Personal View of a National Tragedy: Alexandra Zapruder's "Twenty-Six Seconds"
“My grandfather came to America hell-bent on becoming an American.” --Alexandra Zapruder
Alexandra Zapruder’s Twenty-Six Seconds tells the story of the 26-second home video, recorded by her grandfather Abraham, that came to be known as the Zapruder film, the one video that showed President Kennedy’s assassination. On Wednesday, Nov. 7, Zapruder spoke at the Ann Arbor District Library about her book to an audience of about 80.
Zapruder never thought that she would write this book. She grew up in Washington, D.C., in a family that rarely talked about the film. She said that she is often asked whether the film was taboo or somehow a secret in her household. “It wasn’t that,” she said.
She always knew about the film, but inside of their family, it wasn’t a central part of their identity. Inside of her family, the film and surrounding events had been traumatic to her grandfather. It had been painful to the next generation. There were family mores surrounding the film. They were not to brag about it. They were not to call attention to it. They were not to take it lightly.
In 2004, Alexandra’s father, Henry, who had for years been the custodian of the film, became sick and suggested that someone should interview him about the film. That someone was understood to be Alexandra. However, this was not to be to Zapruder’s “everlasting regret.”
Alexandra did, however, inherit the task of making sense of the film and what it meant. She says she “came to understand the ephemera and historical documents surrounding the film and that someone would need to take responsibility for it.” Realizing that she didn’t know much about the film, she began her research. Of the experience, she says, “As I began to read, I started to see that the history of the film was incomplete.” She noticed mistakes and, as she diplomatically phrased it, “inaccuracies” about her family and what they had done.
“The main thing that was missing in the public stories was the understanding of this as a home movie.” --Alexandra Zapruder
Abraham Zapruder came to the United States as a young man. His granddaughter describes his experience as that of the “archetypal life of Jewish immigrants who came to this country.” In the United States, Abraham saw opportunities that would not have been available to him in imperial Russia. It is said that he bought a violin with his first paycheck. He went to night school and learned English there. He went to work in the garment industry on Seventh Avenue. Abraham Zapruder’s was a story of upward mobility. A business opportunity landed him in Dallas, and ultimately led him to work in the Dal-Tex Building, adjacent to Dealy Plaza.
Alexandra Zapruder talked to the audience about the morning of the assassination. Multiple members of her family, who were strong Kennedy supporters, had gone out to participate in Kennedy’s visit to Dallas. Her aunt had gone to Love Field that morning with her best friend. Her uncle had gone to see the parade go by on Main Street. Her grandfather had been in the Dal-Tex Building, and had left his camera at home that day. His longtime assistant, Lillian Rogers, had convinced him to go home and get it. “If you knew the family, you would know that this is how everything operated for him. He held back. ... He needed someone to push him.”
It is difficult to imagine from 2017 that an individual could take a video such as the one that became the Zapruder film and maintain possession of it. It is difficult, also, to imagine what it could mean to be the sole person to have captured such an instant on film. From the moment that Zapruder captured the film, having seen the assassination clearly through the camera’s viewfinder, he felt an immense sense of responsibility toward it. This man who had been taking home videos, by this point for around 30 years, had on his hands something inextricably tied to a national tragedy. This tragedy was now tied to his beloved hobby.
"Even when most people saw the film, one of the strange, odd things about the film is that it shows what happened to the president, but it doesn’t tell us what happened to the president." --Alexandra Zapruder
Ultimately, Zapruder sold the film to Life magazine. He had felt like he could trust the magazine. He had wanted the film to be treated with dignity and good taste, and he ensured that the agreement stipulated Life would defend the film's copyright. That he had been the one to record this moment placed him in a terrible position. He knew that he couldn’t keep the film. Yet he believed that it should be treated carefully, that it shouldn’t be sensationalized. He also realized that profiting from such a video came with its own issues. He feared that he, his family, and other Jewish people in the area would suffer if he profited, an anti-Semitic backlash. In fact, he gave the first installment of the payment he received from Life magazine to the widow of J.D. Tibbett, a Dallas police officer who had been slain by Lee Harvey Oswald the same day as the president.
Alexandra Zapruder successfully reminded us that the Zapruder film wasn’t always the Zapruder film. She points out that, unlike today, when videos are instantly available, it took 12 years for this film to be viewed by the public. Conspiracy theories sprouted and grew. Along the way, bootleg copies got out. The differences in what people saw in the film and what people had read in the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination watered those growing theories.
When I think of Geraldo Rivera a few things happen. I think about the time he got his nose broken on his show in 1988. I think about his shirtless selfies from a few years ago. I didn’t know that Geraldo had anything to do with the nation at large seeing the film, that it had aired for a national audience for the first time in March of 1975 on the ABC show he hosted, Good Night America.
This was the same year that the film came back into the possession of the Zapruder family. Life had grown tired of dealing with everything that came with the film, so the magazine returned the rights to Zapruders for the price of one dollar. Henry Zapruder, then, became the film’s guardian and immediately had to face the larger question of what to do with the film. The pressure was greater in this now post-Watergate, Vietnam War-era America. Henry Zapruder did not want to put the film in the public domain because he predicted that images from the film would wind up on hats and T-shirts. That is not what he wanted for his family’s legacy.
With that in mind, he made decisions one license at a time.
In 1992, the JFK Records Act was passed. It stated that any U.S. government records pertaining to President Kennedy’s assassination would be housed by the National Archives and Records Administration, and publicly disclosed in full by October 2017 unless the president determined, based on specific criteria, that it should not be. With that act came the question of whether it pertained to the Zapruder film. By this point, the film was on loan to the National Archives. A struggle between the federal government and the Zapruder family followed. In the end, the matter was settled. The government kept the film. The Zapruders were awarded $16 million.
Alexandra Zapruder ended the evening reading from the epilogue of her book where she asks, “What is the compelling lure that makes the assassination researchers, the film, art, and cultural historians, the writers and journalists, the academics and students and hobbyists and Kennedy buffs return to it as a touchstone time and time again?”
I leave thinking about something else:
Personal stories become national ones. Then, national stories become personal ones.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.