Author Alexandra Zapruder brings to the market unconventional produce in the genre of biography, the art in literature reserved for the life and times of the living, past and present.
Hers is the story of the journey and issues of not-just-any home movie, but the one made famous in the tragedy of perhaps the most famous crime in world history.
Twenty-six seconds doesn’t even register as a blip in the life of planet Earth. But the 26 seconds of film captured by Russian-born Abraham Zapruder will be talked about and its impact considered for centuries, which is why the film merits a unique place in nonfiction literature.
In Twenty-Six Seconds, Alexandra Zapruder, the amateur filmmaker’s granddaughter, traces the 486-frame film in a personal history, from its accidental beginning to the ownership and ethics of its use over the past six decades since Abraham Zapruder caught the gruesome assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald on Elm Street in Dallas.
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Alexandra Zapruder also is the author of the award-winning ‘Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust.’
Though Abraham Zapruder lived less than 10 years after the assassination, his film will live forever as the permanent eyewitness to the events that day as shots were fired around 12:30 p.m.
With his 8mm Bell & Howell zoom lens, Zapruder, a clothing manufacturer and owner of Jennifer Juniors, was so close to the assassination that he knew instantly that he had recorded the murder of the 35th president.
Permanent places in history are often accidental. Abe, as he went by, only went home to retrieve his camera in the first place after some of his employees encouraged him to do so. He didn’t want to wrestle with the crowds or possible rain.
Though in shock, he knew immediately that what he had captured on film would be useful to the authorities, so he sought to develop it and turn it over to the Secret Service and law enforcement. His chief concern was how the images would be used.
Zapruder declined overtures from the Dallas Morning News and others to purchase the film. At issue was the film’s responsible use, particularly frame 313 — the head shot that was not seen until 1975.
An unflattering picture of former CBS newsman Dan Rather emerges during negotiations with news outlets at the offices of Zapruder’s attorney. Each in attendance was required to sign nondisclosure agreements, prohibiting each from reporting what he saw on the film. Rather, however, immediately left the offices for the studios of KRLD TV to be the first to broadcast exactly what he had seen.
When he returned, according to Alexandra Zapruder, Rather then threw a fit when he discovered that Zapruder had sold complete rights to Life magazine for $150,000 in payments of $25,000. That’s more than $1 million in today’s dollars.
According to Alexandra, she never knew her grandfather, Abraham Zapruder. She was 10 months old when he died.
Troubled that he would appear to be trying to profit off the assassination — a concern exacerbated by stereotypes of Jews — and out of genuine concern, Zapruder donated the first $25,000 installment (almost $200,000 in today’s money) to the family of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who was killed by Oswald 45 minutes after the assassination.
Initially, Zapruder was praised for his generosity when reports of his philanthropy were broadcast. Many changed their minds, though, when it became known that his donation was only part of what he had been paid.
It was an unfair criticism. Zapruder never tried to claim that he was donating all the money.
Criticism from accusations of profiteering would dog the family for decades to come in the years after Life sold the original film back to the family in 1975 for a token price of $1.
The family licensed the film to several sources, among them director Oliver Stone, who used it for the movie JFK. In the aftermath of the cloudy, controversial film, a board of the federal government deemed that all footage related to the assassination should be in its hands.
The original film again left the family’s possession for $16 million, paid out by the taxpayers, in 1999.
In the same year, the Zapruder heirs donated all copyright licenses to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, thus ending the family’s relationship with the film.
It did nothing to diminish their father’s and grandfather’s legacy — a key moment in one of the world’s most pivotal events of the 20th century.
Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film
☆☆☆ (out of 5)
- By Alexandra Zapruder
- Grand Central Publishing, $27
- Audio: Alexandra Zapruder narrates the audiobook from Hachette Audio, $30.
- Meet the author: The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza will feature “An Evening with Alexandra Zapruder” at 7 p.m. Nov. 22, 411 Elm St., 214-747-6660. Check www.jfk.org for ticket information.