By Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers
(Originally Published September 14, 1970)
When Diana Oughton, dead at 28, was buried in Dwight, Ill., on Tuesday, March 24, 1970, the family and friends gathered at her grave did not really know who she was.
The minister who led the mourners in prayer explained Diana’s death as part of the violent history of the times, but the full truth was not so simple.
The newspapers had provided a skeleton of acts, Diana Oughton and two young men were killed March 6 in a bomb explosion which destroyed a townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village. Two young women, their clothes blown off, had run unharmed from the crumbling house and disappeared after showering at the house of a neighbor. It had taken police four days to find Diana’s body at the bottom of the rubble and another week to identify it.
Diana and the others were members of the violent revolutionary group known as “The Weathermen.” They had turned the townhouse into what police described as a “bomb factory.” Months later, they were all to be cited in a Grand Jury indictment as part of a conspiracy to bomb police, military, and other civic buildings in their campaign to destroy American society.
The facts were clear but the townspeople of Dwight (pop. 3086) could not related them to the Diana they remembered. Her family, too, had their own memories. Diana’s father, James Oughton, had watched her tear away from a closely-knit family and a life where beautiful and fine things were important.
Her nanny, Ruth Morehart, remembered how uneasy Diana felt about the money which set the Oughtons apart and how, when she was only six, she had asked: “Ruthie, why do we have to be rich?”
Carol, her sister, recalled the last phone call, days before Diana’s death, and the voice that asked: “Will the family stand by me, no matter what?”
Diana’s mother, Jane Oughton, wondered whether her daughter had been making the bomb that killed her.
There seemed to be many Dianas. There had been the small-town girl who had grown up with an abundance of good things in a luxurious home, superior schooling, and people who loved and encouraged her to be anything in the world she wanted to be. There had been the frothy, slightly scatterbrained student at Bryn Mawr College, the self-denying teacher in an impoverished Guatemalan market town, and finally the Diana that no one in Dwight really knew or understood–the serious closely-shorn woman whose mug shots appeared on police files in at least two cities.
Diana had never stopped loving her family, but the bomb which had accidentally killed her had been designed ultimately to kill them and their king. The revolution she would have died for would have stripped her father of his vast farmlands, blown his bank to pieces, and destroyed in a moment the name and position which had taken a century to build.
Her love of family was not the only traditional value that Diana was unable to shed. She never lost her gentleness, either, or her sense of morality; but consumed by revolutionary commitment, she became a terrorist, fully prepared to live as an outlaw and killer.
Diana wanted to destroy many things. Not only the government she detested but her class, her family, her past. Perhaps, in the end, even herself.
Now that Diana is dead, now that many memories are beginning to recall things from the past, it becomes easier to understand why she became what she did and died as she did. This account of her life is based on long and frank conversations with members of her family, with her friends, associates, teachers and acquaintances over a period of several weeks. Some of the sources were young people involved in the radical movement. Some, to judge from the mysterious way in which they contacted the writers of this article and their steadfast refusal to give their names, were clearly fugitives from the law.
The world that Diana Oughton grew up in was a world of spacious, elegant homes, sweeping lawns, the best schools and an ancestry of distinguished and monied men.
One of Diana’s great grandfathers had founded the Boy Scouts of America. Another built the Keeley Institute, the first home for alcoholics to treat the condition as a disease. Her father, James Oughton, a graduate of Dartmouth College, served in the Illinois legislature from 1964 to 1966. His holdings, which make him one of the wealthiest men in the state, include 6,000 acres of corn and soybeans, 100 heads of cattle, several farmhouses, a restaurant, and part ownership of the family bank in Dwight.
Diana was born January 26, 1942, in a town where her family had been prominent for decades. The Oughtons paved the village streets of Dwight, built the waterworks, furnished land for the schools and athletic fields. Townsfolk still talk of the 1869 visit to Dwight by King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, who shot wild turkey and planted a tree on the Oughton estate. They remember the Rolls Royces which filled the driveways of the Keeley Institute before it closed a few years ago; the wealthy and famous people who came for the “Keeley Cure,” a rest, and feasts of pheasant and venison in the tapestry-lined banquet hall.
Diana grew up as a farm girl, huntress and horsewoman. She hunted pheasant and was the best shot in the family, drove the tractor through the cornfields at harvest time, was an active member of the local 4-H Club and once, as a child, cried for hours when she found a dead bird and was told it could not be brought back to life.
