The Story Of How Life Magazine Obtained The Zapruder Film Is A Fascinating One

So, I don’t know if you guys have heard, but today is the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Have y’all heard about this? Well, now you know!

Anyway, all the hoopla and build-up around this morbid anniversary has led me to think a lot about the Zapruder film of late. I’ve thought of how amazing it is that one average, anonymous man, Abraham Zapruder, woke up in Dallas that fateful morning in November of 1963 and decided that he’d pack up his 8mm camera and go downtown to see the president, who’d be making an appearance in town that day, and wound up becoming a vital part of history. It’s a reminder of how sometimes the most mundane decisions we make in life can wind up being quite momentous.

The other thing I’ve thought about quite a bit in regards to the Zapruder film is how weird it is that it’s the only recorded record of the shooting of the president that day. In this era, there would likely be hundreds of videos taken of a similar presidential motorcade, and most would be uploaded to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Vine and Instagram within minutes if an assassination attempt was made.

With all of that said, the story behind how Life magazine came to obtain the Zapruder film is an utterly fascinating one.

Fifty years after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, presents the story of how editor Richard Stolley flew to Dallas from Los Angeles within hours of the murder; how he tracked down a 58-year-old amateur-film buff named Abraham Zapruder; how he purchased Zapruder’s home movie of the assassination for LIFE magazine — and what all of that ultimately came to mean for LIFE, for Zapruder, for Stolley himself and for the nation, then and now.

Having flown from L.A. that afternoon, Stolley was in his hotel in Dallas just hours after the president was shot. “I got a phone call from a LIFE freelancer in Dallas named Patsy Swank,” Stolley recently told TIME producer Vaughn Wallace, “and the news she had was absolutely electrifying. She said that a businessman had taken an eight-millimeter camera out to Dealey Plaza and photographed the assassination. I said, ‘What’s his name?’ She said, ‘[The reporter who told her the news] didn’t spell it out, but I’ll tell you how he pronounced it. It was Zapruder.’

“I picked up the Dallas phone book and literally ran my finger down the Z’s, and it jumped out at me — the name spelled exactly the way Patsy had pronounced it. Zapruder, comma, Abraham.”

Now watch the video on this Life put out earlier this week. I think you’ll find it’s well worth your time.

One last JFK assassination note, since we’re on the subject: About a mile down Magazine street from my house in New Orleans is the house that Lee Harvey Oswald lived in prior to moving to Dallas two months before Kennedy was killed. My dentist’s office is directly across the street from it. Here’s what the house — which I’d nominate as possibly the white trashiest house on all of Magazine St., what with the old sofa, propane tank and other assorted junk on the porch and all over the yard –looks like now…

I’ve always been fascinated with the house, for obvious reasons, so I stopped to take some pictures of it a while back. While I was taking said pictures, a man with a pony tail came out to check the mail. A woman who looked a bit like a diner waitress then came out behind him, and they stood together briefly on the front porch. Feeling the need to explain why I was photographing their home — I think they thought I was the law or something — I approached and introduced myself.

I asked if they lived there and the pony-tailed man said “yes,” while the diner waitress looking woman said nothing and just looked me over skeptically. I asked the man if he knew that they were living in the house Oswald lived in when he, if you believe the Warren Commission, shot Kennedy, and he said “yes.” He said the landlord didn’t tell him about that when he moved in, but that a man who wrote a book on Oswald showed up one day a while back and asked if could take a look inside, and that’s how he found out he was living in Oswald’s former home. The two of them then hastily got into a black Ford pickup truck parked out front on the street and drove away.

Anyway, here are a couple of other photos I took of the house that day…

As Ken Layne noted today, New Orleans still feels a bit haunted by the Kennedy assassination. I often walk the same sidewalks where Oswald handed out pro-communist leaflets. There’s an Italian joint around the corner from me that’s owned by a former associate of Carlos Marcello, the now-deceased gangster who ran the local mob for decades, where if you ask the old-timers who are regulars there about it, they’ll tell you all about how Marcello, along with a few other organized crime figures, planned and pulled off the assassination. They’ll tell you how Marcello talked openly about wanting to kill Kennedy long before the president had half of his head blown off in Dallas, and how he also bragged openly about playing a part in his death after it did happen.

But hey, the man got lots of ass and he was the president of the United States for a spell, so the life he lived wasn’t all that bad.