The Umbrella Man Speaks

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I wrote a little about Louie Steven Witt this week. It was supposed to be only in passing, but I got sucked into the story, and I never have enough room, anyway. The 200 words or so I anticipated evolved into several paragraphs, and so on.

Witt is an obscure figure, without even a Wikipedia page, although his name pops up from time to time. If I had the desire, I could probably dig a little deeper into his biographical details, figure out a few more things, but I can’t find that desire. He died three years ago, at the age of 90, leaving less of a footprint than a footnote. Louie Steven Witt, to use his words, was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I like this guy. His one moment in the spotlight came in a brief testimony before a Congressional committee in 1978, where he was a pleasant and articulate, but reluctant, witness to history, and the answer to a big mystery.

The mystery is what’s interesting here. That, and Witt’s reluctance. It led me to ponder all sorts of things, that reluctance.

The where and when of Mr. Witt’s brush with celebrity was November 22, 1963, and Dealey Plaza. A 39-year-old businessman, Witt seems to have considered himself relatively apolitical, although if pressed he’d generally line up with a conservative philosophy. He also considered the current president, John Kennedy, to line up for the other side. Again, he didn’t seem to have much passion either way.

He’d recently learned that some protesters had heckled the president by waving black umbrellas at him at some event. The black umbrella had been a symbol back in the late 1930s, a trademark of former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and often used to represent Chamberlain’s ill-advised Munich agreement with Adolph Hitler, and just generally the concept of appeasement. Since JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, had been the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain around that time, and had expressed several times his agreement with the Munich pact and his general feeling that the Nazis were going to overrun Europe and that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea, the elder Kennedy got his share of umbrella shaming. As did, apparently, his son. Sins of the father, etc.

It’s hard to look at this scene from Witt’s perspective, although there’s no way to understand it if we can’t. He knew the president was coming to downtown Dallas that day, sometime and somewhere, although he didn’t know the details. It never occurred to him that history was waiting in the wings, about to make a bloody entrance. He just tended to take a walk every day at lunchtime, and he usually had a black umbrella with him in case it rained.

Louie Witt decided to have a little fun with his president, then. It was a sunny day, but he grabbed his umbrella and took off, thinking that he might wave it around if he got a glimpse of Kennedy’s motorcade. Just to poke a little fun, be a little partisan, maybe get under Kennedy’s skin a little. He’d heard that the Kennedy family could get irritated at the umbrella thing, and its implication with regard to Papa Joe.

So he ended up on Elm Street, sitting down on what became known as the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza. It wasn’t nearly as crowded with onlookers as other downtown streets, and when he glimpsed the motorcycles turn the corner he found a clear spot in the sidewalk for his display of civics. He might have noticed the man slightly behind and above him with a movie camera. None of this was a big deal.

And as Kennedy’s car approached him, Witt opened the umbrella and raised it above his head, spinning it slightly to draw the president’s eye. Which is when he heard the sound. Boom boom boom.

Gunshots. Sirens. Screams. In all the excitement, Witt had no real idea of what just happened, only that it was bad. He sat down for a few minutes, almost in shock, and then made his way back to the office, where he learned more details. Eventually he went home and became just another stunned American, watching the relentless TV coverage, birthing the modern era of broadcast journalism.

And he remained this way, anonymous, unnoticed, an inadvertent witness to history, standing only a few feet away. No one knew, no one cared, and he spent the next 15 years liking it that way.

I knew part of this story. I intended to just mention it in my column as a way to bring up the assassination, and the expected release tomorrow of thousands of previously-sealed government  documents. It occurred to me that I might do a little explainer for those who didn’t pay attention, didn’t know, maybe didn’t understand. I had never been an assassination buff, but I went through a couple of years reading a few books and articles, trying to figure out what I thought about this historical mystery.

I have few personal memories of this, by the way. I was 5 years old, and what I remember has been recalled so many times it’s only a shadow of a shadow, not true memories. I grew up in the aftermath, when the assassination was bundled into a romance, an inspirational leader cut down in his youth, just as he was…

Yeah. Nobody knows. This is what I mean about perspective. Knowing what would happen is deadly to understanding what it actually was. I was fascinated with the Kennedy story for years, until I’d learned as much as I could and eventually shrugged it off. He was president for less than three years, with good stuff and not so good. His presidency, even being generous, was primarily remarkable for the way it ended.

But I knew stuff. And then I learned more.

Witt became a cameo in the most famous frames in history. Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film, unseen by most for a decade after Kennedy’s death, is now easily available to examine. Around frame 190, when Kennedy is waving and then briefly disappears behind a street sign before emerging, clearly shot, we can see Witt’s umbrella. Still photos from the moment show him plainly, an incongruous sight on a bright, sunny day, raising an umbrella over his head at the exact moment that gunshots rang out.

And nobody knew. He was never identified, or questioned, but he was noted, you betcha. Questions about the details of the assassination were raised immediately, and especially a year later following the release of the Warren Commission’s report. It became the gold standard for conspiracy theories, and there were a bunch of them, including a subset focused on The Umbrella Man. Was it a signal to the assassin(s)? Was it, in fact, the actual weapon used, some sort of James Bond-ish secret-agent device?

In 1978, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations began holding hearings, The Umbrella Man began cropping up, and news eventually reached Mr. Witt, until that time uninterested in the subject and remarkably unaware of the mystery around his actions on that day. He laid low for a while, hoping it would all go away, but eventually contacted the committee. I’m the guy, he told them, and reluctantly agreed to tell his story.

It’s a fascinating story, to me. The transcript of Witt’s testimony shows an articulate, ordinary American businessman in his mid-50s, still somewhat embarrassed by his intended moment of civic mischief years before, and his horror at the speculation over its supposed significance. He was just goofing around, in the wrong place and at the wrong time, as he said.

It wasn’t insignificant, actually. It gives us insight into human psychology, and the way certain minds can extrapolate motives and malice from innocent acts at interesting moments. The Umbrella Man is featured in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, “JFK,” in fact, a brief glimpse of the opening umbrella, another puzzle piece that Stone threw into the mix, just to mess with us. It’s an excellent film but a hodgepodge of theories and fantasy, and it inspired an act of law that led us to tomorrow, when the archives are opened.

I don’t think we’re going to learn anything new, not tomorrow and not for a long time, if ever. I suspect what we already know (those of us with an interest) will be confirmed, that U.S. intelligence agencies knew more about Lee Harvey Oswald than they let on at the time. We may also get some insight into a cover-up of sorts, spurred by panic among politicians that, if links to, say, Cuba were discovered, Americans would demand war. Military action against a Soviet Union ally would likely expand and tempt holocaust; this is a basis for the rush to judgment, the flawed Warren Report, the public dismissal of conspiracy.

I’m agnostic on the subject. I think it’s possible Oswald acted alone. I think it’s possible he had help, known or unknown to him. I think it’s possible he was, in his words, a patsy. I think it’s possible that organized crime of the era, particularly New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello (known as The Godfather, in case you didn’t know that), had something to do it. I can’t rule out a Cuba connection.

I mostly think it will just remain a mystery. I have another story about this, about me and about the mystery, but maybe tomorrow. I just thought the umbrella part was interesting, as was Louie Steven Witt, and the idea that a witness to history could remain silent, and unknown, preserved forever in the corner of a film frame. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong everything.

Chuck SigarsComment