President Lyndon Johnson shaking hands with Marty Underwood during
the swearing-in ceremony for Marvin Watson as postmaster general, 26
April 1968. Still photo courtesy of the LBJ Library.
By Max Holland
On October 28, Bloomsbury USA published Brothers in Arms, Gus Russo’s second book on the Kennedy assassination, co-authored with Stephen Molton. The book came well-blurbed, with Diane McWhorter, Joe Califano, and Daniel Schorr singing its praises.
Bloomsbury’s press release boasted that Brothers in Arms contained “explosive new information” about the role of Castro’s Cuba in the assassination. One of the specific disclosures was advertised as coming from “deathbed interviews” of Marty Underwood, “one of LBJ’s closest confidantes, a man who also was in charge of Johnson’s international security arrangements.” At LBJ’s behest, Underwood allegedly went on a secret mission to Mexico City in 1968 to find out what the CIA really knew about Cuban involvement in JFK’s assassination. Underwood’s “revelations, supported by his contemporaneous notes, reveal a shocking truth that was too dangerous to be disclosed . . . until after his passing.”
Next month, Washington Decoded will review Brothers in Arms in full, and examine all its allegations in light of the available evidence. This month is devoted solely to the backstory about Marty Underwood’s shocking truth.
If it weren’t so pathetic, the backstory might actually be amusing.
Death of a President and Birth of a Fabricator
Underwood’s penchant for telling tall tales first became evident in 1967, with publication of William Manchester’s The Death of a President.
Manchester interviewed Underwood on June 21, 1965 for the book, which was originally envisioned as the Kennedys’ authorized account of the assassination. How and why Manchester came to interview Underwood, who was the advance man for only the Houston leg of the Texas trip, is not precisely known. The advance men for the Fort Worth and Dallas legs, Jeb Byrne and Jack Puterbaugh, were not interviewed, although their recollections would seem to have been even more valuable to Manchester’s narrative. The only plausible explanation for why Byrne and Puterbaugh were ignored is that Manchester believed Underwood was present during the devastating aftermath, in particular, the moment when Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One.
But Underwood was not there.
Manchester put Underwood on the airplane, and even identified him in the iconic picture of the swearing-in that was taken by White House photographer Cecil Stoughton.
The spectators who were to be framed in Stoughton’s lens were a lopsided group. [Presidential physician George] Burkley stood behind someone else . . . there were [press secretary Mac] Kilduff and his two pool reporters [Newsweek’s Charles Roberts and UPI’s Merriman Smith]. There was [Martin] Underwood, and there were three Kennedy secretaries—Evelyn [Lincoln], Mary [Gallagher], and Pam [Turnure]—each of whom was led in by Jack Valenti and Lem Johns.
It was conceivable, of course, that Manchester made this mistake on his own, because The Death of a President had more than its share of factual mistakes. But another passage in the book made it clear that the source of the false claim had to be Underwood himself.
According to this passage, Underwood was sound asleep in Houston’s Rice Hotel, 600 miles [sic] away, when the shots were fired in Dallas. In the mistaken belief that he was an important part of the presidential entourage, the hotel’s staff roused Underwood out of bed and rushed him to the airport, where he just managed to catch a scheduled flight to Dallas. “Afterward [Underwood] would have only the haziest recollection of how he had got there . . . . He was nowhere near as important as the Rice management had thought him to be. Except as a dazed witness to the upcoming [swearing-in] ceremony he was useless.” 
Not only was Underwood not captured in Stoughton’s famous picture—nor in any of the 21 stills made immediately before, during, and after the ceremony—Underwood was not even on board the airplane, as a manifest prepared by the Secret Service in February 1964 proves. Manchester was deceived by Underwood, who in his spare time actually studied and collected information about how con men operated, according to Jeb Byrne, one of his advance team colleagues from the 1960s. One of the lessons Underwood learned, apparently, was how to construct a lie out of a kernel of truth. In this instance, Underwood did actually rush from Houston to Dallas. But he returned to Washington aboard Air Force Two, not the airplane carrying a new president and the body of John F. Kennedy.
Among his peers, Underwood, who was divorced for a second time in 1962, had a reputation even back then for embellishing his peripheral role as an advance man, always making him more central to events than he was. When queried about why Underwood inserted himself in this iconic moment, Harold Pachios, who worked alongside Underwood as an advance man in the 1960s, recalled in October 2006 that Underwood was a “lonely guy who battled a drinking problem . . . and wanted to be important.”
Putting himself aboard Air Force One, at a moment of national trauma, would not be Underwood’s last fabrication, and far from his worst. In the years to come, he would hoodwink two of the biggest names in American journalism.