By LAURA FREEMAN / Reporter
Posted Oct 16, 2017 at 12:01 AM Updated Oct 16, 2017 at 4:08 PM
HUDSON – The assassination of President John F. Kennedy continues to impact generations.
For one family, its effects have been uniquely, “hauntingly” historic.
Alexandra Zapruder, granddaughter of Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas man who captured those indelible 26 seconds on film from the Grassy Knoll on Nov. 22, 1963, shared her family’s history to a packed room of more than 150 people Oct. 10 at the Hudson Library and Historical Society.
The Zapruder film was a home movie, Alexandra said — key to understanding it as an historic document and its effects on her family.
“If you don’t understand it was a home movie made by an individual with a family history, you can’t understand the life of the film,” she said.
Abraham Zapruder, a dressmaker and Russian immigrant who came to the country in 1920, left his shop (“Jennifer Juniors”) on Dealey Plaza that fateful morning, stopping briefly at home to pick up his 8mm video camera to capture the president’s visit.
“He loved technology and progress,” Alexandra said. “He was a modern man.”
Abraham and his family also loved Kennedy.
“My family were real Kennedy fans,” Alexandra said.
Abraham arrived around noon at his selected perch, a concrete abutment on the Grassy Knoll, to capture the moments when the motorcade passed. The twenty-six seconds of color film ultimately captures Kennedy emerging after a sign with his hands to his throat — and then being hit by what is believed to have been the final, fatal shot.
Darwin Payne, a reporter with the Dallas Times Herald (which ceased publication in 1991), interviewed Abraham after the shooting. Alexandra showed a clip of the interview, as her grandfather describes hearing the shots, seeing the president’s head “opened up” and knowing Kennedy was dead long before Walter Cronkite announced it.
“The killing of the president belonged to the [Russian] world he had left behind,” Alexandra said. “Violence on the street didn’t happen in a democratic society. It was more than he could bear. He couldn’t believe [President Kennedy] was shot down like a dog.”
Abraham had the film processed and three copies made, she said. Two went to the Secret Service. He drove home with the camera, the original print and the other copy.
“For him, it was a nightmare,” Alexandra said. “He didn’t know what to do with it.”
Richard Stolley, journalist and editor of LIFE Magazine, called in the days following the assassination. Abraham was said to have trusted the then-reporter, that Stolley might treat the film with respect and not exploit it. He sold the film to LIFE for $150,000.
“He agonized over it,” Alexandra said. “He didn’t sell to the highest bidder or give it away.”
The Zapruder family gave $20,000 from sale of the film to the widow of J.D. Tippit, the Dallas officer whom Oswald shot and killed the same day as Kennedy. Ironically, both Tippit and Oswald were buried the same day, after Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby days after Oswald’s arrest.
Alexandra noted that her family was criticized through the years for selling the film to LIFE, which printed 31 black and white frames from the video in its Nov. 29, 1963, edition, leaving out the fatal shot.
The first rule of the Zapruder film, Alexandra said, was not to talk about the Zapruder film — both out of respect to the Kennedy family and because of the moral dilemma it posed for Abraham, Alexandra said.
The film haunted the Zapruder family.
“It was horrible to see and disrespectful to the Kennedy family,” Alexandra said.
In 1975, as the film was under the auspices of LIFE magazine, a pirated copy was released on television, and LIFE returned the rights to the Zapruder family. Alexandra’s father, Henry, tried to allow some viewing but limit it. The film was used in the 1991 JFK film by Oliver Stone.
In 1998, ownership was transferred to the JFK Collection at the National Archives Records Administration. The U.S. Justice Department paid the family $16 million, about half of what the film’s value was capped at. The Zapruders have retained the copyrights.
In 2000, the Zapruder family donated the film copies, photographs and all copyrights to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.
Most of the people in the room at the library were old enough to be alive that fateful Friday in Dallas, coming up on 54 years ago this Nov. 22.
During the question period at the end, Al McCaulley of Tallmadge stood up and offered another unique perspective.
From 1958 to 1967, he said, he worked in the photo lab for the FBI in Washington, D.C., and was called in for a 24-hour shift the day after Kennedy was shot to handle a special film coming in from Dallas.
McCaulley said the now iconic Zapruder film “seemed longer than 26 seconds.”
“Everyone sees something different [in the film],” he said.
Alexandra agreed, and says it raises more questions than answers, including conspiracy theories.
“The film is a visual record but it complicates the discussion,” she said.
Abraham died when Alexandra was 11 months old, so she researched his life and ultimately authored “Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film.”
“Everyone else got to know him — but not me,” Alexandra said.
In 2004, Alexandra’s father died and the film became her responsibility.
“I had to take responsibility for the Zapruder film and those who were part of it,” Alexandra said. “I was a writer so it was natural for it to fall to me, but I knew nothing about the film. I ran into historical gaps and misinterpretations of the family story.”
Alexandra’s resume extends far beyond being an author and curator to both national and family history. She is a founding member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
A graduate of Smith College, she served on the curatorial team for the museum’s exhibition for young visitors, Remember The Children, Daniel’s Story. She earned her master’s degree in education at Harvard University in 1995.
In 2002, Alexandra completed her first book, “Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust,” which was published by Yale University Press and won the National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category. She wrote and co-produced “I’m Still Here,” a documentary film for young audiences based on her book, which aired on MTV in May 2005 and was nominated for two Emmy awards.