Paul McCartney. So much has been written about the man who casts one of the largest shadows over 20th-century pop culture that it might seem there's nothing left to discover or say about the man. He was/is The Cute Beatle. The Most Successful Musician of All Time. The Tireless Animal Rights Activist. The Walrus, too.
And now, according to former New York state legislator, civil rights activist, and early Warren Commission critic Mark Lane, you can add yet another title to the already overloaded Sir Paul: JFK Conspiracy Theorist.
I happened upon the surprising account of the young McCartney's interest in JFK's murder quite unexpectedly, while doing research for a satirical Choose Your Own Adventure parody our company was creating. (Free ebook for Gawker readers here.)
Mr. Lane's early criticisms of the Warren Report, most notably his bestselling 1966 book Rush to Judgment and its 1967 documentary adaptation, remain to this day mandatory material for anyone with even a passing interest in the Kennedy assassination. Lane was both a friend of Kennedy and his New York campaign manager for his 1960 presidential run, and his work eschewed tin-foil hat speculations and focused instead, as any good defense attorney should, on the evidentiary record. Eyewitness accounts of a possible grassy knoll shooter. Exculpatory facts that might exonerate Oswald. The credibility of critical witnesses to the Tippit shooting and intimidation of witnesses with contradictory evidence. The dishonesty of police officials and district attorney Henry Wade. The destruction of photographic evidence of the assassination.
Given Mark Lane's considerable contributions to the historic record of the Kennedy assassination, I felt duty-bound to also read his recently-released autobiography. And it was there, amidst his recollections of his early works with the heroic Freedom Riders, and his controversial later involvement with the Peoples Temple, that I learned something I'd never known about Paul McCartney. That the Cute Beatle, at the height of his popularity and creative powers, did not believe Oswald killed President Kennedy.
MEET THE BEATLE
Lane recounts his first encounter with the then 24-year-old McCartney at a small, private party in London in 1966.
While living in London during that time I attended a small party of about a dozen people. One of the was Paul McCartney. He walked up to me, offered his hand, and told me his name. The introduction was hardly necessary as he was one of the most famous people in the world...
He said, "I understand you have written a book about Kennedy's assassination. I would like to read it."
When Lane explained to McCartney that his was still in manuscript form, and that he had only two mimeographed copies, McCartney replied, "If I could just borrow your copy I would keep it safe and get it back to you in a few days."
Lane obliged his request. A few days later, McCartney returned the manuscript without comment, much to Lane's disappointment. But that night, as he was editing it, his phone rang, and a voice began, "Well he could'na done it, could he?"
Lane, not recognizing the voice and annoyed at the interruption, brusquely replied, "Who is this? And who couldn't have done what?"
"Sorry. Paul, Paul McCartney, we met the other night. And I meant that Oswald could not have killed President Kennedy."
Lane soon learned that his as-yet-unpublished book had profoundly moved McCartney, who wished to discuss it further over dinner. When their dinner at an obscure Polish restaurant was interrupted by a nonagenarian fan seeking an autograph for her granddaughter, McCartney signed her menu, "Happy dinner, Paul McCartney, friend of Mark Lane." Their conversation about Kennedy's murder, and Oswald's possible innocence, continued past closing hours. Yet inevitably, word of McCartney's presence in the restaurant spread quickly, and soon, a crowd of 200 people waited out front for their chance to mob him.
The two escaped by the back door, rushed to McCartney's car, and parted ways at Lane's London apartment. Yet Paul McCartney was not yet done with Mark Lane.
Lane's book Rush to Judgment was published in August 13, 1966, only one week after of The Beatles released their groundbreaking Revolver, and quickly became the #1 bestselling nonfiction book in the country. To say it was controversial is a fantastic understatement. It was an outright declaration of war on the trustworthiness of both government and establishment media.
Some praised the work. Norman Mailer, reviewing the book for The New York Times, noted:
"...Mark Lane has come up with 400 pages of facts on the Warren Commission's inquiry into the murders of President John F. Kennedy, Officer J.D. Tippit, and Lee Harvey Oswald, and they are somewhat staggering. If one-tenth of them should prove to be significant, then the work of the Warren Commission will be judged by history to be a scandal worse than the Teapot Dome."
Yet much of the establishment media, particularly conservative establishment media, was fiercely critical of the book. Though his publication, the National Review, praised the book, founder William F. Buckley didn't even bother to conceal his outright contempt for it and Lane's "left liberal" political work with "possibly Communist-infiltrated" civil rights groups, on a December 1966 episode of public affair program "Firing Line":
Lane was, by his account, more than used to right-wing criticisms and attacks. He was less prepared for the new and steady stream of death threats that followed him throughout his Rush to Judgment book tour. He recounts keeping those mailed to him in a file folder called "Death Threats", which he stopped supplementing after it had swollen to 250.
THE TRAGICAL HISTORY TOUR
Yet Lane was undeterred, and decided to double down by hiring a director and film crew, so they could interview key assassination witnesses in Dallas while memories were still fresh. Many refused to speak with him, citing warnings from FBI agents and Dallas police not to say anything in contradiction of the official report. Yet others, like Acquilla Clemons, whose eyewitness account of the Tippit shooting is at total variance with the official account, obliged his request, despite the threats. And the fear in her eyes is palpable:
It was while editing the film version of Rush to Judgment in London that Lane once again crossed paths with Paul McCartney. McCartney had learned of the upcoming documentary, and, as Lane recounts:
(McCartney) asked if there was going to be any music, and I said that the director and I had not even thought about that yet.
"Well," he said, "I would like to write a musical score for the film, as a present for you."
I was astonished by that generous offer and speechless for a moment, but then I cautioned him that the subject matter was very controversial in the United States and that he might be jeopardizing his future.
He added, "One day my children are going to ask me what I did with my life, and I can't just answer that I was a Beatle."
The generosity of McCartney's offer can hardly be overstated. Here was perhaps the world's most popular entertainer, at the very peak of his creative powers, offering to lend his talent and star power (and risk his own standing with many fans) to help infuse Lane's deeply troubling documentary with his trademark emotional songcraft.
LET IT NOT BE.
Unfortunately, despite McCartney's insistence, it was not to be. Lane's director, Emile de Antonio, ultimately vetoed the Cute Beatle's involvement. De Antonio believed a score by Paul McCartney wouldn't likely boost its popularity, and would prevent it from being "stark and didactic."
In June of 1967, the documentary version of Rush to Judgment opened in select theaters to only modest box office success. That same month, McCartney fared slightly better with his band's release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Nearly 50 years later, we can only wonder what might have ultimately been created had the skeptical McCartney been allowed to lend his talents to a film about the possible conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination.
(That is, if it really was Paul McCartney...)