Me & Lee by Judyth Vary Baker: A Review
John Delane Williams
To say that Me & Lee by Judyth Vary Baker (JVB) is a remarkable book would be an understatement. It is unique. The first five chapters are autobiographical about JVB up to the day she went to New Orleans to pursue her dream of finding a cure for cancer. The next twenty chapters, the raison d’etre for the book, addresses her New Orleans experience and what would become a life changing experience with Lee Harvey Oswald, from April 26, 1963, the day she accidentally met Oswald in a line at the post office, to November 24, 1963, the day Oswald was murdered in the basement of the Dallas Police Station. The final chapter addresses her life from Oswald’s death to the present.
The first five chapters address her life as a high school science phenomenon. Her interest in cancer was quite by accident. She bought some small tropical fish called mollies. One was pregnant and soon gave birth (mollies have live birth rather than lay eggs). She had a lump that a veterinarian thought was cancer. The molly became pregnant again, but appeared to be dying. After the fish floated to the bottom of the tank, JVB cut off the fishes head and delivered her offspring by Cesarean section. After a few months, the surviving female mollies appeared to have the same cancer as their mother. JVB was encouraged to keep accurate journals of her fish with what appeared to be hereditary cancer. She was told that she needed to get an expert opinion that the condition actually was cancer. The woman encouraging her was also the person running the local chapter of the American Cancer Society. She told Judyth to bring her fish with her to a dedication of a new critical cancer care clinic in Lakeland, Florida. Judyth was introduced to the speaker at the dedication, Alton Oschner, M.D., a recent president of the National Cancer Society, and the Director of the Oschner Clinic in New Orleans. He concurred that the fish had cancer, and encouraged Judyth to move to mammals and continue her studies. Oschner was one of the first physicians to try to prove that smoking was a cause of lung cancer. Judyth switched to mice and begun a quest to prove that cigarettes could cause lung cancer in mice. She had begun her quest to try to conquer cancer. Her science interest included extracting magnesium from sea water, a project that attracted the attention of several colleges wishing to recruit her as a student. As a junior at Manatee High School in Bradenton, she was then working on inducing fast acting cancers in mice. Her cancer research continued, and the summer after her high school graduation, she was one of 70 students selected for a National Science Foundation Institute at the Roswell Park Memorial Institute for Cancer Research in Buffalo, New York.
Judyth began her college days at St. Francis College in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Her cancer studies then included seeing if the onset of melanoma was affected by the presence of SV 40 (a monkey virus that also inadvertently had contaminated the polio vaccine). Judyth had also decided that she wished to become a nun. When her father got wind of the decision to become a nun, he immediately went to St. Francis College and forced Judyth to terminate her attendance there just before the end of the Fall semester. Through Senator George Smather’s help, Judyth entered the University of Florida the following February. A year later she would be contacted by Dr. Oschner to come to New Orleans to begin working under Dr. Mary Sherman, a cancer specialist at Dr. Oschner’s clinic, and enter medical school in the fall.
The New Orleans experience for Judyth begins on April 19, 1963, the day she arrived by bus in New Orleans; her departure took place on September 3, 1963. The four and one-halfmonths in between, plus her time back in Florida, until November 24, would prove to be the peak experiences of her life to this point. She would meet the man whom she would view as the love of her life (Lee Harvey Oswald), but also marry her previous consort (Robert Baker). The one thing that could be said is that Judyth was involved in bad timing. Her story, about New Orleans, is as she lived it and understood it. She was, after all, not yet 20, and seemingly dismissible by older persons. Yet she had the sense to save a large amount of memorabilia, such as newspaper clippings, letters, bus tickets, pay stubs, money order stubs, checking account statements, and most important to Judyth, a green glass from a package of tea that was given to her by Oswald. She also had copies of Oswald’s passport application, his pre-employment character-financial report, his application for employment through the A-1 Employment Agency in New Orleans, his time cards at Reily’s in New Orleans, and his pay stubs at Reily’s. Interestingly, a sketch of Judyth’s apartment in New Orleans was found in Oswald’s address book, and published in the Warren Commission exhibits (Ex. 18).
On April 26, 1963, she met Lee Harvey Oswald quite by accident at the post office. She’d dropped a newspaper, Oswald picked it up, and she thanked him in Russian. She was surprised to hear him speak to her in Russian as well. They struck up a friendship, but her impending marriage to Robert Baker, which would occur on May 2, precluded anything more. Baker’s long absences (he was working with offshore oil) would eventually change Judyth’s view of the situation.
It needs to be remembered that she was a 20 year old woman in a new city, recruited for her skills with fast acting cancers. The project she would work on through Dr. Oschner was with Dr. Mary Sherman; the clandestine project included David Ferrie as the person in charge of the rat labs, together with Lee Harvey Oswald, a gofer between Ferrie and Sherman with specimens. The story is as Judyth understood it; she was told things on a need to know basis. Oswald told her that his role was as a spy; he also was informed on a need to know basis. His handler was Mr. B, whom Oswald would learn, shortly before his murder, was David Atlee Phillips. Oswald served as Judyth’s handler. Judyth would learn that her role was to help produce fast acting cancers that could be delivered o kill Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro. Meanwhile, she fell in love with Oswald, whom Judyth would see as the love of her life. For a while, her husband was offshore, and the romance with Oswald bloomed. Later, her husband spent several weeks in Judyth’s apartment, fully expecting, and getting, Judyth to do her wifely duties. On one occasion, she and Oswald were taken to Antoine’s where “Sparky” Rubenstein would pick up the tab. It was many years later that she came to understand that the “nice man” Sparky Rubenstein was the same Jack Ruby who murdered Oswald in the basement of the Dallas Police Station. Then she remembered that Ruby was quite familiar with the inoculation of fast acting cancers from her conversations with him in New Orleans.
Just before Oswald was to go to Mexico to take the inoculate to be used against Castro, Judyth was forced to go back to Florida with her husband, her dreams of being a cancer researcher likely shattered by Judyth’s qualms about the ethics of using the cancers against unwitting “volunteers.” Judyth did seem to have the good will of Mary Sherman, however. Mary Sherman would be murdered in a bizarre incident in July, 1964 (See also Edward T. Haslam (2007). Dr. Mary’s Monkey. Walterville, OR: TrineDay.) I recommend Me & Lee to any open minded reader.