The Mysterious Mr. de Mohrenschildt
By Russ Baker on Oct 14, 2013
What possible connection could there have been between George H.W. Bush and the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Or between the C.I.A. and the assassination? Or between Bush and the C.I.A.? For some people, apparently, making such connections was as dangerous as letting one live wire touch another. Here, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination in November, is the fifth part of a ten-part series of excerpts from WhoWhatWhy editor Russ Baker’s bestseller, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years. The story is a real-life thriller. [NOTE: See other parts of series at website above]
“Must have angered a lot of people”
In 1976, more than a decade after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a letter arrived at the CIA, addressed to its director, the Hon. George Bush. The letter was from a desperate-sounding man in Dallas, who spoke regretfully of having been indiscreet in talking about Lee Harvey Oswald and begged Poppy for help:
Maybe you will be able to bring a solution into the hopeless situation I find myself in. My wife and I find ourselves surrounded by some vigilantes; our phone bugged; and we are being followed everywhere. Either FBI is involved in this or they do not want to accept my complaints. We are driven to insanity by this situation . . . tried to write, stupidly and unsuccessfully, about Lee H. Oswald and must have angered a lot of people . . . Could you do something to remove this net around us? This will be my last request for help and I will not annoy you anymore.
The writer signed himself “G. de Mohrenschildt.”
The CIA staff assumed the letter writer to be a crank. Just to be sure, however, they asked their boss: Did he by any chance know a man named de Mohrenschildt?Bush responded by memo, seemingly self-typed:
I do know this man DeMohrenschildt. I first men [sic] him in the early 40’3 [sic]. He was an uncle to my Andover roommate. Later he surfaced in Dallas (50’s maybe) . . . Then he surfaced when Oswald shot to prominence. He knew Oswald before the assassination of Pres. Kennedy. I don’t recall his role in all this.
Not recall? Once again, Poppy Bush was having memory problems. And not about trivial matters. George de Mohrenschildt was not just the uncle of a roommate, but a longtime personal associate. Yet Poppy could not recall – or more precisely, claimed not to recall – the nature of de Mohrenschildt’s relationship with the man believed to have assassinated the thirty-fifth president.
This would have been an unusual lapse on anyone’s part. But for the head of an American spy agency to exhibit such a blasé attitude, in such an important matter, was over the edge. At that very moment, several federal investigations were looking into CIA abuses – including the agency’s role in assassinations of foreign leaders. These investigations were heading toward what would become a reopened inquiry into Kennedy’s death. Could it be that the lapse was not casual, and the acknowledgment of a distant relationship was a way to forestall inquiry into a closer one?
Writing back to his old friend, Poppy assured the Mohrenschildt that his fears were entirely unfounded. Yet half a year later, de Mohrenschildt was dead. The cause was officially determined to be suicide with a shotgun. Investigators combing through de Mohrenschildt’s effects came upon his tattered address book, largely full of entries made in the 1950’s. Among them, though apparently eliciting no further inquiries on the part of the police, was an old entry for the current CIA director, with the Midland address where he had lived in the early days of Zapata:
BUSH, GEORGE H. W. (POPPY), 1412 W. OHIO ALSO ZAPATA PETROLEUM MIDLAND.
De Mohrenschildt and the Oswalds
When Poppy told his staff that his old friend de Mohrenschildt “knew Oswald,” that was an understatement. From 1962 through the spring of 1963, de Mohrenschildt was by far the principal influence on Oswald, the older man who guided every step of his life. De Mohrenschildt had helped Oswald find jobs and apartments, had taken him to meetings and social gatherings, and generally had assisted with the most minute aspects of life for Lee Oswald, his Russian wife, Marina, and their baby.
De Mohrenschildt’s relationship with Oswald has tantalized and perplexed investigators and researchers for decades. In 1964, de Mohrenschildt and his wife Jeanne testified to the Warren Commission, which spent more time with them than any other witness – possibly excepting Oswald’s widow, Marina. The Commission, though, focused on George de Mohrenschildt as a colorful, if eccentric, character, steering away every time de Mohrenschildt recounted yet another name from a staggering list of influential friends and associates. In the end, the commission simply concluded in its final report that these must all be coincidences and nothing more. The de Mohrenschildts, the Commission said, apparently had nothing to do with the assassination.
