Zapruder had taken his place at the pergola above the grassy knoll and climbed onto a cement pillar, about 3 feet high, to watch JFK drive by. But he swayed with vertigo, and his secretary stayed on the ground, holding his legs to stabilize him as he filmed.
Darwin remembers going to Zapruder’s office in the hours after the murder to find out whether the story of the 8 mm film was true. He remembers his conversation with the modest businessman as his camera lay on the desk, its historic cargo still undeveloped. It would not be long, however, before the Secret Service turned up and seized the film. But Darwin had his story as the first reporter to track down the man who had what would become the central piece of evidence of the Kennedy assassination.
At Dealey Plaza we stood next to Zapruder’s cement pillar and only a few yards from the picket fence that shields the grassy knoll that is so central to the mythology of a possible second shooter. Only a few hawkers of conspiracy theories ambled along the sidewalk that morning, handing out their flashy pamphlets and touting their sensational fantasies. Usually, there are more, Darwin said.
At first glance the grassy knoll appeared more compact than I remembered it, especially as I looked down the slope of Elm Street from beneath Oswald’s sniper nest. The sidewalk alongside the street bears two opaque cement squares that mark the spots where the first shot hit both Kennedy and Gov. John Connally and the second shot killed the president. The Zapruder film does not capture the first shot of the so-called magic bullet because a billboard blocked the perspective of Zapruder’s lens. But that sign has since been removed.
As we made our way back to the car, Sam, the former historian at the book depository, drew our attention to the plaque on the side of the building. With its black background and embossed metal lettering, it describes the events of Nov. 22, 1963. In its last few lines the citation states that Oswald “allegedly” shot the president. Over the years, Sam said, the employees of the Sixth Floor Museum were always having to repair the damage to that word, for it was continually defaced, scratched, or had its paint removed.
There was a footnote to our tour. We had tarried at the old Beaux-Arts police headquarters on Main Street, built in 1914, where Oswald was interrogated after his arrest and where Jack Ruby shot Oswald. Why did Ruby shoot Oswald? It was a question I was getting at every turn on my book tour. Sam eased the car into a parking space across the street from the old headquarters, which now houses municipal courtrooms.
According to Darwin, Ruby loved two things—his dog, Sheba, and the strippers at his Carousel Club, which was no more than a few blocks away. The club was a favorite of police officers, and Ruby often passed out cards inviting them to stop by after work. Popular and seedy, the club was considered the second-best strip club in Dallas, after the Colony Club, where the famous stripper Candy Barr was the main attraction.
On the morning of Nov. 24, 1963, Ruby parked his car, with Sheba inside, and strolled to the Western Union office, where he proceeded to send money to one of his hard-pressed performers. He then ambled down Main Street a very short distance, perhaps no more than 50 yards, to the police headquarters and proceeded, unchallenged, down a narrow automobile ramp into the basement. As he arrived at the bottom of the ramp, he found himself in a throng of reporters clamoring for a glimpse of the assassin, who was at that very moment to be transferred from the city to the county jail. Just as Ruby reached the edge of the crowd, Oswald emerged from a far door, escorted by police Chief Jesse Curry and other officers. Ruby pushed his way forward, pulled his pistol, and shot Oswald.
Ruby would say at his trial that he had two reasons to shoot Oswald. This was four years before the Israeli victory during the Six-Day War, and the debate over the supposed complacency of Jews in the Holocaust still raged. Ruby’s first motive for his action, he testified, was to show that Jews could be bold and brave and aggressive. (His real name was Jacob Leon Rubenstein.) His second motive was meant to sound even nobler. He wanted to relieve Jackie Kennedy the suffering of witnessing the trial of her husband’s assassin and of possibly being called as a witness herself.
These explanations feel like transparent rationalizations, concocted by his lawyers afterward to impart sympathy from the public. I discounted them both entirely, as did my guides. Darwin had attended Ruby’s first press conference a month or so after the assassination and described Ruby as totally incoherent and hallucinatory. The assassin’s assassin lived out his life in a jail cell overlooking Dealey Plaza until his death 3½ years later in January 1967.
To hear the details of this story—the cherished dog left in the car, the money wired to the stripper, the short stroll to the police headquarters, the walk unhindered down the ramp, the arrival just as Oswald emerged—confirmed my long-held suspicion about the spontaneity of Ruby’s violent action. If Ruby had been part of a wider conspiracy, how could all of these random acts have been orchestrated to get him to the right place at the exact instant when Oswald emerged?
Indeed, spontaneity, randomness, and cruel fate are at the center of the entire assassination story. What if Ruby’s stripper had not needed money on that day? What if Oswald had not encountered Tippit? What if the motorcade route had been different, or, as Connally had argued, there should be no motorcade at all in Dallas? What if the FBI had followed up on their leads about Oswald, or Oswald hadn’t gotten the job at the book depository only a month before Nov. 22? And the cruelest of all, what if President Kennedy hadn’t been wearing a back brace that held him upright as the sole remaining target for Oswald’s second fatal shot?
To order the e-book of James Reston Jr.’s Accidental Victim, go to the website for Zola Books.