October 18, 2018

How 486 frames transformed the Zapruder Family

“Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film” by Alexandra Zapruder (Twelve) is a wholly unique family memoir and a fascinating monograph about one of the most consequential artifacts in recorded history, the 486 frames of 8 mm color movie film that Abraham Zapruder shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

The author is Abe Zapruder’s granddaughter, and she explains how “the film,” as it was known in her family, embedded itself in her consciousness in distorting and disturbing ways. “When viewed from inside our family, the film was marginal, of little significance compared to the memory of a beloved patriarch who died too young,” she explains. “But strangers’ curiosity and prying calls from the media had a way of pushing it into view, emphasizing our family’s connection to the film in ways that were hard to ignore. … As I got older, I must have wondered about this thing called the Zapruder film: Why did people keep bringing it up if it wasn’t all that important, and what did other people know about it that I didn’t?”

For Alexandra Zapruder, then, the book started as a quest to understand the origins and exploits of her own family and the extraordinary web of mystery and conspiracy that has attached itself to the little can of Kodak film that bears her surname, which captured the moment President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. As told in “Twenty-Six Seconds,” it is a story of how one human being can be unexpectedly caught up in history and, far beyond that, carried into one of our most enduring myths.

Her account is full of little ironies and telling moments. She confirms the oft-told tale of how Zapruder left his camera behind when he set out for Dealey Plaza on that fateful day, but she also points out “just how predictable it was that he would leave the camera at home and that [his wife] Lillian would talk him into going back to get it.” 

Lillian gave all of the employees at the family’s dress company a long lunch so they could watch the motorcade, and her PA announcement is a reminder that Dallas was deeply divided over JFK on the day of his visit: “We don’t care what your religion is or your politics,” Lillian said. “It doesn’t make any difference whether you agree with him or not. He’s still the president.” 

And the author points out that her grandfather, who was watching the presidential motorcade through the zoom lens of a camera, was the first person in the world to glimpse and understand the horror that was taking place before his eyes. 

The Zapruder film was instantly elevated into the holy grail of the Kennedy assassination. Zapruder himself insisted on entering the darkroom where the “in camera” original was developed and ensured that only three copies were made. The Dallas Morning News offered to pay $200 per frame for the most horrific images. Hours later, photographers from the Saturday Evening Post offered to pay $10,000 merely for an introduction to Zapruder. 

True to the promise Zapruder had made immediately after the assassination, however, the first recipients were the Dallas Police Department and the Secret Service. Only later, and fatefully, did Zapruder meet Richard Stolley, the Los Angeles bureau chief of Life magazine, who offered the buy the rights to the much-sought-after film.

Here is the crux of “Twenty-Six Seconds.”  Zapruder literally had nightmares about the moral repercussions that would follow a sale of the film. “His childhood experiences of anti-Semitism had taught him that those who hated Jews could turn anything into a reason to attack, humiliate and shame,” the author writes of her grandfather. “What was easier for an anti-Semite than accusing a Jew of profiteering.” But she insists that the Life deal “offered him a safe harbor in a sea of sharks,” a category in which she places Dan Rather and CBS.  

“No one was going to come out of this a saint, but maybe there was a way to come out whole, moral fiber intact, liberated from the film, and maybe a little better off financially than he had been before.” To put the transaction in the best light, she reports, Zapruder donated the first  $25,000 check from Life to the Dallas Policemen’s and Firemen’s Welfare Fund for the family of Patrolman J.D. Tippit, the less celebrated of Lee Harvey Oswald’s victims. (Zapruder was paid a total of $150,000 from Life.)

She decorates her account of the Zapruder film with stories about “Mr. Zee,” as he was known to his employees, from an adjective into a flesh-and-blood human. Born in Ukraine in 1905, Abe reached New York City in 1920 and settled on Beaver Street in “Jewish Brooklyn.” By 1940, he moved his family to Dallas, where he’d been offered a position as the “inside man” at a dress manufacturing business. By 1962, he was the owner of Jennifer Juniors, where “in the beginning, he cleaned the toilets and swept the floors himself.” According to his granddaughter, Zapruder used to buy haute couture dresses from Neiman Marcus on his wife’s credit card, keep them overnight in order to take snapshots, “and then — in an impressive act of chutzpah — return the dresses for a refund before finishing the knockoffs to sell.” 

Still, “Twenty-Six Seconds” always returns to the long and strange life of the Zapruder film itself, which has included media wars, Dickensian lawsuits, the big-screen distortions of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” and even that memorable episode of Seinfeld in which “the magic bullet” becomes “the magic loogie.” Even when it comes to pure satire, in fact, the author recognizes that the satire “reflected decades of endless analysis, scrutiny, argument, and ultimately unresolved questions about the Zapruder film and the assassination,” all of which are explored in depth in her remarkable book.

So much has been written and said about the Kennedy assassination that a reader might wonder what is left to be said. In the pages of “Twenty-Six Seconds,” Alexandra Zapruder says it. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.