Twenty-six Seconds – A Personal History of the Zapruder Film
By Alexandra Zapruder (Hachette Books, NY, 2016)
Review by William Kelly
The Provenance of the Z-Film
Alexandra is the granddaughter of Abraham Zapruder, who took the most famous home movie of all time, a 26 second – 486 frame film of the assassination of President Kennedy. And she is the daughter of Henry, a Harvard-Oxford educated lawyer who served in the Kennedy Justice Department and oversaw the copyright fight for the film.
Alexandra herself is no slouch. She has a Masters degree from Harvard, is a founding staff member of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and is author of “Salvaged Pages: Young Writers of Holocaust Diaries.” But in writing this ostensibly non-fictional account of the film they neglect to include an index, so I had to read the whole book to get to the part I was interested in – the Zapruder Film’s time at the National Photo Interpretation Center (NPIC).
But this book is not a history of the film itself, it is personal account from the family’s point of view, and the film’s impact on culture and society, while neglecting its political and historic implications.
After filming the murder, Abe – aka “Mr. Zee,” returned to his nearby office in the Dal-Tex building, placed the camera in his safe and called his son Henry to tell him the president was dead. Henry said he was shot but not yet reported dead, but Abraham knew better and set his son straight, explaining what he saw as the motorcade came into the camera’s picture frame: “As it came in line with my camera, I heard a shot. I saw the president lean over to Jacqueline. I didn’t realize what happened. And then I realized – I saw his head open up and I started yelling, ‘They killed him! They killed him!’ The president is dead. I saw the president’s head explode. How could this happen in America?”
As Alexandra notes, “He had known almost immediately that this (media frenzy) would be the dilemma of the film. The very night after the assassination he was visited by nightmares, some of which would haunt him for the rest of his life. But the one that pressed in on his dreams the most that night was not about the murder of the president but about the film. He dreamed he was walking in Times Square in New York, surrounded by the theaters and the flashing marquee lights. There, on the street corner, in front of a sleazy theater, stood a man in ‘a sharp double-breasted suit,’ hawking tickets to his home movie, shouting to all those who passed by, ‘Come inside to see the president murdered on the big screen!’ From deep inside his subconscious, it was his anxiety about what to do with the film that rose most prominently to the surface…The crux of the dream’s horror, in my mind, is that he would become the hawker on the street himself.”
According to Alexandra, “The reel of film that was loaded in the camera on November 22, 1963 was Kodachrome II safety film, a color film that was less grainy,…but was not easy to develop and had to be sent to a Kodak lab for processing.”
That would be at 3131 Manor way, near Love Field, where at the same time LBJ was being sworn in as President aboard Air Force One.
Because the Kodak lab in Dallas couldn’t make duplicates, “for that they sent films to Kodak headquarters in Rochester, New York,” but the Jameson Film Company in Dallas could, “provided that the original was kept in the unslit 16mm form so that they could run it on their 16mm duplicating printer.”
Kodak provided three rolls of 8mm camera film, but Jameson didn’t know what exposure was used, so they estimated it at optimum calculated exposure, and then printed one somewhat over- and the other somewhat underexposed, so they had at least one optimum copy.
The original film was given the identification number “0183.” But the three duplicates were numbered as follows: Copy 1 – “0185” (below optimum exposure); Copy 2 – “0186” (optimum exposure); and Copy 3 – “0187” (above optimum exposure). None of the copies contained the visual information between the sprocket holes. The original remained unslit. The apparent of absence of a copy numbered “0184” was unexplained. Why wasn’t that number used?
According to Alexandra, Secret Service Agent Max Phillips at the SS office on Ervay Street was given two copies. Copy 1 was retained in Dallas, “while Copy 3 was put on a plane that very night, bound for Chief Rowley at Secret Service headquarters in Washington D.C.,” sometime after 9 p.m.
Alexandra writes: “As early as Saturday morning, November 23, there was no single life of the ‘Zapruder Film.’ There were four versions – the original and three duplicates – each of which travel their own path, creating its own reverberations and consequences…”
On Saturday morning the Dallas FBI “borrowed” Copy 1 from the Dallas Secret Service, but didn’t inform their bosses in Washington. When the Washington FBI office learned about the film from Time Magazine, Special Agents James Bookhout and Robert Barrett were ordered to make a duplicate of Copy 1. But Bookhout and Barrett claimed to have been unable to make a duplicate and returned Copy 1 to the SS Dallas office.
