Dick Stolley, journalist who landed Zapruder film of JFK assassination, dead at 92

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Dick Stolley, the legendary journalist who landed the Zapruder film of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination for Life magazine and who went on to launch People magazine, has died.

He died Wednesday at age 92 in a nursing home in Evanston, Ill., according to friends of his family.

Stolley, an editor in the Los Angeles bureau of Life at the time of the assassination, flew into Dallas a few hours after Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963.

“It was the single most dramatic moment of my 70 years of journalism,” Stolley told “Face the Nation” in 2013 on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, referring to his landing of the iconic 8mm camera footage that would become the most famous home movie in American history and the only film record of the assassination.

Getting his hands on the film was a combination of luck and skillful gumshoe reporting — and of the dominance of Life, at the time an oversize glossy and one of the biggest-selling weeklies in the country.

“I got a phone call from a Life freelancer in Dallas named Patsy Swank,” Stolley recalled for Time. “And the news she had was absolutely electrifying. She said that a businessman had taken an 8mm 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.”

Stolley said Zapruder had taken the film to Kodak for overnight developing and had three copies made. Stolley was the first reporter to contact Zapruder but not the only one. Zapruder told him to come to his house at 9 a.m. the next morning. Stolley said he showed up at 8 a.m.

When he arrived, the Secret Service was there and took two of the copies. Other reporters had caught up to Zapruder as well. Stolley said he always wondered why the Secret Service did not confiscate all the copies. He offered Zapruder $150,000 for the reel — to be paid out in yearly installments of $25,000 over a six-year period.

Zapruder said Stolley had been the most polite of the reporters who contacted him and he also trusted Life to be a good steward. Zapruder had captured 486 frames over 26.6 seconds and after they struck the deal, the pictures were run frame by frame in Life.

“In terms of public record, I think it is very fortunate I found Mr. Zapruder,” Stolley remarked.

Zapruder insisted that frame 313 — which depicted the right side of the president’s head exploding in red, from the second sniper shot — be omitted from the original magazine runs.

Stolley is a lifelong believer that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman.

“I think the film helped impress upon the American people that he was dead,” Stolley says. “A still picture wouldn’t have done that. America had to absorb all that.”

Stolley was eventually promoted to editor of Life and then went on to launch People in 1974, and then served as editorial director of Time, then the most important publisher in the US.

There was little indication what a juggernaut People would become. People was originally a black-and-white magazine that grew out of a popular section of Time. It would become not only the most profitable magazine in Time, but far and away the most profitable magazine in the country.

He said his biggest regret running People was that he did not put the death of Elvis Presley on the cover, because the magazine at the time had a tradition of not putting deceased people on the cover.

“Dick Stolley was an essential force at LIFE through some highly influential years. His spirit and his sensibility remain part of the active brand and magazine today,” said a spokeswoman for Meredith Corp., which owns the People and Life brands. “Landing the Zapruder films was a seismic event for LIFE, for journalism and for the world. In recent years Dick continued to be a friend of the brand, offering fresh ideas and cogent advice. He loved LIFE, journalism and the business — and that showed. This is a great loss.”

He was inducted into the American Society of Magazines Editors Hall of Fame and was a longtime editorial advisor to Time Inc. after he retired.

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