Even the Warren Commission counsel who questioned George de Mohrenschildt appeared to acknowledge that the Russian émigré was what might euphemistically be called an “international businessman.” For most of his adult life, de Mohrenschildt had traveled the world ostensibly seeking business opportunities involving a variety of natural resources – some, such as oil and uranium, of great strategic value. The timing of his overseas ventures was remarkable. Invariably, when he was passing through town, a covert or even overt operation appeared to be unfolding – an invasion, a coup, that sort of thing. For example, in 1961, as exiled Cubans and their CIA support team prepared for the Bay of Pigs invasion in Guatemala, George de Mohrenschildt and his wife passed through Guatemala City on what they told friends was a month-long walking tour of the Central American isthmus. On another occasion, the de Mohrenschildts appeared in Mexico on oil business just as a Soviet leader arrived on a similar mission – and even happened to meet the Communist official. In a third instance, they landed in Haiti shortly before an unsuccessful coup against its president that had U.S. fingerprints on it.
A Russian-born society figure was a friend both of the family of President Kennedy and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. A series of strange coincidences providing the only known link between the two families before Oswald fired the shot killing Mr. Kennedy in Dallas a year ago was described in testimony before The Warren Commission by George S. de Mohrenschildt.
He was actually much more intriguing – and mystifying. As Norman Mailer noted in his book Oswald’s Tale, de Mohrenschildt possessed “an eclecticism that made him delight in presenting himself as right-wing, left-wing, a moralist, an aristocrat, a nihilist, a snob, an atheist, a Republican, a Kennedy lover, a desegregationist, an intimate of oil tycoons, a bohemian, and a socialite, plus a quondam Nazi apologist, once a year.”
A Name Never Dropped
During all these examinations, and notwithstanding de Mohrenschildt’s offhand recitation of scores of friends and colleagues, obscure and recognizable, he scrupulously never mentioned that he knew Poppy Bush. Nor did investigators uncover the fact that in the spring of 1963, immediately after his final communication with Oswald, de Mohrenschildt had traveled to New York and Washington for meetings with CIA and military intelligence officials. He even had met with a top aide to Vice President Johnson. And the commission certainly did not learn that one meeting in New York included Thomas Devine, then Bush’s business colleague in Zapata Offshore, who was doing double duty for the CIA.
Had the Warren Commission’s investigators comprehensively explored the matter, they would have found a phenomenal and baroque backstory that contextualizes de Mohrenschildt within the extended petroleum-intelligence orbit in which the Bushes operated.
Getting America Into World War I
The de Mohrenschildts were major players in the global oil business since the beginning of the twentieth century, and their paths crossed with the Rockefellers and other key pillars of the petroleum establishment. George de Mohrenschildt’s uncle and father ran the Swedish Nobel Brothers Oil Company’s operations in Baku, in Russian Azerbaijan on the southwestern coast of the Caspian Sea. This was no small matter. In the early days of the twentieth century, the region held roughly half of the world’s known oil supply. By the start of World War I, every major oil interest in the world, including the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil, was scrambling for a piece of Baku’s treasure or intriguing to suppress its competitive potential. (Today, ninety years later, they are at it again.)
In 1915, the czar’s government dispatched a second uncle of George de Mohrenschildt, the handsome young diplomat Ferdinand von Mohrenschildt, to Washington to plead for American intervention in the war – an intervention that might rescue the czarist forces then being crushed by the invading German army. President Woodrow Wilson had been reelected partly on the basis of having kept America out of the war. But as with all leaders, he was surrounded by men with their own agendas. A relatively close-knit group embodying the nexus of private capital and intelligence-gathering inhabited the highest levels of the Wilson administration. Secretary of State Robert Lansing was the uncle of a diplomat-spy by the name of Allen Dulles. Wilson’s closest adviser, “Colonel” Edward House, was a Texan and an ally of the ancestors of James A. Baker III, who would become Poppy Bush’s top lieutenant. Czarist Russia then owed fifty million dollars to a Rockefeller-headed syndicate. Keeping an eye on such matters was the U.S. ambassador to Russia, a close friend of George Herbert Walker’s from St. Louis.
Once the United States did enter the war, Prescott Bush’s father, Samuel Bush, was put in charge of small arms production. The Percy Rockefeller-headed Remington Arms Company got the lion’s share of the U.S. contracts. It sold millions of dollars worth of rifles to czarist forces, while it also profited handsomely from deals with the Germans.