Copy 1 was subsequently sent via commercial American Airlines Flight 20 that departed Dallas at 5:20 p.m. on Saturday, November 23, 1963 bound for Washington D.C. In Washington, additional copies were made from Copy 1 at a commercial lab on Monday, November 25. Copy 1 was returned to the Dallas SS office on Tuesday, November 26, along with a duplicate (third generation) copy.
On Saturday, November 23, the original Zapruder film was sent by “courier” to Life Magazine’s Chicago printing plant, R.R. Donnelley. Meanwhile the Life magazine crew was destroying the 200,000 printed copies of the original November 29th edition of the magazine. That issue featured a story on the Bobby Baker scandal that had threatened to destroy the political career LBJ. Lyndon Baines Johnson, however, was now the President of the United States.
The duplication process in Chicago resulted in some mutilation of the original Z-film. Entire frames were spliced out. A photo of what appears to be the un-slit original that is now at the Sixth Floor museum in Dallas, provides no indication as to exactly when the original 16 mm film (with two running 8mm strips) was slit and made into the 8mm film that exists today at the National Archives.
Sometime during the weekend, the movie (ostensibly a copy), was viewed in New York City by Life magazine executive C. D. Jackson, a CIA-affiliated Cold Warrior. Jackson decided that Life should buy all of the rights to the film, not just the still prints of individual frames, and to suppress the full-length running film. As a result, the film would remain unseen by the general public for more than a dozen years.
Much of Alexandra Zapruder’s book concerns financial transactions involved with the ownership of the film. Alexandra defends her family’s parlay of the original $50,000 to $150,000 and the subsequent buy-back for $1, followed by the re-sale of the film to the US government for many millions. The Zapruder family kept the copyrights and gifted the rights to the historic film to the Sixth Floor Museum, an admirable donation.
It has also been pointed out that Alexandra neglects to mention that a leading copyright authority of his time, Melville Nimmer, considered the Z-film an example of a work whose copyright ultimately would not have been protected due to First Amendment considerations.
Alexandra castigates Joshia Thompson and Robert Groden for theft, accusing them of acknowledging their unauthorized copying of the film in order to promote their conspiracy theories. While she also seems annoyed that bootleg copies were printed, and doesn’t seem bothered at all that there is no precisely accurate account for the film’s time in the government’s hands. She expresses the opinion that Life’s suppression of the film was essentially in good taste.
“Meanwhile,” writes Alexandra, “it appears that at some point in early December, the Secret Service in Washington enlisted the help of the CIA in analyzing the film. This part of the story turns out to be maddeningly confusing. There is scant official documentation and conflicting, sometimes unreliable testimonies from those involved. As a result, there are widely divergent conclusions about what happened and the implications. Trying to isolate the hard evidence and write an account based upon it is hampered by conspiracy theorists who have comingled facts and speculation to form narratives that proliferate in print and on the Internet.”
Wait a minute, I thought that’s what we were doing – trying to isolate the hard evidence and write a conclusive narrative of events as they really occurred. Isn’t that what we are trying to do? And while the crazy conspiracy theorists have failed to do that, so does Alexandra.
For starters, it wasn’t “at some point in early December,” it was the day after the assassination – Saturday, November 23, and Sunday November 24 – when the Z-film visited the NPIC on two entirely different occasions. There events occurred that have been detailed elsewhere.
The December date probably stems from CIA document number (1641)-450 [RIF: 104-10423-10308 link to Smoking Doc #3 [ http://www.maryferrell.org/showDoc.html?docId=7154 – relPageId=2 ], discovered by Paul Hoch, that officially documents the Z-film’s residency at the venerable NPIC.
But the official documentary record doesn’t provide the detail and context that some individuals who were there have described – Ben Hunter, Homer McMahon and Dino Brugioni – NPIC staff employees who actually handled the film.
Alexandra actually leaves out the fascinating story of how we came to meet these men and get their stories on the record. It was the April 2, 1997 Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) public “Hearing on the Status and Disposition of the Zapruder Film,” which was aired on CSPAN cable TV that supplied an impetus.
That program got low general ratings, but was seen by a key suburban Washington D.C. housewife. When she learned about the ARRB’s interest in the Zapruder Film, she called the Board to inform them that her husband, Ben Hunter, had mentioned that he had worked on the film. An employee at NPIC on the weekend of the assassination, he was called in to do special work for someone important.
