Alexandra Zapruder Interview: The Twenty-Six Seconds of Celluloid That Haunts a Family and a Nation
Image attributed to Linda Fittante
Alexandra Zapruder began her career as a member of the founding staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A graduate of Smith College, she served as the researcher for the museum’s primary exhibition program for young people and their families, “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story.” The exhibition tells the story of one family’s experiences during the Holocaust from the perspective of a boy growing up in Nazi Germany.
Zapruder’s first book, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust (2002), won the National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust Category. She also wrote and co-produced I’m Still Here, a documentary film for young audiences that was based on her book. For many years, she traveled the country and abroad to speak about Salvaged Pages to teachers, students and the general public.
“The president’s body kind of sinks down into the car where you can’t see it anymore. Mrs. Kennedy turns around and climbs onto the back hood of the car toward the Secret Service agent who then basically forces her back into the car as the car disappears from view.”
In Zapruder’s latest book, Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film, she tells the whole story, for the first time, of her grandfather’s home movie of President Kennedy’s assassination. Abraham Zapruder had no idea when he began filming Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963, with his 8mm Bell & Howell zoom lens, that his home movie would change not only his family’s life, but American culture and history, as well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There has been a lot published about your grandfather and his 26 seconds of footage, so what did you want people to take away from this book, Alexandra?
Alexandra Zapruder: I really wanted to get into the story that people don’t know about the film. The film is so famous and recognizable and people are so familiar with it, but they don’t necessarily really know the story behind it, the history and our family’s relationship to it, plus all of the complex questions and issues that came up as a result of the film’s existence. So that was the story that I really wanted to tell.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The original film was sold in 1999 for $16 million, correct?
Alexandra Zapruder: Sort of. It’s not exactly correct. The film was in the safekeeping of the National Archives, and the federal government decided to take the film by eminent domain, just like if the government decides they want to build a highway where your house is, they can take your house and pay the compensation for it. There was an arbitration panel that determined what the value would be.
It’s an important distinction because our family didn’t sell the film to the federal government and would never have sold the film to the federal government. But, once the federal government took it, which was their legal right to do, we certainly did cooperate with the government in trying to establish what the value was, and we accepted the compensation for it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This is probably one of the most watched videos ever, but just take us through what your grandfather filmed on November 22, 1963.
Alexandra Zapruder: The film begins, and you see the motorcade beginning to come down Elm Street, first the motorcycles and then the motorcade. There’s this very brief moment where you can see the president and the first lady quite clearly. President Kennedy brushes his hair out of his face, and he’s got his arm resting on the side of the open car. Then, they disappear for a few seconds behind a highway sign.
They come out the other side, and the president’s hands are up around his throat, his elbows are up in the air, and it’s clear that he’s in distress and that he has been wounded. There’s sort of a moment when Mrs. Kennedy turns toward him and his arms are coming down, and there’s the final, fatal shot to the president’s head. It’s very graphic and gory, of course.
The president’s body kind of sinks down into the car where you can’t see it anymore. Mrs. Kennedy turns around and climbs onto the back hood of the car toward the Secret Service agent who then basically forces her back into the car as the car disappears from view.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): To watch anyone get murdered is an horrific experience, but this was the 35th President of the United States being assassinated. How did that affect your grandfather?
Alexandra Zapruder: Well, you know, my grandfather was certainly traumatized by what he witnessed. He was there because he loved the president and because he wanted to record this historic visit to Dallas for his family. So, to then end up recording this moment that was so tragic for the nation and for the Kennedy family, was just traumatic.
I think it was something that pained him for the rest of his life. He said afterward that he had nightmares and that he dreaded the anniversary of the assassination. He really didn’t want to take home movies very much after that, so I think he had a tremendous responsibility for the film and he wanted to do the right thing, but it also brought with it a lot of pain and sadness.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Abraham Zapruder is a very valuable part of history and actually became the eyes for America that day in 1963. Did he ever see it that way?
Alexandra Zapruder: You know, he died in 1970, so he died before the film became what it is now. I mean, I think he knew that it was valuable to the Warren Commission, to the Secret Service and FBI, but I think he just felt personally sorry that he was the one who took it. I think he would’ve much preferred not to have been attached to this terrible event in any way.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It took 12 years for the American people to actually see the film?
Alexandra Zapruder: Yes, and that happened after he died. There were bootlegs that were circulating even before he died, but they were here and there and not widely broadcast. It wasn’t until 1975, which was five years after my grandfather died, that Geraldo Rivera aired the film for the first time on national television. That was really an explosive moment when the American people were finally able to see this film they had heard about and knew about, but had only seen still images of in the pages of Life magazine. They had never seen it actually as a film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dan Rather was among the journalists that day that wanted to get their hands on that film, but he wouldn’t sign a nondisclosure agreement?
Alexandra Zapruder: Yeah. I think the story about Dan Rather is interesting, not so much that he behaved the way he did, but more that it really speaks to the media climate of the time, the frenzy to acquire the film at any price and the desperation on the part of a number of journalists to try to be the one to get the scoop, to get it first and share the information before anybody else. We’re living in a time where reporters can be unscrupulous and desperate for the sensational, and it was true then, too, to a certain extent.
