Journalist who wrote acclaimed work on Oswald, JFK worked in Santa Fe

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Aug. 22—When she died last month, many media outlets said Priscilla Johnson McMillan was a one-of-a-kind human being — perhaps the only person to have personally known both President John F. Kennedy and his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.

She later wrote about the two men and how their lives intersected briefly in the book Marina and Lee, published in 1977. It was that project, which she began researching in the mid-1960s, that brought McMillan to Santa Fe. And it was Santa Fe, friends say, that stayed with her, both professionally and personally.

She was a rare combination: a female journalist writing about Russia from within the country during the Cold War in the 1950s, a deep-diving researcher determined to set the record straight on Robert Oppenheimer's fall from grace and a sleuth who managed to pry secrets out of others while remaining a mystery to them.

In the weeks since her death, friends and family members have offered their memories, in part to make future generations aware of her life and talent. And there's no way to tell that big story without mentioning key moments in Santa Fe, then just a small, quaint town that hadn't been discovered by the rich or famous.

"She absolutely loved Santa Fe," said McMillan's niece, Sarah Doenmez. "She loved the mix of cultures, she loved the markets, she loved that feeling that there were things brewing in corners and the history of Santa Fe being a gateway to Los Alamos.

"And she loved the sense that there were independent thinkers in Santa Fe."

New Mexico served as an anchor point for McMillan to research and write her two major works — first Marina and Lee and later The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race, published in 2005. Friends and family members say she loved the beauty, history and culture of the state.

It was McMillan's ability to connect to anyone, regardless of their background or culture, and make her writing accessible to everyone, that made her work stand out, said her niece Holly-Katharine Johnson.

"She was writing for a layperson," she said. "That came from her background as a journalist."

Born in 1928 in Glen Cove, N.Y., McMillan majored in Russian studies at both Bryn Mawr and Radcliffe. Fluent in Russian, she lived and worked in Moscow as a journalist in the late 1950s. That's where she met Lee Harvey Oswald, who was intent on defecting to that country after an unhappy stint in the U.S. Marines.

Earlier in the 1950s, she had worked as an adviser for Kennedy when he was a senator from Massachusetts.

Renowned for Marina and Lee, which detailed the relationship between Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, and the events leading up to Kennedy's death in November 1963, McMillan forged a lengthy and loving connection to New Mexico dating to the autumn of 1964.

It was, at that time, a place of escape for her and Marina as media and governmental scrutiny overwhelmed Oswald's widow, who professed as much shock as the rest of the nation that her husband could have shot and killed Kennedy.

McMillan brought Marina to Santa Fe, where McMillan's cousin, David C. Davenport, lived. They were here for two months in 1964.

"Undoubtably there was all sorts of craziness going on after the assassination, and I think Priscilla's instinct would have been, 'Let's go someplace where we can be alone and not be bothered by other people knocking on the door,' " said Davenport's son, Dave Davenport.

McMillan and Marina Oswald likely stayed at his father's home on Brownell-Howland Road off Bishops Lodge Road during that time, he said. He described the house as a "rambling old place" that offered glorious views of the surrounding mountains and a backyard full of piñon trees that seemed to creep up to the back porch.

In her acknowledgements section of Marina and Lee, McMillan thanked her cousin for providing "a haven during the unquiet weeks of September and October of 1964, just after the Warren Report [on the Kennedy assassination] was issued."

Dave Davenport, who still lives in Santa Fe, said he was attending college when McMillan brought Marina to Santa Fe in 1964. But he often met McMillan at family dinners during her other visits to the city. He recalled her as "a person who was very, very curious about the world and about people.

"She would open a conversation by immediately asking you a question about what you were doing, what you had seen, what you thought about something, and very rarely did she allow the conversation to come back to herself," he recalled. "It was a great way to get people to open up. It also, in a way, kind of kept her privacy."

She saw Oswald as "a very small man who had a huge influence on history," Johnson said.

As for Kennedy, Johnson said her aunt was "very flirtatious and people always asked about her relationship with Kennedy. Flirtation was much more common then and a tool she used. She liked to be flirted with. It got her the ear of people in power."

Later, some would say McMillan was a spy for the American government — an accusation she denied and which hurt her, Johnson said.

Similar charges were lobbed at Oppenheimer, the atomic bomb pioneer — one reason McMillan wanted to tell his story, her niece Sarah Doenmez said.

Santa Fe and Los Alamos became temporary homes to McMillan again, starting in the 1980s, while she began researching The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race.

Doenmez said her aunt believed, as Oppenheimer and others did in the 1940s and '50s, that no one would win a nuclear war and that we couldn't "continue to live in a world that is polarized with the sense that there are good guys and bad guys and we're the good guys and everyone is the enemy."

Johnson agreed, noting her aunt was "very sympathetic to the way Oppenheimer had been treated" when the government suspended his security clearance — concerned he could pose a threat and slow down efforts to create a hydrogen bomb to deter Soviet aggression.

McMillan's book, which relied on personal interviews she conducted with those who worked with Oppenheimer and declassified government documents, newspaper accounts and other documents, balances the scientist's downfall with a mad rush to create bigger, more dangerous atomic weapons.

The book, however, was overshadowed by the recently released American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a Pulitzer Prize winning work by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

When asked which book — Oswald or Oppenheimer — was her strongest, McMillan always chose the latter, Johnson said.

"She loved the work of being in Los Alamos, running down secret information, interviewing [physics scientist] Edward Teller and many of those heavy hitters from the lab," she said. "She was the last person to interview many of them."

Most of the time, when visiting Santa Fe, McMillan liked to stay at La Fonda on the Plaza, which afforded her easy pedestrian access to restaurants, shops and market events. But she discovered that unlike the larger cities where she lived, Santa Fe did not offer public transportation. So she got a driver's license in Santa Fe, though she never used it, her relatives said.

"She lived in big cities and didn't see the need for a license, and she liked public transportation because she loved talking to people," Johnson said in a telephone interview. "You couldn't sit with her on a bus without her striking up a conversation with the people and you knowing the name of their grandkids when you got off the bus."

McMillan, who married and later divorced journalist George McMillan (the couple had no children), never considered living in Santa Fe, Dave Davenport said. She preferred her house in Cambridge, Mass., where she died July 7 and which often served as an intellectual gathering place for visitors.

Those people became a "chosen family," Johnson said. "She would invite anybody. She would be at the grocery store, and she would say, 'You have to come to dinner.' And you would sit down, and it could be a foreign head of state or a handyman or the neighbor across the street."

She said her aunt was reluctant to reveal much about herself, leaving much to be explored and explained.

"She never answered a question about herself," Johnson said. "Every time you asked her something, she quickly turned it around because of her curiosity about everyone else. So many people say, 'I guess she knew me better than I knew her.' "

Doenmez said her aunt joined or helped form a number of organizations calling for nuclear disarmament measures and for peaceful solutions to world conflicts. She, for one, wishes people would began seeing her as someone other than the woman who knew both Kennedy and Oswald.

"I think it's too bad she's known as the Kennedy-Oswald historian," she said. "Can't we just put that to rest and look at her contribution to world peace?"