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Richard B. Stolley remembers the Zapruder film

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Richard B. Stolley was the Los Angeles bureau chief of Life magazine when his assignment to cover the events in Dallas led to one of the great scoops in journalism: obtaining exclusive rights to Abraham Zapruder’s film of the President’s assassination. Here Stolley, now editorial director of Time Inc. Magazines (including this one), recounts that experience in detail.

”Dick, Kennedy’s been shot in Dallas!”

Within an hour of the shout that brought me running out of my office, I was on a plane to Texas with another correspondent and two photographers. In the air we learned that the President was dead and that someone named Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested. By dusk I was setting up an office in a downtown hotel.

At about 6 p.m., I got a phone call from one of the magazine’s part-time reporters, Patsy Swank. She was at Dallas police headquarters, she said in a confidential whisper; Oswald was being interrogated in an office not far away, and the corridors were a chaotic mob of cops and reporters. What Patsy said next was electrifying: She had been tipped by a Dallas officer that the assassination had been filmed in its entirety by a local garment manufacturer, whose name started with a ”Z.” She sounded out the syllables. I picked up the Dallas phone book, ran my finger down the Z’s, and there it was: Zapruder, Abraham. I called the number. No answer. I called again every 15 minutes or so until 11 p.m. Then a weary voice answered.

It was Zapruder himself. He had been driving around trying to calm his nerves. After photographing the shooting, he had literally stumbled back to his office nearby, muttering, ”They killed him, they killed him.” Zapruder’s secretary described him as ”incoherent, in a state of shock,” but clutching the camera containing what would become the most famous home movie of all time.

Incredibly, nobody in authority was much interested in it. Zapruder had contacted the Dallas police, but by mid-afternoon they had Oswald in custody and the film seemed of marginal importance. Both the Secret Service and the FBI said it was his property to dispose of as he saw fit but that they would like copies. Zapruder took his 8 mm film to a Kodak lab, and by evening had the original and three copies in hand.

I questioned him as gently as I could. Yes, it showed everything. Yes, I was the first journalist to contact him. No, I could not come out to his house at that late hour. He was too exhausted, too distraught. He seemed genuinely grateful that I did not persist, and asked me to be at his office at nine the next morning.

I got there at eight: By now other reporters would surely have learned about the film and be in hot pursuit. Standing in the hall at Zapruder’s dress factory were several grim-faced men in dark suits — Secret Service agents about to see evidence of their catastrophic failure to protect the President. Zapruder invited us in, darkened the room, and started the film.

It begins with a few frames of employees from his office, then of Dealey Plaza and, suddenly, the motorcade is turning the corner. We held our breath. The President is smiling and waving. The limousine is briefly obscured behind a highway sign. It emerges and now Kennedy’s waving arms are clutching his throat, a puzzled look on his face. Governor Connally’s mouth is open wide, as if howling in pain.

Remember, this is pre-camcorder; there is no sound, except the creaking of the projector. The camera jerks almost imperceptibly with every shot. The third and last is to the right side of Kennedy’s head, caught on sickening frame 313. Brain matter and blood spray up and forward, a trajectory that would have been impossible if the shot had come from anywhere but behind (JFK and many conspiracy theorists argue that it came from the grassy knoll in the front).

The furiously bleeding President collapses into his wife’s lap. After a split second of terrified contemplation, Jackie clambers out onto the trunk of the limousine, until a Secret Service agent pushes her back into the car. It speeds off for Parkland Hospital.

As those of us in the room tried to recover our composure, I knew that Life magazine had to have this film. It was a complete photographic record of the death of the President, a unique historical document. I doubted any other existed, and I was right.

By this time I could hear enough commotion outside to realize that other journalists had arrived. I went out to determine who my competition was: the Associated Press, the Saturday Evening Post, a newsreel, so far. Zapruder showed the film again to the other journalists, but agreed to talk to me first. We went into his little office and I knew I had to make a deal, right then, or I would likely lose the film. He understood its value to his family’s financial future, but was worried about “exploitation,” a word he used time and again.

