A 26-second home movie taken of the assassination of President John Kennedy on November 22, 1963, has become one of the most famous pieces of film ever. There are countless versions on YouTube, viewed by tens of millions of people.
Where did this amazing imagery come from? Is it an authentic depiction of the assassination of a U.S. president?
To answer such questions, I sought out a man who could answer them better than almost anyone: Richard Stolley, a former editor at LIFE Magazine, the immensely popular photographic magazine of the 1960s.
Stolley was LIFE’s Los Angeles bureau chief on November 22, 1963, and he rushed to Dallas as soon as he heard the news of JFK’s assassination. Once in Dallas, Stolley got a tip from LIFE stringer Patsy Swank, who’d gleaned it from another reporter (who reportedly got it from a policeman), that someone named Zapruder had captured the assassination on film.
With the help of the Dallas phone book, Stolley found the home number for Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas businessman who had taken the film on his lunch break, and called it every 15 minutes until Zapruder finally answered late Friday night. He asked Stolley to meet him at his office the following morning. Over the course of the weekend, Stolley negotiated a $150,000-deal with Zapruder to purchase all the rights to the film on behalf of LIFE.
Stolley is now retired and living in Santa Fe. I spoke to him over the phone in September 2014.
How did Zapruder let it be known he had the film?
When he finished filming, he got down off the abutment shouting “They killed him. They killed him.” He was stumbling back to his office, just right across the street, and there was a reporter there, Harry McCormick from the Dallas Morning News. Now how he got there, I’m not sure. McCormick told a Secret Service agent, Forrest Sorrels, and the two of them went to Zapruder’s office.
A reporter from the competing paper, the Dallas Times Herald, Darwin Payne, was already in the office. So both reporters were in the office and they began arguing apparently. So at that point both newspapers were aware that he was up there with his movie camera. Of course nobody had any idea what he had there.
Eventually Zapruder — not him, either his assistant or partner — began calling around to try to get the film processed.
They went down to the Dallas Morning News. They all got in the car and the Secret Service guy went with them. They went down in a police car, as a matter of fact, sirens screaming and all the rest. There Zapruder was told they couldn’t handle motion picture processing. So they went next door to a TV station, which said it couldn’t handle 8mm color, they could only do 16mm black & white. This was back when evening television shows had just only recently gone from 15 minutes to half an hour. But somebody in the station either knew or looked in the phone book and said that there was a Kodak processing plant in Dallas.
Zapruder went on television for a few minutes just being interviewed. It’s amazing to look at this; the television interviewer from the station is smoking all the time. And Zapruder very briefly and quickly described what he saw and then he was kind of hustled off and that’s when they went to Kodak.
Given the film’s potential historical and evidentiary value, were they told to take special care developing it?
The answer is no; they didn’t know what he had. I mean the fact that somebody had been up there with an 8mm camera was kind of a shock to everybody anyway. There were other cameras along the way. Zapruder in his own kind of hysterical way at that point — I mean, he had seen what he had seen through the viewfinder and he assumed that it was on film.
At the television station, since they couldn’t process the film, he was kind of dismissed as another eyewitness. The Secret Service guy called Kodak and identified himself and said they were bringing film and that he wanted it to be processed immediately, it was important film.
I don’t know if he identified what it was, but he said this has to do with the president’s shooting. And I don’t know if he said you have to be very careful with this, but the fact that he called and said we’re on our way and we’d like this to be done immediately presumably alerted them that it was something they should be pretty careful about.
Did the Secret Service get a copy of it that night or not until the next morning?
Kodak processed it and they saw it for the first time. A few Kodak technicians saw it too, and Zapruder, canny businessman that he was, got affidavits from several of the Kodak workers that they had not made copies. So they either didn’t do copies or didn’t have enough film. They sent them over to another company and that’s where three copies were made.
The Secret Service man left before they went to the second plant where the copies were made because they’d gotten word of Oswald’s arrest, so he went back to Dallas PD. It was Zapruder and his partner. I think the two reporters had left at that point and I don’t even think there was a cop there. Well, maybe there was a cop there to drive them.
In any case they had the original and three copies and they dropped two copies off at wherever the Secret Service guy was — one was flown that night to Washington and the other one was given to the FBI in Dallas. So when I saw him the next day he had the original and one copy.
So then he and the partner went back to the office, had a drink and then he went home.
