Death by JFK Assassination: A Special Case
Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison once quipped that witnesses to the JFK assassination had a bad habit of dying at the most inconvenient times.
Lisa Howard (1930-1965)
Who the hell is she? Actress. TV Journalist. A special covert asset of President John F. Kennedy.
What could she say? Although a prominent twenty-something actress with a promising career ahead of her, Howard became increasingly interested in news production. Moonlighting as a stringer for the Mutual Radio Network, she got her big journalistic break at the age of thirty when covering the Democratic National Convention. Three years later, ABC News hired her to host a news magazine show, effectively making her the first anchorwoman on US television. As such she interviewed a number of heavy hitters, among them Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. US Sen. Barry Goldwater and Iranian Shah Mohammad Pahlavi.
In April 1963, she embarked on a trip to Cuba for a documentary. She managed to land an eight-hour interview with Fidel Castro. The Prime Minister impressed upon her his desire to normalize relations with the US.
The Central Intelligence Agency debriefed Howard upon her return. She hammered home two points: (1) Castro sought rapprochement with the US; and (2) she was willing to assist the President and the CIA in that effort. Unfortunately, peace with Cuba was the last thing the Agency wanted. At the time they were cooking up assassination plots against Castro, and still holding out hope that Kennedy would give them the greenlight to kill him–not that they couldn’t get around any restrictions the President might have ordered.
In May 1963, Howard published an article urging President Kennedy to open a back-channel dialog with Cuba. The piece drew the attention of William Attwood, an advisor of American UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. On 20 September 1963, Kennedy gave Attwood the go-ahead to initiate talks with Castro. Attwood called upon Howard to arrange a meeting between himself and Cuban Ambassador Carlos Lechuga. Howard hosted the meeting at her apartment under the cover of a cocktail party.
The plan for establishing dialogue took some time to develop. Attorney General Robert Kennedy thought it worth pursuing, but with caution. They took too long to make it reality. By the time Castro and Attwood began taking concrete steps for meeting, Kennedy died. Attwood, for one, saw a connection between the assassination, and the activities he undertook with Howard. In a memorandum dated 22 November 1963, he wrote:
If the CIA did find out what we were doing, this would have trickled down to the lower echelon of activists, and Cuban exiles, and the more gung-ho CIA people who had been involved since the Bay of Pigs. If word of a possible normalization of relations with Cuba leaked to these people, I can understand why they would have reacted so violently. This was the end of their dreams of returning to Cuba, and they might have been impelled to take violent action. Such as assassinating the President.Howard then tried to get President Lyndon Johnson to follow-through on a plan to reopen dialogue with Cuba. Johnson declined, saying that the gesture would look like a concession, and that Republicans would consequently accuse him of being “soft on communism.” Undaunted, she continued to meet with both Castro and his trusted advisor, Dr. Che Guevara, On 16 December 1964, she hosted another meeting at her apartment, this time between Guevara and US Rep. Eugene McCarthy.
Howard’s efforts did not sit well with US Intel. The top National Security Council (NSC) advisor on Latin American affairs, Gordon Chase, penned a classified memo stating that it had become necessary to “remove Lisa from direct participation in the business of passing messages.”
Given the rumors circulating well beyond the 1960s that Castro had arranged JFK’s assassination, and the fact that the cold-warriors of the CIA, the military and industry resisted normalizing relations with Cuba, Howard could have conveyed two important messages to the public through her role as a journalist. First, she could have given eyewitness testimony, if need be backed by Ambassador Stevenson and Attwood, that the relationship between Kennedy and Castro was hardly antagonistic, thus negating any reason for the Beard to remove the President through violence–especially since Castro had substantial reason to support both Kennedy’s survival and his reelection in 1964. Second, she could have written about the refusal of CIA and ultraconservative elements in government to negotiate peace with Cuba, thus giving the Agency and the Pentagon motive for assassination.
How did she die? On 4 July 1965, Officer William Brockman, of the East Hampton (NY) Police Department, found Howard dazed and incoherent in a drug store parking lot. He took her directly to the East Hampton Medical Center, where she died. Police discovered that she had just purchased 100 Nembutal tablets at the drug store where Brockman found her. The prescription had originally been for ten tablets, but someone–they figured Howard–added an extra zero. Her family said that she had been despondent from a miscarriage she’d suffered three weeks earlier. Suffolk County Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Mary Johnson tentatively ruled her death a suicide, pending the results of an autopsy.