I swear to you that I’m not one of those Kennedy conspiracy nuts. I found Oliver Stone’s “JFK” heavy handed and highly suspect, and while I don’t necessarily accept the pronouncements of the Warren Commission as the Final Word on the subject, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about alternative theories as to who killed President Kennedy in November 1963. Still, I’ve always felt that there was more to the Jack Ruby story than met the eye. It just seemed way too convenient that Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald two days after the assassination—it smacked of getting the emotionally wrecked Oswald “out of the way.” But under whose orders? What the hell was Ruby doing in police headquarters as Oswald was being transferred to the county jail and why did he have a loaded handgun? When he was arrested at the scene of Oswald’s shooting, Jack Ruby said that he wanted to spare Jacqueline Kennedy the ordeal of appearing at Oswald’s trial. Hmmm.
Jack Ruby was clearly a shady character who probably had many underworld connections. Though initially sentenced to death for Oswald’s murder, he later met privately with Chief Justice Warren, Gerald Ford, and other members of the Warren Commission to plead his case. He said that his own safety was in jeopardy and that there was a lot more to the story than he had originally stated. If they would move him to a jail in Washington, he would feel safe enough to tell the truth. In 1966, he succeeded in getting the courts to overturn his death sentence and a new trial was arranged for February 1967. But Ruby suddenly became ill and was admitted to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, the very place where JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald were pronounced dead three years earlier. Turns out he had cancer. And a few weeks before his new trial was scheduled to begin, Jack Ruby died of a pulmonary embolism.
I could go on about my suspicions surrounding Jack Ruby, but since I’m not a conspiracy nut (honest!), I’m more interested right now in the possible connection my family may have to this guy. Here’s what happened this weekend to get me on this rant. I’ve been busy putting together an online photo archive of my family through this very cool site called SmugMug. I’ve been scanning tons of old family photographs and documents and placing them on this site for anyone in my family to access and download. My hope is that other family members will send me photos from their own collections to add to the archive so that we can create a much more comprehensive family history than any of us have individually. Among the photos I found in my possession was an image from a celebratory dinner in the mid-1950s. Here’s the photo:
There are my impossibly young parents third and fourth from the left on the side of the table closer to the camera. I don’t recognize anyone else in the photo except for my grandfather who is standing up and smiling at the camera with his arm around one of the dinner guests. Who is this guy? On the back of the photo are a few names written in my grandmother’s hand, all last names except for one: “Mr. Jack Ruby.” What? Could it be? I keep comparing the face of the man my grandfather is standing over with pictures of Jack Ruby from the time of the JFK assassination. It could be. I called my dad, as far as I know the only person in this photograph who is still alive. He remembers the event—a dinner in the mid-1950s following the grand re-opening of one of my grandfather’s Karoll’s Red Hanger Shops in Chicago. But why on earth would Jack Ruby be there? My father had no memory of meeting him, but since it was before he achieved his infamy as Oswald’s killer, why would he? I started doing some research on Ruby and realized how little I knew about him. I didn’t know he was born Jacob Rubinstein in Chicago. He changed his name to Ruby in 1947 and moved to Dallas, but his large family was still in the city. Did I mention that Ruby grew up right near my grandfather’s store at 63rd and Kedzie? Hmmm.
I logged onto the New York Times archives to look into Ruby’s background. There was no mention of Ruby in the paper prior to November 1963 but immediately after the shooting there were a bunch of articles telling of his Chicago background (he was always referred to as a Dallas strip club owner so I had forgotten the Chicago connection), his orthodox Jewish upbringing (hello?), and descriptions of his parents who came from a shtetl in Poland that was sometimes governed by the Soviet Union (just like where my family came from). He moved to Dallas in the late 40s to help his sister run a nightclub but had returned to Chicago six years before the assassination (about the time the photo of my parents was taken) to promote his new discovery, “a 12-year-old Negro boy who sang, danced, and played the piano.” I wonder who that kid was. Jack Ruby is described by his former colleagues and friends as someone with a hair trigger temper and delusions of grandeur. He is referred to as a street brawler from Chicago’s West Side Jewish “Ghetto.”
Although he was clearly no longer observant, how did I miss the fact that Ruby’s parents were orthodox Polish Jews? In the articles I found, Ruby’s siblings come to his defense. His brother Earl said that the speculation that there was some connection between Jack and Lee Harvey Oswald made him sick. “My brother is 100 percent American. No one in our family ever had any subversive ideas!” His sister echoed these sentiments. “He’s such a good Jew,” she said about Jack. “This [the shooting of Oswald] is something we don’t believe in. I don’t know what possessed him to do it.” People who worked with him painted a different picture. One described him as “neurotic and excitable at all times.” He said one of his strippers told him that Ruby had beaten her and that later Ruby had admitted he'd had the case quashed for $100. A reporter from the Dallas Morning News who knew him said Ruby was “a highly emotional man given to flashy dress and a desperate yearning for social acceptance.”
All circumstantial evidence pointed to the possibility that the man in the photo with my parents could easily be the Jack Ruby who shot Oswald. But I still hadn’t linked him to anyone directly associated with my family. I stopped reading the articles, but since I was already logged into the New York Times archives, I decided to do one more unrelated search. For some reason the person who popped into my head at that moment was the illustrious Rabbi Judah Leib Graubart from my family’s home town of Staszow, Poland. My great-grandfather, Itshe Meyer Korolnek, had brought him over soon after my family had emigrated to Toronto, and Rabbi Graubart had a brilliant career as a rabbi and scholar in Canada. Several of his children and grandchildren became famous rabbis in their own right. I’ve written about my family’s connections to the Graubarts several times and how intrigued I was that many of the ones who didn’t become rabbis went into show business including actress Judy Graubart and legendary Broadway producer Manny Azenberg who produced most of Neil Simon’s plays. As far as I knew, Rabbi Graubart had never lived in New York but maybe he was mentioned in some article about his rabbinical achievements. I put in the search and watched as one single article appeared. Here is the headline of that article:
What? Did I forgot to change my search term? Nope, the sole entry in the entirety of the New York Times archives that mentions a Rabbi Graubart was a 1967 piece about Jack Ruby’s funeral, officiated by the son of the great Toronto rabbi who was also a close friend of my family’s, Rabbi David Graubart, apparently the rabbi of Jack Ruby’s family.
What are the chances that my random search of someone I believed to be completely unrelated to Oswald’s killer would yield this article? I had no idea Ruby’s body had been flown back to Chicago to be buried in the cemetery where half my family is now interred. What kind of “coincidence” is that? Was there some memory of this connection in the deep recesses of my subconscious? Did I hear family members talking about it at the time of Ruby’s funeral when I was seven years old? To be honest, despite his dealings with the underworld, I think that Jack Ruby probably was just a small-time hustler who killed Oswald in the spur of the moment and not because he was ordered to. The mafiosos would have to be nuts to entrust someone like Ruby with the important task of silencing Oswald. But was there any connection between Oswald’s killer and my family? I’ll probably never know the answer to this meaningless mystery. Too bad I can’t recall the Warren Commission to look into it.