In 1917, Ferdinand von Mohrenschildt’s mission to bring America into the world war was successful on a number of levels. Newspaper clippings of the time show him to be an instant hit on the Newport, Rhode Island, millionaires’ circuit. He was often in the company of Mrs. J. Borden Harriman, of the family then befriending Prescott Bush and about to hire Prescott’s future father-in-law, George Herbert Walker. Not long after that, Ferdinand married the step-granddaughter of President Woodrow Wilson.
In quick succession, the United States entered World War I, and the newlywed Ferdinand unexpectedly died. The von Mohrenschildt family fled Russia along with the rest of the aristocracy. Emanuel Nobel sold half of the Baku holdings to Standard Oil of New Jersey, with John D. Rockefeller Jr. personally authorizing the payment of $11.5 million. Over the next couple of decades, members of the defeated White Russian movement, which opposed the Bolsheviks and fought the Red Army from the 1917 October Revolution until 1923, would find shelter in the United States, a country that shared the anti-Communist movement’s ideological sentiments.
Bush and de Mohrenschildt Families: Deeply Intertwined
In 1920, Ferdinand’s nephew Dimitri von Mohrenschildt, the older brother of George, arrived in the United States and entered Yale University. His admission was likely smoothed by the connections of the Harriman family, which soon persuaded the Bolshevik Russian government to allow them to reactivate the Baku oilfields. At that point, the Harriman operation was being directed by the brilliant international moneyman George Herbert Walker, the grandfather of Poppy Bush.
The Soviets had expropriated the assets of the Russian ruling class, not least the oil fields. Though ultimately willing to cooperate with some Western companies, the Communists had created an army of angry White Russian opponents, who vowed to exact revenge and regain their holdings. This group, trading on an American fascination with titles, was soon ensconced in (and often intermarried with) the East Coast establishment. The New York newspapers of the day were full of reports of dinners and teas hosted by Prince This and Count That at the top of Manhattan hotels.
Dimitri von Mohrenschildt plunged into this milieu. After graduating from Yale, he was offered a position teaching the young scions of the new oil aristocracy at the exclusive Loomis School near Hartford, Connecticut, where John D. Rockefeller III was a student (and his brother Winthrop soon would be). There, Dimitri became friendly with Roland and Winifred “Betty” Cartwright Holhan Hooker, who were prominent local citizens. Roland Hooker was enormously well connected; his father had been the mayor of Hartford, his family members were close friends of the Bouviers (Jackie Kennedy’s father’s family), and his sister was married to Prince Melikov, a former officer in the Imperial Russian Army.
While Dimitri von Mohrenschildt clearly enjoyed the high-society glamour, in reality his life was heading underground. Dimitri’s lengthy covert resumé would include serving in the Office of Strategic Services wartime spy agency and later cofounding Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. In 1941, Dimitri also founded a magazine, the Russian Review, and later became a professor at Dartmouth.
When the Hooker marriage unraveled, Dimitri began seeing Betty Hooker. In the summer of 1936, immigration records show that Dimitri traveled to Europe, followed a week later by Betty Hooker with her young daughter and adolescent son.
Betty’s son, Edward Gordon Hooker, entered prep school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. There, he shared a small cottage with George H. W. “Poppy” Bush. Bush and Hooker became inseparable. They worked together on Pot Pourri, the student yearbook, whose photos show a handsome young Poppy Bush and an even more handsome Hooker. The friendship would continue in 1942, when both Bush and Hooker, barely eighteen, enlisted in the Navy and served as pilots in the Pacific. Afterward, they would be together at Yale. When Hooker married, Poppy Bush served as an usher. The relationship between Bush and Hooker lasted for three decades, until 1967, when Hooker died of an apparent heart attack. He was just forty-three. Six years after Hooker’s death, Poppy Bush would serve as surrogate father, giving away Hooker’s daughter at her wedding to Ames Braga, scion of a Castro-expropriated Cuban sugar dynasty.
Another Careful Disconnect
The relationship couldn’t have been much closer. Yet Bush never mentions Hooker in his memoirs or published recollections, even though he finds room for scores of more marginal figures. Certainly his family was aware of Hooker.
Poppy’s prep school living arrangements would have mattered to Prescott Bush. The Bush clan is famously gregarious, and like many wealthy families, it puts great stock in the establishment of social networks that translate into influence and advantage. Prescott took a strong interest in meeting his children’s friends and the friends’ parents, as expressed in family correspondence and memoirs. Moreover, as a prominent Connecticut family with deep colonial roots, the Hookers would have had great appeal for Prescott Bush, an up-and-coming Connecticut resident with political aspirations and a great interest in the genealogy of America’s upper classes.
