Zapruder granddaughter reveals how 26 seconds of film changed a family's history after JFK assassination
By MICHAEL GRANBERRY | The Dallas Morning News | Published: November 17, 2016
DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — On Nov. 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder stood on a concrete abutment on what is now known as the grassy knoll and, with his Bell & Howell camera, filmed what may be the 26 most momentous seconds in cinematic history.
His 8mm home movie offers a chilling, live-action record of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Elm Street in Dallas.
Initially, it offered an investigative road map for the Warren Commission, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted as a lone assassin; in later years, it triggered a tsunami of conspiracy theories that suggest the opposite.
But what no one really knew — until now — is the impact Zapruder's film had on his own family.
With her riveting new memoir, Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film, granddaughter Alexandra Zapruder offers, as the subtitle says, "A personal history of the Zapruder film."
"It's a fascinating story, and I'm a writer and storyteller. That's the main reason," she says, for writing Twenty-Six Seconds, which yielded a deeper motive: Despite being a Zapruder, she did not grow up "with a clear understanding or knowledge of the history of the film or the relationship of the film to our family."
So, like a detective exploring an emotional terrain, she set out to find the answers.
Abraham Zapruder was a dressmaker who owned Jennifer Juniors, a shop on the edge of Dealey Plaza. He was 58 on the day the president came to Dallas. As filmmakers go, he was, in every sense of the word, an amateur. So, what allowed him to keep filming after shots rang out? How could he hold the camera so still, even with abject horror exploding in front of him?
The 47-year-old author offers more than one glimpse into the mind of her grandfather, who was, she writes, "a born musician who never had a lesson and could play by ear; he came home from work every day and sat down to play the piano before even taking off his hat." She wonders if, blessed with a better opportunity, he might have ended up "as an engineer instead of a dressmaker. He was able in so many ways."
Born in Kovel in Czarist Russia in 1905, he fled to New York when he was 15 and settled in a Brooklyn tenement, populated largely by fellow Jewish immigrants. He soon found work as a pattern maker in the city's garment industry.
He married his wife, Lillian, in 1933, and during World War II, seizing a business opportunity, the couple moved to Texas. Their son, Henry — Alexandra's father — graduated from Harvard Law School a year before the assassination. Daughter Myrna worked as a Kennedy campaign volunteer in 1960.
A JFK devotee, Zapruder loved the idea of a presidential parade passing by his office, having no clue of the surreal, spectacular fallout fate would inflict.
Filming the movie was one thing; dealing with its aftermath quite another. It tested Zapruder's ethics and Old World morality more aggressively than anything ever had, and in the words of Gerald Posner, who wrote Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, the definitive book on the subject, he could not have behaved more admirably.
"Zapruder handled himself with remarkable decency and common sense," Posner says. "Today, if you had an assassination in a public square, we'd have several dozen different films all competing. You could turn on TMZ and see the most outrageous one."
And yet, Zapruder took a nobly different path.
Dallas historian Darwin Payne, 79, then a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, found Zapruder moments after the shooting. For about an hour, he interviewed Zapruder in his office, on an upper floor of the building on the northeast corner of Elm and Houston streets.
"He was in tears much of the time," says Payne, who remembers seeing the famous camera positioned on top of a filing cabinet. He urged Zapruder to go with him to the newspaper "or some other place" to get the film developed, but he only wanted to turn it over to federal authorities.
As they spoke, the two men watched Walter Cronkite deliver the news of the shooting on television. It was then that Zapruder gave Payne an incredible quote.
"They were saying the president had been seriously injured, they didn't know his condition at the time," Payne says. "But Zapruder said, 'No, he's dead, I know he's dead! I was watching through the viewfinder, and I could see his head explode like a firecracker.' " As his adrenaline rushed, the 26-year-old Payne knew that "history was in the making, right there in front of our eyes."
Having met with Payne, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News and Bert Shipp at WFAA-TV (Channel 8), Zapruder followed Shipp's suggestion and ended up at an Eastman Kodak lab near Love Field, the only place where the color film could be properly developed. The Secret Service received two of three color prints made at the lab.
