News Column

JFK Assassination: The Zapruder Film, Life Magazine And A Gentleman's Deal

November 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 17--When three shots rang out at Dealey Plaza in Dallas almost 50 years ago, a journalist named Dick Stolley had never heard of Abraham Zapruder. But their lives became entwined that day, and life was never the same.

Stolley, a former Greenwich resident, was working for Life magazine in Los Angeles when he heard a colleague shouting the news about President John F. Kennedy's assassination. He immediately flew to Dallas, where reporters were converging from around the country for one of the most shocking stories in American history.

Amid the chaos, Stolley received a phone call from a part-time Life reporter with a third-hand account that a local man might have a homemade film of the infamous shooting. The reporter did not know the spelling of the name but said it sounded something like "Zapruder."

Having never been in Dallas, Stolley grabbed the local telephone book and started searching for last names starting with Z, eventually finding an Abraham Zapruder. Dialing the number every 15 minutes, he finally reached an exhausted Abraham Zapruder at about 11 p.m. on the same day Kennedy was shot.

Within a day, Stolley cut a deal with the garment maker, and Life eventually paid $150,000 for the 26-second film -- an incredible sum in 1963 that few others could match.

Now 85, Stolley recalled the details of his place in history in a telephone interview from his home in New Mexico. Having studied and written about the assassination over five decades, Stolley has developed a set of conclusions about the infamous day -- one is that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

"I think there was a single shooter, and I do not think there was any conspiracy before or after," Stolley said. "The Zapruder film is the best evidence for the single-shooter theory that I hold."

"I was surprised at the time that Life was able to buy the film," Stolley recalled. "Zapruder told me he talked to law enforcement people and that they told him it was his film and he could do with it whatever he wished. At this point, they hadn't seen the film. They wanted a copy of it, but it was his to do whatever he wanted."

During a tense day of negotiations led by Stolley, Life not only acquired the valuable original copy but also obtained the worldwide film and television rights. As a result, the 486-frame film was not shown on American television until 1975, when a bootleg copy found its way to Geraldo Rivera and ABC News. Eventually, Life sold the film rights back to the Zapruder family for $1, and the original is now in a vault in the National Archives outside Washington, D.C.

Stolley believes there is nothing comparable to the "most famous home movie of all time" -- where an amateur got the only full-length pictures of one of the most important events in American history. The assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, John Lennon and many others were never captured from start to finish in quite the same way as the Zapruder film.

"It is unique in history," said Stolley, who has kept personal files on the shooting for the past 50 years. "On 9/11, there were some amateurs using iPhones and all the rest. Everybody out there in Dealey Plaza would have had a smartphone [today]. There would have been 1,000 pictures, not one."

Stopping The Presses

As reporters feverishly chased the Zapruder story on Nov. 23, 1963, Stolley got there first, arriving an hour early to meet with Zapruder at 8 a.m. on the morning after the shooting.

"The first time I ever saw the film was with two Secret Service agents," Stolley said, recalling those anxious moments in Zapruder's office that Saturday morning. "My first thought was one of these guys was going to turn to Mr. Zapruder and say, 'We've got to confiscate that film as critical evidence of what happened.' But they thanked him politely and left."

After meeting with Stolley, Zapruder spent the day meeting with journalists eager for the film clip. But when it came time to cut a deal, he turned to Stolley. Years later, Zapruder's business partner told Stolley that he got the film at least in part because of how he had treated Zapruder's secretary, Lillian Rogers. It also didn't hurt that he had the Life magazine checkbook.

As Stolley recalls it, while other reporters were demanding to see the movie, he spent time chatting with Rogers. They talked about high school basketball in her home state of Illinois, where Stolley had once worked as a sports editor of a small newspaper.

Later, as a horde of exasperated reporters waited outside Zapruder's office and periodically banged on the closed door, Stolley typed up a nine-line contract on Zapruder's old-fashioned typewriter and headed out the garment factory's back door with the film treasure. Life paid the then-staggering sum of $150,000 for the film, far more than the $10,000 other news organizations offered.

"Dick did a marvelous job of talking to Mr. Zapruder in not being aggressive and not being belligerent, and so Zapruder sold him the film," said Roy Rowan, the assistant managing editor for Life who was one of Stolley's bosses. "Dick was a gentleman."

On the day Stolley was cutting the deal in Dallas, Rowan was at the printing plant in Chicago where Life had already started printing that week's issue. By the time word came from Dallas that Stolley was closing in on the Zapruder film, about 1 million copies of the next issue -- with college quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach on the cover -- had already been printed.

"We tore up the magazine, not knowing we would get the Zapruder film," said Rowan, who is now 93 years old and living in Greenwich. They scrambled, and Life was on the newsstands by Monday with the iconic black-and-white photos from the Zapruder film.

A Haunting Legacy

As an integral part of the story, Stolley has been pulled into the many conspiracy theories that have continued through the years. One theory is that Stolley somehow doctored the film. Another is that the publisher of Life at the time, Charles Douglas Jackson, was involved in a conspiracy because he had been involved in military intelligence previously.

"I don't think the theories are going to go away," Stolley said. "Any time in the next several generations, when the subject of John Kennedy's death comes up, there will always be a paragraph saying the Warren Commission said one thing and the conspiracy theories said another."

With the passage of 50 years, the number of those with first-hand accounts has steadily dwindled. Zapruder himself died in 1970, and many of the reporters who were in Dallas that day have also died. Jack Ruby, the shooter of Lee Harvey Oswald, died in 1967. Tom Wicker, the lead reporter for The New York Times in Dallas, died two years ago.

"There's not a helluva lot of us still around," Stolley said. "Most of the Secret Service agents are dead. Most of the eyewitnesses and law enforcement people have all died."

Since that day, Zapruder and Stolley have become intertwined in history. Today, Stolley is still in contact with Zapruder's granddaughter, and appeared with her on "CBS Sunday Morning" and "Face The Nation" recently as the 50th anniversary approached.

A fan of Kennedy, Zapruder was "shattered by the president's death," Stolley said.

"The thing we have to remember is Zapruder saw the murder, and we see the film of the murder," Stolley said. "It truly haunted him. ... The Sixth Floor Museum" -- the assassination museum on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building, from which Oswald fired his shots -- "found somewhere between 20 and 30 people who had cameras, but Zapruder is the only one who got it from beginning to end. When I was negotiating with him, he expressed some embarrassment that he was the one who got this. This garment manufacturer scooped the world."

Zapruder had his place in history and has become synonymous with the Kennedy assassination. But Stolley, who has watched the film hundreds of times, is still doing interviews about it 50 years later.

"You say Zapruder film, and you don't have to explain," Stolley said. "Everyone knows what you're talking about."

"The fact that he had taken that film kind of haunted him all his life," Stolley said. "Zapruder was never able to live down his role, and nor was I. It's true. It's not something that haunts me. All journalists write their own obituaries, and there's no question in my mind that mine will say he's the one who got the Zapruder film for Life magazine."

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