In 1937, Betty Hooker and Dimitri von Mohrenschildt married. By then, Dimitri had been hired by Henry Luce as a stringer for Time magazine. Prescott would likely have been keen to know his son’s roommate’s stepfather – this intriguing Russian anti-Communist aristocrat, with a background in the oil business and a degree from Yale, working for Prescott’s Skull and Bones friend Luce.
Meanwhile, Dimitri’s younger brother, George, had been living with their family in exile in Poland, where he finished high school and then joined a military academy and the cavalry. In May 1938, George arrived from Europe and moved in with his brother and new sister-in-law in their Park Avenue apartment. Young George de Mohrenschildt came to America armed with the doctoral dissertation that reflected the future trajectory of his life: “The Economic Influence of the United States on Latin America.” The oil south of the border was certainly of interest to Wall Street figures such as Prescott Bush and his colleagues, who were deeply involved in financing petroleum exploration in new areas.
From Émigré to Spy
The White Russian émigrés in the United States were motivated by both ideology and economics to serve as shock troops in the growing cold war conflict being managed by Prescott’s friends and associates. No one understood this better than Allen Dulles, the Wall Street lawyer, diplomat, and spy-master-in ascension. Even in the period between the two world wars, Dulles was already molding Russian émigrés into intelligence operatives. He moved back and forth between government service and Wall Street lawyering with the firm Sullivan and Cromwell, whose clients included United Fruit and Brown Brothers Harriman. The latter was at that time led by Averell and Roland Harriman and Prescott Bush.
Whether in government or out, Dulles’s interests and associates were largely the same. He seemed to enjoy the clandestine work more than the legal work. As Peter Grose notes in Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles, he worked during the 1940 presidential campaign to bring Russian, Polish, and Czechoslovak émigrés into the Republican camp. “Allen’s double life those first months after Pearl Harbor [in 1941] had specific purpose, of course,” Grose observes. “The mysterious émigrés he was cultivating in New York were potential assets for an intelligence network to penetrate Nazi Germany.”
Dimitri von Mohrenschildt was a star player in this game on a somewhat exalted level. He found sponsorship for a role as an academic and publisher specializing in anti-Bolshevik materials, and later became involved in more ambitious propaganda work with Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. Younger brother George was more willing to get his hands dirty. He took a job in the New York office of a French perfume company called Chevalier Garde, named for the Czar’s most elite troops, the Imperial Horse Guards. His bosses were powerful czarist Russian émigrés, well connected at the highest levels of Manhattan society, who worked during World War II in army intelligence and the OSS. One of them, Prince Serge Obolensky, had escaped Soviet Russia after a year of hiding and became a much-married New York society figure whose wives included Alice Astor. His brother-in-law Vincent Astor was secretly asked by FDR in 1940 to set up civilian espionage offices in Manhattan at Rockefeller Center. Astor was soon joined in this effort by Allen Dulles.
The next stop for George de Mohrenschildt was a home furnishings company. His boss there was a high-ranking French intelligence official, and together they monitored and blocked attempts by the Axis war machine to procure badly needed petroleum supplies in the Americas. Young de Mohrenschildt then traveled to the southwest, where he exhibited still more impressive connections. Ostensibly there to work on oil derricks, he landed a meeting with the chairman of the board of Humble Oil, the Texas subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey, predecessor to Exxon.
The jobs kept becoming more interesting. By the midforties, de Mohrenschildt was working in Venezuela for Pantepec Oil, the firm of William F. Buckley’s family. Pantepec later had abundant connections with the newly created CIA and was deeply involved in foreign intrigue for decades. The Buckley boys, like the Bushes, had been in Skull and Bones, and Bill Buckley, whose conservative intellectual magazine National Review was often politically helpful to Poppy Bush, would in later years admit to a stint working for the CIA himself.
George de Mohrenschildt’s foreign trips – and some of his domestic wanderings as well – drew the interest of various American law enforcement agencies. These incidents appear to have been deliberate provocations, such as his working on “sketches” outside a U.S. Coast Guard station. In many of these cases de Mohrenschildt would be briefly questioned or investigated, the result of which was a dossier not unlike that of Lee Harvey Oswald’s. These files were full of declared doubts about his loyalties and speculation at various times that he might be a Russian, Japanese, French, or German spy. A classic opportunist, he might have been any or all of these. But he also could have simply been an American spy who was creating a cover story.