He was down to the original and one copy on Saturday morning?
Was the film you saw Saturday morning in Zapruder’s office the same film we’ve all seen since?
As far as I know. I mean, I’ve seen it many, many times and it’s the same film as far as I can remember. I have absolutely no reason to believe that anything has been done aside from those two or three frames that were broken by LIFE in Chicago.
Is that near frame 313?
No, way earlier, just as the motorcade is coming around the bend. It’s not in an area that had anything to do with the events that mattered. But I think LIFE was under tremendous pressure to get the damn magazine out, and to have a technician in a lab in Chicago destroy a couple of frames and they put it back together…. But by then copies of the original were around so you have the original, which is missing two or three frames, and the copies which aren’t.
Why did LIFE feel the need to keep the film under wraps for so many years?
Well, what do you mean by ‘keeping it under wraps’? We made copies for every government agency that asked for it, and that of course is where all these goddamn bootleg versions originated.
For two reasons: competitive, [and because] Zapruder had made a huge point to me of not wanting it to be exploited. I mean, I was not in on these discussions; I just knew the people who were making these decisions. I’ve discussed it some since then, but it was competitive reasons, [and] Zapruder didn’t want it exploited.
We’d done our civic duty by giving copies to every bonafide law enforcement organization that had asked for them, including showing a copy at the Clay Shaw trial. Jim Garrison down in New Orleans, which is where I suspect wholesale bootlegging took place. So it wasn’t long before bootlegged copies were being shown. And as you know, finally, when Geraldo Rivera … I think Geraldo Rivera defines what Zapruder was concerned about [as far as] exploitation of the film.
He announced he was going to show it on air and … daring Time Inc. to try to stop him. Time Inc. did nothing, so he did put it on the air. It was a many generation copy, kind of faded. I didn’t see it but I was told. And he was kind of defying Time to sue him, which Time Inc. didn’t do, but at that point [the company] decided it did not want to have to make decisions about the disposition [of the film] and that’s when we sold it back to the family.
Did it surprise you that the public was so shocked when it saw the Zapruder film for the first time and a prevailing opinion since is that it sure looks like a shot from the front?
Well, as soon as I saw it that morning with those two Secret Service agents… God almighty. I just knew that this was something that we, meaning LIFE, had to have. I think I’ve described it as the most dramatic moment of my journalistic career, which has not lacked in dramatic moments. When you cover a story like that, as you well know, you sort of put your emotions aside. So, seeing the president’s head blown off, my immediate reaction was a journalistic one. This is an astonishing piece of film and the world’s leading picture magazine has got to have it.
The fact that the body went backwards I frankly didn’t notice it that much at the time. What I did notice is that the spray of blood and brain matter was forward. And there’s no way a shot anywhere else but from behind could cause that to happen. Now, the body jerking back has been explained as I understand it by physicians and neurologists and all the rest. That tremendous damage to the brain caused all sorts of galvanic responses to the body and that’s what drove him backwards.
But what was very clear to me, the direction the bullet was going, and even if there was a second shot — you know one of the theories is the Grassy Knoll and the two bullets hit the president’s head simultaneously — well, if that were the case then there would have been spray backwards as well as forwards. Every time I see it I make sure that I was right that this stuff is going up and forward. And it is. And, to me, having seen it when I did and seen it so many times, it’s one of the clinching arguments for the shot from behind.
In an interview with C-Span in 1988, on the 25th anniversary of the assassination, you said you were taken aback that the Dallas PD had already convicted Oswald before you had even landed in Dallas on Friday. In all this time have you ever had your doubts about him or how the investigation was handled?
No doubts about him, certainly doubts about how it was handled. The Dallas PD convicted him pretty quickly. They also had a press conference with him at one point. But believe me, having been in Dallas at that time I can excuse… I mean I’ve never seen a city in such shock. So, if rules were bent and things done that shouldn’t have been done it is totally understandable to me. I mean, they got him without killing him, and he didn’t kill anybody in the theater, which he was trying to do as far as we can tell. And they got him back to Dallas Police Department. His famous “patsy” quote and all the rest. But I think the handling of Oswald culminating of course with the decision to move him from one jail to another without proper security precautions, I think Dallas PD, looking back made one mistake after another once they got him. But, it was a very strange time.
Were you called to testify at any of the subsequent investigations?
