Life magazine in its Nov. 29, 1963 issue published the first shocking pictures of the Kennedy assassination with frames from a home movie shot by a Dallas dressmaker.
Abraham Zapruder spent his first 13 years in the Ukraine, then a part of Czarist Russia. In 1918, he escaped the turmoil and violence of the Bolshevik Revolution with his mother and siblings and joined his father, who had come to the U.S. nine years earlier, in Brooklyn, New York.
Zapruder moved to Dallas with his wife and two children in 1941. He went into business with a partner manufacturing women’s wear under the brand names Chalet and Jennifer Juniors.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Zapruder loaded his new Bell and Howell 8mm camera with color film and walked the short distance from his downtown office to Dealey Plaza with receptionist Marilyn Sitzman. At her suggestion, he positioned himself on a concrete pedestal that provided an unobstructed view of the route President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade would follow down Elm Street.
Zapruder began filming as soon as the police motorcycles at the front of the caravan came around the corner of Houston and Elm. But to keep from wasting film, he shut off the camera and waited for the open limousine with the guest of honor.
In her 2016 book Twenty-Six Seconds, Zapruder’s granddaughter describes what happened seconds after Kennedy’s car made the fateful turn: “For an instant, the back of a freeway sign obscures the limousine, and then the Kennedys reappear. ‘As it came in line with my camera, I heard a shot,’ Abe later recalled. ‘I saw the president lean over to Jacqueline. I didn’t realize what had happened.’”
Alexandra Zapruder continues: “The car dips into the lower part of the camera frame, and as the president’s body sinks down in the car toward his wife, the fatal shot strikes him.”
“And then I realized,” said Abe. “I saw his head open up and I started yelling, ‘They killed him! They killed him!’”
Reporter Harry McCormick was waiting at the Trade Mart to cover JFK’s speech at a luncheon in the huge hall for the Dallas Morning News. (Readers of my book Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes may remember McCormick from his interview with Death Row fugitive Raymond Hamilton.) The instant he heard that the president had been shot, the veteran journalist jumped in a car and drove like a madman to Dealey Plaza.
In a letter to relatives on Dec. 8, 1963, McCormick wrote, “I scarcely got there when I saw a Jewish man with a movie camera in his hands and he was clearly crying. I asked him what happened and found that he had photographed the whole scene. I…told him that Secret Service would want his film and to wait (for me to) bring an agent to his office.”
In no time at all, McCormick showed up with Forrest Sorrels, head of the Secret Service in Dallas. Their pressing priority was to have the film developed, but that was not as easy as first thought. Neither The Morning News nor WFAA-TV had the equipment or expertise.
While Sorrels and McCormick tried frantically to find a photo lab up to the job, the WFAA program director put Abe Zapruder on the air. His face flushed and beaded with sweat, the words came slowly and with obvious pain for the emotional eyewitness.
“As the president was coming down (Elm Street), I heard a shot and he slumped to the side. Then I heard another shot or two, I couldn’t say whether it was one or two, and I saw his head practically open up.”
Sorrels and McCormick broke the stunned silence in the television studio by hustling Zapruder out the door and into a waiting police car. Eastman Kodak had assured them that their facility near Love Field had the machine and know-how to process the footage.
At the very moment the crowded cruiser pulled into the Eastman Kodak parking lot, Air Force One could be seen taking off from the nearby airport with the body of the dead president and his solemn successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
An hour and a half later, Zapruder had three copies of his Dealey Plaza silent movie. He gave two to the Secret Service agent and kept one for himself.
Believing in the old adage “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Harry McCormick offered Zapruder a thousand dollars cash for his copy. After the businessman politely turned him down, the reporter said he would contact a friend at Life on his behalf.
In telephone negotiations that evening, Zapruder came to terms with the magazine. Life paid $150,000 ($1.2 million in current dollars) for all rights to the film. In the 1990’s, director Oliver Stone paid Zapruder’s heirs $85,000 to show the film in its entirety in his motion picture JFK.
With no fanfare or self-serving publicity, Abe Zapruder shared a portion of the proceeds with an innocent victim of that terrible day. He gave $25,000 to the widow of Officer J.D. Tippit, the Dallas policeman shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald.