Remembering J.F.K. conspiracy theorist Mark Lane and the sex scandal that wrecked his career in government
Mark Lane with Village author Susan Brownmiller, center, and Rose Rubin on Fire Island circa 1963.
This photo appeared in The Villager, where Mary ran an earlier version of this piece.
By MARY REINHOLZ
Some of the death notices picture him as a gadfly. But for me, a writer who got to know him a little in Los Angeles decades ago, Mark Lane played David versus Goliath, tilting up against seemingly impossible odds. The activist attorney and author kept sniping away at government agencies like the CIA up until the time of his death on May 10 in Charlottesville, Va. He was 89.
As his obituaries note, Lane gained international fame challenging a report by the Warren Commission–established in 1964 by Lyndon Baines Johnson– that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy, on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. He made that claim in his best selling 1966 book, “Rush to Judgment,” and again in a documentary by the same name. His 1974 feature film, “Executive Action,” covered similar terrain, starring Burt Lancaster. He wrote it with help from Donald Freed and the formerly blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
Lane became a towering figure in the counter culture of the era, nurturing a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists and amateur detectives. His celebrity came soon after a crushing blow to his political ambitions in New York, an episode that will be explored as we go along. As he once told me during an interview, “The past is prologue,” quoting from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
The war in Vietnam was heating up in 1966 when I first met Lane as a cub reporter, covering his lecture on JFK’s assassination at California State University in Northridge for a suburban daily. Standing about six feet tall and crisply attired in a business suit and tie, he ridiculed the Warren Commission’s claim that a single “magic bullet” had passed from the body of President Kennedy and struck Texas Gov. John Connolly who had been riding in JFK’s open limousine in a front seat as it passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
“The bullet,” Lane explained sardonically, “then made a sharp left,” a comment that drew chuckles from the crowd.
Asked by one of the students if he believed Johnson was involved in Kennedy’s assassination, Lane replied deadpan: “There’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that Johnson was part of a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. Besides, what could possibly be his motivation?”
This time, the audience roared with laughter. The dark-haired and bespectacled Lane, who seemed like a mild mannered guy except for his biting wit, intrigued me. We struck up a conversation and became friends. Over the next four years, I put him up a couple of times at my Laurel Canyon cottage when he was publicizing his various books and causes.
These included his brief advocacy for Vietnam Veterans against the War and the Winter Soldier investigation into war crimes committed by U.S. troops in Southeast Asia. His 1970 book, “Conversations with Americans,” contained interviews with more than 32 servicemen who had been in combat and claimed widespread atrocities by the military. Critics harshly attacked Lane for hyperbole and inaccuracies in his reporting. In turn, Lane both criticized and courted the media.
In the fall of 1970, he introduced me to the freshly radicalized Jane Fonda in Manhattan before we all headed out to a Black Panther convention in Washington D.C. I covered that gathering with another writer for The Los Angeles Free Press.
A couple of years earlier, I tried to get the Los Angeles Times which had retained me as a contract writer for the paper’s West Magazine, to interview Lane. One of the top editors on the national desk rejected the proposal, reprising ugly gossip about Lane’s alleged sexual proclivities. It was around this time when I first heard about the rumors—disturbing claims that Lane, a former New York State Assemblyman for one term, had been forced out of his promising political career after pictures surfaced allegedly showing him engaged in “kinky sex.”
Because he would arrive in town for only a few days at a time. I never got around to asking Lane about these rumors in any detail. It took his death for me to get confirmation from some of his old leftwing friends in New York, among them famed radical feminist Susan Brownmiller who began a relationship with Lane some 15 years before her 1975 groundbreaking book on rape, “Against Our Will,” was published.
Another is Stanley Aronowitz, professor in the sociology Ph.D. program at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, who became Lane’s volunteer campaign manager after Lane was elected to the New York State Legislature in 1960. Both assert that Lane’s career was derailed by political enemies shortly before he began his run for Congress in 1962 in the Democratic primary.
Aronowitz spoke to me on the telephone shortly after Lane’s fatal heart attack at his Charlottesville home when I was preparing an obit for The Villager, a weekly newspaper covering downtown Manhattan. He characterized Lane as an ally of the Democratic Party’s reform movement that sought to break away from the corrupt Tammany Hall machine-style politics of Carmine de Sapio. He flatly stated that Lane’s fortunes in public office were wrecked by threats of exposure in a looming sex scandal soon after he announced running for congress.
“He was a noted philanderer, which is not unusual for a politician, but he was more visible,” Aronowitz said of Lane, who was then separated from his first wife, the well known Austrian folk singer and actress Martha Schlamme.
“He got outed by a former girlfriend — she was threatening to publicize pictures” taken of him having an assignation, Aronowitz continued during two telephone conversations. “She was put up to it by his enemies who wanted to shut him up. He was making a lot of trouble — mainly for Republicans.
“Everybody in his campaign knew about it,” Aronowitz added. “It wasn’t a secret. I talked to him about it. Of course, he was upset. He was considering withdrawal from the Assembly. He served out his term.”
Lane then lost his 1962 bid for a congressional seat because of continuing fallout from “the oldest trick in the book,” according to a 1979 article on Lane by Mother Jones magazine.
At the time of his involvement with Lane’s campaigns, Aronowitz was also director of the union label department at the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. He believes Lane had what it took to become a “national figure as a liberal Democrat. He was not an ordinary liberal,” Aronowitz said. “He was like Bernie Sanders. He challenged the received wisdom.”
As an elected official supported by liberals ranging from Norman Mailer to Senator Eugene McCarthy, Lane lobbied to abolish the death penalty. He was also a muckraker who grilled Republican Assembly Speaker Joseph Carlino for five hours over a bill that would mandate fallout shelters for New York’s school system, and called for his resignation. Lane argued that the bill was a conflict of interest: Carlino was on the board of directors of a swimming pool manufacturer that had a subsidiary selling fallout shelters. The Speaker survived Lane’s challenge, only to be voted out of office in the next election cycle. By then Lane had made numerous enemies, apparently including Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Brownmiller, who worked as a volunteer on both of Lane’s campaigns, noted that the photos used to threaten him were “very compromising.” Brownmiller described Lane’s ex-girlfriend, whom she did not identify by name, as a once-wealthy woman “who had run through her inheritance. She was arrested for passing bad checks,” she said.
The Mother Jones article claimed that a suggestive photo of a naked man who looked like Lane was reportedly sent by courier to “selected” reporters and politicians. Lane, the magazine said, questioned the authenticity of the photo, but rumors began. It was a tragic turn of events for a rising political star.
“There was no person on the scene like Mark,” Brownmiller said during interviews at her penthouse apartment in Greenwich Village. She added that many progressives had eyed Lane as the “great white hope” against the Democratic establishment of the era.
Others agree that Lane had been a vibrant presence in the city as a youthful pol whose district covered Yorkville and East Harlem. There he set up a storefront a law office representing impoverished blacks and Latinos in predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. Lane also founded the East Harlem Reform Democratic Club.
“He was very progressive,” recalled Sarah Kovner, a National Democratic Party Committee member who was active in the Village Independent Democrats club from 1958 to 1964.
“He came out of Yorkville, which had many German tenants, and affordable housing was a big issue,” she said. “He was also very forceful for social justice issues, whether it was civil rights or tenant rights. He worked in East Harlem with District Leader Carlos Rios, who was also very progressive.”
Kovner noted that the Democratic reform movement was backed by Eleanor Roosevelt.
“He was definitely part of it, part of something larger, but he was very effective as a lone wolf,” she said. “He was also involved in labor issues. I remember when District 1199,” the hospital workers union, “was striking. He organized the pickets. One funny story I remember was a picket line outside Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital. Somebody takes my picture and it turned up in the Communist Daily Worker newspaper. Mark looked at it and said,
‘Show the photo to your mother and tell her it was from the New York Times.’ ”
Kovner said she could not remember why Lane stopped running for elected office at that time (although later, in 1978, Lane ran as a vice presidential candidate with Dick Gregory on the third party Freedom and Peace ticket after both men began investigating the assassination of The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. with civil rights leaders).
But Kovner noted that Lane swiftly “changed his focus” after President Kennedy’s murder. She said the thesis of his first book, “Rush to Judgment” — which suggests that there were at least two shooters in the killing of Kennedy along with a government conspiracy and massive coverup— had been “borne out,” at least in part, by findings of the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1979. The completed Warren Commission Report is scheduled for public release in 2017.
Lane’s career had many ironic twists and turns as it did in the JFK killing. When he was first running for his assembly seat, Lane also managed JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign in his 20th Assembly district. After Kennedy’s assassination and that of Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit, Lane sought to defend the ghost of Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspect in both murders, who had been fatally shot by Jack Ruby two days later in the basement of the Dallas police station. Oswald’s mother, Maguerite, asked Lane to represent her son’s interests before the Warren Commission, which rejected his request. He then become a legal counsel for her.
Eventually, Lane testified before the Warren Commission and went on write some nine other books — four about the assassination. He and Dick Gregory published their findings on the MLK assassination as co-authors of the book “Murder in Memphis” (first released in 1977 as “Code Name Zero”), which suggested that the FBI may have been involved in a conspiracy behind the killing. He also worked with Representative Thomas N. Downey, a New York Democrat, to draft legislation in 1976 that created the House Select Committee on Assassinations to investigate the murders of both Kennedy and King.
During that period, Lane represented King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, in testimony before the committee.
Other sensational high profile cases came along. In 1974, Lane joined iconic civil liberties lawyer William Kunstler in successfully defending Native American activists Russell Means and Dennis Banks. The two had been arrested on federal charges in connection with the takeover of the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by 200 Ogala Lakota tribal members from the Pine Ridge Reservation and others involved in the American Indian Movement.
Lane was born in the Bronx on Feb. 24, 1927, but grew up in Brooklyn, the middle child between a sister and a brother. He served in Army intelligence after World War II in Vienna. He earned a law degree at Brooklyn Law School, where he first made his name exposing mistreatment in a Long Island psychiatric facility, according to The Guardian.
