Smithsonian Magazine recently printed a wonderful piece by Ron Rosenbaum about a short film Errol Morris made in 2011, in which he placed a few seconds of Abraham Zapruder’s famous film of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy under a critical microscope. One of the dominant protozoans falling within the scope of Morris’s analysis was a figure called the Umbrella Man, a gentleman holding an umbrella despite the lack of inclimate weather on 11/22/63, who gives the film its title. Various theories have hatched about the Umbrella Man, including the idea that he was shooting small blades called fléchettes out of his umbrella, and that one of those fléchettes might have contributed to the President’s assassination. But: the Umbrella Man eventually identified himself, and explained that his appearance was a political statement:
“His name was Louie Steven Witt and he testified that he brought the
umbrella on that sunny day because—wait for it—he wanted to express his
displeasure with JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy.
“‘Who, Morris says, ‘had been ambassador to England in the 1930s and
[was] known for his policies of appeasement to the Third Reich.’
“’Symbolized,’ I say, ‘by the umbrella that Neville Chamberlain
carried back from Munich, after Chamberlain claimed to have brought
‘peace for our time’ by letting Hitler swallow up half of
Czechoslovakia, giving Hitler the impetus to launch World War II. The
umbrella became the symbol of appeasement in 1938 and here in 1963, this
guy carries an umbrella and thinks, ‘Whoa, people are really going to
be blown away, this is really going to make a statement!’ And it turns
out he becomes a symbol himself. It’s almost like history is a kind of
snake swallowing its tail.’
“‘Part of the problem of rationality and irrationality—and it really
is a problem—is how do you separate the two? Where is that line of
demarcation between nutso thinking and good thinking?’
In any event, you can read the rest of the piece here:
And, if you wish, you can watch the Errol Morris film here:
And, if you can’t get enough, you can watch Alex Cox (director of, among other films, Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell) contesting the content of that film here:
The whole story has special significance for me because I grew up in Dallas, born seven years after the assassination, perpetually in its shadow, whether I knew it or not. I can’t say that the city’s own reverence towards JFK was that distinguished, given that the JFK Memorial planted in the center of the downtown business district is, historically, more of a public pissoir than anything else. But I can say that the event probably instilled in me a sense of the precariousness of history, in which one minute’s glory can amount to another minute’s downfall–or that one lunatic with a rifle and a reasonable sense of organization can bring about a moment which devastates and intrigues an entire population for decades.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.