Joyce Carol Oates’s most recent book is “Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life.”
For millions of us, whenever we think of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — 53 years ago this coming week — we immediately recall the horrific images: the open presidential car, the stricken young president and his wife (in pink, with a pink pillbox hat on her head) beside him. The film has been shown so many times, seen by so many millions of people, it has entered the realm of myth: 486 frames of silent (but color) home-movie footage shot in bright sunshine at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on that day, by a Dallas resident named Abraham Zapruder. It is surely the most famous home movie ever filmed.
Now, Alexandra Zapruder, granddaughter of the videographer and a founder of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has written a moving and enlightening account that is part memoir; part detailed history of the film and its (inestimable) role in the nation’s understanding of the assassination; and part overview of the film as an inspiration for countless, often bizarre conspiracy theories, as well as for works of art as disparate as Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Don DeLillo’s “Libra” and “Underworld,” and a particularly inventive episode of “Seinfeld.” So much history, embodied in a mere 26 seconds of footage! Not least, this film would one day be sold by the Zapruder heirs to the U.S. government for $16 million, the highest price ever paid for “an American historical artifact,” to be stored in the National Film Registry for scholars and historians to study.
Alexandra Zapruder writes with passion and clarity about the vicissitudes of bearing a famous name without having been involved with its celebrity or notoriety. (“I could not get over my astonishment at seeing [Zapruder] in print so often.”) She is very good at communicating a child’s confused sense of being special and yet being admonished not to think of herself as special. Growing up in Dallas in the 1960s, after her grandfather’s death, Alexandra knew virtually nothing about “the film” — it was never discussed within the family, though as a child she was often told that her beloved grandfather “should have been famous for who he was . . . and not for the film.” In time, Alexandra came to wonder “about this thing called the Zapruder film: Why did people keep bringing it up . . . and what did other people know about it that I didn’t?”
Gradually she came to assimilate unspoken Zapruder family assumptions: “We don’t brag about the film. It is a gruesome, horrible record of President Kennedy’s assassination, which was a tragic event for the country and the Kennedy family. It is nothing to be proud of. . . . We are tied to the film by chance and coincidence. It is an accident of fate. It happened to be taken by our grandfather and it happened to be called by our name. Apart from that, it has nothing to do with us.”
And yet, ironically, the film does have much to do with the Zapruders, who would inherit the perishable artifact after Abraham’s death and be forced to deal with its ambiguous presence in our cultural history. If there is one predominant theme of “Twenty-Six Seconds,” it is that an individual cannot easily escape “the inheritance of names, and how it shapes identity and life experiences.”
It is instructive to recall that the political climate of November 1963 was as bitterly polarized as our present-day United States. Reactionary hostility to the “liberal” Kennedy was at an all-time high at the time of the assassination; indeed, Dallas had become “ground zero” for a small knot of ultraconservatives (including the editor of the Dallas Morning News and H.L. Hunt, oil tycoon and “the wealthiest man in the world”) who vehemently opposed him. Fervently convinced that the United States was in danger of an imminent communist takeover, the ultraconservatives believed that Kennedy’s international policies and support for the United Nations were treasonous. In the days before his arrival, thousands of leaflets showing mug shots of Kennedy with the caption “WANTED FOR TREASON” flooded the city.
From the perspective of hyper-security-conscious 2016, it seems astonishing that in such a vitriolic atmosphere, the president of the United States was allowed to ride in an open, unprotected limousine, the route of the presidential procession mapped out and widely publicized beforehand. For many citizens of Dallas, including Abraham Zapruder, the assassination would seem initially to be a result of a right-wing plot.
By November 1963, Zapruder had been working in the garment industry for 40 years. He’d begun as an immigrant (from Eastern Europe) in New York and had moved to Dallas in 1941, where he became a successful dress manufacturer; he was an avid Democrat, an enthusiastic supporter of Kennedy who would describe the experience of witnessing the assassination from such close quarters as a “wound” from which he never recovered. That Zapruder happened to film the assassination at all was something of a fluke, for he’d left his camera at home and had to be cajoled by his wife into returning to get it. He arrived early at Dealey Plaza to scout out a location; he would leave little to chance, positioning himself where the presidential motorcade was to pass closely.
