Photo Credit: Jewish Press

As an 8 mm enthusiast, it was natural for Zapruder to take his camera to nearby Dealey Plaza for a keepsake of the president he greatly admired – but in fact he had not brought his camera to work that morning. According to William Manchester in The Death of a President, his classic account of the assassination, the Zapruder film would not have been created but for his assistant, Lillian Rogers who, knowing how much her boss admired the president, ordered him to go home, about ten minutes away, and to return with the camera: “Mr. Z, you march right back there. How many times will you have a crack at color movies of the president?”

Though many people over time have viewed the film, Zapruder was one of the few to witness the actual murder up close. As he told the story, he knew immediately that the president was dead (though, in fact, the president’s death wasn’t announced for another half hour) and, mere seconds after the shots were fired, he shouted to bystanders: “They killed him!”


Even after surviving horrific anti-Semitism in the Ukraine of his youth – including his brother’s murder for the crime of being a Jew – he later commented that he had never seen such a thing, a man “shot down like a dog.”

According to his secretary, Zapruder was distraught in the minutes after the assassination, uncharacteristically screaming at people. A sensitive man, he wept when he returned to his office that afternoon and told his business partner “It was terrible, I saw his head come off.”

Indeed, the shooting would haunt him for the rest of his life, beginning on the very evening of November 22, when he experienced the first of many nightmares about the murder; according to his own account, he dreamt that he saw a booth in Times Square advertising “See the President’s Head Explode!” After screening his film on his home movie projector the day of the assassination, he assiduously avoided viewing the footage for the rest of his life, and he wept openly when he was forced to watch it again while testifying before the Warren Commission.

Zapruder developed the film that very afternoon, and he provided copies to the Secret Service and FBI, who assured him that the original was his to use as he wished. The press lost no time and spared no effort in attempting purchase the film from him but, though he received any number of lucrative offers, he ultimately decided to accept $150,000 from Life magazine because Life was a “class outfit” that understood his requirement that the film be handled with dignity and discretion.

Though he was sensitive about the money and sought to keep the amount confidential – some commentators suggest that he was worried that the story of a Jew “cashing in” on the assassination would incite anti-Semitism (and, as it turned out, he was prescient in this regard) – the first thing Zapruder did after the check cleared was to donate $25,000 to the widow of J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer who had been murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald about 45 minutes after the Kennedy shooting.

Over the years, unauthorized copies of the film leaked and were broadly disseminated, and in 1975 Time, Inc. (then the owner of Life magazine) sold its significantly diminished asset back to the Zapruder family for one dollar. The American public got its first look at the full film when Geraldo Rivera showed it on an ABC “Good Night America” broadcast in March 1975.

On April 24, 1997, the federal Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board declared the Zapruder film an important assassination artifact, and therefore public property, and it was made a permanent part of the National Archives’ Kennedy Collection, along with Zapruder’s black camera bag. The government began negotiations to compensate Zapruder’s children and widow, who had already earned $878,000 from leasing the film for screenings – including $85,000 paid by director Oliver Stone for use in his controversial movie “JFK” – but a dispute developed regarding the value of the film, with the Justice Department offering only $750,000 and the family demanding $18.5 million.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].