More than 300,000 people lined Pennsylvania Avenue on this day in 1963 to watch a horse-drawn caisson carry President Kennedy’s casket from the White House to the Capitol Rotunda. Giovanna Breu, a writer in one of my memoir classes, was there, but Not as an onlooker. She was covering JFK’s funeral and burial for Life Magazine.
I didn’t know a thing about Giovanna’s illustrious journalism career when she joined our memoir writing class back in 2013. I suppose the essay she read in class about meeting her husband at the School of Journalism at Columbia University should have been a clue, but many more months would go by before I’d discover she’d worked at Life. “I don’t really like talking about myself,” she told me years later, acknowledging that she’s proud of her writing career, but reporters are taught to keep a distance. “Writing in first-person is difficult.”
Giovanna was at Life Magazine’s New York office when legendary editor Richard Stolley was negotiating for the right to reprint stills from footage of the assassination filmed by Abraham Zapruder,
and in an essay she wrote for class she described sitting with her fellow reporters there, reviewing the film frame by painful frame. “It was horrific,” she wrote, explaining that out of decency and respect for the President’s family, they decided not to publish every single frame.
With so much attention to the JFK files released this past summer, and knowing the anniversary of the assassination was coming up, I contacted Chicago media types earlier this month to see if any of them would be interested in talking with Giovanna about her experience reviewing the Zapruder film. WBEZ responded, but they were more interested in Giovanna’s life as a female reporter in the 1960’s then specifically about her experience with the Zapruder film.
WBEZ and the Chicago Cultural Center are partners with StoryCorps, a non-profit set up to “record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” Would I be willing to interview Giovanna for a StoryCorps interview?
I arrived at the recording booth last week with questions for Giovanna swimming around my head.
Giovanna arrived with November 1963 issues of Life Magazine in her bag. I’d been unnerved when WBEZ had asked me to have her bring something along to prove she’d actually worked there, but Giovanna understood. She’d started out at Life as a fact-checker. “They’ll see my name in the masthead,” she said. “I brought my press pass, too!”
I couldn’t believe she still had that press pass. Even more unbelievable: she was able to find it. When I asked her to describe the pass for me, I could picture her scrutinizing the little card, considering what to say. “Well, the front has a picture of a girl with lots of curls” she finally answered in a playful lilt. “Gray eyes, you can see her shoulders, must have been hot the day they took that photo, the yellow dress she’s wearing is sleeveless!”
The 45 minutes we spent in the recording studio flew by. Whitney the Seeing Eye dog sat at our feet the entire time and never made a peep. StoryCorps editor Bill Healy (the renaissance man who took the photo of Whitney and me that’s on the cover of Writing Out Loud) did a heroic job cutting the piece down to four minutes.
One of the more poignant parts of the four-minute piece comes when Giovanna reads from the handwritten notes she’d saved from the funeral procession. “I phoned them in to the New York office,” she explained. Listen carefully to the StoryCorps interview online now and you’ll hear the pages rustling as she reads them out loud — the very notes she called into Life Magazine 54 years ago today.