The $16 million film of the JFK assassination that carried a curse

In this Nov. 22, 1963, photo, President John F. Kennedy waves from his car in a motorcade in Dallas. Riding with Kennedy are First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, right, Nellie Connally, second from left, and her husband, Texas Gov. John Connally, far left.
In this Nov. 22, 1963, photo, President John F. Kennedy waves from his car in a motorcade in Dallas. Riding with Kennedy are First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, right, Nellie Connally, second from left, and her husband, Texas Gov. John Connally, far left. AP

The man on the film clip starts out calmly enough, describing how he heard the shots ring out in Dealey Plaza and saw President Kennedy slump over. But within moments it’s clear that he’s distraught and going to pieces. “I saw his head practically open up ... blood and everything ... I’m just sick,” he gasps. The sympathetic TV anchor cuts off the interview before the man can start to shriek and cry. But it’s too late. Abraham Zapruder, who could recount what happened to President Kennedy because he watched it through the zoom lens of his little 8mm home movie camera, is already cursed by the 26 seconds of film he took that day, a curse that will echo down through the generations of his family for decades.

That film, the only one of the actual assassination, is “an object that burns everyone who gets close to it,” said Alexandra Zapruder, his granddaughter, who showed the TV clip Tuesday night to an an audience that came to Alper Jewish Community Center to hear her discuss her book “Twenty Six Seconds.”

Though it brought her family great riches — $150,000, then a huge sum, in the weeks after the 1963 assassination; $16 million years later, when the federal government seized it — the film also exposed them to years of insult and vitriol for turning a buck on a national tragedy. It drove executives at Time-Life, which purchased the film, so crazy that they eventually just gave it back to the Zapruders for exactly $1 and the sheer pleasure of not having to deal with it anymore. And it dragged the federal government into years of costly and enervating legal proceedings that ended in that huge settlement.

Alexandra Zapruder, granddaughter of Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the JFK assassination, signs copies of her book about the tension in and pressure on her family created by that home movie. CARL JUSTE

“The film’s impact on my family was huge,” Alexandra told the Miami Herald in an interview following her book presentation. “But it was huge on everyone else, too.”

Though her book spends 500 pages discussing the history of the Zapruder film in intimate detail, Alexandra — born six years after the Kennedy assassination and 10 months after her grandfather died — actually didn’t know a single thing about it when she started working on the book about a decade ago.

In my growing-up years, this was not my story, she said. I grew up in a family where we didn’t discuss the film. ... My parents always said it didn’t have anything to do with us, that it didn't make us special and we shouldn’t brag about it. And they made it clear they didn’t want to talk about it.” What little she learned came from “going rogue,” sneaking into her elementary school library and reading a few brief passages from William Manchester’s account of the assassination, “Death Of A President.”

But when her father, Henry — who became the family point man on matters connected to the film after the death of Abraham — died of a brain tumor, Alexandra decided the family owed it to history to organize all its papers on the film and the assassination. The deeper she dug, the more obvious it was to her that a book was necessary. I began to realize that there were gaps in history, things we knew that no one else did, and the story needed to be told,” she said.

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Often her research was like jolting time travel through an epoch that seems scarcely imaginable today, even by people who actually lived it. On the afternoon of the assassination, for instance, Abraham had no idea what was on his film — the age of instant video review still lay in the distant future. He had to get the film developed first. (The TV interview in which he nearly broke down was done while he was visiting a Dallas station to see if they could help.)

The head of the Dallas office of the Secret Service accompanied him for a while, but when suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, he had to go back to work. “And instead of saying, here, give me the camera and the film and we’ll get back to you in a couple of weeks, which I’m sure is what would happen today, [the Secret Service agent] just told my grandfather, ‘Hey, if anything turns up on the film, would you give us a copy?’ ” Alexandra said.

Her grandfather did just that. But he also accepted one of the offers from news organizations that began rolling in on the day of the assassination, selling the original film to the Time-Life publishing empire for $150,000.

Alexandra Zapruder, granddaughter of Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the JFK assassination, signs copies of her book. CARL JUSTE

That gave rise to self-doubts that the Zapruder family could never really banish. Abraham — who, along with his sister and his adult children, had been a fanatic supporter of President Kennedy — wondered “how he could profit from the assassination of the president of the United States without paying a moral price for it,” Alexandra said. “I don’t think he was ever at ease with it. He was never comfortable with having profited from the film.”

Time-Life would eventually come to regret the deal, too. Though it meant an enormous scoop for Life magazine, which printed a frame-by-frame analysis of film, the company’s executive recoiled from allowing it to be showed as a movie. The shots of the president’s head exploding were too gruesome and too intimate.

“They were worried that if they licensed it to anyone, we’d see images of the worst moments turn up on t-shirts being sold in Dealey Plaza,” said Alexandra. But as conspiracy theories about the assassination grew, Time-Life’s refusal to let anybody see the film began to look not civic-minded but suspicious. “The more [Americans] couldn’t see it, the more they were certain that Time-Life was colluding with a cover-up,” Alexandra said.

Time-Life’s situation was further complicated by the circulation of bootleg copies of the film. (Some were leaked by a photo technician named Robert Grodin, who got hold of a discarded copy; others by New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison, who subpoenaed the film as part of an assassination conspiracy case and illegally made copies to give away.) When one of the bootlegs was broadcast by ABC reporter Geraldo Rivera in 1975, Time-Life gave up and returned the film to the Zapruders.

The family immediately loaned the film to the National Archives, where it could be seen by people authorized by the Zapruders. Alexandra’s father considered — and responded to — all of them, including a 9-year-old girl who wanted to see the film for a book report.

“I found her letter while going through the family papers,” Alexandra said. “And my father gave her permission! But he wrote her, ‘I wish that you would learn about President Kennedy and what he did, and not focus on this sad film.’ 

Publicity over the Zapruder film died down until 1992, when Congress — prodded by public attention to Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-minded movie “JFK” — ordered the federal government to round up and release all its files on the assassination. Because the Zapruder film was deposited at the National Archives, federal officials wanted to release it.

After extensive legal wrangling resulted in a ruling that it still belonged to the Zapruders, the government seized it through eminent domain — only to be shocked when an arbitrator said the family had to be paid $16 million.

Alexandra Zapruder, granddaughter of Abraham Zapruder, has written a book about the impact her grandfather’s home movie of the JFK assassination had on her family. CARL JUSTE

Media catcalling during the legal battle, said Alexandra, produced the very worst moments of the long drama over the family’s involvement with the film. Brutal headlines like the Washington Post's “Haggling Over History” branded the Zapruders as hucksters of history.

“The media was unfair, to say the least,” Alexandra said. “There were people who were were mean, and said mean things, and hurt our feelings. The worst part was they considered us money-grubbers. I’m not saying my father didn’t care about money at all, but it was never the only thing, or the most important thing.

“He really didn’t want the film released. That’s why he asked such a high price — he really hoped the government would back down and the film would stay in the National Archives, where people could see it but it couldn’t be mass-marketed.”

When it became apparent that the government was going to take the film no matter what, Alexandra conceded, her father could have dropped the price. “He could have given it away,” she said. “He could have. But he had to think about his own family. Five years after that, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died. You never know what will happen in life.”

The biggest irony, she said, is that the film, when finally released, didn’t prove anything at all.

“We have this film of the killing of the president,” she said. “But it doesn’t tell you who killed the president. You can see two shooters in it. You can see 12. ...The film doesn’t answer any questions by itself.”