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How the Zapruder Film Came to LIFE

8 minute read
Richard B. Stolley

‘Dick, Kennedy’s been shot in Dallas!’ I was in my office as Los Angeles bureau chief for LIFE magazine. The shouter was a LIFE correspondent who had wandered over to the Associated Press Teletype to find out (pre-Internet) what was happening in the world.

The AP machine was spitting out bulletins and flashes, with accompanying alarm bells, that gave the first news of the tragedy in Dealey Plaza. I ran to see for myself, then back to my desk to call my editor in New York City and ask what we could do. “How fast can you get to Dallas?” was the answer. An hour later, four of us were on a National Airlines plane.

About 6 p.m. I got a call from Patsy Swank, a part-time LIFE correspondent in Dallas who had spent the afternoon at police headquarters. Her news was astounding. She said another reporter had told her that a cop had told him that a local businessman had been at Dealey Plaza with a movie camera and had photographed the assassination.

Anticipating my next question, she said, “My friend couldn’t spell the name, only pronounce it. Za-proo-dur.”

I picked up the phone book and ran my finger down the Z’s–and there it was, just as Patsy had pronounced it: Zapruder, Abraham. I began calling; I kept on calling every 15 minutes. No one answered. Zapruder, the garment-factory co-owner and 8-mm enthusiast who had unexpectedly captured the President’s assassination on camera, was out trying to get his film developed, as I later learned.

Finally, at 11 p.m., a weary voice answered. I asked if this was Mr. Zapruder, and then identified myself and LIFE. I asked if it was true that he had photographed the assassination that morning. “Yes.” Did he photograph the whole sequence? “Yes.” Had he actually seen the film himself? “Yes.” Could I please come to his home now and see the film? “No.”

He politely explained that he was exhausted and overcome by what he had witnessed. The decision I made next turned out to be quite possibly the most important of my career. In the news business, sometimes you push people hard, unsympathetically, without obvious remorse (even while you may be squirming inside). Sometimes, you don’t. This, I felt intuitively, was one of those times you don’t push. I reminded myself: This man had watched a murder. I said I understood. Clearly relieved, Zapruder asked me to come to his office at 9 the next morning.

Saturday Morning

Back in at least a semi-push-hard mood, and being reasonably sure that Zapruder would have talked to other reporters after me on the previous night, I got there at 8. Zapruder looked a little surprised to see me but said he was about to show the film to two Secret Service agents and agreed to let me join. The projector was set up in a small, windowless room, with a white wall serving as the screen.

The first few frames showed some of his employees, who had turned out to see the President. Then the motorcade appeared. There was no sound except for the whirring of the projector. We watched transfixed, knowing what was going to happen yet not having a clue as to what it would look like. The limousine was briefly obscured by the road sign, then for a couple of seconds Kennedy clutched his throat, Texas Governor John Connally tipped over, their wives looked puzzled.

The film advanced to infamous frame 313, and Oswald’s bullet struck the President’s head. The two agents and I responded precisely the same, with an explosive ugh!, as if we had been simultaneously gut-punched. It was the single most dramatic moment of my 70 years in journalism. The fact that we were watching the assassination only hours after it had occurred was nothing short of remarkable. I decided instantly: There is no way I am going to leave this office without that film.

Zapruder ran the 26-second film for us three times. After that, we could hear a commotion starting in the hall outside. As I had suspected, other reporters were showing up, told (like me) to be there at 9 a.m. In all, two dozen or so arrived, representing the Associated Press, the Saturday Evening Post magazine, a newsreel maker and two or three major out-of-town newspapers. It seems impossible now, but network television never appeared. TV news had only recently gone from 15 minutes in the evening to half an hour, and the three major networks were concentrating their forces on the funeral in Washington, not the crime in Dallas.

Zapruder explained to us that he was going to show his film to these newcomers. The Secret Service agents left, and I asked Zapruder if I could sit in his office and thus be spared mingling with these potential competitors.

During the next hour or so, I introduced myself to and chatted with members of his staff, particularly Lillian Rogers, Zapruder’s assistant. She turned out to be from southern Illinois; I was from central Illinois, and a surefire subject of interest to anyone from that state was high school basketball. I had been sports editor of my hometown newspaper, the Pekin Daily Times, and knew that her favorite team, Taylorville High School, was consistently one of the best in Illinois, and said so. We hit it off like old friends–something Zapruder noticed when he came into the office between screenings of the film.

After Zapruder had shown the film to the last reporter, he asked me to join the others in the hall. He said he realized that we all wanted to talk to him about print or broadcast rights, but “because Mr. Stolley of LIFE was the first to contact me, I feel obliged to speak to him first.” In my mind, I pumped a fist. The others erupted, shouting, “No, no!” “Don’t sign anything!” “Promise you will speak to us before you make up your mind!”

Zapruder agreed, and we walked into his office and closed the door. He looked very tired, but I quickly had to determine whether he realized the value of his film. I said that it was “very interesting” and that when LIFE encountered “unusual” pictures like these, we were inclined to pay higher-than-normal space rates. For example, we would be willing to offer “as much as $5,000” for the film.

He smiled. Yes, he knew what he had. From then on, I would raise the bid, and we would talk, mostly about the tragic weekend. He described a nightmare he had had only a few hours earlier. In it, a man wearing “a sharp double-breasted suit” stood in front of a sleazy Times Square movie theater–midtown Manhattan’s Times Square was a porn mecca back then–shouting for people to come in and see the President assassinated on the big screen. He said he woke up shuddering.

Zapruder’s message was clear. I promised him LIFE would not exploit the film, a verb he used repeatedly during our session. Meanwhile, the other journalists in the hall were behaving badly. They pounded on the door, shouting, “Remember, you promised!” and slipped pleading notes under it. A few went out to the street to a phone booth and called the office, demanding to speak to Zapruder.

He was visibly becoming more and more upset. I had reached $50,000 for the print rights, an amount authorized by my editors in New York when we had talked at midnight. I told him, truthfully, that I could go no higher without making a phone call. At that moment, there was a particularly violent bang on the door. Zapruder looked stricken, then said to me quietly, “Let’s do it.” I typed out a contract, got the original film and sneaked out the back door of the factory. Zapruder returned to the hall, where angry and abusive reporters had no choice but to return to covering this ever changing story.

The Days After

On Monday, life purchased the film and TV rights from Zapruder for an additional $100,000. Long after Zapruder’s death in 1970, I called Erwin Schwartz, his business partner, to clear up some questions about that day. Schwartz suddenly asked, “Do you know why you, and not one of the other reporters, got that film?”

Surprised, I answered, “The money.” Schwartz said someone would have matched or exceeded that. Our promise not to exploit the film? He agreed that was very important. Then he asked the question again, and went on to answer it himself: “Because you were a gentleman.”

He cited my not badgering Zapruder to come to his house on Friday night, my treating him with respect during our negotiations and, finally, my friendly dealings with fellow Midwesterner Lillian Rogers. Some of the other reporters had treated her harshly, he said, accusing her of preventing them access to her boss. Schwartz’s explanation floored me then, and still does today.

In the months after the assassination, Zapruder received bags and bags of mail. Most of the letters were simply addressed to his name, Dallas, Texas. In later years, when he and his wife traveled, especially in Europe, the name Zapruder was often recognized on hotel registers. Abe Zapruder was never able to escape his unique and haunting role in the Kennedy assassination story.

Nor was I.

Stolley is a former editor of LIFE and the founding editor of PEOPLE, both sister publications of TIME. This story is excerpted from The Day Kennedy Died (Life Books).

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