Dick Stolley still cannot understand why the Secret Service allowed him to get the photographic scoop of the 20th century: Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Stolley, a Pekin, Ill., native and teenage sports editor of the Pekin Daily Times, jumped to the Chicago Sun-Times and then Time, all before age 25. Later, he was the founding managing editor of People magazine.
But at age 35 in 1963, he was an editor with Life’s Los Angeles bureau, where he was working when he heard about the Kennedy shooting. He grabbed a flight to Dallas, where he got a tip: a dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder supposedly had filmed the Kennedy slaying. Stolley called him the night of the assassination, then made plans to visit him the next morning at his office, across the street from the Texas School Book Depository — the sniper’s lair.
Zapruder almost did not make the film: on the morning of Nov. 22, he forgot to bring his Bell & Howell 8 mm movie camera to work. But a secretary at his shop prodded him to dash back and retrieve it: after all, how often does a president visit one’s hometown?
The night of the assassination, he had rushed his film to be processed at a local Kodak developer, one of only two nationally at the time. He had three copies made, and two immediately went to the Secret Service to rush to Washington, D.C. The other copy became the subject of negotiations with Stolley the morning after the slaying.
When Stolley got to Zapruder’s office, three Secret Service agents were there, too — soon to be followed by a throng of anxious reporters.
But Stolley had been the first to contact Zapruder, and — in a key factor later described as critical by Zapruder’s co-workers — the most polite, which Stolley credits to his Pekin upbringing.
But why didn’t the Secret Service agents grab the last film? Why relinquish control of any evidence regarding the investigation, less than a day after a president’s murder?
“That’s a good question,” says Stolley, 85, now living in New Mexico. “It surprised me that these government officials didn’t grab it.”
After they struck a deal, many of the images — Zapruder had captured 486 frames over 26.6 seconds — ran frame-by-frame in Life.
“In terms of public record, I think it is very fortunate I found Mr. Zapruder,” Stolley says.
But at Zapruder’s insistence, frame 313 — depicting the right side of the president’s head exploding in red, from the second sniper shot — was omitted from the original magazine runs. Even so, Stolley acknowledges that the film’s excruciating detail exacerbated nationwide horror. But he says the explicitness was invaluable in underscoring the stark truth of the slaying.
Page 2 of 5 - “I think the film helped impress upon the American people that he was dead,” Stolley says. “A still picture wouldn’t have done that. America had to absorb all that.”
For the record, regardless of the infinite conspiracy angles, Stolley is convinced there was one killer: Lee Harvey Oswald.
“No doubt,” Stolley says. “And I’ve been studying this for 50 years. There are unanswered questions; there always will be.
“But it was him.”
In his own words, granted to the Peoria, Ill., Journal Star in 1999, this is Dick Stolley’s recollection of the biggest single story of his career:
A colleague of mine was watching the AP (Associated Press) teletype, which was the way you got news back then, and he shouted to me — I was sitting in my office in the L.A. bureau — “Dick, Dick, Kennedy’s been shot in Dallas.”
So I ran in there, and we saw these flashes come over, the bells ringing. Anyone who has ever seen one of those old AP machines knows it rings, twice I think, for a bulletin and it just goes crazy when a flash comes over. We saw that he indeed had been wounded in some way; we didn’t know what. So I ran back to my office and I called New York and got the editor, who of course had heard the same news, and the first thing he said to me was, “How fast can you get to Dallas?”
So I grabbed this other reporter and two photographers, and we literally took off for the airport at that point. ... It was a flight that violated FAA rules to a greater extent than I’ve ever seen in my life. A lot of other journalists in L.A. knew or found out that this flight was going. The plane was filled with journalists and television equipment — huge, bulky television equipment just sitting in the aisle. They didn’t even try to strap it down. There was no way to do it. And the pilot kept giving us reports that he was receiving over the radio. So before we landed — we landed just about the time Air Force One was taking off for Washington with the president’s body and the new president, Lyndon Johnson — we knew that somebody named Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested.
My colleague, a man named Tommy Thompson, a Texan, who later became quite famous for writing books like “Blood and Money” and a novel called “Celebrity,” said “I want to try to find the Oswalds.” He said, “I’m a Texas newsman, I know Texas cops, I think I can find them.” And indeed he did. In fact he found them, got an exclusive story, and we hid them out in our hotel for about 24 hours to keep them away from the other press.
Page 3 of 5 - Meanwhile, I went to the office and at about 6 p.m. I got a phone call from one of our part-time correspondents, a stringer, who said she had received a tip that a Dallas businessman had photographed the assassination on his home movie camera. I said, “Wow. We’ve got to try to find that. Do you know anything more?”
She said, “I’ve got a kind of phonetic name. It’s something like Zapruder.” So I said, “Try to find out something more and don’t tell anybody.”
So I picked up the Dallas phone book and just ran my finger down the Zs and suddenly there it was: Zapruder, Abraham. I called that number every 15 minutes for the next six hours, and finally at about 11 o’clock this weary voice answered.