No. Zapruder of course was. No, I was just the messenger boy at that point.
Have you followed the work of the Assassinations Records Review Board or had any dealings with ARRB investigator Doug Horne, who was charged with looking into the various films of the assassination?
No, the only time I have ever been contacted — I’ve followed it all very carefully — was when they were trying to evaluate the film in terms of the final payoff to the Zapruder family.
It was appraised at $16 million?
Yes, and somebody representing the government came to my office in New York. We had a long talk and I think another talk on the phone. I have to say I was astonished by the final figure. Of course it had been in the federal government’s hands all this time. I think the idea was to simply to ensure that they would never leave the archives.
What did surprise me is that the government did not hang on to the copyright. They gave the Zapruders $16 million and the copyright. Then the Zapruders, of course, did the right thing and gave the copyright to the 6th Floor Museum. They now in effect own rights to the film.
Horne’s investigations found that two teams at the National Photographic Interpretation Center in Washington received what they were told, or assumed, were original versions of the Zapruder film independently of each other to prepare briefing boards. One arrived on Saturday and the other on Sunday.
I think two copies of the film … one went on Saturday, overnight on Saturday, and the second copy went to the FBI. That presumably was sent to Washington quickly too. By that weekend, what you’re saying is, I have no particular reason to doubt it, there were two first generation copies of the Zapruder film in Washington. And both were being worked on totally independent of each other.
Right. Same organization, but neither team knew the other was working on it.
According to Horne, both teams thought they were working with THE original, not a copy. And the second team on Sunday told Horne that they received an unslit 16mm-wide double 8 version, which the Secret Service man told them had been developed at Kodak’s Hawkeye Works in Rochester, NY. Curious, because it should not have been in the unslit format if it had already been processed in Dallas….
I have no idea. I was told that the original and the three copies, that they separated the two [A and B sides of the original, unprocessed film], put them all together in this tiny 8mm thing. I don’t know, because by Sunday LIFE magazine had the original. And on Monday I got the last copy. I’ve read about these competing examinations in Washington, but I’ve not heard that they claimed to operate with a piece of film that looked different than the other. I didn’t see that film, but under the circumstances under which they were operating on Saturday and all the rest, it sounds very peculiar to me.
[LIFE editor] Roy Rowan told me they were in Chicago furiously trying to put the issue together, using a Moviola machine to pick stills.
The way they were handling this precious piece of film it makes your blood run cold. Putting it in a Moviola and running it and all the rest. Boy.
LIFE reporter Paul Mandel’s piece in December 1963, in which he said the Zapruder film showed that JFK turned to the Texas Book Depository, thus accounting for what was initially thought to be a frontal shot to the throat, which was later dismissed…
LIFE has done a mea culpa on that article so many times. He was just flat wrong. Paul is no longer with us. I don’t know if he was ever asked about that. He saw something that wasn’t there. I’ve seen the film enough times to know that’s true. That didn’t help the confusion over anything very much.
Then there was Dan Rather, who after viewing the film said it depicted JFK’s head going forward, then the Warren Commission “accidentally” printing the crucial frame backwards. All of that causes doubt and skepticism.
With those who want to be skeptical, yeah. Dan was in the lawyer’s office when I went back on Monday to negotiate for all rights. I’ve known Dan; we’d covered racial stories in the South in the late 50s.
He was sitting in there waiting to see the film, which he did. I sat out in the waiting room. I think he had concluded that if LIFE had showed up to buy all rights, I think he had $10,000 he was able to offer … he left and I went in and negotiated the rest of the purchase in a very short amount of time.
Dan, meanwhile, although Zapruder had asked him please not to talk about the film if CBS wound up not getting it … I think Dan figured he wasn’t going to get it with LIFE there and the temptation was too great, which I certainly can understand, because he went on air immediately describing it. First on radio, then on television.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the Warren Report. What’s your opinion of its legacy?
They were in a hurry. Johnson wanted some kind of a decision as quickly as possible for both political and I think national morale reasons. I think in the end the Warren Commission was right, but the reaching that decision was flawed. But they got it right in my view.
I will always wonder about Ruby.
I went to the Carousel Club on Monday. Monday after we got the film, I mean after I’d negotiated for all rights, I guess we should have sat down in the hotel room and watched the funeral, which none of us were able to watch. I said, Llet’s find out what we can about Ruby.”
