Review of Alexandra Zapruder’s “Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film”

tags: book review, Alexandra Zapruder, Twenty Six Seconds

John McAdams is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University and webmaster of the Kennedy Assassination Home Page. He received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1981.

In writing Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film, Alexandra Zapruder is a woman on a mission. She has written to defend her family’s honor, and specifically the honor of her grandfather, Abraham Zapruder who shot the iconic film of John Kennedy’s assassination in Dealey Plaza, and her father Henry Zapruder, who for two decades controlled the film on behalf on Zapruder’s heirs.

Ms. Zapruder, and indeed the entire family, has been stung by claims that they were greedy, profiteering from an historical record that should have been the common property of all Americans, and enabling or being complicit in withholding from public scrutiny a key piece of evidence in what has been labelled (in the clichéd but appropriate phrase) the “crime of the century.”

So she is biased. But she is supposed to be biased. In would be, in fact, mildly scandalous if she did not want to defend her father, and a grandfather whom she did not know (due to his early death) but “knew” as a loving, caring, good natured family man from stories told by family members.

But biased or not, she makes a strong case – a really decisive, undeniable case – that her family has struggled to deal responsibly with both the physical artifact (the camera original film), and the intellectual property (the rights to use the images).

Sale of the Film

Exhibit A of her case is the fact that Abraham Zapruder, shattered and traumatized on the day of the assassination, refused to deal with media people wanting to buy the film, and insisted on first getting it into the hands of Federal authorities.

Then, on the morning after the assassination, an aggressive mob of media representatives was gathered at his business (dress company Jennifer Juniors) wanting to buy the film. He did not auction it to the highest bidder. Rather, he chose to deal, one on one, with Richard Stolley of LIFE Magazine. In 1963, LIFE was the epitome of mainstream media respectability, and Zapruder was concerned that the film be used “responsibly.” Abe Zapruder told several family members (and also Stolley) of a dream he had of a tawdry display of his film in a Times Square movie house. He wanted to avoid any such thing. Indeed, when shortly after the sale of the print rights, Zapruder sold LIFE the movie rights to the film, he demanded a contract clause requiring that the magazine “present the film in a manner consonant with good taste and dignity.”i

In the Hands of Life Magazine

Thus LIFE had a journalistic coup, and possessed what theoretically was a vastly valuable piece of property. In fact, it turned out to be one of history’s great hot potatoes.

Zapruder is a good historian, and she has (so far as this writer can tell) largely exhausted the primary sources on any issue she treats. Thus she has a very detailed account of the internal deliberations among LIFE executives about the use of the film. This is not always scintillating reading. But within the tedium is a clear message: dealing with the film was a nettlesome proposition, confronting those executives with tough decisions. Should frame 313, showing the gory explosion of Kennedy’s head, be published? Who should be allowed to use the film (a 1966 request from CBS was particularly troublesome)? Could LIFE restrict viewing of copies available via government channels (in the National Archives)? How to explain the embarrassing fact that the LIFE lab had mangled and ruined a few frames of the film? How should LIFE deal with bootlegged copies? Unauthorized showings of such copies were becoming more and more common, climaxing with a showing on “Good Night America” on ABC. The hassles did not wind down over the years, but rather seemed to ramp up.

During this time, Abe Zapruder had several contacts with people at LIFE, expressing concern about possible copyright violations, or that the film might be used in a way that was not “respectful.”ii Why would he care, since he had already gotten his money? Quite clearly, his concern with “good taste and dignity” in the use of his film was genuine.

So, apparently, was the concern on the part of LIFE. As Ms. Zapruder notes: “LIFE was really in a bind. There seemed to be no way to use the film in a tasteful way, and one memo after the other confirms it was the fundamental conflict of sitting on an incredibly valuable piece of property that could not be used without making too many ethical compromises that led LIFE to decide to give it away.”

Finally, in 1975, LIFE sold the film to the Zapruder estate for $1.

Back in the Hands of the Zapruders

Thus Ms. Zapruder’s father Henry became the person “who handled the film for twenty-five years and who bore the primary emotional, intellectual, and logistical responsibility for it.”iii

If owning the film was vexing for LIFE, it was at least equally troublesome for Henry Zapruder. He was, first of all, deluged with requests for copies of the film and for use of the images. A Harvard educated tax lawyer, he had other things in his life to attend to. The Zapruder estate did make some money: for networks or major film producers the usage fee could range up to $20,000 to $30,000. Was this greedy? Mega corporations or TV production companies with six and seven figure budgets for some JFK related project would be greedy to expect to use this vastly valuable piece of intellectual property for nominal fees.