She was close to her 3 younger sisters–Carol, now 26 and a television writer; Pamela, a 24-year-old housewife; and Deborah, 17, a senior at the Madeira school.
Her father, a handsome, well-read gentleman who is nearly blind from a hereditary ailment, and her mother, Jane, tall and gracious, liked to keep the dinner conversations lively and encouraged their children to discuss at home what they learned in school.
The Oughton estate is a landmark in Dwight. On one side sits the huge, brick, tudor-style home with swimming pool, deer park and small vegetable garden where the family gets the first corn of the season. On the other side there is a lodge full of antiques, a full suit of armor and tapestry, and a restaurant which serves superb prime beef and homemade strawberry shortcake. Behind the lodge and the family home there is a wood studded with trees imported from the orient and an old woodmill which can be seen miles away.
As a child, Diana was easygoing and helpful. “She never fussed or demanded this and that like most kids,” said Ruth Morehart, the family cook and nanny for 21 years. “She didn’t ask why, she just did what she was told.”
Diana’s childhood was sheltered and her upbringing strict. “The Oughtons never let the kids run around,” Ruth said. “Diana was not allowed to do a lot of things other children were. If she went someplace it was usually with her mother and father.”
Her family’s multi-million dollar fortune made Diana feel a bit different from her schoolmates. They used to call her “Miss Moneybags”–a hurt which she remembered, and sometimes mentioned to friends, until her death. Several of Diana’s teachers in high school rented their homes from her father. She sometimes wondered whether the good grades she got were entirely based on her work.
Once, when she was only 6, she came to her nanny and said, “ruthie, why do we have to be rich?”
A few years later, a school friend who lived in a poor section of Dwight was sent away by her family to live with a grandmother. Diana came to her father in tears. “Why can’t we be ordinary like them?” she asked.
As Diana grew older she took a dislike for frilly clothes, for dressing up and going to parties. She was not a child who often asked for new things and she never made out birthday lists. Sometimes, she gave her allowance to her sisters; although they all got the same amount, Diana always used to have some left at the end of the week.
Diana’s parents were both Episcopalian but since Dwight had no Episcopal church Ruth Morehart took Diana to the Congregational Church. She was eventually confirmed but later grew away from religion altogether. In Guatemala after graduating from college, Diana was teased by her father for being “an atheist Congregationalists working for a Quaker organization under the direction of Catholic priests.”
At 14, Diana left Dwight for the first time, to finish her high school years at the Madeira School in Greenway, Va. There she mixed with the daughters of rich and prominent families, and often spent weekends at the homes of the Rockefellers. The days of Connecticut and Madeira were what Diana had always known: green rolling grounds, manicured gardens, picnics by the lake, people of her own background. They were the kinds of places where it was important to wear Lanz dresses and McMullin blouses, where having an ambassador for a father was a ticket to popularity, where scholarship students wanted to keep that fact a secret. Diana went to football games, and happily did all the things a Madeira girl did. In her senior years, she was accepted by all of the seven sister colleges and decided on Bryn Mawr.
When Diana walked onto the suburban, spreading campus of Bryn Mawr just outside Philadelphia in the Fall of 1959 she was a tall, bony girl with short blonde hair and long aristocratic hands. A midwestern Republican, she was against Social Security, Federal banking regulations and everything else which smacked of “liberalism” or “big” government. In 1960, she supported Richard M. Nixon against John F. Kennedy. She ardently defended her father’s ownership of tenant farms in Lickskillet, Ala., since sold, arguing that he treated his tenants well and fairly.
During her first year, Diana was known as a lighthearted girl, always clowning around, and the kind of person you came to if you wanted to be cheered up. She never was scholarly and studied reluctantly, but still managed to get A’s and B’s. At examination time she would entertain with caviar and sour cream and then memorize her notes on the way to the test. To force herself to get up in the morning, she sometimes wrapped three alarm clocks in newspaper and placed them across the room beneath a sign that read, “Get Up, You Bitch!”
If there was a Princeton or Yale weekend, Diana was always on the bus, sometimes having arranged dates with two different boys.
“It wasn’t that she was particularly beautiful,” said one man who knew her. “She had a round face, and a funny nose but she was so sharp and kind of glowing that everyone fell half in love with her.”
