Feature Stories

After More Than Five Decades, JFK's Assassination Is Still Shaping These Lives

There are a lot of tragedies in the world and humans have short attention spans. The memory of one high-profile crime, natural disaster or mass shooting is quickly replaced by another, and we move on. And yet, even 53 years later, the murder of President John F. Kennedy is still fresh in the minds of people in Dallas.  

For many, the trauma of 1963 was brought back to life in July when five officers were killed, and nine injured, by a sniper downtown, just a few steps from where Kennedy was fatally shot. Not a month later, a mural of Lee Harvey Oswald on the side of a barbershop in Oak Cliff, where the assassin lived, sparked controversy because some people felt it glorified him. And in October 2017, the JFK Records Act mandates the remaining 40,000 documents that comprise the government’s investigation into the president’s murder must be released.

The specter of the assassination still lingers over the city, and the nation, but the events of 1963 are closer to some than others. Instead of a tragedy in the background, there are people whose existences are still being shaped by the events of Nov. 22, 1963.

The Heir to History
Alexandra Zapruder doesn’t remember the first time she saw the film that made her grandfather famous, perhaps the most important home movie of all time. It could have been in high school in an American history class. While she was not explicitly forbidden from bringing it up at home, it was not a subject that was discussed.

“I don’t have a strong memory of seeing it and being shocked by it,” she tells the Dallas Observer. “It’s like a lot of things inside a family, it doesn’t sound like it could be true, but it’s just part of your life. You don’t think about it the way other people think about it.”

The Zapruder film, worth $16 million dollars today, was purchased by Life magazine in the '60s.  The Zapruder family repurchased it and entrusted it to the care of the Sixth Floor Museum, where it is on display.

Alexandra Zapruder recently published a book, Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film. In it she shares how one afternoon in the life of the grandfather she never knew changed her family forever.

“For the first time we’re getting the family’s story,” says Stephen Fagin, curator of the Sixth Floor
Museum. “It’s like taking a familiar photograph and shifting it ever so slightly.”

Zapruder's grandfather died a year after she was born, but she has learned a lot about him in writing Twenty-Six Seconds. She describes him as someone who had a difficult childhood in imperial Russia, where he was traumatized by poverty and anti-Semitism. He immigrated to the United States at 15, but she says he never overcame the feelings of inadequacy instilled by his upbringing.

“I think he’s someone who had an enormous amount of innate talent,” she says. “He was musically gifted, and he was very funny and very bright … but these things were not cultivated because he didn’t have an education. The other side of his natural ability is that he was insecure.”

It was a love of Kennedy that brought him to Elm Street that day, to watch the president’s motorcade as it passed by on its way to a luncheon at the Dallas Trade Mart.

While more and more people today are using their cellphones to purposely take back storytelling authority from the media, Abraham Zapruder did so accidentally. Upon capturing the footage of the shooting, Zapruder says her grandfather was horrified.

“One of the first things he said on the phone to my father after the assassination was that he just couldn’t believe that Mrs. Kennedy was there and that she had to experience the murder of her husband at close range,” she says. “He felt protective of the Kennedy family and didn’t want to be the agent of further pain and suffering for them.”

The film was ultimately given to Life magazine, because Abraham felt assistant managing editor Dick Stolley could be trusted to handle the film tastefully. Surprisingly, despite other media outlets clambering to get the scoop, the magazine honored their gentleman’s agreement. “I think it was the culture of Life,” Zapruder says. “I think they felt a sense of responsibility about what Americans should or shouldn’t see.”

She was given access to Life’s Zapruder files during her research for her book, and what she read confirmed these suspicions. “One of the things that I saw was that they tried a number of times to do something with the film," she says. "And they ran up against the same problem, which is that there’s actually no way to do something tasteful.”

As high-profile assassinations, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal fomented mistrust of the government, the public began to demand release of the film. In the '70s, good taste was no longer a top priority as it had been in the '60s. “The story of the film is really about those changing norms and about those changing cultural boundaries,” says Zapruder.

The discussion about the importance of dignity versus transparency is one that began with the film, she adds, and still goes on today, when we debate whether it’s right to view videos of ISIS beheadings.