In his granddaughter Alexandra’s words: “Those first few seconds of the film are perfect: the sun is shining and you can clearly see the unmistakable, handsome face of the president . . . smiling, and raising his hand to wave. . . . For an instant, the back of a freeway sign obscures the limousine, and then the Kennedys reappear. ‘As it came in line with my camera, I heard a shot,’ Abe later recalled. The president’s elbows fly up, his face distorted in pain, and he suddenly hunches forward. . . . The car dips into the lower part of the frame, and as the president’s body sinks down in the car toward his wife, the fatal shot strikes him. ‘And then I realized,’ Abe said. ‘I saw his head open up and I started yelling, “They killed him! They killed him!” ’ ”
Following the assassination, there is panic and pandemonium at the scene, but Abraham Zapruder manages to return home and to examine the film he has taken, in something of a state of shock. From the first, the amateur filmmaker seemed to have realized: “I’ve got it all on there.”
So lax was security at Dallas police headquarters after the assassination that alleged killer Lee Harvey Oswald — arrested and held at the county jail — was gunned down in a corridor two days later by a distraught Dallas nightclub operator named Jack Ruby. Since Oswald died before he could be interrogated in depth, the floodgates were open for conspiracy theories that ranged from the near-plausible to the absurd, based upon personal and idiosyncratic interpretations of the (mostly bootlegged) Zapruder film. These, Alexandra Zapruder does a diligent job of elucidating, though her patience may strike the reader as quixotic when she interviews, for instance, conspiracy theorist Robert Groden, who dismissed the Warren Report as “nonsense” and a “massive cover-up,” traveled to Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery in 1965 to introduce himself to the deceased president and “swore to find out who killed him no matter how long it took and where it took him.”
The most notorious of the conspiracy theorists was the publicity-seeking New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who misused his office to prosecute a fellow New Orleans citizen as a conspirator on virtually no evidence (the man was acquitted). Another conspiracy activist was the comedian Dick Gregory, who oversaw screenings of the bootlegged film “to the flabbergasted attention of the media.” If Kennedy’s assassination was a tragedy, the aftermath of competing and vociferous conspiracy theorists was a farce, with serious consequences: the undermining of trust in the U.S. government and in authority in general that continues to this day.
“Twenty-Six Seconds” is at its most eloquent in confronting these issues, but it is also a meticulous record — to some readers, perhaps over-meticulous — of the history of the actual, perishable film. The author does not really attempt to integrate this expository material into the larger story; her transitions are blunt and pragmatic: “Here I have to take a break for a brief technical explanation of the Bell and Howell movie camera and the development and duplication of double 8mm film.” But it is not difficult for the reader with little technical interest in film to simply skim by such sections in following the “unbelievably torturous saga” of the Zapruders, whose very “dignity and restraint” in talking publicly about the film “had left a vacuum in the public story,” not to their disadvantage.
“What I did not fully grasp until writing this book,” the author writes, “was that the ongoing life and intrusions of the film made it a living wound inside our family that could never fully heal. Over time, most of the American public moved on, deciding when and where — or even if — they wanted to revisit the JFK assassination. This was not so for my grandfather first of all, and then for my father.”
Committed by the lone, deranged Oswald, the assassination inaugurated an era of exceptional violence in the United States: assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; rioting in racially distressed major cities. It has settled uneasily into our collective consciousness as an inadequately healed wound that defies our fullest understanding, even as we continue to be obsessed by it. In this eloquent passage, Alexandra Zapruder speaks for all who have found themselves unwittingly and innocently too close to the raging flames of history:
“From our point of view, the film represented a trauma for our grandfather. It was a source of pain for the Kennedys. It was a reminder of crushing disappointment and abandoned plans for my parents’ generation. It was a burden. It was an intrusion. It was a serious and complicated responsibility. It was a moral dilemma. It brought public censure and personal attacks on our family. It appropriated our name and changed the course of our lives. In the end, it was a legacy we never asked for. . . . That anyone could refer to the Zapruder film as our family ‘good fortune’ shows a profound misunderstanding not only of what the film represented to us, but of who we are.”
By Alexandra Zapruder
Twelve. 472 pp. $27