The original was sold to LIFE, which in the golden age of magazines was in its glory days. Alexandra Zapruder says her grandfather felt calmly reassured by the sheer stature of LIFE. He also liked and respected the young LIFE reporter sent to Dallas to cover the assassination aftermath. Richard Stolley scored big by not being as nakedly aggressive as his competitors, although, as Alexandra notes with a laugh, he longed to secure the rights as fervently as they did.
Posner notes that, at the time, LIFE was "the stable, aboveboard, decent magazine," one Zapruder felt would not exploit the film, which his granddaughter says was his greatest fear.
LIFE paid Zapruder $150,000, giving him six installments of $25,000 each ($150,000 in today's dollars would be more than $1 million). Posner calls it a tribute to Zapruder's character that he donated the initial payment to the widow of Dallas police Officer J.D. Tippit, whom Oswald gunned down in Oak Cliff before being captured in the Texas Theatre.
LIFE published 31 black-and-white frames in its Nov. 29, 1963, edition, bumping from its cover a college quarterback named Roger Staubach. The American public was kept from seeing the 26-second movie until 1975, when a pirated copy aired on Geraldo Rivera's ABC talk show, Good Night America.
Shock waves ensued, convincing an army of critics that what the film reveals in its starkest image is a disquieting truth. The final shot that blows a hole in the president's head had to have come from the front, they said. And if it did, they reasoned, there's no way Oswald could have fired it from a sixth-floor window well behind the motorcade.
"The fact that the general public didn't see it until 1975 is one of the reasons the conspiracies were fed," Posner says. "The film was kept away from the public, so in '75, when you see it for the first time, it does look like the president was shot from the front." Its Geraldo moment came a year after President Richard Nixon resigned in the uproar of the Watergate scandal, exacerbating fears that the government was hiding something.
But by 1993, when Posner's book was published, digital technology made it possible to dissect the film in minute detail. Using such technology, Posner says the film also serves as a frame-by-frame time clock, allowing the viewer to see that, when the final shot hits, the president's head, in the wound's initial moments, is actually thrust forward — not backward — with the bullet blowing out "the right front section of his forehead."
The technology is so persuasive, he says, that some conspiracy theorists are now left with the hollow insinuation that Zapruder's film "had to have been faked."
Without drawing a final conclusion, Zapruder's granddaughter says: "I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I guess what I would say is the people I know and respect the most believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and I'm very much influenced by that."
And yet, the film casts a shadow on the concept of "visual truth," which in her words poses the question: "How can we look at something that is supposed to have created a record of what happened and question whether or not that what we are seeing is, in fact, what occurred?"
Abraham Zapruder died of cancer in 1970 at 65, leaving the family to determine the film's destiny. Oliver Stone obtained permission to use the film in his 1991 pro-conspiracy movie, JFK. As the book reveals, the family agreed to a routine licensing fee paid by Camelot Productions, which never mentioned being an agent of Stone's.
In 1998, ownership was officially transferred to the JFK collection of the National Archives and Records Administration. The family retained all copyrights.
In 1999, a special arbitration panel of the Justice Department awarded $16 million plus interest to the Zapruder family as compensation for the government's forced acquisition of the film. In 2000, the Zapruder family donated its collection of Zapruder films and photographs, along with all copyrights of the film, to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, where Alexandra Zapruder will speak on Nov. 22.
She will share with those who come to see her how the family struggled, long after the death of its patriarch, to honor his wish that the film not be exploited while at the same time protecting the people he loved the most.
To those who criticize the Zapruders for accepting a monetary settlement, her late father offers the best response in the pages of his daughter's book: "I don't feel that our family is in a position to make an $18 million donation to the federal government."
Her father was, she writes, "in a tough spot. He wanted the government to have the film. ... He had done everything he could to behave ethically and responsibly in this regard and to avoid exploiting the film for its full value. ... I don't believe he ever wavered in his absolute conviction to deliver what he felt we owed to the American people and also to protect his own family. But accomplishing this was no easy task." She and her family figured out long ago that "the film has a life that exists way beyond our life." More than half a century later, "I just look at it and marvel."
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