Life decided if they weren’t going to publish the Zapruder film, they needed to get rid of it. By this point Abraham Zapruder had already died, but at the encouragement of her grandmother, Alexandra Zapruder’s father began negotiations to purchase the film back from the magazine.

“My grandmother insisted,” she says. “She felt that it was our responsibility and that’s what my grandfather would have wanted, and she felt that it could be valuable someday and she was concerned for the wellbeing of our family.”

Abraham Zapruder was criticized by some for selling the film in the first place, but Alexandra wonders if the public would have ever seen the film if it hadn’t first ended up in the hands of the media. She is mystified as to why the government never asked for the film outright once they learned of it.

“If we had been asked to give the film to the federal government he most certainly would have turned it over,” she says. “There’s no question in my mind about that.” The original film was eventually taken from the Zapruder family by the government in 2000, but they still retain the copyright.

But in 1975, while the Zapruders were in talks to repurchase the film, a photo optics technician who had secretly made a copy of the film went on Geraldo Rivera’s talk show, Good Night America, and showed the film to the public for the first time.

Once the film aired on TV, Zapruder says that Life magazine gave up any hope of recouping their money on the film and quickly handed it back over. In her research, Zapruder found that one executive had described the film as “too hot to handle and there’s no saucer to put it on.”

The Constant Conspiracist
In the late '60s, Robert Groden was working as a photo optics technician at a firm in New York City that sometimes enlarged film for Life. His employer was one of the only businesses with the ability to raise an 8mm film to a 35mm format for use in a feature film. This is what Life had asked Groden to do when they brought him the Zapruder film in ’68.

The day Kennedy was shot was an important milestone for Groden, not just because assassination research ended up being his life’s work, but because it was also his 18th birthday. “I was in Rego Park in Queens, New York. It was my birthday that day so I was playing hooky from high school and was in the apartment when the news came in over the television that the president had been shot,” he says.

Groden had never met President Kennedy; the closest he ever came was on the Long Island Expressway, when his motorcade drove behind Groden. But the assassination had a powerful effect on him and he began researching it almost immediately. “It started as a curiosity," he says. "And then I just got carried away.”

Now almost 71, he has spent his entire adult life working on the Kennedy case. During that time he has published 14 newspapers, books and magazines about the events, released DVDs and participated in four different government investigations: the Rockefeller Commission, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Assassination Records Review Board and the House Committee on Assassinations.

“I visited President Kennedy’s grave all the way back in 1965 and I made a silent promise at the gravesite that I would do everything within my power, as long as it took, to try to find the truth,” he says. “He was our president, he died for what he believed in, and my feeling is that I owe it to his memory.”

When Groden was unexpectedly handed the Zapruder film, he realized it was arguably the single most important piece of evidence in the case. Groden saw the film as conclusive evidence of a conspiracy, since it indicated that the fatal shot had come from in front of the president, the opposite direction of the Texas Book Depository. Knowing that Life was dallying about releasing it, he decided to make a copy just in case.
“I knew that I would not have very much chance of making a copy, and I wanted to preserve it,” he says.

He presented the film twice before it ever aired on national TV — the first time at Georgetown University on the 10th anniversary of the assassination, which drew no attention from the press, and the second time in Boston in 1975, after which it became a national news story.

At this point, he got a phone call from Geraldo Rivera, asking if he would present the film on Good Night America. “I had to think about it for a while because I knew I had no right to have it in the first place,” he says. “But I knew this was the only chance the American people and the people of the world would have to see the film. So I agreed.”

This led to more opportunities to collaborate with the government. Groden was asked to present evidence before Congress, which led to the reopening of the Kennedy investigation and his role as staff photographic consultant. “The reason it’s always been me is that no one else does what I do as far as the photographic evidence of the Kennedy case goes,” he says.

Because the Zapruder film has an average running speed of 18.3 frames, it can be used as a clock by which to judge the accuracy of the Warren Commission’s conclusion about how many shots were fired. “There were many more shots fired than could be fired from the so-called Oswald rifle,” Groden says.