Back home in Dwight, she was the pride of the family. James Oughton pointed to Diana as an example for her sisters and took keen pleasure in her quick mind and her ability to grasp and understand ideas long after others were still absorbing them.
In 1961, when she was 19, Diana went off to Germany to spend her junior year at the University of Munich. Living with a German family, she immersed herself in the culture and picked up the language quickly. She spent time learning different dialects so she could talk to any German she might meet, whether a Bavarian beer garden owner or a Swiss-German businessman.
Diana made close friendships with German students and would sometimes remain late into the night at the student cafes, discussing over cigarettes and coffee the special problems in the United States which she later was to feel could be solved only by violence.
Her letters to her parents were filled with accounts of people she met and their conversations. She talked of the crush she had on a Romanian refugee, “My new unreachable–wonderfully conscientious, melancholy and romantic.”
She described how happy she felt when strangers were warm and king, how she had taken candy to a German woman who had picked up some books which dropped from her bicycle.
She spoke of conversations with a German boy, Peter: “He said something which made sense. He said the trouble with America was it had lost its pioneer spirit…it put women in the wrong place and they were becoming neuter. Hurrah for socialism!”
While in Germany, the 19-year-old Diana began to develop a new consciousness of her country, its people and its problems. When she met some relatives in Rome toward the end of her stay, she suddenly saw them in a different light although she had known them since childhood.
“I just sat wide-eyed and listened,” she said in a letter to her parents in the spring of 1962, a few months after her 20th birthday. “I didn’t know people like that existed. She (the relative) doesn’t like anyone who hasn’t a proper pedigree…talking about poor me surrounded by all these German peasants, that Nuremberg was the center of world Communism. I was amazed.”
Politics were still incidental to Diana’s life, however. She had not yet started the slow process of radicalization which would make her a revolutionary. She was still a fun-loving college girl, gay and confident. She began her letters to her parents with “Mes Chers Parents” and closed them “Muchest love, me.” She refused to wear glasses out of admitted vanity and had trouble spotting people more than a few yards away. She was casual and scatterbrained and once made special trip to Wurttemburg only to blurt out when she got there, “My God, I’ve seen this castle before.”
Diana’s senior year at Bryn Mawr in 1962-63 was a year of change for young people throughout the country. John F. Kennedy’s promise in 1960 to “get the country moving again” had ended once and for all the silence of the fifties. Young people began to think about America and found it fell short of what they had always been taught to believe it was. They went on freedom rides in the South, joined voter registration projects and picketed stores which discriminated against negroes. Students at fashionable schools like Bryn Mawr talked about social justice and racial prejudice and turned away from deb parties and champagne in the back of a fast car.
During the same period, a kind of genteel bohemianism was becoming fashionable in the colleges. Diana was among the small advanced class of students, inspired by the beatniks of the 1950s, who grew their hair long and traded their shirtwaists and circle pins for sandals and suede jackets.
A book which made a deep impression on thousands of white students was John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me,” an account of a trip the author made through the deep South disguised as a negro. Diana was strongly affected by it and joined a project in Philadelphia to tutor black ghetto children.
Although tutors were supposed to be limited to one child each, Diana soon had three. She took a train from Bryn Mawr into the city two days a week and spent more and more time with the children she was helping. There are few negroes in Dwight; there was only one in her class at Bryn Mawr. Inevitably, the Philadelphia ghettos began to show Diana that the prosperous tranquility of Dwight was not the rule in America.
On one occasion, she told her sister Carol how amazed she was that seventh grade children could not read.
Like thousands of other students touched by the new mood in the country, Diana often spent long evenings discussing what was wrong and how to make it right. She began going out with what one friend called “sad-souled men” and showed less interest in the Princeton football players who still came to see her. She shunned college mixers and proms and listened to Joan Baez albums by the hour.
At graduation, she was listless about commencement activities and more embarrassed than pleased by the elaborate party given by her parents in a Philadelphia hotel.
The message beneath Diana’s picture in her college yearbook read: “The milkmaid from Dwight who’s always on a diet…traveler far and wide but never knows where she’s been…loves Bryn Mawr but has never spent a week-end here.”
Those who knew her best saw qualities emerge in Diana during those four years which were not described in the yearbook. Beneath the frothy exterior, there was an increasingly serious, somewhat troubled young woman who was gradually growing away from the protected and privileged world of her childhood.
This post is the first in a five-part series, originally published by United Press International on September 14, 1970, for which Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Read Part Two HERE.