During the night, he told me, he had had a nightmare in which he walked by a sleazy Times Square movie theater and a man on the sidewalk was luring people inside with the promise: “See the President get killed!” I vowed that Life would treat his pictures with taste and respect. In less than half an hour, we had agreed on a price — $50,000 for all print rights — and I snuck out the back door of the factory with the original film and one copy, leaving poor Zapruder to face the angry journalists in the hall.

The next day, after the Life editors in New York had seen the film, I was instructed to try to tie up all rights, print and motion picture. On this mission, I was competing with Dan Rather and CBS, but Zapruder seemed so relieved to be dealing with a familiar face that we quickly reached an agreement: a total of $150,000, in annual installments of $25,000.

This grainy snippet of film henceforth became the most crucial piece of evidence in the Warren Commission’s investigation of Kennedy’s death. It was critical in establishing the timing of the shots, the position of those in the limousine, the reaction of onlookers, and much more. It also dragged Life into the thicket of conspiracy theories that began springing up as soon as the Warren report offered its lone-gunman explanation. Indeed, there have been hints over the years that I personally was part of the plot. These are the facts:

I wasn’t. One reason my name crops up is probably that I still think the Warren report has a better grip on the reality of Nov. 22 than any of the conspiracy buffs and have said so. My role in the assassination investigation was strictly that of a reporter. I was never interrogated by any government agency or by the Warren Commission; I never met any of the alleged conspirators.

A name mentioned far more often is that of the late C.D. Jackson, who was publisher of Life. Because he had served in military intelligence, the theories go, he had both a motive and an opportunity to influence how the magazine handled the Zapruder film. The truth is that all decisions involving its use (or nonuse) were made only by editors, not by anyone on the publishing side.

Life did not bury the Zapruder film for 12 years, as Stone charges. All the relevant images were printed immediately except for frame 313. We felt publishing that grisly picture would constitute an unnecessary affront to the Kennedy family and to the President’s memory. Today, that may seem a strange, even foolish, decision. But this was 1963, a few years before Vietnam brought carnage into American living rooms. The head wound was described only in words in that issue. Life published frame 313 in 1964 and several times later, and for years urged that the Kennedy investigation be reopened.

Life decided not to sell the Zapruder film for TV or movie showing for reasons of both taste and competition. Copies were given to the Secret Service and to the Warren Commission. When New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison subpoenaed the film for his trial of alleged conspirator Clay Shaw, Life complied. There was no reluctance on the magazine’s part, as JFK suggests, although it now seems clear that security at the trial was so lax that the film was illegally duplicated, and bootleg copies were soon sold all over the country. They were shown at conspiracy lectures for years, maybe even a time or two on local TV. My files are full of letters from conspiracy buffs commenting on the film.

There have been charges that Life tampered with the film, removed or reversed frames, diddled with it to confound the truth. Nothing like that ever happened. I have inspected the film many times, as have others; the frames are all there, in proper order.

In 1975, Life sold the Zapruder film back to his family (Abe died in 1970) for one dollar. His son, a Washington tax lawyer, does a brisk business in renting it for one-time use. (Oliver Stone, for instance, paid $40,000 to use the film in JFK.) The original is kept in the National Archives, part of the official history of the event that for many of us defined the last half of the 20th century.

Since seeing JFK, I have been wondering what that history would be if a middle-aged businessman had not brought his camera to Dealey Plaza. Without knowing that the film went through Zapruder’s camera at 18.3 frames per second, we would have no precise way of timing the shots. There would presumably be no controversy about Oswald’s ability to fire that often and that accurately. We would probably assume the first shot passed through Kennedy’s neck virtually unmarked; thus, the so-called pristine, or ”magic,” bullet. We would think the second shot hit Governor Connally alone (as he has always believed).

We would…well, you get the idea. There would still be conspiracy theories, since serious questions do remain unanswered. But it is hard to believe that an entire industry of financially rewarding intrigue would have sprung up and still flourish nearly three decades later. No Zapruder film; possibly no wild allegations, totally unproved, of dark crimes committed at the highest levels of American government and society.

As a country, ironically, we might be better off.

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