To him, a conspiracy had been obvious from the beginning, so the main subject of his research this last half-century has been whether Oswald was involved. “It became very, very difficult for people like myself who really had to overcome the bias against Oswald,” he says. “It took me probably five years to realize that he didn’t do it.”

It is no surprise that Groden has written books on the assassination, as it would take hundreds of pages to relay all of the evidence he has accumulated in favor of the view that Oswald was not involved and the fatal shot came from the Grassy Knoll.

Among the evidence he claims are markings on bullets he says have been erased; conflicting reports about the number of bullet shells found on the sixth floor; the lack of firsthand autopsy photographs; and discrepancies between the autopsy report and where doctors who saw Kennedy’s body say the bullet wounds were located.

In 1993, Groden moved to Dallas to pursue his research here. He says he wanted to be an informed alternative to the sea of individuals peddling conspiracy theories on the Grassy Knoll, whom he describes as mostly homeless people, druggies or con artists.

He has appeared in Dealey Plaza nearly every weekend for 23 years to sell his publications and chat with visitors about his findings. He’s also responsible for the X on Elm Street that indicates exactly where the fatal shot struck Kennedy, which he says the city paved over before the 50th anniversary of the assassination, because they didn’t want any mention of conspiracies. (He quickly repainted the X).

Groden’s move to Dallas involved no small amount of sacrifice: He left behind a wife and children in Pennsylvania. “My kids have grown up for quite a few years now without their dad present for most of the time,” he says. “But they’re proud of what I do.”

Because of his work he says he’s also endured threats and harassment, which he feels the police are either responsible for or have failed to intervene on. “In 1981 my house was firebombed,” he says. “And there have been attempts on me in Dealey Plaza several times, once with a baseball bat and once with a hunting knife.”

When he was threatened with a hunting knife, Groden says he managed to detain his attacker for an hour, but the police never showed up. He’s also been ticketed by police 84 times while working in Dealey Plaza, but each of these tickets has ultimately been thrown out by a judge.

Groden sees these attempts as part of the government’s effort to suppress people who know too much, but he says the research community has generally fared better than physical witnesses, many of whom he believes have been murdered. “When I started doing all of this I felt that we would know the truth. But there are so many forces are out there that don’t want us to know the truth that it has become very, very difficult to try to reveal everything.”

The Sixth Floor Museum is left alone by the police, he says, because it has more in common with a government agency than the nonprofit it claims to be and encourages visitors to buy into the Warren Commission’s assertion that Oswald acted alone.

But Groden will spend the rest of his life camped out right next to the museum, making sure its version of events isn’t the only one tourists are exposed to. “I will stay in the plaza every weekend as long as I’m breathing,” he says. “I have the concentration of a still born green pea. I can’t maintain interest in anything, and yet I’ve been doing this for 52 years.”

The Landmark Leaser
At 1:20 p.m. Nov. 22, 1963, Oswald was sitting in the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff when the police showed up to arrest him. Box office attendant Julia Postal said he had entered without paying, and Johnny Brewer, a man who worked at a shoe store just a few doors down on Jefferson Boulevard, helped to identify him to police. He was nervously watching a low-budget war movie called War Is Hell.

If you ever find yourself bored during a movie at The Texas Theatre, there’s a copy of the 888-page Warren Report sitting in the lobby. It contains interviews with Postal, Brewer and a man named Butch, who worked the candy counter. “They’re all three basically interrogated David Mamet style,” says Barak Epstein, one of the founding partners of Aviation Cinemas, which leases the theater. For the 50th anniversary of the assassination he helped turn the parts of the report dealing with the theater into a live play.

This year, as they do every year, the Texas Theatre is playing the same double feature that was playing on the day of the assassination, War Is Hell and Cry of Battle. The theater has changed ownership and was closed for the bulk of the '90s, but in 2001, a city grant enabled it to be purchased by the Oak Cliff Foundation, who renovated it and leased it to Aviation Cinemas in 2010.

Sometimes they also show Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK. Stone shot several exterior shots outside the theater on Jefferson, and executed his own renovations to make the theater look more similar to its ’63 self. The marquee was changed, and the box office in use today was brought in from another old Oak Cliff theater.