The main reason why I wrote about that event was not because I wanted to embarrass Dan Rather, but because I really wanted this to be a complete record of the life of the film. There was this perception from Dan Rather himself that he was the one who found the film and got it processed, and that’s obviously not the case. But, the more important point really was to try to help readers understand the pressure that my grandfather was under, what he was facing from the media and how Richard Stolley, the Life reporter who ended up buying the film, had to procure rights from the other people and how his behavior shaped the relationship between my grandfather and Life magazine.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did your dad ever indicate that your grandfather believed Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman?
Alexandra Zapruder: I didn’t really talk to my dad about it. I think my grandfather did believe the findings of the Warren Commission. But, I tried to sort of make this point in the book, that given where he came from and the life that he had, it would’ve been very unlikely he would have the kind of deep suspicion of the federal government that the later conspiracy theorists had.
He came from Russia. He came from a corrupt Russia that suffered enormously as a consequence of the inequity and oppression of that system, and America was a democracy and a transparency and progress to him. So, I think it would’ve been very difficult for him to think that what had occurred was in any way a product of the America he loved rather than a lunatic that was acting on his own. If he had lived longer, who knows. But, I just don’t think so.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The divisive political climate in Dallas that day was not unlike the way it is now in our country. What do you think your grandfather would’ve said about Donald Trump becoming president?
Alexandra Zapruder: (laughs) Well, I don’t know. Let me answer this way. My grandfather was a decent, ethical, curious and inquisitive gentleman. I don’t think he cared for people who were not gentlemen. I think he believed very deeply in progressive and democratic values in this country as do all of us in our family. So, I don’t think he would have been a fan of Donald Trump any more than the rest of the Zapruders are.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You recently wrote an article in The New York Times called, “There Are No Child Sex Slaves at My Local Pizza Parlor.” You’re referring to Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that was tweeted by a member of Trump’s cabinet?
Alexandra Zapruder: Yeah. That story was so interesting to me. Well, obviously it was more than interesting. It was deeply troubling. But, I looked at it through the lens of having studied conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination. In the case of the Kennedy assassination, it’s not like every conspiracy theory is outrageous and horrible. There are questions around what happened to President Kennedy, but people have fallen to a middle ground of sort of legitimate questions. You can debate them. You can agree to disagree. You can stack the evidence in different ways. But, this was so far outside of the realm of anything that could ever happen.
The idea that Hillary Clinton was organizing a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor is so crazy. The idea that so many people could believe it and that this kind of false information could be so easily transmitted speaks to the dangers of modern technology and to this deeply divided part of the world where there are so many people who are not checking their sources. They’re not interested in whether or not what they’re reading or hearing is verified or verifiable. It’s just feeding this hatred and feeding this sense that your political enemies are also your moral enemies.
I think that’s what was so distressing about it to me. Think about the Kennedy assassination. For years, people have been publishing books, writing articles, posting things and disagreeing sometimes vehemently, but no one’s issuing death threats. No one’s accusing their opponents of high crimes. I think that’s a big, big difference.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who should speak out against this hatred?
Alexander Zapruder: We all have to speak out. We all should speak out. I think we have to stand for the values that we have, and we have to do out best. I think it’s not unlike the post-Kennedy-assassination. It’s a very destabilized time right now, and I think we have a leader who, to many of us, doesn’t feel like a leader. He doesn’t feel like somebody who’s a leader, and it doesn’t seem like he’s aligned with our values. So, that is a very distressing situation.
I understand that there are people at the other end of the political spectrum who felt that way about the political leaders who I consider my heroes. This is part of the problem, that we’re two different Americas. I don’t know how we’re going to merge and see eye-to-eye, but we’re going to have to try. We’ll just have to keep trying.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still working at the Holocaust Museum in Washington?
Alexandra Zapruder: I left the museum a number of years ago. I’m a full-time writer. I’ve got all kinds of other articles and projects, and I’m thinking about what I’m going to do next. I’m a mother. I always have a lot of both creative and domestic projects that I’m trying my best to juggle (laughs). So, I don’t know what the next book is going to be. But, I’m a writer, and once I’ve recovered from this book, I’ll do something else. It’s like having a baby. You need a little time in between (laughs). But, it’ll be time eventually to start conceiving something new.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): After over 50 years later, has this film been a blessing or a curse for the Zapruder family?
Alexandra Zapruder: It was a burden. I think I would say it was a burden. It certainly was not a blessing, no matter how much money there was, although I would never minimize that. It’s important, and there were certain aspects of our lives that were made easier because of that. But, it was certainly not a blessing. I think to say that it was a curse would be too strong.
I think I would say that it was a tremendous burden and a responsibility that our family took very seriously and tried to weigh the public’s needs to have access to and see the film against our own values of what we felt we owed to the Kennedy family and American society. So, it was a very big responsibility and one that, I think my father and grandfather both discharged tremendously honorably.
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