When Abraham Zapruder entered Dealey Plaza with his 8mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic camera on November 22, 1963, the 58-year-old amateur film buff hoped to record President John F. Kennedy’s limousine as it rolled through downtown Dallas.
Zapruder was one of 32 people (not counting broadcast news camera crews) filming the motorcade that day, but the 26.6 seconds of footage captured from his near-perfect vantage point documented the president’s assassination. It became what is now known as the Zapruder Film, one of the most scrutinized and significant documents in the history of visual media.
At the time of his death in 1970, the man who’d endured nearly a decade of media scrutiny, infamy and morbid curiosity had no understanding of himself as the forefather of citizen journalism. But in a new book, Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film, his granddaughter, historian and author Alexandra Zapruder, seeks to humanize her grandfather and to share her family’s mixed feelings about becoming the accidental stewards of one of the most compelling and contentious artifacts in contemporary American history.
In anticipation of her talk at the 26th Annual MJCCA Book Festival on November 9, Zapruder spoke to ArtsATL.
ArtsATL: You were an infant when your grandfather Abraham Zapruder died, but he loomed large throughout your life.
Alexandra Zapruder: The main reason was that he was my father’s father and a very beloved person in the family. I really felt his absence very keenly. Of course, there was also the Zapruder film, and as I grew up I became aware that he was famous for having taken the film . . . for which he’d gotten a lot of notoriety. That intrigued me when I was a young child.
ArtsATL: How is your granddad remembered in your family?
Zapruder: He was remembered as a very funny, quirky, eccentric person. My grandfather was a Russian immigrant who came to the United States at the age of 15 with nothing. He learned English at night and became a dressmaker. He felt deeply American in the way that immigrants often do. He didn’t take it for granted and conveyed that in everything he did. He passed on the Jewish, progressive values that his parents had passed on to him: working for social justice, being on the right side of racial issues and issues of equality. He had an enormous number of interests, was curious about the world and something of a social observer. He loved gadgets . . . loved to fix things around the house.
ArtsATL: Why is your grandfather’s film considered one of the most important documents in the history of visual media?
Zapruder: Even though he was a home movie-maker and an amateur, he had been taking home movies since 1934 and had a very good camera set on full zoom. He tried out a number of different spots, and ended up standing on a four-foot-high parapet so he had a very good view of the motorcade making its turn onto Elm Street. Part of the reason why the film shows as much as it does is because of where he was standing and the fact that he didn’t drop the camera but managed to keep the images in the frame. The film tells the whole story of this turning point in American history. You see the president and first lady smiling and waving, and within half a minute, it’s all over. There’s something very powerful, compelling and deeply, deeply sad about it that draws people back to it again and again.
ArtsATL: What wordless lessons were passed on to you by your elders concerning the appropriate response when strangers would ask about what we now know as the Zapruder Film?
Zapruder: The most important lesson was about discretion. We didn’t tend to talk about the film in the family because it was very painful for all of the adults. But when it came up, or when there was an explicit lesson to be handed down, it had to do with being respectful to the Kennedy family and recognizing that our association with this history is their family’s tragedy. It was not something to brag about, call attention to or treat lightly or casually. It was a serious responsibility. Not understanding the history, as a child, you could be a little thrilled by the idea of being famous and not understand the extenuating circumstances of that notoriety.
ArtsATL: How long did it take LIFE magazine editor Richard Stolley to find your grandfather following President Kennedy’s assassination?
Zapruder: Richard Stolley was in Los Angeles when [the shooting] happened. He and another reporter flew to Dallas immediately, and their flight took off shortly after they learned the president had died. [Stolley] found out about my grandfather within hours of landing in Dallas, and tracked him down at home late Friday night . . . at around 10 or 11:00.
ArtsATL: Did your grandfather have counsel when negotiating the sale of his footage?
Zapruder: He didn’t have a lawyer with him [when the sale was finalized on Saturday morning in the offices of his dressmaking manufacturing company], but the attorney he spoke with while the film was being developed on Friday advised him to have the technicians sign affidavits that stated that the film had not been cut, mutilated or altered in any way . . . which was a pretty wildly prescient thing to think of. Whatever guidance he was given, the attorney was thinking: this could be important, and we want to make sure that people don’t later question how it was processed. For the sale of the print rights [for $50,000], my grandfather handled himself. The sale of the moving picture rights [also acquired by LIFE magazine for an additional $100,000], which followed two days later, was done with an attorney: Sam Passman, a close family friend.
ArtsATL: What were the moral considerations Abraham had to reconcile before selling his footage to LIFE magazine?
Zapruder: The first thing he insisted upon was getting a copy to the Secret Service — who requested a copy of the film — leaving my grandfather with the original copy and all the rights. He didn’t want the film and was being hounded by the media. On some level, he knew he had to get rid of it. But he was really troubled by the question of selling the film because he was worried that it might be exploited if the news media got a hold of it. He felt LIFE magazine was a respected and beloved publication and could be trusted. He took several steps to try and balance financial gain with the moral considerations. First and foremost, the contract stipulated that LIFE magazine would treat the film with decency and good taste. Second, he required that LIFE defend the copyright to the film [accept responsibility for how it was being used]. Finally, he gave the first installment of $25,000 to the widow of J.D. Tippit, the police officer who’d been killed by [Lee Harvey] Oswald in the Texas Theatre. As someone who was very poor and had had a very difficult upbringing, I think it was difficult for him to walk away from the money. But he also wanted to make sure that he conducted himself decently.
ArtsATL: Copyright of the film has been transferred to and from your family more than once. Can you give me a timeline from 1963 to 2017?
Zapruder: On Monday, November 25, 1963, LIFE magazine purchased the original film and all rights. In April of 1975, LIFE magazine returned the film to our family. In 1978, my family deposited it for safekeeping at the National Archives with the stipulation that the Zapruder family was entitled to fair reimbursement as owners of private property taken by the Government for public use. In 1992, with the passage of the JFK Act, the federal government required all assassination records to be made available to the American public. In 1997, the Government took the film from our family. In 1999, the Government resolved the question of just compensation for the film [$16 million]. In 2000, our family donated the rights to the film to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, Texas.
ArtsATL: Violence has become so normalized in American culture that I doubt people under a certain age can grasp the trauma of witnessing an assassination unfold on film. Do you believe there’s a difference in how people of your parents’ generation might regard this film when compared with someone born in 1995?
Zapruder: It’s not just that actual violence has been normalized, but that violence in film, television, video games and different formats has been conflated with real violence. I don’t think young people today experience the film in anything like the way people did in 1963. Back then, there had never been anything like it. It was just unbelievably shocking. There was something both compelling and almost toxic about it. People wanted to see it, but when people found themselves responsible for it, there was no way to handle it that was really consistent with the norms of the day. [The Zapruder Film] ended up causing problems for people who wanted access to it and couldn’t get access . . . and people who were responsible for it didn’t know what to do with it. It was very fraught, to say the least.
ArtsATL: How did bearing witness to such a violent act impact your grandfather?
Zapruder: I think there were reverberating emotional consequences for him. But it would not have been characteristic of him to have gotten any kind of treatment or help. I think he probably just endured it as best he could, but suffered as a result. . . . He had nightmares and dreaded the anniversary of the assassination. He didn’t really like to talk about it. He lost his passion for taking home movies.
ArtsATL: Has the broadcast and viewing of graphic depictions of violence been to the benefit or detriment of society?
Zapruder: I think it’s both . . . but where we are evolving is sometimes very distasteful. We are a free and open society, so the price we pay for that freedom is that things are going to be published that are very, very ugly. But I don’t want to live in a closed society either. You have to have some individual restraint — have your own set of values about what you do and don’t look at. I think, for example, that there is no virtue in seeing the beheading of a journalist by ISIS. I think it’s disrespectful to the victim. For me, I think it’s participating in the act of terrorizing myself and our country. I think it’s an act of protest to say there are limits for me about what I do and don’t consume in terms of information and news. It’s very, very problematic when you get into the lives of children who don’t have fully developed ideas about what they should and shouldn’t see and stumble on things you’d rather they didn’t see. But this is where our society has ended up . . . a place that my grandfather certainly couldn’t have imagined.
ArtsATL: Given your family’s inclination to downplay their connection to such a painful chapter in American history, did you have reservations about writing Twenty-Six Seconds?
Zapruder: Yes. I had a lot of reservations about it. I was going against the prevailing culture in my family, and I adored my father, and he wasn’t alive to give his blessing. I worried about not being defensive of my family or being an apologist. But this is a story that’s worth coming to terms with for myself and my family. There was no narrative about this . . . we didn’t have a story that we inherited about the film, and I understand why. But I also felt it was important for there to be a narrative at this stage.