50 years after JFK, family of Jack Ruby feels the pain
We were sharing a pastrami sandwich and pickles at a Los Angeles landmark: Canter’s Deli on Fairfax. I was 24; she was nearly 50 years older, with a piercing voice as loud as her flaming red wig.
Her name was Eva Rubenstein Grant, and she was a little-known nightclub manager the morning of Nov. 24, 1963, when her brother Jack Ruby left the apartment they shared in Dallas and blasted his way into infamy by fatally shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. It was history’s first live televised murder.
Eva worked and lived with her younger brother and spent the rest of her life defending him against various allegations. “I swear on my life, my brother was not three things,” Eva told me, her voice rising. “He was not a homosexual; he was not with the communists; and certainly not with the underworld!”
I listened with fascination to Eva on that day in 1977. (Years later, she was perfectly portrayed in a TV movie by Doris Roberts, the high-decibel mom on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”) “But Mrs. Grant,” I said, “Jack had ties to the ‘syndicate,’ as you call it, as far back as your childhood in Chicago.”
“Look,” she replied in exasperation. “We would see these people in the neighborhood, and we’d ask, ‘How’s your mother? How’s your sister?’ But that doesn’t mean Jack was connected with them! I grew up with a bunch of boys who turned out to be no good. Who knew!?”
It was a quintessentially Jewish response, albeit delivered in Eva’s hybrid Chicago-Dallas accent. And the Rubensteins were a staunchly Jewish family, a fact that may have played a role in Ruby’s killing of President John F. Kennedy’s alleged assassin.
Ruby was born Jacob Rubenstein in 1911 to Polish-Jewish immigrants Joseph and Fannie. They were a volatile couple; Joseph was a mean and abusive drunk, while Fannie suffered from mental illness and was committed to an Illinois state hospital at one point.
Their eight children had their fair share of tzuris, both before and after the parents separated. Jack and three siblings were made wards of Chicago’s Jewish Home Finding Society and placed in foster homes for various periods of time during the 1920s.
Despite the dysfunctional world of the Rubensteins, the parents kept a kosher home, holidays were observed, the boys received some Hebrew school training and went with their father to synagogue.
Jack idolized Jewish boxing champion Barney Ross, who later described him as a “well-behaved” youth. But others recall his hair-trigger temper and street brawls, especially when taunted by the non-Jews in his mixed Jewish-Italian neighborhood.
Ruby biographer Seth Kantor writes, “In his mid-20s, he was part of a Jewish pool-hall crowd that attacked the … pro-Hitler German-American Bundist meetings. In his mid-30s, as an Air Force private, he beat up a sergeant who had called him a Jew bastard.”
At the end of World War II, Eva moved to Dallas and began managing nightclubs and restaurants. Jack got an honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1946, then joined Eva in Texas in 1947, the year he and brothers Earl and Sam all legally changed their last name to Ruby.
As a young man in Chicago, Ruby reportedly ran errands for Al Capone’s cousin and henchman Frank Nitti. A former Dallas sheriff once testified that Chicago Mafia figures told him Ruby was sent to Texas to run nightclubs that were fronts for illegal gambling operations. According to evidence uncovered by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the 1970s, Ruby was later linked to mobsters Carlos Marcello and Santo Trafficante, who the panel considered prime suspects in a possible mob conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.
Whatever he was doing behind the scenes, Ruby became known as a nightclub owner, and at some point he began attending services at Congregation Shearith Israel. Rabbi Hillel Silverman, who was the synagogue’s spiritual leader from 1954 to 1964, says, “He didn’t come regularly, but he came to say Kaddish for his father. He came to minyan one day with a cast on his arm. I said, ‘Jack, what happened?’ He said, ‘In my club, somebody was very raucous, and I was the bouncer.’ ”
Silverman (whose father, Morris, edited the Conservative movement’s siddur, and whose son Jonathan is an actor known for “Weekend at Bernie’s”) is now 89 and still leading High Holy Days services every year in the San Diego County community of Vista. His memories of Ruby remain precise. Sometimes he was peaceful and calm, but he was unpredictable,” Silverman told me recently. “He could be very volatile and belligerent at times.”
“He came to my home once with a bunch of puppies and said, ‘Take one.’ I didn’t really want a dog, but one of my kids did, so we ended up with a puppy. Then we went to Israel one summer, and I had no place to put the dog. I went to Jack’s nightclub, and the dog stayed there for a month. So Jack Ruby was my dog sitter,” the rabbi recalled, laughing.
But there was no laughter in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. “The day of the assassination, we had our regular Friday night service, which became a memorial service for the president. Jack was there. People were either irate or in tears, and Jack was neither. He came over and said, ‘Good Shabbos, Rabbi. Thank you for visiting my sister Eva in the hospital last week.’ I thought that was rather peculiar.”