While Hunter, McMahon and Brugioni were all interviewed on the record by the ARRB, Alexandra only quotes Doug Horne, the military analyst on the ARRB staff, from an interview he gave Dick Russell (which I posted on the internet [ http://jfkcountercoup.blogspot.com/2009/11/doug-horne.html ] ). Instead Alexandra defers to Richard Trask.
“After getting lost in this labyrinth more times than I could count, I eventually found a guide in Richard Trask, author of ‘National Nightmare on Six Feet of Film: Mr. Zapruder’s Home Movie and the Murder of President Kennedy,’ and a measured and reliable historian of these events. According to Trask, the likely scenario is as follows: As we know, the Secret Service had flown Copy 3 of the film from Dallas to Washington on Friday night, November 22.”
“The agency then urgently enlisted the help of the CIA to make copies of certain frames of the film. Late Saturday (or possibly Sunday) night Ben Hunter and Homer McMahon, two employees of the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), were called to the lab. The NPIC was a little-known office charged with solving national intelligence problems by using photo interpretation and imagery analysis.”
This is an understatement, as the NPIC was founded in the CIA by Art Lundahl, who had previously headed the Navy Photo Interpretation Center and was hired by the CIA to develop their National Center, which operated out of the upper floors of a downtown Washington D.C. Ford motor dealership.
The primary responsibility of NPIC was to receive U2 spy plane (and later CORONA spy satellite) photos that were processed at the secret “Hawkeye Works” plant affiliated with the KODAK camera company headquarters in Rochester, New York. When Homer McMahon was tape recorded saying the person who brought the film to NPIC mentioned that the film was processed at the Rochester facility and he used the “Hawkeye Works” code name for the secret plant whose name was still classified in 1997 and had to be excised from the recorded interview with McMahon.
Art Lundahl, the founder and head of NPIC, was first recognized for his analysis of UFO films and photographs in the Navy, but made his mark during the Cuban Missile Crisis when his briefing of the President in October 1962 provided conclusive proof of long range soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and sparked the crisis. Kennedy was so impressed by Lundahl’s briefing he sent Lundahl to London to brief the American Ambassador David Bruce and then on to Paris to brief deGaulle and ensure their support in the crisis.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved with the loss of only one U2 pilot, the President and Attorney General visited Lundahl’s NPIC offices and labs above the Ford dealership and immediately ordered that they be provided quarters in Building 213 on the grounds of the Anacosta Navy Yard and given the budget and latest technology they needed.
It was to Building 213 where the Z-film was taken and it was for a special project that the NPIC staff technicians were enlisted to work on.
“Hunter and McMahon were put to work making enlargements of the film, a task that was described as ‘above top secret.’”
Trask: “The work done on the film was accomplished using the special ’10-20-40 processing enlarger’ with a full-immersion ‘wet-gate’ used to create internegative prints forty times the original size. These internegatives were then utilized to produce multiple color prints of selected frames.”
Alexandra Zapruder says, “It’s not clear what, if anything, the Secret Service did with these reproductions of the film until early December, when they – again in conjunction with the CIA and NPIC – seem to have analyzed the film more thoroughly.”
“Nearly nothing is known about the NPIC handling of the Zapruder Film until the mid-seventies, when first-generation assassination researcher Paul Hoch came across CIA Document 450…This record confirms that the NPIC analysis took place and establishes that two sets of briefing boards with enlargements of the film were created, though the document does not state when or by whom.”
Well we know that two separate sets of briefing boards were made during two separate Z-film visits to the NPIC – one attended by Hunter and McMahon and the other by Dino Brugioni. Neither Hunter and McMahon, on the one hand, nor Brugioni on the other, were aware of the other’s role in the two sets of activities.
We also know that Art Lundahl used one set of the briefing boards to brief CIA director John McCone on Monday morning because when he got back to his office Lundahl said that the briefing went well and thanked all of those who assisted him. While we have some of the original briefing boards, we don’t know what Lundahl told McCone in the briefing.
We do know that after the NPIC briefing using the Z-film photos on briefing boards, McCone told Robert Kennedy the CIA concluded that there were two shooters, as RFK related that information to Arthur Sclesinger, who dutifully noted it in his journal.
But who was briefed by whoever used the second set of briefing boards?
And what became of the documentary record of what Alexandra Zapruder says, “amid rising questions about whether the early FBI and Secret Service accounts of the assassination were correct, the CIA and NPIC undertook a more comprehensive analysis of the enlargements from the film in order to try to establish the timing and impact of the shots fired at the motorcade.”
What became of that “more comprehensive analysis”?
Alexandra Zapruder apparently doesn’t care.
