New book ‘Twenty-Six Seconds’ details how famed Zapruder film haunts family
As artifacts of the 1960s go, one of them towers, tragically, above all others — above Andy Warhol’s silk-screen masterworks, above The Beatles’ first recordings, above the high and low iconography of the decade.
A 26-second home movie of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, filmed by a Dallas dress manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder, who found the perfect vantage point along the presidential motorcade route of Nov. 22, 1963, is more than historical document.
It’s a singular window on what, arguably, ended America’s overextended, post-war innocence. JFK’s murder was a national trauma that still haunts modernity; the Zapruder film is its real-time ghost.
Relied upon by the government for investigative purposes, its ownership controversially acquired by Life magazine, even parodied in a famous episode of Seinfeld, Zapruder’s chance creation took on mythic status and, inevitably, burdened the family whose name it bears.
The morbid fascination it sparked, and still sparks, make it impossible for the children and relatives of Abraham Zapruder to take public pride in his legacy, and so it’s fitting that his granddaughter, Alexandra Zapruder, has chosen to tell the story of the film through a familial lens. The result, Twenty-Six Seconds (Twelve, 421 pp., **** out of four stars), is a first-rate work of biography and history, addressing the film and the family in all their complexity and character.
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Twenty-six seconds of the JFK assassination — and a lifetime of family anguish
Now, Alexandra Zapruder, granddaughter of the videographer and a founder of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has written a moving and enlightening account that is part memoir; part detailed history of the film and its (inestimable) role in the nation’s understanding of the assassination; and part overview of the film as an inspiration for countless, often bizarre conspiracy theories, as well as for works of art as disparate as Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Don DeLillo’s “Libra” and “Underworld,” and a particularly inventive episode of “Seinfeld.” So much history, embodied in a mere 26 seconds of footage! Not least, this film would one day be sold by the Zapruder heirs to the U.S. government for $16 million, the highest price ever paid for “an American historical artifact,” to be stored in the National Film Registry for scholars and historians to study.
Alexandra Zapruder writes with passion and clarity about the vicissitudes of bearing a famous name without having been involved with its celebrity or notoriety. (“I could not get over my astonishment at seeing [Zapruder] in print so often.”) She is very good at communicating a child’s confused sense of being special and yet being admonished not to think of herself as special. Growing up in Dallas in the 1960s, after her grandfather’s death, Alexandra knew virtually nothing about “the film” — it was never discussed within the family, though as a child she was often told that her beloved grandfather “should have been famous for who he was . . . and not for the film.” In time, Alexandra came to wonder “about this thing called the Zapruder film: Why did people keep bringing it up . . . and what did other people know about it that I didn’t?”
Gradually she came to assimilate unspoken Zapruder family assumptions: “We don’t brag about the film. It is a gruesome, horrible record of President Kennedy’s assassination, which was a tragic event for the country and the Kennedy family. It is nothing to be proud of. . . . We are tied to the film by chance and coincidence. It is an accident of fate. It happened to be taken by our grandfather and it happened to be called by our name. Apart from that, it has nothing to do with us.”
And yet, ironically, the film does have much to do with the Zapruders, who would inherit the perishable artifact after Abraham’s death and be forced to deal with its ambiguous presence in our cultural history. If there is one predominant theme of “Twenty-Six Seconds,” it is that an individual cannot easily escape “the inheritance of names, and how it shapes identity and life experiences.”