As he filmed, Abraham Zapruder knew instantly that President Kennedy was dead

November 21, 2013

Before the dreadful news clattered over the teletypes that day, before it hit TV, even before the president reached the Dallas hospital, a 58-year-old Russian immigrant named Abraham Zapruder knew John F. Kennedy was dead.

Seconds after the shots were fired, he screamed, “They killed him!” He told bystanders. He called his son in Washington, who had heard that Kennedy was wounded, and said, “No, he’s dead.”

An anguished Zapruder was certain of this before almost anyone else because he had watched the assassination through the viewfinder of his wind-up home-movie camera.

“It was terrible,” he told his business partner minutes later. “I saw his head come off.”

Fifty years ago Friday, with his Bell & Howell Zoomatic, Zapruder watched the sparkling motorcade round the corner at Dealey Plaza and turn onto Elm Street.


This Oct. 22, 2013, photo provided by the National Archives shows a section of the Zapruder film recording the entrance of President John F. Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas, during an inspection of the media at the archives in College Park, Md. This original is housed in a cold-storage vault, where conditions are kept at a constant 25 degrees and 30 percent relative humidity. (Richard Schneider/AP)

In sun-splashed color, he saw Kennedy, in a dark suit and striped shirt, wave to the crowd and then vanish behind a highway sign, along with an era in American history.

When the president reappeared, the scene was different. Kennedy had been hit in the upper back, the assassin’s bullet exiting his throat and nicking his necktie.

Zapruder watched Kennedy’s elbows fly up as he clutched at the wound in an awkward dance.

Then, as the president slumped to his left, and his wife, in her tragic pink suit and white gloves, turned to see what was wrong, the dressmaker saw Kennedy’s head explode in a cloud of orange.

So when the presidential limousine with the flapping flags and D.C. license plates roared away toward Parkland Memorial Hospital, Abraham Zapruder was sure the president was dead.

The Z factor

On Nov. 22, 1963, Zapruder, the co-owner of a women’s clothing company, created one of history’s most famous, and expensive, pieces of film, and forever linked his name with a great national tragedy.

When he traveled, people would recognize his name on hotel registers. To this day, each frame of his film has an official number preceded by the letter Z. (The mortal head wound appears on Frame Z313.)

As he stood with his camera on an elevated concrete abutment that Friday, he captured the Kennedy’s assassination in a 26-second clip.

There had been other assassinations, other killings of noted individuals in other times. But never before had the act been captured so graphically.

Zapruder, a short, bald man with a bow tie, a hint of an immigrant’s accent and a Masonic pin on his lapel, captured the world’s most powerful man in the last seconds of his life.

Even amid the privation and anti-Semitism of his youth, he said he had never seen such a thing — a man “shot down like a dog,” he would say later.

The scene would haunt him. He had a nightmare that first evening: He was in New York’s Times Square. A guy in a sharp suit stood on the sidewalk outside a movie theater hawking his film: Come in and see the president killed on the big screen!

“Over and over,” he said. It “would come every night. I wake up and see this.”

But Zapruder enabled posterity to see it, too.

There, in his colorful home movie, all the optimism, faith and naivete of postwar America seemed to disappear in a moment.

“November 1963, we were on the cusp of two very different national orders,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

The Eisenhower era was fading.“The ’60s, as we would come to know the ’60s,” had yet to begin, he said. The assassination was a sign of a disturbing new day.

Zapruder was devastated.

An emotional man, he went back to his office and wept. Eight months later, he would weep again during testimony before the Warren Commission investigating the assassination.

He was getting better at dealing with it, he told the commission. But seeing the frames again brought it all back.

“I’m ashamed of myself," he said. “But I couldn’t help it. . . . It was an awful thing and I loved the president. And to see that happen before my eyes . . . it leaves a very, very deep sentimental impression.”

An immigrant tale

Zapruder had moved to Dallas from Brooklyn in 1941 with his wife, Lillian, and their children Myrna, 6, and Henry, 2.

He hadn’t wanted to go at first, his daughter told the Oral History Project at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas in 1997.

His family lived in an apartment in a four-unit building. His mother lived down the hall. Two sisters lived upstairs with their husbands.

They had all been part of the great wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. The Zapruders had come from Kovel, in what was then Russia, now northwestern Ukraine.

The Nazis would later murder thousands of Kovel’s Jews during World War II.

Zapruder’s daughter said her father’s childhood in Russia had been one of misery and starvation. Zapruder’s father, Israel, had emigrated to the United States about 1915, during the chaos of World War I. Zapruder followed in 1920. He was 15. He learned English and went to work as a pattern maker on Seventh Avenue in New York’s garment district.

In 1941, at the invitation of a friend, he applied for a job in Dallas and became production manager for the Nardis sportswear company.

In the 1950s, he went into business for himself, founding one clothing company that failed and another, Jennifer Juniors, that was a success.

Its factory was on two floors of the Dal-Tex Building across the street from the Texas School Book Depository, which would later give the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, his sniper position.

The forgotten camera

Zapruder had not brought his snazzy movie camera to work the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, and his secretary, Lillian Rogers, noticed right away.

“Where’s your camera?” she demanded. Everyone knew the president was in town, and his motorcade would be passing right outside.

Zapruder said his camera was home, according to author William Manchester’s book about the assassination, “Death of a President.”

“Mr. Z, you march right back there,” his secretary ordered. “How many times will you have a crack at color movies of the president?”

“Okay, Lillian, okay!” he joked. “So I’m going!”

His business partner, Erwin Schwartz, told him he was nuts. That motorcade would be going a hundred miles an hour when it passed Dealey Plaza outside. “You won’t get to see anything,” Schwartz said.

