Fifty years later, and it's still hard to talk about

November 17, 2013 • Posted in memoir writing, Uncategorized by

LBJ being sworn in on Air Force One, November 22, 1963.

A writer in the Monday memoir class I lead worked for Life Magazine in 1963. Giovanna Breu was at the 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.

The Zapruder film arrived at the Life Magazine office before Giovanna left to cover President Kennedy’s funeral, and in an essay she wrote for class, she describes sitting with her fellow reporters in New York to review 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.

Giovanna left the New York office then to catch a train to Washington, D.C. and work with Life photographer Bob Gomel from two different locations to photograph the funeral. “We had credentials to a rooftop where we watched Jackie Kennedy walk with a long stride and a firm step behind her husband’s body to St Matthew’s Cathedral,” she said, reading her essay out loud in class. “Our second spot was at St. Matthew’s Cathedral where little John Kennedy saluted the body of his father as he lay on the caisson.”

Every writer in class reads their completed assignment out loud every week, so I ask them to keep their pieces short. “No more than 500 words!” I tell them. I may not be able to see who I’m wagging my finger at, but after weeks of hearing their stories, I know who they are.

The 500-word limit encourages writers to edit their work. They learn to use stronger words to express themselves. And no matter how busy these seniors are, 500 words a week is an attainable goal. Asking Giovanna to limit this story to 500 words was probably asking too much, though. Her essay read more like a piece of journalism than a memoir. When she was done reading, I reminded all the writers that the word limit was just for class. “If you want to write longer pieces for your family, or even for yourself, that’s fine,” I said. “We just have to stick to this 500 –word rule in class, you know, so everyone has enough time to read.”

I turned towards Giovanna then to suggest she add more emotion to this piece, that she tell her readers how these events made her feel. Giovanna mulled this idea over for a long time, and the class stayed uncharacteristically silent. Her response finally came in two sad, simple words:” I can’t.”

Rick On November 17, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I was an 8 year old in Dallas on Nov 22

bethfinke On November 17, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Whoa. I wonder what that was like?

Maria On November 19, 2013 at 2:57 pm

I think everyone old enough to do so remembers exactly where they were that day. . When I think about how much time has passed and the horror and fright I felt as a child it’s like it was yesterday.

Susan Tanner On November 17, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Beth, I just started following your blog recently, and have to tell you how much I’m enjoying it and look forward to getting that email (unlike most). It’s been years since we met, so you may not remember me, but this is Shelley Finke’s sister, Susan

bethfinke On November 18, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Of course I remember you — I just didn’t know your last name was Tanner! Thanks for the sweet note, and hope those “Safe & Sound” email messages you get continue to please!

pame1619 On November 17, 2013 at 6:02 pm


Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE Smartphone

bethfinke On November 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Yes, I thought so, too.

susan nelson On November 17, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Hi Beth,

What a wonderful blog post. I’m so sorry I had to miss the Memoir II class from which it came. I will find Giovanna’s number and call her.

I hope I’m on the list for any post-semester get-togethers of our class. Anne Hunt mentioned that Brigitte may be having a party, and I’d love to go.

Also, I hope soon to finish my two outstanding essays — the vacation that went awry and the dress to remember (I think it was) — and send them to you for your eventual comments. I’ve enjoyed having a good, strong editor again for my own writing. You are one of not very many truly sensitive editors I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

I plan to sign up for the next session of Memoir II. It won’t come soon enough for me!

Enjoy the holidays … and please plan to remain in Chicago for a good while longer. We need you here, m’dear.

Thank you, and all best wishes,


bethfinke On November 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Wow, what high compliments! Eager to hear your new essays, but I think Hugh, Bob and Bill might find it a bit challenging to write an essay on the topic “A Dress to Remember.” But then again..maybe not! The assignment that week was “Dressing Up” — I assigned it around Halloween, but also got many essays about how people dressed for work, dressing up for school, religious events, how their kids dressed as they were growing up, and so on. Quite a good topic in the end, and like I say, eager to hear what you’ve written about that dress of yours.

Carl On November 19, 2013 at 3:00 pm

I often wonder what history would be like if Kennedy (and others) had not been assassinated.

Susi On November 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I so remember that week, I was in the second grade, and in my home town of Asheville, NC the city was closed down, no school and everything was so quiet. My grandparents had an appointment before the funeral and we were watching TV, I think that was the first news event that I remember.

bethfinke On November 20, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Yes, also one of my earliest memories — I think the funeral was on a Saturday, so we were all home to watch it together.

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