I identified myself. And I said, “Mr. Zapruder, am I the first reporter to call you?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Is it true that you photographed the assassination?”
He said, “Yes.”
“Did you get it from beginning to end?”
“Then you’ve seen the film?”
“You have the film with you?”
“Can I come out now and see it?”
He was emotionally and physically exhausted at that point. I didn’t press. I mean, sometimes in this business, you know, you have to press and sometimes there’s a sixth sense that tells you don’t press. Smartest decision I ever made.
He said, “Come to my office at 9 in the morning.”
I got there at 8 because I knew that if I had heard this tip, other reporters were going to hear it too before the night was over. I got there just at the time three Secret Service agents had arrived. And they were going to see filmed evidence of their catastrophic failure to do their No. 1 job, which is to protect the president.
Mr. Zapruder took us into a small room. This is 8 mm film, which ... is tiny. He put it in this old rickety projector. No sound, of course, except the sound of the projector. Beamed it up against a white wall and suddenly there we all saw this view that has become so familiar:
The motorcade coming in, turning left around Dealey Plaza and then snaking down this way, Elm Street. The presidential limousine. You can see the president waving and waving. The limousine disappears briefly around a road sign and when it comes out Kennedy has both fists up at his throat. He had been shot once.
And Gov. (John) Connally, who was sitting on the jump seat directly in front of him, his mouth is beginning to open and this howl of pain — the bullet went through Kennedy and badly wounded Connally. Connally begins falling off the jump seat. Now we’re talking this all takes six seconds.
Page 4 of 5 - Kennedy has his hand still up here; this was kind of a reflex of the wound he had. Mrs. Kennedy is beginning to turn to him with a quizzical look.
And then comes this hideous head shot where the whole right side of his head just explodes up into the air and the spray of blood and bone. And at that moment everyone in the room just — as if we had been punched in the gut — everybody, Secret Service and me, just went, “Unnh!”
It was an absolute, natural, uncontrollable impulse at seeing that wound.
And then for the few seconds remaining we saw Mrs. Kennedy look at her husband, then turn and crawl out of the seat onto the trunk of the car. I’ve been convinced since I first saw that that this was an act of sheer terror. I mean her husband’s blood and brains were on her skirt and she saw what could have been a mortally wounded governor lying there. Any human being in the world would have thought, “My God what’s happening? Are they going to kill us all?”
And then a Secret Service agent jumped off the car following, a very courageous guy named Clint Hill, and pushed her back into the back seat, hung on himself for a few seconds as the car began to accelerate, and then managed to crawl in himself and the car went off to Parkland Hospital, and the president died a few minutes after he arrived there.
In any case, after we had seen the film, the Secret Service agents and I, other reporters indeed began showing up as I knew they would. So he showed the film to them, and then we all gathered out in the hall.
And then he said, “Well now I know you’re interested in obtaining rights to this film, but Mr. Stolley was the first reporter to contact me, so I’m going to talk to him first.”
The other reporters went nuts at that point, they began screaming at him saying, “Promise us you won’t sign anything. Give us your promise that you’ll talk to us before you do anything.” And I walked into his office thinking, “I’m not going to leave this office without that film. I don’t care what I have to do.”
We sat down, and I said, “Mr. Zapruder, that is a truly fascinating piece of film.”
I said, “Life magazine sometimes will buy film from other photographers, not our own, and we will sometimes pay higher than normal rates.”
I said, “For instance, we might pay $5,000 for that piece of film.”
Now this was to try to find out whether he knew what he had. And he looked at me and smiled. So, I knew that he knew what he had, and he knew what I was trying to do. So, we began talking and I would raise the ante a little bit, and then we would talk for a little while.
Page 5 of 5 - We negotiated and I finally got to $50,000. I said, “Mr. Zapruder, truthfully, I cannot go any higher than this without calling New York.”
Meanwhile, the other reporters out in the hall were shouting, banging on the door. Some of them had gone out to a public telephone and were calling in, screaming at him, harassing him. He was getting, I could tell, more and more disturbed by all of this.
I got to $50,000, and I said that’s as high as I could go. And he looked at me, and he said, “Let’s do it.”
So I walked over to his typewriter, and I typed out a six-line contract, giving us print rights only at that point. I signed it, he signed, his partner witnessed. He made a copy of it, gave me the original film and one copy.
I said, “Do you have a back door to this place?” It was a garment factory. He made women’s dresses. He took me to the back door, and I got the hell out of there. And poor Mr. Zapruder had to go back and face those enraged reporters outside his office.
The following day, Life agreed to pay Zapruder $150,000 for all rights to the film. Zapruder, who would have nightmares about the film and shirk from publicity, died of stomach cancer in 1970.
In 1975, Life sold the film back to his family for $1. In 1999, the federal government bought the film from the family for $16 million. It now belongs to the National Archives — as does his camera, now on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Phil Luciano is a Peoria, Ill., Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano or (800) 225- 5757, Ext. 3155. Follow him on Twitter at @LucianoPhil.