Zapruder had been fascinated with photography for years. He’d had a darkroom to develop pictures back in Brooklyn and was always shooting movies of the family. He lived 10 minutes away.

He went to fetch his camera.

Two bullets

As the president’s motorcade came down Houston Street and turned left onto Elm Street that morning, Zapruder, wearing a dark fedora, was standing on a concrete wall aiming his camera with its telephoto lens.

He fired off 132 frames as the motorcycle policemen ahead of the president rounded the corner, and then he stopped, to save film.

At Frame 133, the president’s open-topped car appears. The sun glints off the front bumpers. The first lady, in her pink suit, is faintly visible in the back seat.

The president casually raises his right hand to wave, and then around Frame 201 he starts to disappear behind the highway sign that blocks Zapruder’s view.

When the president emerges, at Frame 225, he’s been hit the first time. He slumps toward his wife. As a streetlight zooms by, the camera wavers, and the car starts to slip to the bottom of Zapruder’s images.

At Frame 310, Zapruder has almost lost the view entirely. The heads of the people in the car are barely visible at the bottom of the frame. But he rights the camera just enough by Frame 313 to capture the fatal bullet’s impact.

The cloud of ejected blood and tissue hangs in the air for several more frames.

The first lady starts crawling toward the back of the car at Frame 356, as Zapruder zeroes in. He now has the awful scene well-centered. Mrs. Kennedy on the trunk. The Secret Service man scrambling onto the car. The car speeding up.

Zapruder tracks it as it heads for the railroad overpass ahead. He captures the gold-fringed American flag on the right front fender glowing for an instant in the sun, and then the car vanishes into shadows.

Film frenzy

Zapruder was “hysterical” in the minutes after the assassination, his secretary recalled in a 1966 interview with broadcast personality Marvin Scott, according to a Sixth Floor Museum transcript.

He screamed at people. He went back to his office and kicked and banged on his desk, according to an essay his granddaughter, Alexandra, wrote in a new Life coffee-table book about the assassination, “The Day Kennedy Died.” (Alexandra, an author who lives in Chevy Chase, declined through a publicist to be interviewed for this article.)

His secretary offered him a drink. “What are you talking about?” he told her. “Who wants a drink now?”

When his business partner called to ask where Mr. Z was, a receptionist said: “He’s in his office crying.”

But Zapruder also knew what he had in his camera.

“I knew I had something,” he told the Warren Commission. “I figured it might be of some help — I didn’t know what.”

Zapruder got the film developed that afternoon. The press began offering money for the film. A wire service offered $100,000. Someone else offered $200 a frame. Three photographers offered Schwartz $10,000 if he would introduce them to Zapruder immediately.

In the end, Zapruder chose to sell the film to Life magazine.

He did so because Life was a class outfit, because the magazine agreed to handle the film with discretion, and because he liked the quiet, well-dressed man the magazine sent to see him.

He was Richard B. Stolley, Life’s 35-year-old Los Angeles bureau chief. He had been sent to Dallas right away and quickly found Zapruder in the phone book.

When Stolley arrived at Zapruder’s office the morning after the assassination, two Secret Service agents were already there.

“As long as you’re here, you might as well come in because I’m about to show the film to these two gentlemen,” Stolley, now 85, recounted in an interview last week.

Zapruder had set up a projector on a table in small room with no windows. The projector was aimed at a blank, whitewashed wall.

“We . . . stood behind him, and suddenly those flickering images came up on the wall,” Stolley said. “We all . . . knew that the president had been shot and killed. . . . But we didn’t have the foggiest idea what it looked like.”

As the film played and Frame 313 came, Stolley said, he and the Secret Service men let out a groan. “We knew there was a head shot,” he said. “But I have to tell you, there was no way to prepare us for that blood and brain matter spurting up into the air.”

In the end, Life agreed to pay Zapruder $150,000 for the film and rights. But he was sensitive about the money. He didn’t want the amount disclosed, according to Richard B. Trask, whose 2005 book, “National Nightmare on Six Feet of Film,” chronicles the story of the film.

And as a gesture, he donated $25,000 of the money to the widow of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who had been slain by Oswald about 45 minutes after the assassination.

When Zapruder was asked by the Warren Commission how much he was paid for the film, he seemed uncomfortable. He would only say he received the $25,000 that he gave to Tippit’s widow. The commission didn’t press him.

Final disposition

Abraham Zapruder died of cancer Aug. 30, 1970, in Dallas.

His film has long outlived him, amid seemingly endless controversies and accelerating value.

As years passed, conspiracy theorists sprouted and bootleg copies of the film leaked out and multiplied. In 1975, Time Inc., which owned the then-diminished Life and had grown tired of caring for the sought-after footage, sold the film back to the Zapruder family for $1.

Three years later it was stored, as a courtesy, in the National Archives, where it is today.

In 1992, the federal government created the Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board to assess sensitive records for release.

On April 24, 1997, the board declared the Zapruder film public property, and the government began negotiations to compensate Zapruder’s children and widow.

The family already had earned $878,000 in fees since 1976 for letting others use the film.

But what was it worth? The Justice Department offered $750,000 for the film, without the copyright. The Zapruders asked for $18.5 million for the film and the copyright, according to news reports.

On Aug. 4, 1999, a special arbitration panel instructed the government to pay the Zapruders $16 million for the film. The family later donated the copyright to the Sixth Floor Museum.

The arbitration panel had actually reached its decision on July 16, but delayed its announcement because of another national tragedy that day.

A small plane had crashed off the coast of Massachusetts, killing three people, including its pilot, John F. Kennedy Jr.

Michael covers monuments, memorials, institutions; lore, ghosts, people of Capital, topics historical, martial, medical.
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