Two days later, Silverman spoke to his Sunday morning confirmation class, expressing relief to the students that Lee Harvey Oswald was not Jewish, or else “there might have been a pogrom Friday night here in Dallas.” He then switched on the radio and heard that a “Jack Rubenstein” had killed the alleged assassin.
“I was shocked,” Silverman said. “I visited him the next day in jail, and I said, ‘Why, Jack, why?’ He said, ‘I did it for the American people.’ ”
I interrupted Silverman, pointing out that other reports had Ruby saying he did it “to show that Jews had guts.” The elderly rabbi sighed. “Yes, he mentioned that. But I don’t like to mention it. I think he said, ‘I did it for the Jewish people.’ But I’ve tried to wipe that statement from my mind.”
Another one of those close to Ruby who has tried, unsuccessfully, to block out most of the past is his nephew “Craig” Ruby. (He asked that I not give his real first name). His early memories are pleasant. “Uncle Jack would come to the house two or three times a year for Jewish holidays. He’d have a shot of whiskey with my dad, and most of the time, he’d give us each a silver dollar.” More impressive to Craig was Ruby’s flashy wheels. “He got a new car every other year, and he always had a nice two-door sports coupe.”Craig enjoyed going with his father to visit Ruby at his nightclub in the afternoon, before the doors would open.
Like millions of Americans, Craig watched the stunning murder of Oswald live on television, and soon afterward, he and his mother heard the name of the gunman. “Did you ever hear the expression ‘the color drained from her face’? I literally saw my mother’s face go from flesh to green,” he recalled. At age 12, that was a little freaky to watch.”
The FBI arrived that evening to interview Ruby’s brother and sister-in-law, and later stationed agents outside the house after a bomb threat was called in.
Half a century after the fact, Craig is still bitter over the dramatic effect his childless uncle’s act had on the extended family. “My dad sold off his business in order to pay for Uncle Jack’s lawyers, leaving us nearly destitute.” Given his last name, Craig was an easy target for bullies during his junior high school years in Dallas, although he remembers one gym coach who’d known Jack telling the students to leave Craig alone.
Worst of all, though, was facing Uncle Jack himself. “One Sunday, my dad insisted we go to see Jack in jail. Outside, a police car’s siren started up, and my uncle was standing there with this incredibly intense, wild-eyed look on his face, and he yelled, ‘You hear that? You hear that? They’re torturing Jews in the basement!’ That particular experience was traumatic enough to where talking about it right now, 50 years later, is turning my gut into a knot.”
Rabbi Silverman, who later testified before the Warren Commission, also vividly remembers his jailhouse visits. “In prison, he deteriorated psychologically. One time I walked in, and he said, ‘Come on, Rabbi, duck underneath the table. They’re pouring oil on the Jews and setting it on fire.’ He was quite psychotic.”
As a broadcast journalist, my initial connection to Jack Ruby’s eccentric family was through his sister Eva, who I convinced to appear on ABC’s “Good Night America” program in 1976. (The previous year, the show had made headlines by airing the Abraham Zapruder film of the JFK assassination on TV for the first time).
I visited Eva several times at her Beverly Boulevard apartment in Los Angeles, where she once gave me the last piece of stationery from Jack’s Carousel Club. She introduced me to her brothers Earl, who owned a dry cleaning store in Detroit, and Sam, who lived in the L.A. suburb of Sylmar. Sam showed me the one picture he had of their immigrant parents, as well as the rusting car Jack drove to the Dallas police station the morning he shot Oswald. In 1991, Earl allowed me to rendezvous with him in Dallas on the day he retrieved Jack’s gun, which he won after a decades-long legal battle. I later exclusively showed the weapon on television for the first time since 1963, shortly before it was auctioned off for $220,000.
The brothers also downplayed Jack’s ties to the mob. Sam leaned in close and lowered his voice, confiding, “These guys would come into Jack’s club, and you had to be nice to them, ya know.” Ironically, however, when Earl chose a place for us to meet in Dallas the day he was given Jack’s gun, he picked an Italian restaurant better known for its links to the Mafia than for its lasagna.
Some conspiracy theorists believe Ruby was ordered to silence Oswald by his organized-crime contacts. Others, who think the murder was an impulsive act, point to Ruby’s fury over an anti-Kennedy advertisement in a Dallas newspaper the morning of the president’s visit. It was paid for by a right-wing Jewish activist named Bernard Weissman, which Ruby thought put Jews in a bad light.
We will never know for sure. What Craig Ruby knows for certain is that he did not mourn his uncle’s death from cancer in 1967. His family had moved to Chicago by then. “I remember getting off the school bus on a cold January day, and saw a headline on the newsstand — ‘Jack Ruby Dead In Jail.’ I literally felt a weight lift from my shoulders. And I thought, ’Thank God it’s finally over.’ I was 15.”
As for having a connection to one of the darkest moments in American history, Ruby’s view has not changed in 50 years. “I wish to God it hadn’t happened to us.”
Steve North is a broadcast journalist with CBS News who’s been reporting on the Kennedy assassination since 1976.