(JTA) — We were sharing a pastrami sandwich and pickles at the Los Angeles landmark Canter’s Deli. 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 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 Jack Ruby 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 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.” She died in November 1992 at 83.)
“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 Oswald, President John F. Kennedy’s assassin.
Ruby was born Jacob Rubenstein in 1911 to a family of Polish-Jewish immigrants. His parents, Joseph and Fannie, were a volatile couple. Joseph was a mean and abusive drunk. Fannie suffered from mental illness and at one point was committed to an Illinois state hospital.
Their eight children had their fair share of problems, both before and after the parents separated. Ruby and three of his siblings were made wards of Chicago’s Jewish Home Finding Society and placed in foster homes for periods of time during the 1920s.
Despite their dysfunctional world, the Rubensteins kept a kosher home, observed the holidays, sent their boys to Hebrew school and attended synagogue.
Ruby idolized Chicago Jewish boxing champion Barney Ross, who later described him as a “well-behaved” youth. But others recall Ruby’s hair-trigger temper and street brawls, especially when taunted by the non-Jews in his mixed Jewish-Italian neighborhood. Ruby’s biographer, Seth Kantor, relates that as an Air Force private, Ruby once beat up a sergeant who called him “a Jew bastard.”
After World War II, Eva moved to Dallas and began managing nightclubs and restaurants. Ruby received an honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1946 and joined Eva a year later in Texas. It was in 1947 that Jack, along with brothers Earl and Sam, legally changed his 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 that Ruby was sent to Texas to run nightclubs that were fronts for illegal gambling operations.