Richard B. Stolley was the Los Angeles bureau chief of Life magazine when his assignment to cover the events in Dallas led to one of the great scoops in journalism: obtaining exclusive rights to Abraham Zapruder’s film of the President’s assassination. Here Stolley, now editorial director of Time Inc. Magazines (including this one), recounts that experience in detail.
”Dick, Kennedy’s been shot in Dallas!”
Within an hour of the shout that brought me running out of my office, I was on a plane to Texas with another correspondent and two photographers. In the air we learned that the President was dead and that someone named Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested. By dusk I was setting up an office in a downtown hotel.
At about 6 p.m., I got a phone call from one of the magazine’s part-time reporters, Patsy Swank. She was at Dallas police headquarters, she said in a confidential whisper; Oswald was being interrogated in an office not far away, and the corridors were a chaotic mob of cops and reporters. What Patsy said next was electrifying: She had been tipped by a Dallas officer that the assassination had been filmed in its entirety by a local garment manufacturer, whose name started with a ”Z.” She sounded out the syllables. I picked up the Dallas phone book, ran my finger down the Z’s, and there it was: Zapruder, Abraham. I called the number. No answer. I called again every 15 minutes or so until 11 p.m. Then a weary voice answered.
It was Zapruder himself. He had been driving around trying to calm his nerves. After photographing the shooting, he had literally stumbled back to his office nearby, muttering, ”They killed him, they killed him.” Zapruder’s secretary described him as ”incoherent, in a state of shock,” but clutching the camera containing what would become the most famous home movie of all time.
Incredibly, nobody in authority was much interested in it. Zapruder had contacted the Dallas police, but by mid-afternoon they had Oswald in custody and the film seemed of marginal importance. Both the Secret Service and the FBI said it was his property to dispose of as he saw fit but that they would like copies. Zapruder took his 8 mm film to a Kodak lab, and by evening had the original and three copies in hand.
I questioned him as gently as I could. Yes, it showed everything. Yes, I was the first journalist to contact him. No, I could not come out to his house at that late hour. He was too exhausted, too distraught. He seemed genuinely grateful that I did not persist, and asked me to be at his office at nine the next morning.