Life and Dick Stolley: A Book, a Film, a Performance

By the time he took the stage at the Lensic Center in Santa Fe on November 22, Dick Stolley had been on the road for two months promoting Life magazine’s 192-page special: “The Day Kennedy Died, 50 Years Later Life Remembers the Man and the Moment.” Stolley, a former president of the OPC and a Santa Fe resident, is known to history as the then 35-year-old journalist who obtained the Abraham Zapruder film — the home-made 8-mm recording of the murder of the president told in 486 frames. The graphic frame 313, withheld in Life’s November 29, 1963 issue as too grisly to inflict on the Kennedy family the week after the slaying, is included. It shows the President’s head exploding in a gush of pink blood from what Life says was Lee Harvey Oswald’s last shot.

Why did Life go to all the trouble? Today it’s more important than ever to know who asserts what about the tragic event. Although Stolley believes, as the Warren Commission determined that Oswald acted alone, plenty of people do not. Plots range from CIA involvement, to Fidel Castro, to the Mafia and other conspirators. There has been a reissue of previous conspiracy works and the release of new similar books and articles in the past year.

Over coffee in Santa Fe, days before his final presentation, I asked how Stolley saw this timeline of history.

“I was in New York City on 9/11 and regard that as a seminal event of my lifetime. But the Kennedy assassination is much larger and pervasive. It dominates the nation and the world half a century later.”

Do you get the same questions at each stop? I asked him. “Yes, nearly always. But I try to find more creative answers” he replied with a grin.

At his appearance before a 300-person home audience, Stolley started with a 35-minute documentary of what he remembered. The film was interspersed with clips from Zapruder’s camera and on-the-scene still shots. That warmed everyone up. As Life demonstrated through interviews with prominent and more ordinary folks for this anniversary edition, it seemed everyone could recall the exact second they heard the news.

Joining Stolley was Hal Wingo, a Life colleague also now living in Santa Fe. He told the audience he was walking down 6th Avenue to the Time-Life building in New York after lunch when he saw crowds staring into the windows of the low-brow electronics stores along the street. He was stunned. They were looking at small black and white TVs broadcasting the assassination news. “I raced to the building and soon was on an Eastern Shuttle to Washington,” he recalled.

Wingo was assigned to stake out the White House where Jackie Kennedy was expected to return around 1 a.m. She arrived after 4 a.m., stepping out of her limo in front of the press pack, facing them in her blood soaked pink suit. She could have snuck in through the side portico, Wingo recalled. She later said she stood there to “show the world what they had done”.

Then Stolley took the podium to explain how he was going through the Dallas phone book to find “Z” for Zapruder, calling every 15 minutes until at 11 p.m. he reached the clothing manufacturer. Zapruder was exhausted and refused Stolley’s request to visit him. Stolley backed off, getting a commitment to meet at 9 a.m. the next day. “I got there at 8 a.m., and the press was everywhere. But Zapruder said, ‘you called me first.’ Stolley was ushered into a room with two Secret Service agents. “We watched the film in silence until everyone went ‘ugh’ when the final shot exploded Kenney’s head.” Then the Secret Service agents thanked Zapruder and left.

Astonished, Stolley realized he had a chance to make an offer. He opened with $5,000 to see if Zapruder knew the value of what he had. He then bargained up to $50,000. With the press pack banging on the door and incessantly ringing the office phone, Zapruder had had enough and sold Life the print rights. Stolley snuck out a back way and shipped the film to Chicago, where Life was holding the presses. Days afterward, the Life brass called Zapruder back and bought worldwide rights for $150,000 — about $1.123 million today. Stolley said he was later told he got the film because he won Zapruder’s respect.

And so was history writ with a useful lesson for today’s frenzied reporters. “Sometimes you have to be a bastard. Sometimes you have to show respect for the circumstance. I could see Abraham Zapruder was grieving. It was not a time to press him.”

As the evening progressed, the two veterans recalled in a flawless Dick and Hal routine the assassination weekend, invoking color, humor and a little self-deprecation to tell their story. And a story it was. As a panel afterwards agreed, there are facts, and then there is the human insight that brings the facts to life.