This is an anxious, furious, forensic contribution to the study of the assassination of US president John F Kennedy. Forensic, because Haverstick has spent a dozen years learning how to read the US National Security Archives; furious, because the subject of this work, begun as a hymn to female empowerment, turned out to be a monstrous double-agent who maims cats and poisons drinking water; anxious because, as Haverstick is at pains to point out, these forays into espionage, assassination and casual violence have taken her about as far away from her creative comfort zone as it is possible to imagine.
Haverstick is an independent filmmaker. Home, her feature starring Marcia Gay Harden, came out in 2008. Her publisher’s web page says that Home came out in 2009. There is in fact a French documentary called Home released that year. Explaining to IMDB that the “Home” I was after was a “drama” from “2008” threw up a touching French comedy, also called Home, starring Isabelle Huppert. If looking up a movie generates this amount of fuss and bother, imagine what Haverstick’s been wading through for the last dozen years. Very early on in researching the life of female aeronaut and NASA hopeful Jerrie Cobb, Haverstick was taken aside by an unaccountably friendly woman from the Department of Defense and told that Jerrie’s government paper trail was largely “classified” and not worth the bother. It’s possible that she was genuinely trying to do Haverstick a favour.
Haverstick’s subject is Jerrie Cobb, one of the “Mercury 13” — female flyers who many observers assumed would participate at some point in NASA’s space programme. Their (never official) training programme was scrubbed in September 1962. In 2009 Jerrie agreed that Haverstick should tell her story, and strongly implied that this story was bigger — much bigger — than it first appeared. What she absolutely wouldn’t do was share her story: instead the elderly Jerrie spent years dropping expertly timed clues into Haverstick’s lap as the two travelled the world on cruise ships — trips that were “exotic, stressful, exhilarating, scary, and fascinating but never exactly enjoyable”. (Much the same could be said for this book. Haverstick has a sizeable and material axe to grind, and has little time for Dealey Plaza neophytes.)
The book draws together several figures who may or may not be real people, and are anyway rarely the people they say they are, even when there’s only one of them to contend with, which is almost never. (Welcome to spycraft.) There’s Jerrie Cobb, the disappointed astronaut. There’s June Cobb, the double agent who arranged for the delivery of poison pills to US enemy number one Fidel Castro. Jerrie and June aren’t related, though they’re of an age and came from the same town — and are you thinking what I am thinking? There’s Catherine Taaffe, who’s no relation at all to Jerrie and definitely a person in her own right — only how come Jerrie bears scars from a knife wound that are supposed to belong to Catherine? And — the cherry on this teetering cake — there Wanda Baran (savour that name), a Belgian con-artist whose company suckered in communist countries looking for nuclear materials. Is Wanda June? Is Catherine Jerrie? Is Jerrie June? Well, yes. Or sometimes. Or something.
I’m being flippant only because flippancy saves space. Haverstick has over five hundred pages to explain her case — that the privately funded astronaut project we’ve come call Mercury 13 was, among other perfectly legitimate things, a cover for the case officer driving the Kennedy assassination. She needs every single one of those pages and she does not waste a line.
Did I buy into every one of her speculations and inferences? No. No-one will. This genre has form. Arguably the most successful espionage book of all time, 1976’s A Man Called Intrepid, about the adventures of Sir William Stephenson, turned out to be the melancholy fabulations of a man suffering catastrophic memory loss.
At the same time, I’m certainly not going to throw the first stone. Haverstick is in earnest here and has a memory like a filing system and a filing system like a vice. The least this book could possibly be is a compelling real-life thriller, full of passion, free of writerly fuss, woven from the most intractable archival cat’s cradle imaginable.
That’s what you’ve got, even before you think to take it seriously — and I’ll bet the farm that you will.