwoods of what is now Richardson, Texas with a friend he introduced as “Lee.” Dad insisted that the kids, who he took separately on multiple occasions, pick up the spent shell casings. That Oswald's notebook was found to have both General Walker's and Robert Surrey's phone numbers scribbled in it is another issue we are not able to square away with the Warren Commission's ridiculous description of Lee Oswald as a disgruntled ex-Marine turned Communist. It's another of the glaring discrepancies the MSM could never bother to explain. The “backyard photo” of Oswald (Which many rightly believe was doctored), showing him with rifle in hand brandishing two diametrically opposed “Communist” newspapers is just as sloppy a frame-up job as the official story, which has him taking a pot shot at an ultra-right wing U.S. Army general on the one hand, and months later, assassinating probably the most progressive president in U.S. history on the other. It only makes sense if the public is never made aware of these facts, just as Oswald's “radical” and “Pro-Castro” life and times in New Orleans only make sense – and barely at that - if you ignore the fact that he was working out of hard-line anti-Communist Guy Bannister's office at 544 Camp Street.
Nix's final chapters are especially strong, given her personal involvement with her grandfather's missing original footage of the assassination, and her own recent interview of one Father Walter Machann, a lead coordinator for the Catholic Church's efforts to relocate and employ Cuban exiles in Dallas and its surrounding suburbs. Of particular import is the fact that Machann remains adamant that the night Silvia Odio met Lee Harvey Oswald, along with two of his associates, was the same night Janet Leigh, a prominent actress, was in town. He remembers this because he was upset that Silvia, a close friend of his, did not invite him out with her. Since that night was September 27, 1963, this makes it impossible, logistically, for Oswald to have been where the Warren Commission said he was that evening: in Mexico City. Most of the evidence now strongly indicates that Oswald was not there, that someone impersonating him actually visited the Cuban consulate, as evidenced by the fact that there is no single picture of him being taken by the CIA hi-tech cameras located around the area he was alleged to have visited. Further, the FBI concluded it was not his voice on any of the retrieved tapes of his visits to the consulate, that is also a major blow against the Warren Commission's conclusions. But to have a corroborating eyewitness who is still alive and who clearly remembers that night is one more piece of the puzzle, so to speak. And for Nix to have tracked him down and cultivated a relationship with him that culminated in an extensively documented interview on his life at the time of the assassination is a really strong part of what makes this book important. As Father Machann, himself a doubter of the official narrative bestowed upon the American people in the wake of the assassination, told Nix, “I think it was power at the very highest levels.” He continues, “I'm just afraid this was a power elite type of conspiracy. They have the confidence of power. They can do all kinds of things.” (p.308).
While it is beyond the scope of this review to detail all aspects investigated in Pieces of the Puzzle, suffice it to say that the reader is left not only with a profound sense of bewilderment at the intertwining of so many colorful characters, agencies, and henchmen who either directly or tacitly facilitated or possibly orchestrated the assassination of JFK, but a real sense of disappointment that it is up to private citizens like Nix and her associates to solve what should very plainly have been solved in its immediate aftermath. And yet, as we have seen in countless other instances, books, and articles, the true genius of those who planned this tragic affair, lies in the cover up. Instead of refining the details and curiosities of a monstrous crime against the American people, prosecuted by a fair and balanced panel of experts, physicians, and eye-witnesses, we are left, in the wake of the Warren Commission and the actively-sabotaged Jim Garrison trial of Clay Shaw five years later, with a nearly impossible task. Piecing the puzzle together, as Nix and her colleagues remind us through their painstaking work, is a potentially impossible undertaking, given the time elapsed, the deaths of key players, the CIA's continual and illegal refusal to fully declassify in unredacted form its full catalog of JFK files, and a complicit US mainstream media whose agenda, if not fully sinister, is so averse to truth, that it remains unwilling to seriously engage with any version of the JFK narrative that runs contrary to the lies upon lies we have been forced to endure for fifty-five years. As James Wagenvoord argues:
...the mystery continues; lower-case details add texture and dimension to the story as it continues to unfold. Now, more than half a century after bullets smashed into a young President, individual jig-saw pieces are still being fitted in place, filling out the truth of how and why. (p.12)
I would recommend this book to those already heavily invested in this case, as there were numerous caveats and lacunae that, while perhaps just that, could truly open up doors to those who specialize in that particular field. Those interested in the minutiae of the Cuban exile population's comings and goings in Dallas in the early 1960s will definitely enjoy that chapter, and for anyone seeking a comprehensive timeline of the wanderings of Orville Nix's original film, Gayle Nix Jackson's final chapter is a must-read. Overall, I enjoyed Pieces of the Puzzle, despite the few times it seemed to bog down in extraneous details, particularly in the Machann chapter-- we don't really need to know what kind of furniture he had in his house during the interview, or what his son is doing overseas. But overall, especially in comparison with the myriad of disappointing manuscripts that should have never been published on the JFK case, this is a serious book, for serious researchers, written at an expert level.