John Calder, 86, the famous publisher, friend of Samuel Beckett and founder of Calder Publishing, is the last surviving member of Bertrand Russell’s “Who Killed Kennedy Committee”, a group of Warren Report sceptics which included the critic William Empson, Michael Foot, J.B. Priestley, and the nobel prize winner, Lord Boyd-Orr. Here Calder recalls the aftermath to Kennedy’s killing, and the disbelief amongst his friends that Oswald was acting alone.
My family knew the President’s father, Joe Kennedy. Joe was in the whisky business, as was my family. One time in the early 1930s, the whole Kennedy family came and stayed at my great uncle’s house in Scotland. That was where, as a teenager, the young John Kennedy learned to fish, and was taught to shoot grouse.
His father, of course, had mafia connections; that was very well known. A lot of people disliked President Kennedy: he was a catholic in a very protestant country, and the FBI had a particular dislike of him. The fact is, a lot of people wanted him dead.
On the evening of November the 22nd I was at the Royal Festival Hall, at a performance of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Gloriana’, to celebrate his 50th birthday. Jack Lyons, the chairman of the London Symphony Orchestra, came up to me in the interval and said Kennedy had been killed but Benjamin Britten doesn’t want anyone in the audience to be told, as he didn’t want the concert to be interrupted. So I sat through the end of the opera knowing the president was dead.
When the curtain fell, we rushed out into the street, to the newspaper sellers outside Charing Cross tube station. A special edition had been brought out. I remember standing on Waterloo Bridge, reading about the killing.
Barely two days after the President was killed, Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby, which struck everyone as suspicious. Obviously someone wanted to get rid of Oswald right away. I remember discussing the assassination with many of my friends, good friends like Stuart Hood, who was the controller of the BBC, and Erich Fried the poet. Fried in particular had a tremendous reaction to it, but all of us had questions.
When the Warren Report came out it was pretty much dismissed by everyone as a whitewash. The story it told seemed so implausible. I ended up joining Bertrand Russell’s “Who Killed Kennedy Committee”. I knew Russell quite well, of course, from the Committee of 100, the anti-war group, of which I was a member.
The US attorney, Mark Lane, had raised some questions about the Warren Report, and I remember long telephone calls with my friends, talking through the evidence. There were lots of different theories, naturally, but one thing we agreed on was that the Warren Report was a cover-up. There was a general belief that Oswald wasn’t acting alone.
Personally, I subscribe to the so-called ‘grassy knoll’ theory, the knoll at the side of the route: a gunman could easily have hidden behind it. Also, I think the FBI had a hand in it. Don’t forget: all governments tend to secrecy. The US government is perfectly capable of covering up something like this. Governments carry out assassinations; they always have done. They cover things up all the time; they’re still doing it.
I don’t admire politicians on the whole, but I rather liked President Kennedy. He was a bit of an idealist, and I believe he sincerely wanted to improve his country. Never had much of a chance of course.