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Abraham Zapruder lived on this earth for 66 years, but he will always be remembered for just 26.6 seconds of that time. The 486 frames of film he shot on 22 November, 1963 captured the assassination of an American President, and their significance and authenticity remain a matter of intrigue to this day.
Zapruder was a successful businessman and a contented grandfather before fate turned him into an unwilling celebrity, but his life was not always comfortable. Born in the Ukraine, his family was displaced by the Russian Revolution while he was still in his teens. His first years as an immigrant to the United States were spent in New York as a pattern-cutter in the clothing industry, and his evenings were occupied by English lessons.
Gradually he began to prosper, marrying in 1933 and moving to Texas with his wife and two young children in 1941. In the mid-1950s he founded his own business producing branded clothing for girls. By the autumn of 1962, it occupied two floors of the Dal-Tex Building on Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and the by now well-to-do Zapruder bought himself a top-of-the-range 8mm film camera in order to record the exploits of his new grandchildren.
The early morning of Friday 22 November, 1963 was overcast and rainy, and Abraham Zapruder decided to leave the camera at home. By the time he arrived at work, the sun was shining and his secretary Lillian Rodgers cajoled her boss into the 15-mile round trip to fetch it. With President Kennedy's motorcade due to drive right past the office on its way to a lunchtime reception at the city's Trade Mart, the staff of Jennifer Juniors wanted a record of a special day. At around noon, Zapruder left his office and walked the length of the block down into Dealey Plaza, accompanied by the firm's receptionist Marilyn Sitzman. Almost the whole of their route would have been visible from the window of a 6th floor room at the south-east corner of the Texas School Book Depository. This line of sight would soon take on legendary significance.
On the grass bank north of Elm Street, Zapruder looked for a good vantage point from which to shoot his film. Beatrice Hester, a payroll clerk from the firm, was sitting on the steps of the concrete pergola there, but her boss preferred instead to stand on the wall at the western end. This elevated position gave a fine view of the route down to the Triple Underpass, and at its closest approach the Presidential limousine would be a mere 50 feet away. With the camera lens set at full zoom though, the perch felt vertiginous, and so Marilyn climbed up alongside to steady the cameraman. The choice of location placed Zapruder on Kennedy's side of the car, yielding the only known footage with this aspect. The films of three other amateurs would later come to light, but all were taken at greater distance and with inferior equipment. There were no television company cameras in the area either. They had congregated at the Trade Mart instead.
Although the familiar content of the Zapruder film is limited to the motorcade sequence, the original reel and all of its first-generation copies begin with less portentous scenes. One of Zapruder's grandsons digs at the foot of a tree in the family's backyard. Then Beatrice and her husband are seen waving from the pergola steps, and Marilyn appears too. Next comes a seven-second sequence showing the motorcycle outriders making the turn into Houston Street, at which point Zapruder must have realised that the President's Lincoln was still some way behind. He switched off the camera to save film. Approximately a minute later he started filming again and the 354 frames that ensued would preserve in graphic detail an event that changed the world.
There are many theories about the number of gunmen who fired on the President that day, their positions and their identities. The Zapruder film cannot prove with absolute certainty what happened, but it does go a long way towards substantiating the official conclusions of the Warren Commission. In that version, three shots were fired by a single sniper from the Texas School Book Depository and the description of the events in this Entry is based on the Commission's interpretation.
The numbering of the Zapruder frames is conventionally based on the designations applied by FBI agents in Washington on receipt of a first copy of the film reel, in the small hours of Saturday 24th. Frames #1 to #139 make up the motorcycle outrider sequence on Houston Street. The assassination sequence begins with frame #140. The lead vehicle bearing the Kennedys has already made the turn into Elm Street, and proceeds towards Zapruder's position from the left. The sniper's position is high up and further round to the left, out of the camera's field of view throughout the footage. For reasons that will never be known, the assassin chose not to fire on the approaching motorcade as it moved along Houston Street, preferring instead to aim at a receding target.
