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Arts and Letters

Unraveling the Riddle

Assume Nothing: Encounters with Assassins, Spies, Presidents, and Would-Be Masters of the Universe

Edward Jay Epstein 

Encounter Books, pp. 392, $36.99


When I was growing up, I loved puzzles and brain games of all kinds, so, looking back on it now, it doesn’t surprise me that I was tickled from an early age by the allure of apprehending a mystery. I would not have described it this way at the time, of course, but much of my youthful reading and moviegoing was guided by the fun I found in piecing together an answer to something. I was a devotee of Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery magazine, and, especially, Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, which I first saw when I was nine and which has ever since entranced me—if that’s the right word for it, and I think it is.

I make no claims for that dubious but artful film’s historical accuracy or even plausibility, but I can see why I was swept away by it even at what was admittedly an improbably precocious age: not only did this dramatization of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison’s admittedly tendentious attempt to suss out the plot that killed President Kennedy take place in my adopted home state—I spent much of my youth in Louisiana, which, as the state that gave us Huey Long and Edwin Edwards, richly earned its reputation as a banana republic—but there was something appealing, even comforting, in the notion that such a plot could be sussed out in the first place.

JFK tells us that if you scrutinize the evidence of something with enough intensity—if, in the case of the Kennedy assassination, you look at the Zapruder film long enough, if you study bullet trajectories closely enough, if you squeeze witnesses hard enough—it is possible to arrive at an answer. Throughout my life, so many of the books and movies I came to enjoy most followed this template: Woodward and Bernstein’s book (and Alan J. Pakula’s film) All the President’s Men, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris, and The Killing of the Unicorn by Peter Bogdanovich each made compelling dramas out of the honest work of getting to the truth of a matter. Sometimes that truth was ascertained, and sometimes the result ended in madness or folly for the truth-seeker.

My fondness for the true crime genre has relatively little to do with the underlying crime but quite a bit to do with the mechanism by which the crime is solved. To play this game, however, you have to be willing to let your own belief system, personal views, or political preferences take a back seat. Removing such prejudices is easier said than done. Garrison, who seems to have been at least partly crazy in real life, surely did not have the requisite objectivity to solve the J.F.K. assassination, which is why his prosecution of the New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw was itself dead on arrival.

Let it never be said, however, that the journalist and author Edward Jay Epstein lacks the necessary impartiality, open-mindedness, and even-handedness to dive into the great mysteries. Foremost among them is the Kennedy assassination and its investigation, which Epstein explicated in his classic books Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth (1966) and Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald (1978). His other subjects have included the businessman Armand Hammer, the diamond trade, and the disgraced N.S.A. worker Edward Snowden. One of his most recent books has what is perhaps the definitive Epstein title: 2013’s The Annals of Unsolved Crime.

We live in an age of profound intellectual dullness, one in which partisan writers and talking heads have retreated to their respective camps, issue pronunciamentos unlikely to cause offense on their side, and withhold opinions that would seem in any way at odds with their faction. Today, it is hard to imagine a creature of the Left such as Christopher Hitchens endorsing the policies of a Republican administration, as Hitchens did with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. Setting aside whether Hitchens was right or wrong in crossing the Rubicon into Baghdad—to mix metaphor with geography—he must be admired for at least following his instincts and going against the grain.

With far more seriousness, consistency, and good faith than Hitchens, however, Epstein has committed his professional life to following the truth. Epstein’s conclusions are often contrarian, but we never sense he sets out to be contrarian; he arrives at such conclusions more routinely than his peers simply because he starts fresh on a subject each time out. “My idea was to hold in abeyance the palimpsest of cumulative reporting called the clip file, go back to square one, and report the story de novo,” Epstein writes, referring to his work at the New Yorker, in his brilliantly engaging new memoir, Assume Nothing: Encounters with Assassins, Spies, Presidents, and Would-Be Masters of the Universe.

Epstein, who was born in Brooklyn in 1935, describes his unlikely path to becoming a professional assembler of puzzle pieces. The son of a fur trade financier and his sculptress wife, Epstein came by certain advantages naturally: having shot up to six foot two at age twelve, his height instilled in him a “bold social confidence that would remain”—an advantage for a full-time asker of questions. All the same, Epstein drifted academically even after entering Cornell University. There, he signed up for a European literature class taught by Vladimir Nabokov primarily because its schedule assured that his weekends would remain free. Eventually, Epstein won favor with Nabokov and became an “auxiliary course assistant,” an ill-defined position that involved seeing four new movies each week to summarize for the great man. “He said that since he had time to see only one movie, this briefing would help him decide which one of them, if any, to see,” Epstein writes. Later, Epstein happened upon a review by Nabokov that contained the following line: “The unravelling of a riddle is the purest and most basic act of the human mind.” Epstein reflects: “I took it as my personal imperative.”