His mother, Betty Lane, was a secretary. His father, Harry Lane, was an accountant who worked for a government entity similar to the I.R.S. that was responsible for the arrest of gangster Al Capone, said Steve Jaffe, a Los Angeles P.R. firm owner who worked with Lane on numerous civil and criminal cases since 1966. Lane is survived by his third wife, the former Patricia Erdner; three daughters, Anne Marie Lane, Christina Bel and Vita O’Shea, and four grandchildren.
Clearly, he continues to have an impact on people of his generation. Brownmiller announced his passing on her Facebook timeline, noting: “Mark was a crucial person in my life for a few years.” She added: “This was before feminism. My ambition was to latch myself to Mark’s career and be the Evita of Gracie Mansion.”
Now 81, Brownmiller met Lane when she was in her late 20s working as a researcher for Newsweek and living in a cold-water flat in the E. 50s. She had already signed up for liberal causes like the Congress for Racial Equality. Lane was the attorney for CORE Harlem.
“I was drawn to Mark because of the housing issues in my building,” she said. “We had hot water but no heat. Mark had these great campaign posters up saying, ‘Show the Bosses.’ I could have gone to Yorkville where he had an office. But I went to East Harlem. Everybody there was gaga when he came in. And he won!”
Writer Susan Brownmiller, in her Jane St. apartment, said Mark Lane was a big part of her life for a number of years
before she became a leading feminist. Photo by Mary Reinholz
Eventually, she said, they become lovers after he made some overtures on a bus trip headed Upstate.
“There was a lobbying effort for fair housing in Albany and I was on the bus when Mark suddenly sat down beside me,” she said. “He started this rap about how he wanted to be a vegetarian but just today he had a hamburger. That was his pickup line. I’m thinking, ‘This is a little wacky.’ But I was thrilled he sat next to me. Before that, I was just one of the people helping in his campaign.”
Their relationship lasted three years. Brownmiller came to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy, even though she helped Lane write an article soon after Kennedy’s assassination, titled, “Is Oswald Innocent? A Lawyer’s Brief,” that was published in the far-left National Guardian in New York after numerous publications, including The Nation, turned it down. She said their differences on who killed Kennedy was not the reason why she left Lane and the lower Manhattan townhouse they occasionally shared when he was gearing up for his run for Congress.
“It just wasn’t a good relationship for me,” she said.
Full disclosure: I admired Lane immensely for his courage and commitment, but was never sold on some of his conspiracy theories—especially after he and his Los Angeles partner Steve Jaffe were deputized by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in 1967. Garrison had accused a local businessman, Clay Shaw, with conspiring to murder President Kennedy. In less than an hour, a jury acquitted Shaw in the case which later became the subject of the 1991 Oliver Stone Film ,”JFK.” It was the only case ever prosecuted for the murder of JFK.
Then came a far more bizarre and horrific episode: when Lane was hired in 1978 by self styled religious leader Jim Jones to represent his “People’s Temple” in Jonestown, Guyana. In 1979, Rep. Leo J. Ryan (D-Calif.) and several journalists were killed there by a few of Jones’ paranoic followers. Jones and 900 of his cult then committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool Aid. Lane was able to escape into the jungle. He wrote a book about it, “The Strongest Poison,” published that same year.
The Jonestown massacre disturbed me greatly and I began to wonder if Lane lived in an alternate universe. When I asked him about it during one of his visits to New York, where I had relocated in 1970, his responses were couched in legalese. I lost touch with him for more than 30 years when he was living on Capital Hill in Washington D.C. before relocating to Charlottesville.
We spoke briefly around 2010. “I remember you,” Lane said in his quiet voice, noting he was now working on a case that involved representing Leonardo DiCaprio over a dispute that apparently involved allegations of assaults. He provided few details, but apparently the case centered on a Candian model who had been charged with slashing DiCaprio’s face with a smashed bottle during a Hollywood party. She eventually pled no contest and was sentenced two years jail time in 2014, according to The Guardian. the case never went to trial. DiCaprio had once considered starring in a feature film, written by Lane and Donald Freed, about MLK’s murder back in 1998. But it never got made.
When Lane died, I recalled his other celebrity connections in California. I still have vivid memories of driving him to meet his friend Abby Mann, the esteemed Academy award winning producer and writer of “Judgment at Nuremberg, at Mann’s Malibu Beach house.
Lane seemed a tad apprehensive with me behind the wheel of my scarred MG Midget, which had been through the 1965 Watts riots, but he never said anything derogatory about my driving. I mainly remember him as an intellectually gifted man with a very strong personality who was determined to accomplish what he set out to do despite harassment by FBI and Secret Service agents and vicious attacks on him by members of the press along the way.
Once I asked him to define his political leanings. “I’m a radical trying to be a revolutionary,” he replied.
Aronowitz, his former campaign manager in New York, concurred with that description of Lane: “He was a leftie liberal,” he said.” I think he wanted to change the conversation.”