The lead car contained six people. The driver and his front seat passenger were Special Agents William Greer (the driver) and Roy Kellerman. President Kennedy sat on the right side of the rear bench seat, with the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, on the left. The Governor of Texas, John B Connally sat between Kellerman and the President on the right jump seat1 with his wife Nellie on the left one. There were no agents riding on the running boards, on the instruction of the President. The Perspex 'bubble top' had also been left off the car. These things would have reduced the President's visibility to his public, but each of them might have saved his life.
In the early frames of the main sequence, nothing presages the imminent turmoil. A little girl runs alongside the car and its occupants are waving, turning to left and right. Then for approximately a second from about frame #160 the subjects of the movie appear to react to something, and the camera wobbles. Later complementary evidence suggests this as the time of the first shot. It missed its target entirely, but 150 yards away at the mouth of the underpass a bystander, James Tague, received a small flesh wound to his face from the flying debris that probably originated from the bullet's impact on the pavement nearby. It was later established that at about this point the sniper's view of his target was obscured by oak trees, and he may have attempted a hurried shot just before the car passed underneath them.
The investigation that followed the assassination involved much careful surveying and metrology, suggesting that the sniper would next have had a clear sight of his target at about Zapruder frame #220, at about 50 yards distance. In the preceding seconds, Zapruder has an unrestricted view of the car and its occupants resume their waving. From frame #220 until #224, the camera's view is obscured by a road sign. The only part of Kennedy's body visible is his waving hand above it. The camera wobbles again at this point, and the prevailing opinion is that the second shot occurs here. Frame #224 appears to show a sudden movement in the right lapel of Governor Connally's suit, consistent with its disturbance by the notorious 'magic bullet'.
The Warren Commission decided that the first bullet to strike the President2 entered his back just below the collar and exited cleanly from his throat without encountering any bone. It then struck Connally's back close to his right arm, shattered the fifth rib and exited his right breast before passing through his right wrist and coming to rest embedded in his right thigh. In addition to the lapel movement, the two men's body positions as revealed by the Zapruder film appear to make this improbable-sounding trajectory plausible.
In the ensuing couple of seconds, both Kennedy and Connally react discernibly to being shot. Kennedy's hands fly to his throat and he freezes in a rigid position with his head bent forward. Connally grimaces and turns his head towards the camera, then clenches and unclenches his right hand grip on his Stetson hat and begins to roll to his left, eventually slumping into the arms of his wife. One of the iconic still photographs of the assassination, taken by professional newsman Ike Altgens, captures this moment. Cited as evidence by both conspiracy theorists and advocates of the official verdict, this enigmatic image appears to show the doors of the Vice-President's escort vehicle (fourth from the front of the motorcade) already open, while the forward-car agents assigned to protect the President show no sign of action. More provocative still is the likeness of a man very like Lee Harvey Oswald in both facial features and dress standing in the entrance of the Book Depository, six floors below his supposed location at that moment.
The Fatal Shot
Whoever was doing the shooting up above had fortuitously fired a shot that effectively transfixed his target. Had Kennedy gone down like Connally, he might well have survived. Instead the sniper had ample time to reload, set his aim at a range of something like 80 yards, and deliver the fatal third bullet with great accuracy. The car is now side on to Zapruder, only 50 feet away and with the full extent of the zoom lens magnifying the scene. Zapruder's later testimony shows that he was fully aware that he was witnessing an attempt on the President's life by this time, but he had the presence of mind to keep filming with scarcely a tremor. At frame #312, Kennedy's head jerks down and forward as the bullet strikes the back of his skull, slightly to the right of the midline. In the next frame, the President's head is blown open above the right temple in a horrible pink cloud.
Some commentators seem to be persuaded that damage of the kind revealed by frame #313 and its immediate successors could only be inflicted by a shot from the front at close range. It needs to be remembered, though, that the rifle subsequently found in the sniper's nest and ballistically matched to bullet fragments was a high-powered weapon3 discharging jacketed ammunition. The skull has not evolved to withstand internal impact, and its plated structure readily disintegrates around the exit zone of a headshot. This is what happened to President Kennedy. About a quarter of his skull above the eyeline was shattered and detached by the exiting bullet, and a large amount of disrupted brain tissue exited with it. There was no chance whatsoever of survival, and the wound was instantaneously fatal.
