Sunday, June 9, 2019

Richard Brockway Stolley


I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the eminent journalist and editor, Richard (Dick) Stolley.  I knew Dick, previously, as a member of the Board of Directors of the Lensic Performing Arts Center here in Santa Fe.  He and his wife Lise moved to Santa Fe in 2004.  There is, of course, so much more to his story.


He was born in 1928 in Pekin, a small town south of Peoria, Illinois.  Already in his pre-teen years he fell in love with journalism and became editor of his junior and high school newspapers.  Also, while in high school he started his professional career as the sports reporter for his town’s newspaper, The Pekin Daily Times which still exists.  

He and his twin brother, Jim, decided that before going on to university they would join the Navy.  His brother remained in the States during his enlistment, but Dick was on a ship in the Mediterranean.  He got out in 1948 and went to the journalism school at Northwestern while his twin went to MIT as an engineering student.  Dick wrote a wonderful sad article about losing his twin in 2014.

While they were in the Navy their family moved to Peekskill New York so, of course, Dick got a job with the Peekskill Evening Star.  Wherever Dick went he found the local newspaper and since Northwestern  was in Chicago he went to work at the Chicago Sun Times.  Yet his career really kicked off and he came into his own when he joined Time, Inc. with its dozen or so publications.

He stayed the longest with Life magazine with four years in Atlanta, Georgia as Bureau Chief, then four years in Los Angeles, another four in Washington D.C. and finally as Bureau Chief in Paris covering all of Europe.  In 1974 Dick founded People Magazine. He emphasizes that he made a great effort not to limit People to celebrities and when he speaks of it he emphasizes the other figures covered.

Dick is probably best known for having been the first to see and then acquire the Zapruder film documenting the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) As soon as the President was shot Dick got a call from Time-Life  headquarters to get to Dallas.  Bringing a fellow writer and photographer he was able to get on a commercial flight that landed just as Air Force One was getting ready to take off with the body of JFK.

Life had a stringer in Dallas who had just left the police department to go home to feed her child when she got a phone call from the department saying that there was a video of the shooting.  She told Dick it was taken by Abraham Zapruder, a woman’s clothing manufacturer with offices around the corner from Dealey Plaza.  He had run out with his Bell & Howell movie camera to film the President driving by.  The bloody results were far from his plan.  It was evening by then, Stolley looked up Zapruder’s number in the phone book. and asked if he could come right over.  Zapruder told him they should meet in his office the next morning at 9am.  Dick arrived at 8.

Other Journalists showed up at 9 but Dick had already seen the film which Zapruder had sent out to Kodak for duplication.  Dick did not want to see it again so he waited in another office.  Of course, all the other journalists wanted the film and were furious to learn that Zapruder was in negotiations with Dick. When one of them started banging on the door of the office where he and Dick were speaking, Zapruder had it and accepted the offer of $50,000 that was on the table.  The police received a copy of the film and Dick took 2 copies with him, expediting one to Time-Life headquarters.  There was no time to publish in color, so the issue came out in black and white.  The negotiations had only been for the rights to the stills, but when legendary publisher Henry Luce saw the video, he said they had to have it. Dick was sent back to negotiate all rights for $150,000, a princely sum for the time.  It was , however, considered too gruesome  to show on the big screen or TV so little use was made of it. The Warren Commission reported their finding 11 months later and here is an image of the Life Magazine cover with some Zapruder images.


As you can imagine, Dick had many other important assignments, and he told me of  a few such as a lynching down south in the 1950’s, which I won’t dwell on.  One that he enjoyed was interviewing Georges Pompidou, Prime Minister and then President of France.  Not surprisingly Pompidou was puffing away on a cigarette when the ash fell on his desk and papers burst into flame!  I asked if he had a photographer with him, but the French would not allow it!


My favorite anecdote was about a brief interview he had with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) when he was sent from Los Angeles to his new post in to Washington D.C. I want you to read this in Dick’s own words, “Two writers at Life were doing a story about LBJ and Texas and had a few questions which they hoped I could get answers to.  I asked to see him, and press secretary Bill Moyers agreed to ask the President to speak briefly to me in a small office next to the Oval Office in the White House.  I asked him the few questions.  I was embarrassed, so I sort of sat there with the President staring at me, at which point, he punched my arm, and said, ‘Come on, boy, you’ve got the President of the United States here.  Ask me some questions!’ I mumbled a few questions and fled as soon as I could.”  When I heard this I could just hear that Texas drawl!


It was fascinating to have Dick Stolley take me behind the scenes of just a few of the stories he has covered. 

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