But not right away. After his indifference and irreverence led to Cornell asking him to leave school in 1956, Epstein embarked on a larkish journey to produce a film version of the Iliad—a venture whose initial inspiration was to supply the dream role of Helen of Troy to the object of Epstein’s affections, a young woman named Susan Brockman. Epstein gets further along than anyone might imagine, taking a meeting with director Sidney Lumet, engaging Mario Puzo to write the start of a script, securing the cooperation of the Greek government, and filming hours’ worth of amateur battle scenes. Naturally, the project collapses, but this comic episode also serves to illustrate a quality that would serve Epstein well in his subsequent investigations: a willingness to go down a rabbit hole.

After resuming his studies at Cornell in 1964, Epstein brokered a deal by which he would earn a master’s degree concurrent with finishing his requirements for his bachelor’s degree. For his master’s thesis, Epstein suggested examining the means and methods used by the Warren Commission in examining the Kennedy assassination. This project, which reached the general public in the form of Epstein’s first book Inquest, not only shed light onto the commission (and its limitations) but provided its author with ersatz education in the sort of journalism of which he became an unparalleled practitioner. He remembers advice given early in the process by commission general counsel J. Lee Rankin: “I am not sure that this is helpful, but I’ve always found that the iron rule of cross-examination is not to ask a question to which you do not know the answer.” There were other epiphanies, including Epstein’s realization that a precise timeline was necessary to fully understand the order in which the commission did its work. “Such a reconstruction of reality was appealing to me,” he writes. “Ever since I was a child, collecting postage stamps and assembling model airplanes, I had a compulsion to arrange things in an unambiguous order.”

Epstein benefited from a world in which august figures could be reached and were, by and large, willing to speak. Epstein recounts meeting Allen Dulles at his home in Georgetown; John J. McCloy at his office at the Chase Manhattan Bank, which he once ran; and the commission lawyer Wesley J. Liebeler at his home in Vermont, where Epstein was invited to spend the night to examine the lawyer’s “chronological file” and was then permitted to take with him two cardboard boxes full of commission memorandum, draft chapters, and FBI reports. It all sounds terribly romantic, but Epstein allowed himself to be wooed by no one; the writer summarizes his conclusions thus: “What I turned up in my investigation did not necessarily prove that the conclusions of the commission were wrong, but it did show that its investigation was incomplete.”

Epstein, however, is incapable of ever being incomplete. In chapter after chapter, he demonstrates his willingness to pursue every meaningful lead. Epstein agrees to profile Garrison for the New Yorker, and although his suspicions are raised when Garrison identifies Ayn Rand and Huey Long as his lodestars, the writer nonetheless goes to the trouble of checking Garrison’s doubtful theories. For example, Epstein describes Garrison’s hilariously misguided insistence that a number in Lee Harvey Oswald’s phone book and an address in Clay Shaw’s address book referenced a different number for Jack Ruby. But, as Epstein explains in a few lucid paragraphs, none of it made any sense.

Equally clear-headed is Epstein’s account of his attempts to get to the bottom of a claim that the Nixon administration led a conspiracy to murder the leaders of the Black Panther Party. Although the New York Times and other leading newspapers took the assertion as the gospel, Epstein makes quick work of sorting fact from fiction: The chief counsel of the Black Panthers initially claimed twenty-eight party members had been killed by police, but Epstein manages to reduce the list to nineteen and then accounts for the deaths of nearly all of them; eight, for instance, “had been killed not by police but by other militants, storekeepers (during attempted robberies), or their wives.” And so on. “That left four questionable deaths in shoot-outs, and all of them were with local, not federal, police,” writes Epstein, an early vanquisher of fake news.

Epstein is now in his seventh decade of writing about crimes large, small, or imagined, but this book is surprisingly cheerful. He seems to have relished his role in challenging narratives and obtaining fresh information. His has been a life of more than a little glamor. He tosses off references to his friendship with Amanda Burden, the “whip-smart daughter of the socialites Babe Paley and Stanley Mortimer and the stepdaughter of William Paley,” describes being present at the creation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s senatorial career, and recounts meetings with CIA counterintelligence eminence James Jesus Angleton, whom he remembers wearing “a black homburg and gray raincoat” that made him look like “someone that central casting in Hollywood might have chosen for the part of a master spy.” Angleton’s persistent use of orchids as metaphors for spycraft are particularly engaging: “I told you I could not discuss cases,” he said to Epstein. “But you might want to buy orchids for your greenhouse.”

Back in the 1960s, amid his work on the Warren Commission, Epstein’s friend (and presumptive star of the Iliad) Susan Brockman asked, “Are you an investigator now?” Epstein answered, “Not yet, but I am learning how.” This book shows how very well indeed he learned.

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