Shortly before midnight on June 5, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot by a man named Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship who had objected to Kennedy’s support for Israel. They were in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles where Kennedy was celebrating his victory in the California primary. One of the rounds hit Kennedy squarely in the head.
Bill Eppridge made one of the most famous photographs in American political history – that of the dying candidate cradled in the arms of a hotel busboy who had been shaking the candidate’s hand when he went down.
Eppridge remembered the night:
I called my office in New York and asked the director of photography what he wanted. He said, “First off, you have to shoot black and white, because the magazine’s closing tonight and we don’t have time to process colour. Second off, the editors of this magazine, Republican as they are, have decided that if Bobby wins and he takes that State of California, he will be the next President of the United States.”
That night, I saw him [Kennedy] in the hotel suite and told him what the editors felt and I said, “Look, they have told me they want me to stick as closely as possible”. He said, “Ok, Bill, you are in the immediate party, tell the bodyguard you’re with me.” When he went down to give the acceptance speech, I followed him.
We went through the kitchen; Bobby stopped and shook hands with the kitchen help and chatted a bit on the way out to the stage. I was directly behind him during the speech, photographing him looking out into the crowd. Just before the end, Bill Barry, the bodyguard, me, and Jimmy Wilson, a signal, went down into the crowd. We all formed a wedge then back-walked through the crowd so that the Senator would be in the centre of a V formation. He could move from left to right, shake hands, do whatever he wanted – he had the freedom to move.
Bobby came off the stage, found us, and Bill Barry said, “Senator, this way”. Bobby said, “No, Bill, I’m going back, I’m going this way.” Barry said to him in a very stern voice, “No Senator, this way”. He refused, and turned on his heel in the opposite direction, back towards the kitchen, because he had previously been criticised for not talking to the writing press enough. As he went, people filled in between him and us.
We scrambled to try and catch up.
I had just entered the kitchen when I heard the first shots – there were eight. I knew that it was an Iver Johnson revolver. I knew the caliber of the gun, because I was a hunter, I had been in Vietnam, and had been shot at many times. I was 12 feet behind him. People were going down in front of me. I thought they were diving for cover, they weren’t; they were being shot. The busboy, Juan Romero, was still holding the senator, and I took one frame, which was totally out of focus. The second frame, I made sure he was in focus, but Romero was looking down at him. I took the third as quickly as I could, and Romero looked up towards me with a look of “Help me” in his face.
I was devastated after Bob Kennedy was killed.
I went from the funeral train to the office, and my boss called me in, and said, “You have to get out of here. What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to go to the mountains.” Six hours later, he handed me a note from a writer named Don Jackson, saying there were wild horses in the Pryor Mountains. I asked when I should come back – “When you’ve got it.” They bought me a pickup truck; I drove it into the mountains and stayed for three months. I photographed the wild horses early in the morning and in the afternoon when the light was good. In the middle of the day I sat in the middle of this desert, sifting for bones and arrowheads. It was perfect. We ran 12 pages. Funnily enough, the guy that shot Bobby Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, was featured in the same issue.
Full set of Eppridge photos from the series can be seen here at Life Magazine or below. Juan Romero is still alive, and thinks if he hadn’t been so intent on shaking Kennedy’s hand he might have seen and stopped the assassin. He said he would have taken the bullet himself if Kennedy could have been spared. Kennedy asked Romero, “Is everybody safe, OK?” and Romero responded, “Yes, yes, everything is going to be OK”. Kennedy died later that night.
Boris Yaro of the Los Angeles Times was also on the scene and being a newspaper photographer had the advatange of his pictures being distributed immediately by the Associated Press. Eppridge’s photos were only published in LIFE magazine a few days later. Many thought either Yaro or Eppridge should have won the Pulizer that year, but the award went to an equally enduring shot of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon. Some noted that two Pulizers should have been given that year.