At one time there was talk of holding the premiere of JFK at Texas Theatre. But it was closed then, and the honor ended up going to NorthPark Center. Still, the excitement surrounding the film helped to generate interest in that part of Oak Cliff that no doubt set the wheels in motion for the Oak Cliff Foundation to acquire the building 10 years later.

Epstein says he and his partners at Aviation had to go to great lengths to produce a copy of War Is Hell. At first the only version they were able to find was a silent 8mm print, for which another partner, Jason Reamer, eventually created an original score. Later they found a 16mm print in Denmark that had audio, and they were able to splice the two together to create a 38 minute version of the film. To see it, they charge the original admission: 90 cents.

Epstein says there’s nothing special about War Is Hell, beyond its connection to the assassination. “It basically looks like it was shot in a desert backyard,” he says, standing in front of an original copy of the movie poster that’s signed by one of the actors, Tony Russell, as well as Brewer. “It’s just three army dudes running around.” The poor quality of the film may be evidence that the Texas Theatre was already on the decline before Oswald’s capture there, Epstein says.

The theater was constructed in 1931 by a Howard Hughes-owned company in the opulent, “atmospheric” style of architecture, which meant fancy crown molding, opera boxes and ceilings painted to look like the night sky. Some renovations were made in ’56, but a year and half after the assassination, the entire theater was covered in stucco. Today, there is a portion of the wall downstairs that has been excavated so that you can see what the original construction looked like.

Perhaps the stucco renovation was purely to accommodate changing times, or perhaps, as Epstein suggests, it was a move by United Artists Theaters — who owned Texas Theatre at the time — to disassociate the theater from the alleged killer of a beloved American president. “It was theorized that United Artists wanted to change the image — even early on, they didn’t want the place to just be a museum,” he says. United Artists closed the theater in ’89.

Epstein can relate to United Artists’ concerns about the theater being perceived as a museum. Although Aviation Cinemas does a lot to acknowledge and honor the building’s history, a history without which the building might not be standing today, the company didn’t lease it out of interest in the assassination.

“We talk about the history, we have the poster, we show the films, but that wasn’t our reason for coming here,” he says. “Our reason was showing independent films, showing repertory films, having a center for the film community. The history part kind of goes with the territory of this building.”

This territory can include visits from the various tour buses that originate in Dealey Plaza, which simply stop outside the theater, or from tourists on foot who want to see where Oswald sat. Although the ’63 seating arrangement is no longer in use, the two seats Oswald occupied roughly correlate to seats five and two in the middle section of seats, third row from the back.

“You can’t come in [to see them] while there’s a movie unless you buy a ticket,” Epstein says. “Oswald didn’t pay, and people should pay.”

The Dancing Girl
Two days after the assassination, as he was being transferred from Dallas Police Headquarters to the county jail, Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald.

Some people believe that Oswald’s murder was also part of a conspiracy to keep him from talking. But Tammi True, who was the headlining dancer at the burlesque club Ruby owned, says her boss would never have been a part of something like that; he was just angry about the assassination and caught up in the moment.

“He was so upset that someone could kill the president of the United States and the police department gave him an opportunity, cause they just let him come and go as he pleased down there,” she says, sitting on a sofa at the Texas Theatre, where she used to watch movies as a child.

According to True, Ruby was simply passing by the police station while on an errand to wire money to another employee named "Little Ed." True had driven Little Ed to get the money from Ruby the night before, but they hadn’t been able to reach him and he called later to say he would wire the money the next day.

Ruby heard a commotion in the police station and became curious. “He always had a gun with him 'cause he carried his money bag around with him,” True says. “I think it was just more than he could take that day and he just pulled out the gun and shot him.”

She was watching Oswald’s transfer live on TV and immediately knew it was Ruby who’d killed him. His fedora was distinctive and this kind of impulsive behavior was in character. After she witnessed the shooting, she called his partner, who owned a barbecue restaurant in Arlington, and told him to turn on the TV. By the time he did, Ruby had been identified as Oswald’s killer. “He said, well we need to go over there and get a lawyer," she says. "I drove over there to Arlington and I got into the car with him and we went to Dallas.”