“Who cares when it happened?” she says. “After all, a report of two security agencies working together to glean as much information as they could about the president’s assassination seems innocuous enough. But don’t be fooled.”
She says this link to the CIA has become fodder for elaborate conspiracy theories that she blames on “the very different readings of the testimonies provided by these aging former NPIC personnel.”
There wouldn’t be such fodder for conspiracy theories if the official records of the two briefings and “comprehensive analysis” were on the public record, as they should be by this time. But in the meantime, we do have the recollections of the NPIC technicians who actually did the work on the Z-film.
After he was interviewed on tape, and uttered the “Hawkeye Works” code name for the secret Kodak plant in Rochester. [ Undercover: Covert photographic operations center existed at Kodak plant | Rochester Business Journal New York business news and information ]
Then McMahon was brought back, apparently after being reprimanded for his original candid testimony. But this time he sang another tune, telling Jeremy Gunn (on July 14, 1997) that he was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic with “senile dementia,” thus attempting to destroy the credibility of his previous statements.
Brugioni can’t be so easily dismissed, as he wrote the CIA book on photo forgery, and a synopsis of the Z-film event for the official history of the NPIC, a several hundred page long, still-classified document. But rather than asking what became of all the missing official records on these events, and what is the true provenance of the original Z-film and the three first generation copies, Alexandra Zapruder simply blames silly conspiracy theorists for muddling up the works.
Alexandra mentions that one copy of the Z-film was brought to the NPIC by a Secret Service Agent identified as “Bill Smith,” and of course there is no Secret Service Agent named Bill Smith. It has been speculated that it was just a common name made up for the moment. But there is a NPIC officer named Bill Smith, a longtime employee who married a high level CIA officer who had also worked a NPIC and had been implicated in a social scandal with another government official.
This Bill Smith attended annual NPIC employee picnics, but denied in a phone conversation that he was the “Bill Smith” who brought the Z-film to NPIC. In retrospect it seems he could have got the same message Homer McMahon got, namely, that any discussion of such matters is not the party line.
As for the missing records of the Z-film residencies at NPIC, we do have other examples of missing NPIC records, including accounts of a number of NPIC technicians assigned to the CIA’s JMWAVE station in Florida. They all testified to the ARRB separately that there was a CIA program called PATHFINDER, the files of which were not kept in the regular files at JMWAVE, but kept separate in the NPIC section of the station.
PATHFINDER was described as a CIA plan to kill Castro using snipers with high powered rifles with scopes shooting at him as he rode in an open jeep en route to Xanadu, the DuPont estate, which just happened to be next door to the home of Rolando Cubella (AMLASH), who the CIA’s Desmond Fitzgerald was briefing in Paris at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy.
While PATHFINDER was reportedly “disapproved” by Higher Authority, NPIC had provided he CIA with aerial photos of the area and detailed floor plans to assist them in the operation that appeared suspiciously similar to what happened at Dealey Plaza.
And what became of all the official NPIC records that should have been responsive to the JFK Act and included in the JFK Collection at the NARA where all interested parties could read them and decide for themselves what happened to JFK?
Why isn’t Dino Brugoni’s report on the Z-film event at NPIC from the NPIC official history not included in the JFK Collection at the Archives?
According to an ARRB report on an interview with an NPIC secretary, Robert F. Kennedy himself ordered all the NPIC records related to the assassination compiled and sent to the Smithsonian Institute instead of the NARA, where they should have been sent. In any event, they have for now disappeared into an Orwellian “memory hole” where missing records are deep-sixed.
Alexandra also apparently ignores the well-known fact that Jean de Mohrenschildt, a close personal friend of the accused assassin had at one time worked for Alexandra’s grandfather in the dress business, a coincidence that could have drawn out some interesting additional factors that remain to be explored.
In his book on photo fakery, Dino Brugioni says that it is so easy to manipulate or misinterpret photographs that they should not be utilized as evidence in a court of law, and indeed, like the acoustical evidence in the assassination, none of the photo evidence is conclusive of anything. The Backyard (“mission” photos), the Tramps, Badgeman, the Man in Mexico City, Prayer Man, the Zapruder film – none of them provide any basis for consensus as to what they tell us or mean, regardless of whether they are authentic or not.
And so the bottom line is that Alexandra Zapruder’s book “Twenty-Six Seconds” is more of “a personal history” rather than a definitive account of the provenance of the Z-film. A precise accounting of the film’s chain of possession, and the potential repercussions of that history, have yet to be realized.