Zapruder saw it all, but still he filmed, right up to the moment that the now-speeding car disappeared into the Underpass. The last frames show Agent Hill rushing forward from the trailing escort car and leaping onto the tailgate before pushing the distraught First Lady and the President down into the seatwell. It was all too late by then, of course.
Journalists and Lawmen
Though deeply shocked by what he had seen, Abraham Zapruder did not panic and quickly assimilated the significance of his film. He climbed down from the wall and spoke animatedly to Marilyn Sitzman. She later recalled him saying 'They killed him', over and over again. He appears in at least two photographs taken by different people in the pergola area in the minute or so following the shooting, but shortly after that he set off back to his office, where he locked the camera in a safe and tried to collect his thoughts.
Back in Dealey Plaza, both Marilyn and Beatrice Hester were responding excitedly to the arriving newsmen and their appeals for eye-witness accounts. It soon became known to more than one news agency that a local businessman had filmed everything at close range. One of them, Harry McCormick of the Dallas Morning News caught up with Zapruder even before he had entered the Dal-Tex building, but his quarry was determined to release the film into the hands of the police and nobody else. McCormick knew Forrest V Sorrels, the Head of the Dallas Secret Service Office, and had just seen him in the Plaza. He undertook to bring Sorrels to Zapruder.
Some five minutes later at around 12.50 pm4 another reporter, Darwin Payne of the Dallas Times Herald, arrived in the Dal-Tex building and made his way to the fifth floor and Zapruder's office. Payne was also told that the film was not available to the press, but still managed to conduct a kind of interview that later appeared in his copy. There was a TV in the room, and Walter Cronkite of CBS was announcing that Kennedy was wounded. 'I know he's dead', Zapruder is quoted as saying. 'I saw his head explode like a firecracker. It was the worst thing I've ever seen. There's no way he could still be alive.'
At about 1 pm5 Forrest Sorrels arrived with McCormick. At Zapruder's insistence, both the journalists were ejected whereupon Zapruder undertook to provide Sorrels with a copy of the film on the understanding that they would go together to reproduce it and on Sorrels' promise that he would withhold the film from the press. With that settled, the two men nonetheless came up with no better idea than a newspaper office as a suitable place to get the film developed. Accompanied by Zapruder's business partner Erwin Schwartz and McCormick, they drove to the Dallas Morning News office. Payne was left behind, in spite of protests.
It turned out that the DMN had no film processing facilities, and their neighbours WFAA-TV6 could only develop their staple TV news medium of 16mm black and white. WFAA's chief photographer offered to enlist the help of Kodak on Zapruder's behalf, and in return Zapruder consented to a live interview. It aired at 2.31 pm, about an hour after the confirmation of President Kennedy's death was released to the world's media. The two-minute interview with Jay Watson yielded what is still the best-known image of Abraham Zapruder, incongruously formal in his bow tie and miming the headshot with fingers pursed at his temple. Behind Watson, the furled leaves of a houseplant seem to echo the gesture.
A Dallas police car next drove Zapruder, Schwartz, and Sorrels to the Eastman Kodak laboratory alongside the airport at Love Field. They watched Air Force One take off for Washington, bearing the remains of John Fitzgerald Kennedy but also carrying a new President, since Lyndon B Johnson had been sworn in minutes before. Inside the laboratory, the film was developed and viewed for the first time. The making of copies required a further transfer, however, and Schwartz drove Zapruder to the premises of Jamieson Films where the film was reproduced on each of the three suitable reels that were available in stock. Back at Kodak, these too were processed and checked using the projector. It was ten in the evening before the job was finished. The master film and one copy were retained by Zapruder and the other two copies were handed to Sorrels. One of these remained in the lawman's possession while the other was despatched via the nearby Grand Prairie military airfield to the FBI in Washington.
Zapruder now went home with his two reels, deeming this safer than returning them to the company safe. Though he was drained by exertion and shock, he was by now thinking about the importance of his film, not so much as legal evidence but as something that the whole nation needed to see, however painful, to provide closure. A little after 11 pm, the telephone rang, and this time the journalist who pressed his case was an elite professional. Richard Stolley was Life magazine's Pacific Bureau editor, and had flown in from Los Angeles as soon as he heard the news. The conversation persuaded Zapruder that the best way to bring the whole story to public attention was to grant access to the film to a single reputable publisher, because the authorities including Sorrels would suppress it in order to avoid scrutiny of their failure to defend the President.
Zapruder agreed to meet Stolley the following morning at the Jennifer Juniors office. He was still awake as the day that changed his life came to an end, and the bedroom light would burn all night. The only American who really knew how their President had been taken from them bore a burden too heavy for sleep.
Zapruder Surrenders the Film
Stolley had been waiting for an hour in the foyer of the Dal-Tex building when Zapruder arrived with his habitual punctuality at 9 am. Although the newsman's eagerness was all too obvious, there was to be no hard bargaining. Zapruder had by now had plenty of time to rationalise the selling of the films, and he had worked out a price, based on the offer of a thousand dollars that McCormick had optimistically thrown in the evening before. Zapruder would have sold both his films for $10,000 so when Stolley's opening offer was $25,000 for the copy alone, acceptance was assured. Zapruder had already decided that any sale would be conditional on an undertaking never to print frame #313. Once that was promised, he handed over the copied reel in return for the cheque.
Later that morning, two agents from Sorrels' department arrived and set up a projector in Zapruder's office, grilling him about the sequence of events amid repeated runnings of the film. The ordeal was interspersed by calls from news agencies, Associated Press and United Press International among them. Zapruder turned both down flat, while at the same time wishing that he had given Stolley both reels. It was too late now, because Stolley was on a flight to Chicago, where a meeting of Life editors was hastily convened to view their film as soon as it arrived.
The owner of the Life title, Charles Jackson, was familiar with the White House, having served Eisenhower as an adviser on foreign affairs. He was horrified by the gruesome consequences of the final bullet. Jackson decreed that his company must buy the master film to ensure that the public would see no graphic images from the film until a proper time for grieving had elapsed. So it was that Stolley contacted Zapruder again with an offer for the master film, of a further $125,000 paid in annual instalments over five years. Zapruder accepted, and would surely have settled for much less.
By the time that the transaction was completed on Monday 25th, Zapruder had found a way to relieve his guilt about profiting so handsomely from the death of a man he admired. Within an hour of the assassination, a policeman called J D Tippit had been shot dead while trying to apprehend Lee Harvey Oswald7, the principal suspect. Zapruder donated the $25,000 he had received for the copied reel to Tippit's widow.
Abraham Zapruder never escaped his label as the man who filmed JFK's assassination, but the story of the film itself had now passed beyond his control, a convoluted tale that still continues today. Zapruder testified to the Warren Commission in July 1964, and he lived long enough to receive all the money promised by Life, though its payment was not revealed until after his death from cancer in August 1970. He became reclusive in his last years, avoiding strangers since being recognised by them reminded him of a day he would rather forget.
Some of the more extreme conspiracy theorists try to implicate Zapruder himself in their notions of an establishment plot to kill Kennedy. He was probably a Freemason and was certainly a Jew, and he might well have had minor dealings with George HW Bush, who moved in the same Texas circles in the early days of his political career. He must have been one of the wealthiest people standing on what we have nowadays learned to call the 'grassy knoll', and he became wealthier still through the film he shot there. None of this means, or even hints at, anything. It's true that Abraham Zapruder struggled with his shock and grief for the rest of his life, but we should not be suspicious about that. Those feelings were magnified in the viewfinder of a camera he was destined never to use again.