I think Tommy Thompson was with me and maybe one of the photographers. We went to the Carousel Club, which Ruby had closed Friday shortly after the president was killed. We banged on the door and finally a scantily clad young lady opened it. I was very impressed by [LIFE’s reputation because] damned if they didn’t let us in. (Laughs).
So, I’ll never forget it, we sat at a table with two of the women, two of the dancers who were still there, and they said when he heard the news Jack closed the club and sat at that table over there and cried. Then on Saturday he went down to the police department, there were pictures of him. He was well known to the cops. He comped cops at the Carousel Club, they could come in and watch dancing, free drinks and all the rest. He used to take sandwiches down to Dallas Police Department. He was kind of a cop nut. They all knew him, which was one of the reasons he could get in to the basement on Sunday. He was a familiar figure at the Dallas Police Department.
Anyway, these two women sat there and said, “Oh, God, it was so like Jack.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “He sat there crying and saying ‘Oh, My God, that poor widow is going to have to come back testify and go through this and those kids are going to have to go through this trial.’” And they said, in effect, you could just see this thing starting to form around inside his brain. They said, I’ll never forget, “that’s so like Jack.” He thought he’d be a hero as a result of it by wiping out the assassin. And he’d prevent any more sort of despair of showing up and testifying at any kind of trial. I have to say they were crying while [they told the story]. I’ve never heard anybody tell me something that I was convinced was the truth as far as they were concerned.
Many have suggested that LIFE’s publisher at the time, CD Jackson, as well as the magazine’s founder, Henry Luce, had ties to intelligence.
Yes, CD particularly. I mean, [he came out of the] the military. Luce, I’d never heard that about Luce, except. I mean, he was born in China and all the rest. But for CD Jackson, he was publisher of LIFE at the time, and a lot has been made about that. He may have been the one, when he saw the film — as publisher of course he was in charge of the money. He saw the film, early Sunday morning I assume, and it was either his idea or he concurred quickly that LIFE ought to get all rights, not just print. And that’s when they contacted me, said spend another $100,000 if you have to, and that’s what I did on Monday morning.
I will tell you back then the publishing side and the editorial side, Church and State, was a holy agreement; certainly less so now. A publisher would have no control over what the editorial side did, and as a matter of fact would stay out of all such discussions. Again that’s all part of the conspiracy that he was in intelligence. I’m sure he maintained great interest in it and all the rest. I mean, he saw the film at the same time everybody else did.
You yourself have been accused of being part of a conspiracy, involved in manipulating the Zapruder film.
There are two conspiracy theories that I’m part of. One way back was that [when] I got the film from Zapruder I took it to a CIA clandestine photo lab outside Dallas and they rearranged the frames to conceal — don’t ask me how they did this — but that was part of it. Then just a couple years ago a book was published, “My God, I’ve Been Hit,” is the title, which Kennedy is alleged to have said, which I don’t think he did say.
In this somebody in a hat and a trench coat — I’ve never owned a hat in my life — came into Ruth Paine’s home with a valise or bag or some kind of container full of money. The Irving police were there and they jumped me and knocked me to the ground. The author says … “he is believed to be Richard Stolley the LIFE magazine bureau chief from LA.” So they took me down to Irving police department and it’s unclear what happened there but they released me after several hours. Then I disappeared and went back to LA or wherever. But it isn’t clear. The money was either, the author’s not sure, to pay off Ruth Paine for her part in the conspiracy, undescribed, or to give to Marina for first dibs on her story on the family. The guy apparently didn’t realize we already had the damn story. I mean Tommy had got it 24 hours earlier. But anyway those are two times I’m mentioned by name.
[Over the years ] I spoke at two or three meetings of conspiracy theorists and I didn’t make that mistake again, because it was not a pleasant experience.
When “The Day Kennedy Died” came out last fall, I spoke several times here in Santa Fe and at a bookstore in Chicago. In both cases, there’s always a man — always a man, never a woman — lingering at the end of the line of people who want to come up and tell you where they were or ask an individual question after a Q & A period. And finally the line disappears and there’s the guy, and in both cases it was somebody with conspiracy theories, they’re always very polite, who wanted to know what I thought about it. I always try to be as courteous as possible and just say that I long ago decided that I did not keep up on theories, people send me this stuff all the time. I have never discovered anything that would change my mind.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity