TWENTY-SIX SECONDS: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF THE ZAPRUDER FILM
By Alexandra Zapruder
Twelve, $27, 463 pages
For more than 50 years, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has weighed heavily on those who lived through that somber time. In “Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film,” Alexandra Zapruder recounts how her grandfather, Abraham Zapruder, filmed the Kennedy assassination with his movie camera and how the film affected the nation and became an albatross to her family.
Abraham Zapruder was an American success story. He was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States at the age of 15. He built a business as a dress manufacturer in Dallas, Texas. He had taken up filming home movies in the 1930s.
On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Zapruder arrived at his office without his Bell and Howell 414 PD Director Series movie camera. His employees goaded him into going home to retrieve it.
Mr. Zapruder moved about Dealey Plaza looking for a spot from which he could film President Kennedy’s motorcade. He climbed up on a four-foot-high concrete abutment. One of his employees held him steady as he suffered from vertigo.
As the president’s motorcade made its way through Dealey Plaza en route to the Dallas Trade Mart, Abe Zapruder activated the camera’s telephoto lens and captured 26 seconds (486 frames) of film — the only motion picture of the assassination of President Kennedy.
Immediately following the assassination, Mr. Zapruder had three copies made. He saw it as his duty to aid the Secret Service on its investigation. Over the weekend following the assassination, numerous media outlets tried to buy the film. Journalists interested in purchasing it were offered an opportunity to view it, provided they agreed not to disclose its contents.
Dan Rather of CBS viewed the film, and in violation of the promise not to report on it, rushed to the studio of Dallas CBS affiliate KRLD and immediately went on the air and reported what he had seen. Ms. Zapruder explains how he got the story wrong.
Richard Stolley of Life magazine, who was the most polite and applied the least pressure on Abe Zapruder, won the bidding war, purchasing the film for $150,000, which was paid in several installments. Mr. Zapruder donated $25,000 to the family of J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed by Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as he fled.
Life immediately scrapped its planned issue and ran a cover story on the Kennedy assassination. It published exclusive photos of the Zapruder film. There was internal debate at Life whether to publish frame 313, which showed the fatal shot to Kennedy’s head. A year later, when the Warren Commission issued its findings on the Kennedy assassination, Life published photos of the Zapruder film, this time it included frame 313.
While the sale of the film happened quickly, the impact of the film remained with Abe Zapruder until his death in 1970. He had frequent nightmares of a Times Square huckster selling tickets to see the president of the United States killed on the big screen. Mr. Zapruder was a supporter of the president and was reluctant to do anything to inflict more pain on the Kennedy family.
In 1975, Life sold the film to the estate of Abraham Zapruder for one dollar. From this time to the late 1990s, the film and its copyright was managed by an entity known as JMH, taken from the initials of his heirs. JMH licensed the use of the film for broadcast, including Oliver Stone’s controversial film “JFK.” Copies were made available free to students and researchers.
Alexandra Zapruder’s book is subtitled a “personal history,” however, that should not be confused with subjectivity. The author delved into many sources and she asked questions that uncovered new facts that makes the book a contribution to Kennedy assassination history
Life magazine gave Ms. Zapruder broad access to its archives. Many family friends who know the struggles her grandfather and her father had with the film. She also discusses the impact the film had on generations of conspiracy theorists and its status as a cultural touchstone. She notes that a parody of the Zapruder film in an episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld” was the only thing associated with the film that made her father laugh.
It is rare to find a book like “Twenty-Six Seconds” that uncovers new information about one of the most tragic events in American history and presents it with straightforward prose.
Ms. Zapruder clearly reports historical events and facts and then deftly switches to a first-person narrative to discuss how these events affected her family and how decisions regarding the film were made.
“Twenty-Six Seconds” is also an intelligent examination of the changing media landscape, sudden notoriety, and its aftermath, and the opportunity to sell a unique object of value. Today, instant fame and money are virtues. To the close-knit Zapruder family, they were choices to be carefully considered.
• Kevin P. McVicker is vice president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Virginia.