Further, there was also a massive number of requests from ordinary citizens for personal copies or small-potatoes uses. Henry Zapruder charged nothing for nonprofit, teaching, research or study uses. Sometimes these uses required paying a fee to the National Archives for reproduction of the film, and sometimes Henry Zapruder paid the reproduction cost from estate funds if the requester could not afford them.iv

But with opportunities to make money came considerable vilification. Journalist Jerry Urban noted: “While the footage is under copyright protection, some believe profiteering from the historical film made by Abraham Zapruder Nov. 22, 1963 is wrong and that this home movie should be in the public domain.”v

And professor and assassination scholar David Wrone claimed: “You shouldn’t be able to copyright something like that. It should be in the public domain, just like the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s immoral, socially speaking.”vi

And lawyer James Lesar went to court to attempt to nullify the Zapruder family’s copyright.vii

Ms. Zapruder tells of how she “heard my family’s motives and morality casually critiqued on NPR and by idols of mine like Doris Kerns Goodwin.”viii She admits that, as the result of all this controversy, members of her family had developed a “bunker mentality,” although she concedes that was unnecessary, since she found most people “kind, generous and encouraging.”ix


Finally, in the 1990s, the issues were resolved with the Zapruder family donating the rights to use the film to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, and government taking the physical film, paying the Zapruders (after arbitration) $16 million dollars. And thus the long ordeal of the Zapruder family’s control of the iconic artifact ended.

Not a Buff Book

Neither conspiracists, looking for evidence of a plot to kill Kennedy, nor lone gunman theorists, looking for a debunking of such theories, will find much here. Ms. Zapruder does deal somewhat briefly with the theory of Zapruder film fakery, relying heavily on the excellent scholarship of Richard Trask.

There is much more to the book. Including the uses 1970s avant–garde filmmakers made of the movie and the process by which an arbitration panel assessed the value of the camera original film – how do you value something that is utterly unique?

A Family Chronicle

But the part of the book that will be most widely appealing is the chronicle of the Zapruder family. Abraham Zapruder, as a Jewish child in the Ukraine, endured severe poverty, and had to witness his brother Morris being dragged off of a train and killed in an anti-Semitic hate crime.x In pogrom-ridden Eastern Europe, such things were utterly routine. Gangs could roam the countryside, assaulting, murdering and raping Jews at will. This traumatized young Abraham.

Things took a sharp turn for the better when Abe, his mother Chana and his siblings made it to New York, to which his father had migrated years earlier. They prospered there, with Abraham entering the needle trades, eventually being able to afford natty clothes and vacations in the Catskills. He met and married his wife Lillian, and they honeymooned in Niagara Falls.

Zapruders in Dallas

In 1940, Abraham and Lillian and their two children (Henry and Myrna) moved to Dallas, and after a stint with a women’s apparel firm, and one unsuccessful attempt to start his own company, Abe started Jennifer Juniors. The family prospered. Myrna explained that “It was a small city and all the Jewish community knew each other and it was a wonderful, wonderful place to live.”xi Abraham, like the vast majority of Jews, was a staunch Democrat, but unlike a fair number of Jews, was not at all attracted to socialism or communism. Like immigrants generally, he was intensely patriotic. He, and his family, loved John Kennedy.

The family, in fact, embraced their identity as Texans, investing in oil, and also a small herd of cattle. Abe would sometimes dress in cowboy boots and wear a ten-gallon hat, for which his family called him “Abe the Cowboy.”xii A New York Jew impersonating a Texas cowboy might seem mildly humorous, until one notices how hearteningly benign this situation was. A Jewish kid who had survived starvation and anti-Semitic violence in the Ukraine was now a man who was prosperous, safe, and part of a secure Jewish community in Dallas, Texas, USA.

But this was shattered on November 22, 1963, as he watched John Kennedy shot “like a dog” (his own words) on Elm Street. He did not believe things like this happened in America. It must have resonated with his early traumas and brought back the emotions attached to the violence and lawlessness he had escaped. The experience haunted him for the rest of his life.

Citations are to the uncorrected page proofs.


i Page 115.

ii Page 181

iii Page 6

iv Pages 284-285

v Pages 291-292

vi Page 292

vii Page 294

viii Page 8

ix Page 322

x P. 60. Zapruder, always scrupulous in her use of sources, explains that the witness testimony of her grandfather’s account of this event is not entirely consistent. But the weight of the evidence (including clear evidence that Morris died), support this version.

xi Page 69

xii Pages 69-70

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