That was the last contact True had with her boss; she never visited him in jail, despite their close relationship. “He changed my life,” she says. “I was working for 35 dollars a week and when I went to work for him that afforded me and my family a better life. I bought a new house and a new car.”

But after public opinion quickly turned on him and he went from a hero to an eraser of crucial evidence, True was forced to distance herself for the sake of her family.

True, who was born as Nancy Meyers, grew up going to recreation centers where she would watch dance classes and try to emulate the steps. She easily picked up any routine, and when she later began stripping she had the same practice of watching other girls’ performances and borrowing the bits and pieces that she liked. Her name became Tammi True after her Fort Worth agent told her she needed something catchier to go by and proposed the ’61 comedy Tammy Tell Me True as inspiration.

Ruby hired True sight unseen when he was opening the Carousel Club, and she became the headliner after he learned that a lawsuit she’d filed against another club owner had landed her picture in the New York Mirror. “One night Jack came running back in the dressing room and wanted to know why I hadn’t told him about that,” she says. “After that he made me the headliner, because he thought if I was in the New York paper I was hot stuff.”

For her shows at the Carousel Club, True often performed with comedians, magicians and puppeteers. She gave bachelor parties for Dallas Cowboys, including defensive tackle Bob Lilly, and dated Sonny Gibbs, who was quarterback for a short time in ’63. True even had her picture taken by Bruno Bernard, the photographer who took the famous picture of Marilyn Monroe with her white dress blowing up around her.

She describes Ruby as protective of his friends and employees, as well as a bit homophobic. Although True lived with her mother, grandmother and two children in a home in Fort Worth, she always leased an apartment in Dallas so that she wouldn’t have to drive home late. When Ruby visited her apartment in Oak Cliff one time, and discovered that gay people primarily occupied it, he insisted that she wasn’t safe and leased her an apartment in his own complex off Marsalis Avenue. Ruby was still living there at the time of the assassination. “[The apartments] are still there,” True says. “But they don’t look anything like they did in the early '60s.”

During the course of her time working for Ruby, True built up a local following and even did some national tours, but it was his killing of Oswald that really put her on the map.

After the shooting, her life changed drastically. For three or four years she was subjected to constant interviews by the FBI and the Warren Commission. “They had wiretapped my phone to see who I was talking to and who was calling me,” she says. “I heard a story that Jack came to Tulsa and spent the night with me in a motel room — did not happen. There was so much crap out there that I knew for a fact didn’t happen.”

The misinformation led True to go silent for decades. The final straw was an Esquire interview in the mid-'60s that she felt misrepresented her opinion of Ruby’s involvement. “I got tired of trying to explain that he was a good guy so I just gave it up and I didn’t talk about it,” she says.

True remembers Ruby as a fairly simple guy who didn’t have many hobbies other than looking after his dogs and business at the club. She says reports following the shooting that Ruby used to push people down the stairs don’t ring true to her.

“He had spur of the moment episodes where he didn’t really stop and think about what he was doing before he did it,” she says. “I saw him [throw people out], but even then he would give them two or three chances to stop what they were doing — heckling a comedian or heckling one of us.”

The murder of Oswald also had unintended consequences for True’s personal life. Until her name was in the papers with Ruby’s, her neighbors and the parents at her kids’ school had just viewed her as a normal mom. “I belonged to the PTA and I’d bake cookies for carnival and worked in my yard,” she says. “I didn’t booze. I didn’t do drugs.”

But once her profession came out, other children often weren’t allowed to come over. “Back then, strippers were whores,” she says. “But hell, I see worse on TV now than I ever thought about — and I was supposed to be the dirtiest thing in town.”

She’s now 78, but True still loves the art form of stripping and occasionally performs with a burlesque troupe in Dallas that started in 2007 and takes its name from Jack Ruby. Burlesque, which basically means a variety show that includes a striptease, is much closer to the routines performed at Carousel Club than anything at a typical strip club today.

Missy Lisa, who started the Ruby Revue, was introduced to True by a local radio DJ and invited her to be the guest of honor at a show. True performed with the Ruby Revue as recently as last weekend.

