Zapruder's Book Examines Her Grandfather's Filming Of JFK Assassination
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
November 22, 1963 - Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder left work to get his eight millimeter movie camera. Abe, Papa Abe, Mr. Z - that's how family and friends knew him - loved making home movies. The film in his camera that day already had footage of grandkids, also scenes from inside his dress manufacturing company. But what Abraham Zapruder captured next forever changed him and his family and also changed America.
ALEXANDRA ZAPRUDER: He perched himself on this four-foot high concrete parapet so that he had this really quite amazing view of the limousine that was going to come down Elm Street from left to right.
GREENE: Alexandra Zapruder has no memory of her grandfather. She was just a baby when he died. But she has spent time studying his memories of that day 53 years ago. President Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, were in the back of that limo, and Abraham Zapruder wound up making a home movie of a Presidential assassination. And we should say this story does include a graphic description that listeners might find disturbing.
ZAPRUDER: The first few seconds are - are amazing. You see the president. You see the first lady in her pink suit and her hat. And they're smiling, and they're waving. And there's this little, tiny gesture that always stays with me of the president brushing his hair out of his face - you know, this - this - just such a human moment. And then they disappear for a few seconds behind this highway sign.
And then when the car comes out the other side, you can see that there's - something is wrong because the president's arms are up. His hand's up around his throat. And then there's this long moment that first lady turns toward the president and - trying to understand what's happened.
And the car sort of sinks down in the frame a little bit and then comes this terrible final shot, when the President's head basically explodes. There's no other way to say it. And if you're looking very closely, you can see Jackie Kennedy's mouth open in this scream of anguish and horror. I mean, it's really just heartrending.
GREENE: This has been remarked on before, but the fact that your grandfather was able to just keep filming, didn't drop the camera out of shock - I mean, you wrote that you didn't really appreciate that until you - you held one of these cameras.
ZAPRUDER: Yeah, the camera is heavy. It's, you know, kind of awkward, by at least today's standards. And not only that, he had vertigo.
GREENE: That's incredible. Already worried about his balance, and then - then to have that happen.
ZAPRUDER: Yeah, yeah.
GREENE: Do you think your grandfather was - realized the gravity of what he was doing, or was he just frozen?
ZAPRUDER: I think he was frozen. It feels like that to me. I can't - I can't imagine that he knew what he was doing. You know, that he just - he was watching, and he saw it unfold. And it was - I mean, I really - you know, I'm stumbling for words because it's impossible to describe. It's impossible to imagine how he did it, why he didn't fall or drop to the ground like all of the people around him or pull the camera away from his eye, but he didn't.
GREENE: He didn't. And now, his granddaughter, Alexandra, has meticulously traced the path of the Zapruder film from that fateful day on. She's written a book. It's called "Twenty-Six Seconds." And she tries to bring a journalist's detachment to a story that is so deeply tied to her own family.
How many tunes do you think you have now watched this film?
ZAPRUDER: You know, I never saw the film until I was a teenager. I tried not to see it. I spent most of my life trying to avoid seeing it. But then, for this book, I had to watch it many, many, many times. And I don't - I don't know how many, but I have to say that every time I watch it, it never loses its horror and the pathos of it, you know?
And I've said before and other people have said that every time that first shot comes, there's some part of me that just thinks maybe this time it will turn out differently. You know, if only he had been able to duck down, or if only this or if only that. It never loses that extraordinary impact.
GREENE: For so many years, I mean, when you were younger, your family - it's not just that they didn't talk about. They didn't want to talk about it. Why the hesitance? Why the reluctance?
ZAPRUDER: The film was extraordinarily traumatic for my grandfather. You know, he never fully recovered from what he had witnessed, and he had nightmares, and he was deeply, deeply pained by it. And for my father, this was an unbelievably crushing disappointment. My father had just, three weeks before the assassination, accepted a job in the Kennedy administration, working in the Justice Department. And he had written in 1962 this incredibly beautiful letter to President Kennedy saying, you know, I want to come and work for the new frontier.
GREENE: It's a beautiful - it was a beautiful letter.
ZAPRUDER: Yeah. And so, for them, this was so personal. It was just personally painful. And to be associated forever with something so gruesome and so devastating for everyone, but most especially for the Kennedy family, you know, we never forgot in our family - we were not allowed to forget - that, for all the things that the Zapruder film is, it is, at bottom, our family's record of another family's tragedy, and that is a very sober responsibility to have.
GREENE: And the weight of that responsibility became even greater in the 1990s. For much of its history, the Zapruders owned the original film and copyright. And that led to criticism that the family was profiting from a national tragedy. The U.S. government eventually seized the film under eminent domain. And after a lengthy arbitration process, the Zapruders were paid $16 million. The family then donated the copyright to the Dallas museum devoted to President Kennedy.
ZAPRUDER: People said tough things. We were called bloodsuckers, all we cared about was the money. I mean, there was a lot of that kind of talk. But I really do understand why people felt the way that they did. And part of the goal of the book was to dig deeper.
GREENE: You said in a - in the later part of the book, when all this arbitration is happening, that one of the questions people were struggling to answer is why this film matters and the meaning of it. How do you answer that question?
ZAPRUDER: There are so many answers to that question. First of all, I think the film is and remains and always will be the world's collective memory of, you know, a traumatic historical moment - the assassination of a beloved president. And at the end of the day, it's also this 26-second narrative that is an existential one. It is a beautiful day. The president's riding down the street with his beautiful wife. All is well.
And within 30 seconds, everything is over, and the world is completely changed and that sense that we see something unfolding that we know is true - that life can change in an instant - and yet that we don't want to confront and must confront if we're to, you know, be deeply human people. That, for me, is ultimately where its - its meaning lies.
GREENE: The new book is called "Twenty-Six Seconds." The author is Alexandra Zapruder. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.