NEW YORK (PIX11) — Without question, it is the most complete and most chilling visual record of a murder ever filmed.
A Dallas dress manufacturer and Kennedy admirer was filming President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade as it passed the Texas School Book Depository Building when shots rang out. Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm Bell and Howell camera captured the entire 26.6 seconds of horror.
His film was the crucial piece of evidence that led the Warren Commission to conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of Kennedy. Scrutiny of the film has also raised questions contributing to the many conspiracy theories, even one that suggested that the film was created by the CIA with special effects.
In the fall of 1966 I went to Dallas to produce a radio documentary on the third anniversary of the assassination for the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Zapruder was to be my hoped-for prized get for the documentary. He accepted my phone call, but graciously explained he did not like to do interviews. I persisted and engaged him in conversation and talked about New York, where his parents emigrated from Russia and he lived in Brooklyn until he was 15. We somehow struck it off and after learning we had some mutual acquaintances, he invited me to his office.
He again explained that he did not like doing interviews and shied away from publicity. I told him how grateful I was that he granted me the interview and I pleaded with him to join me downstairs at the very spot he stood taking the film. It was just across the street from his office. His assistant, Marilyn Sitzman, 20 years his junior, joined us.
He told me how he forgot to bring his camera that fateful day and was encouraged by his assistant to go back home to get it. In vivid detail he told me what his eye captured in the viewfinder of his camera three years earlier. He described the radiant smile on the face of Jackie Kennedy as the motorcade came into view. His voice was halted as he spoke of the chaos that ensued after two shots rang out and he saw the president’s head blown off.
Zapruder and Sitzman were positive they heard two shots from behind and over their left shoulder, where the Book Depository Building was located. Mr. Z, as he was called, said he did not doubt the Warren Commission’s conclusion that there were three shots, explaining that he did not hear a third shot because he may have been in shock at that moment.
He told me how he was traumatized by the shooting and explained the frenzy created by the media once they learned he had filmed the assassination. My interview with Zapruder and Sitzman lasted about 20 minutes. I was so appreciative, I invited both of them to dinner. Zapruder would hear nothing of it. “I want my wife to meet you,” he said with a smile. We bonded. He brought me to his home in the Dallas suburbs, where we shot pool and had cocktails.
He took a box from a cabinet and showed me the unopened camera Bell and Howell sent him in exchange for the one he gave them for their archives. He said he could never look through the viewfinder again, because it brought it all back. Zapruder’s wife Lillian was lovely and such a wonderful host. They took me to dinner at a magnificent restaurant that overlooked the city.
The first time I saw a screening of the Zapruder film, I realized that a portion of my interview could be synced to it to make it sound like Zapruder was actually narrating it. It took many decades to achieve that.
After learning the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza had been given the licensing rights by the Zapruder family, I made a deal with the museum. I would donate my original recording of the Zapruder interview in exchange for permission to use the film on WPIX.
Curator Gary Mack e-mailed me to say he “was amazed that such an informative interview was conducted and still exists,” he wrote and noted, “It adds significant information to Zapruder’s testimony before the Warren Commission and in the Clay Shaw trial.” According to the museum’s Zapruder timeline, my interview was only one of three he did with journalists.
The film runs 26.6 seconds. The audio portion of my interview ran 33 seconds. With some very careful editing, eliminating a pause here and there, I made it work. Now, with my recording, which is part of the “Marvin Scott Collection” and among the permanent assassination archives, the museum is making the film available for licensing with Zapruder’s voice.
Postscript: Time Life paid Zapruder $150,000 for the film back in 1963, the equivalent of $1 million in today’s dollars. In 1999, the U.S. government paid the Zapruder family $16 million for the film. According to Guinness World Records that’s a record $615, 383 per second.
Abe Zapruder died of cancer in 1970 at the age of 62.