“We kind of adopted each other,” she says. I wasn’t sure what they did — what kind of stripping they were doing. And I went down and watched, and they do the old style where it wasn’t touching and putting money in the G-string and dancing on tables — I call those titty bars. They have pretty costumes and makeup and hair done and they come out on stage and they have clothes on to take off.”

When Lisa started the Ruby Revue there wasn’t a lot of burlesque in the area, so she had to draw from old videos and the advice of troupes that had already taken off in New York and California. Now there are burlesque performances in Dallas every week. Ruby Revue’s shows with True have been among their most successful.

“When we first met we didn’t know what to expect and the second she got on stage the audience just loves her so much,” Lisa says. “I project, and I can also still do this,” True interjects, flexing her chest so that her boobs jiggle.

The Timeless Detective
Homicide detective Jim Leavelle was handcuffed to Oswald on the day that Jack Ruby shot him.

He knew the man for 13 years: Ruby owned multiple nightclubs and dance halls in addition to the Carousel Club. When Leavelle was an officer, his captain would frequently send him to Ruby’s dance hall in Irving to check up on things. “Ruby had a stool that he sat on by the front," says Leavelle, now 96, over eggs, bacon and toast at Chubby’s in East Dallas. "One of us would stand there and talk to [him] and watch the floor, and the other one of us would walk around and just check and if we heard someone talking loud or being disruptive, we'd walk over, tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘Partner, don't you think you've had enough to drink?' We very seldom took people to jail.”

Leavelle, who is also a veteran of Pearl Harbor, chose a law enforcement career when he was young. "Ever since I was young, I thought police work would be interesting,” he says, “and usually around graduation they have a student write down what he thinks he'll be doing 10 or 20 years down the road. I didn't think about it until after I joined the police department but they had written me down as a police detective."

During his rounds at Jack Ruby's businesses, Ruby told him some things that he realizes could now be considered foreshadowing of the murder he committed. “One time when I was standing there talking to him, he said, ‘You know, I always wanted to see two police officers in a death struggle, about to lose their lives, and I could jump in there and save them and be a hero,’” Leavelle recalls. “I said, ‘Well, everybody would like to be a hero if they could do it without costing them anything.’”

After the shooting, when Leavelle had an opportunity to confront him about what he’d done, he realized that Ruby was just trying to live out his fantasy. “He thought that if he could kill Oswald that we would put him in jail, file him for murder and he would go before a grand jury," Leavelle says. "And a grand jury would say, ‘Now Jack, that's a bad thing you've done, but since he needed killing anyhow, we're going to let you go, and just don't do it again.'’’

Leavelle is convinced of Oswald’s guilt, based on his interactions with him during the time that Oswald was his prisoner. Right before Oswald was shot, Leavelle says he joked with him that, “If anyone shoots at you, I hope they are as good a shot as you,” to which he recalls Oswald just laughing and saying, “Nobody is gonna shoot at me,” instead of proclaiming his innocence.

The beige Neiman Marcus suit that Leavelle was wearing as he escorted Oswald, as well as the handcuffs they were both wearing, are on loan to the Sixth Floor Museum. The suit is insured for $75,000.

“I didn't buy it. A friend of mine got too fat for it, and said that if I would wear it he would give it to me,” he says. “It was double breasted, and I had it tailored to single breasted. I didn't tell anyone for years that I didn't buy it.”

Leavelle is still recognized for the role that he played in the aftermath of the assassination, perhaps because he continues to wear a Stetson hat like the one shown in the famous photo by Bob Jackson of Ruby shooting Oswald. “I get letters every day, autograph requests,” he says.

On one flight to Washington D.C., the pilot announced his presence and every person shook his hand on their way past his seat.

Soon Leavelle will leave for Hawaii to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, of which he is one of a few remaining veterans. The Kennedy assassination was not his first time being close to a historic, traumatic moment, but it is inarguably the event that brought him the most attention throughout his life.

He says he’s not sure why; he thought a few weeks or months after Oswald was shot, people would stop being so curious. But the lack of definitive answers surrounding President Kennedy’s death has caused the questions to keep coming.

Like so many people whose lives continue to be affected by the Kennedy assassination, it is not a life he would have chosen for himself. He was simply handcuffed to history.