Abraham Zapruder recorded a tragic moment in history when he captured President John F. Kennedy‘s assassination in full color on Nov. 22, 1963.
Fifty-three years later, granddaughter Alexandra Zapruder adds a fresh narrative to an old tragedy with the release of Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film. The book, out last month, delves into the story of her grandfather, who was traumatized after making a home movie that serves as the only complete record of Kennedy’s death. Twenty-Six Seconds also fleshes out the complex situation in which the Zapruder family found itself after the assassination.
“We’re living in a time where we need to have complicated answers to complicated questions. [The book] is my own inquiry into our family legacy and the life of the film,” Alexandra Zapruder tells PEOPLE. “The way that we handled the film shaped the way that the film reached the public and that shaped the way that people thought about the assassination.”
The history of the film is a complicated one.
Zapruder writes that immediately after the assassination, duplicates of the footage went to the federal government. The original film was soon sold to LIFE magazine for $150,000, and was eventually used as evidence in the Warren Commission’s investigation of JFK’s death. Many years later, the Zapruder family once again owned the film, only to face criticism, conspiracy theories and lawsuits.
In 1999, the government purchased the film from the Zapruders for $16 million.
Despite the hefty sum, for Abraham Zapruder the film represented loss.
According to the book, the Zapruders had great love for the Kennedy family. Zapruder’s son Henry (the author’s father) had just been assigned a position in the Justice Department under the Kennedy Administration. So when Abraham Zapruder unintentionally filmed Kennedy’s death as the commander in chief rode with first lady Jacqueline in the presidential limo in Dallas, Zapruder’s granddaughter writes that he could remember nothing afterwards “except for his own anguished screams.”
“[Zapruder] loved Kennedy. He was a middle-aged man at that point, an immigrant, born in Russia, and he certainly voted for Kennedy and was truly devoted to Kennedy and the family,” says Dick Stolley, the LIFE editor (and future founding editor of PEOPLE magazine) who purchased the film from Zapruder. “For Kennedy to be killed, and even worse, for [Zapruder] literally to witness the murder through the rangefinder on his camera, was something, quite frankly, he never recovered from.”
Stolley described sitting in the room when Zapruder first showed the film to him and two Secret Service agents. (One of Zapruder’s first instincts was to get the film to government authorities.)
“We all knew what had happened, but we had no idea what it looked like,” says Stolley. “The three of us were standing and when frame 313 [played] – when his brain sprays up into the air – all of us went ‘ugh!’ It was amazing, as if we’d all been punched in the stomach simultaneously. I’ve never seen anything like that on film or in real life.”
Not only was Zapruder reeling from what he’d filmed, the book describes a man plagued by reporters who wanted the film for their news organizations. As a result, the offer Stolley made on behalf of LIFE magazine was a “safe harbor in a sea of sharks,” Alexandra Zapruder writes.
“[Zapruder was] very worried that [the film] would be exploited or used in a way that he would find tasteless and awful if it fell into the wrong hands,” says Stolley. “You could see it — this was a man in absolute torment.”
Since federal agents failed to confiscate the original film after they made duplicates, Alexandra Zapruder writes her grandfather felt it was his responsibility to protect the public, especially because people weren’t used to such violent images.
“He knew that the media was going to want to have it and that the public was going to want to see it. There was an inherent conflict between that and his sense that he should respect President Kennedy and protect Mrs. Kennedy from this horrible thing being sensationalized,” she says. “I think the sale to LIFE magazine really represented his best compromise.”
After the sale to LIFE, her grandfather was praised for donating $25,000 to the family of the police officer who was killed by JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. But, according to Stolley, LIFE was later criticized for limiting the public’s access to the film (private ownership and the damage of original frames also inspired conspiracy theories). According to Twenty-Six Seconds, the Zapruder family was also hit with criticism when they later reclaimed rights to the film – even more so after the $16 million sale to the government.
“I understand why people are critical about the money, but everyone in our family would have much preferred that the president hadn’t been killed, and if he had been, that it hadn’t been our grandfather who took the film,” says Zapruder.
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While she didn’t write the book to create sympathy for her family, she highlighted the sense of responsibility her father later faced when regulating use of the film. Like his father, Henry Zapruder feared the violent images would be tossed about carelessly for public consumption.
“In my view, thank God it fell to him because he was such a responsible person,” she says, “and he was smart enough to understand what the issues were.”
Beyond the legacy of the film that’s been inherited by her family, Zapruder also touches on the most elemental truths found in those 26 seconds — the human story that makes the film so hard to watch.
“[The film] is the visual representation of what we all know about the fragility of human life, that we don’t want to know … life can come to an end in an instant,” she says. “The fact that it happened to the most beautiful couple in the world, the most powerful couple in the world, the Kennedys, adds to the pathos. But if you separate from that you just see a man and a woman riding in the car on a sunny day. And then, suddenly, he’s dead.”
“That is something that is true about the world that we live in,” she adds. “Everything is fragile and everything can be taken away.”